In the early 1990s, I was a full-time recruiter and had personally experienced the management technique known then as “throw people in over their heads and see if they sink or swim.” The idea was that the best would rise to the top, rapidly learn new skills and gain the confidence to take on even bigger roles.

At the time, Pepsi, Disney and Mattel were known for this management technique and I had a field day placing their alumni in some great jobs. Little did I know when I attended one of the sessions last week at LinkedIn’s Talent Connect, aka “The Must Attend Recruiting Event of the Year,” that I’d be reintroduced to the concept.

Trish Lukasik, a senior VP with PepsiCo, is a remarkable woman. She told many fascinating stories, but what brought back memories of my early recruiting days was when she summed up one of her best management development techniques: throw people into jobs over their heads and give them just enough of a lifeline to make sure they don't sink.

The way I see it, we should hire people the same way – find and hire people who have been taught how to swim with just a little basic instruction. Unfortunately, too many managers insist on hiring people who can only fish in exactly the same places where they've always fished. This is a recipe for maintaining the status quo. To implement serious change at your company, you need to hire more swimmers.

Here’s how to start.

  • Target passive candidates and the best active candidates. Recognize that the passive candidate pool for high demand positions is 5-10 times larger than the active candidate pool. That’s why I suggest that companies implement a 40/40/20 recruiting plan to ensure they reach out to the total talent market. The idea is that 40% of the recruiting department’s efforts should be on building a deep network of passive candidates, another 40% on building pipeline of candidates via Boolean searching and employee referrals, and 20% via posting of compelling ads on relevant job boards.
  • Post jobs that emphasize the challenges and minimize the qualifications. You won’t attract candidates who want to swim in the deep end of the pool by describing your jobs as waddling around in shallow waters (i.e., lateral transfers). Here’s an example of a compelling job opportunity designed to attract top performers. It emphasizes what the person will learn, do and become, not what the person must have in terms of skills and experiences. This type of posting is important since passive candidates will check it out if they become interested in what you have to offer.
  • Identify the stronger swimmers in the first 20 minutes of the interview. During the interview, look for candidates who have the achiever pattern. Some clues include rapid promotions, being assigned to difficult projects ahead of their peers, earning special recognition for extraordinary effort, and volunteering for the most difficult assignments. Making a habit of hiring people who are achievers gradually changes the culture of a company by increasing the rate of change it can handle.
  • Ask candidates to describe their most significant accomplishment where they had the least amount of experience. The most accomplished people accomplish more with As part of the fact-finding associated with the most significant accomplishment question, look for how the person learned new skills, overcame problems, made difficult decisions, increased their confidence and achieved challenging results. Collectively, this a great indicator of how deep and fast they can swim.
  • Look for the process of success. All great swimmers live and breathe Stephen Covey’s habit, “Begin with the end in mind.” Once they know where they’re going, they implement a logical process of figuring out the current situation and what they need to do to get to the end goal. I refer to this as the process of success – a repeatable pattern that maximizes the likelihood the result will be achieved. This is fully revealed in the “anchor and visualize” Performance-based Interview. The first question is, “How would you figure out the problem and put a plan together?” The second question is, “Can you walk me through step-by-step how you accomplished something comparable?” Do this for a couple of your big challenges and you’ll quickly know if your candidate can swim or not.
  • Use the 30% solution to position your opening as a stretch opportunity, not a compensation increase. You’ll rarely have enough money in your compensation budget to hire the best swimmers. The 30% solution allows you to position your job as a combination of job stretch, job growth and a modest compensation increase. Strong people are willing to take less of a salary bump if the opportunity is compelling. Hiring managers have to be equally open-minded when it comes to hiring people who have fewer skills but are offset by demonstrated upside potential.

While providing stretch opportunities to people we know is nothing new, it’s rarely done when hiring people we don’t know. It might be worth trying, especially if a candidate has proven he or she can be thrown in over their head and still come out on top.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn's Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.