I just met a remarkable woman. Her name is Mary. I’m going to use her as the prototypical outstanding person whom you’ll want to hire, but can’t.

A little background first:

  1. Mary’s a classic achiever. She gets assigned projects over her head and delivers. She gets promoted more rapidly than her peers.
  2. She’s technically superb.
  3. She has a strong academic background and has been successful at one well-known company and at one start-up.
  4. She thinks technically, tactically and strategically.
  5. She has successfully managed large multi-functional teams handling difficult IT international implementation projects.
  6. She gets stuff done without making excuses.
  7. People in all functions – even her peers – ask to be assigned to her teams.
  8. Directors and VPs at every company she’s worked for want to get her assigned to their projects.
  9. She is highly satisfied with her work and is on a nice upward growth path.
  10. She’s not looking for another job.

How I went about piquing Mary’s interest

When I called Mary I left a voicemail, mentioning a former boss who had referred her to me. He had said she’s great but is not looking, however she knows other great people she can refer.

She called me back and I did get her to consider my open spot when I asked her this question, “Would you be open to explore a situation if it were clearly superior to what you’re doing today?” She said, “Sure, but I’m not looking and unlikely to change jobs.”

Most recruiters aren’t even able to get to this first base, so getting the referral and asking the right question was critical. However, for me to recruit her and place her in another position I had to do the following:

  1. Overcome any discussion about compensation, title or relocation. She pushed the compensation a bit but I said that if the job didn’t represent a career move the comp package wouldn’t matter. And if it did, we’d make the compensation work.
  2. Other than the generic title and without telling her the company name, I got her to tell me about her background first. Most recruiters start selling the job once a person expresses any level of interest. This a huge turnoff and will kill the chance for any additional conversation.
  3. During this discussion I needed to see if my open job represented a career move. To do this I needed to find at least 3-4 factors that represent significant upside growth (e.g., stretch, growth rate, impact). Even if I did find some big gaps I still needed to influence her to at least consider them.
  4. For this job it turns out the team she’d be managing is bigger and she’d have direct exposure to the CEO since she’d be leading one of his pet projects. I mention that while she might be a bit light for this position, it would represent a career move if it could all come together. Rather than rushing it I suggested she let the idea soak in. Of course, I also suggested she talk it over with family and close friends and call me if she’d like to discuss the idea in more detail.
  5. I waited a few days to see if she’d call me back. Typically most people like Mary want to arrange a second, more in-depth call right away, since only then will I reveal the company details. But in this case I purposely wanted to slow down the process. Not surprisingly she did call me the next day saying it would be foolish not to at least explore the opportunity a little bit further.
  6. This second call went very well but I mentioned to Mary that a few other fine candidates have surfaced that I’d be meeting right away. However, I asked Mary if she’d be open to an exploratory phone call with the hiring manager if I could arrange it. She enthusiastically agreed.
  7. When I spoke with the hiring manager I told him all about Mary but indicated she was a very passive candidate and the phone call was exploratory only. He had to tell Mary a little about the role and some of the challenges and then review Mary’s work history and some of her big projects. If the call went well he should invite Mary onsite for a more formal interview.
  8. If Mary agrees to the onsite meeting she will have moved from a passive prospect to an interested candidate.

This is how you recruit people at the top of the funnel. But most recruiters and few hiring managers are willing to invest the time needed to hire people like Mary.

Getting the best candidates into the top of the funnel is not about employer branding, going social or optimizing the candidate experience. It’s about converting lateral transfers into career moves, identifying and recruiting great passive candidates and ensuring hiring managers are fully engaged in the process.

If you’re not willing to do these things, don’t waste your time trying to hire Mary. But if you are, you’ll discover that’s how you need to recruit and hire all great people.