Lou Adler’s Single Most Important Recruiting Technique since His One-Question Interview

After 30 years of recruiting outstanding senior staff, mid-level managers, and company executives, I can now state unequivocally that the single most important step in the passive candidate recruiting process is the 30-minute exploratory interview. Here’s why:

  1. You will engage with 5-10X more passive candidates. Asking people who aren’t looking if they’d like to chat for a few minutes about a potential career move is far more productive than selling lateral transfers. Of course, you have to ask the question the right way to get 93.6% of them to say yes. This is at the core of our Recruiter Boot Camp program.
  2. You will be able to convert a job into a career. When you start the phone screen, don’t tell the person much about the job. Instead suggest that the purpose of the call is to determine if the job represents a true career move to the person. For the next 5-10 minutes review the person’s LinkedIn profile and find 4-5 learning and opportunity gaps your job offers that their current job does not. Use these to fashion the career opportunity as you move on to the next step.
  3. You will be able to minimize the impact of compensation in the decision process. As long as your job offers a combination of less pain, some short-term stretch, and long-term growth, you’ll be able to get the person to agree to minimize the need for a big compensation increase. Use this to gain a compensation concession to move forward into a more serious career discussion.
  4. You will be able to get 2-3 warm referrals of outstanding talent. If the person isn’t qualified, you’ll be able to network with them on LinkedIn and then search on their first degree connections. This is the most powerful feature and primary reason why every recruiter should have LinkedIn Recruiter. We provide step-by-step instructions in our LinkedIn Recruiter Master Course, but you need the exploratory phone screen to set up the process.
  5. You will be able to open up the search process to more top talent. Few top people are likely to jump at a chance to take a lateral transfer. In our training we show recruiters how to get 93.6% of passive candidates to engage in a short, exploratory career discussion. You can’t do this without the exploratory call, but converting these prospects into serious candidates is what you need to do during the call.
  6. You will be able to get your hiring managers to “own” the candidate. We suggest that all hiring managers first conduct a similar 30-minute exploratory discussion with the prospect. By taking full responsibility for inviting the candidate onsite, managers will become more objective and responsible in their evaluation.
  7. You will be able to minimize the impact of first impressions and increase assessment accuracy. Knowing something about the person before you invite them onsite for an interview naturally minimizes the perverse impact of first impressions.
  8. You will be able to get more people open to consider the idea of relocation. Asking people if they’ll relocate on the first call is like asking someone to buy a house without seeing it. It takes times for a person to fully appreciate the idea of a relocation as part of a significant career move. The exploratory call allows for this repositioning first step.
  9. You will be able to get passive candidates to sell you. Recruiting passive candidates requires finesse and advanced recruiter skills. Overselling is not a part of it. The key is to make your career move so attractive the person sells you as to why they’re qualified. This is the primary purpose of the exploratory phone call – moving one step at a time – and at the heart of all of our Performance-based Hiring training programs.
  10. You will raise your company’s overall talent level. While you might hire a few strong people who are more interested in what a job pays than its career value, this is no way to implement a “raising the talent bar” program. The exploratory call is a foundational step that should be part of every company’s hiring process. If you want to hire people who are looking for career moves, you can best demonstrate this by having the exploratory interview as the first step in your hiring process, rather than submitting an application and hoping for the best.

And the list goes on. All it takes is 30 minutes. If you want more ideas on how to hire more top performing passive candidates contact us right away, or sign up for our next Recruiter Boot Camp or our LinkedIn Recruiter Master Course.


To Recruiters, Hiring Managers, and Candidates: violate these laws of human nature at your peril!

Here are some basic truths about people regarding hiring and getting hired:

  1. There are very few people who have an economic need to look for another job, are willing to take a lateral transfer, and are high achievers. Yet most companies spend most of their time and resources looking for these kinds of people.
  2. The military has a tough screening process for selecting officers. But once selected – and with no experience – they are given some serious training and responsibilities far in excess of their current ability and are asked to deliver extraordinary results. Most of them succeed. Yet these same people when they leave the military aren’t given a fair chance because they don’t have the “right” experience.
  3. There has been more research done on why people perform at peak levels, why they underperform, and why they leave jobs, but much of this is ignored when it comes to assessing competency and fit. Very little has to do with their level of experience. More of it has to do with their determination, discipline, motivation, and success doing somewhat related work in somewhat similar environments. Contact us if you’d like to apply this concept in your hiring process.
  4. Candidates who are too eager turn people off, and those that aren’t eager enough turn people off. Companies that are too eager when they find a hot prospect either turn them off, or pay too much to hire them. Asking insightful questions is a better way to demonstrate interest, whatever side of the desk you’re on. It’s best to demonstrate eagerness by asking insightful and challenging questions.
  5. Cultural fit is critically important – but few companies actually define it, and even fewer know how to measure it. For proof, ask the next 10 people you meet at your company to define its culture and how they would determine it during an interview. This is a good way to determine if your company’s culture is real or imaginary. If you’re a candidate ask every interviewer the same question.
  6. Most managers would hire a top achiever who is a little light on skills and experience and modify the job accordingly, but their hiring systems prevent them from ever seeing these people.
  7. In the first 5-10 years of a person’s career, people who get promoted more rapidly or assigned to the toughest projects tend to have less experience than those who don’t. Yet when we hire someone from the outside we want more experience.
  8. First impressions and interview presentation skills do not predict on-the-job performance – even for sales positions – but most people think they do. Worse, we are all subconsciously affected by this whether we like it or not.

With these basic truths in mind, here’s my quick list of corrective actions for recruiters, hiring managers, candidates, and everyone else on the interviewing team:

  1. If you don’t know what it takes to be successful on the job in your company, don’t interview any candidates until you do. How else are you going to determine competency, motivation, and fit? Here’s an article that will show you how to figure this out.
  2. If you’re a candidate being interviewed, and the person interviewing you doesn’t know the job, ask this question: “What does the person taking this job need to accomplish in the first 6-12 months in order to be considered successful?” Then ask: “Why is this important and what resources are available to pull this off?” If the person interviewing you is the hiring manager, and doesn’t know the answer, or stumbles about, I would be concerned about taking the job if offered. To gain a sense of how concerned you should be, ask everyone else on the interviewing team the same question, and if each person gives you a different answer, be very concerned. If the recruiter doesn’t know the answer, don’t trust the recruiter to give you other honest information. It will be equally superficial.
  3. If you’re a recruiter don’t present an opportunity to anyone unless the hiring manager tells you what it takes to be successful on the job. If you do, you’ll waste your time screening people on the wrong criteria.
  4. If you’re a passive candidate talk to every recruiter who calls and see if they understand the real job, its importance to the company strategy, and how well the company is doing overall. Make sure you ask about the real culture, and get examples for proof. Make sure you ask these questions before you ask about the money or the location. If you filter jobs out too soon because of the money, you’ll never get a chance to hear about true career opportunities. Most jobs can be scaled up or down to meet the needs of a top achiever, but you’ll never get the chance if you measure opportunity by the wrong criteria.
  5. From a career growth standpoint it’s better to be underpaid than overpaid. Compensation increases always follow performance, not lead it. So if and whenever you get the chance when changing jobs, don’t fight for a big short-term compensation bump. Instead ask for a six month review based on your ability to hit challenging performance objectives.
  6. If you instantly like a candidate, force yourself to ask the person tougher questions. If you don’t like the candidate right away, force yourself to assume the person is extremely qualified, treat the person as you would a consultant, be respectful, and listen carefully to everything said. If you do this for just 30 minutes you’ll be shocked. For one thing, you’ll discover many of those you thought were initially tops are more personality than performance. Even better: there will be a few who initially turned you off who are great. These are the people that everyone else overlooked.

From what I’ve seen over the past 30+ years, most hiring problems can be attributed to the problems described here. While the solutions offered are pretty simple, they do require some discipline. First, make sure you understand the performance expectations of the job in the real environment and culture before you interview any candidates. Second, don’t make any instant judgments: wait at least 30 minutes before you make a no decision. It takes a least a few more hours to make a yes. Third, don’t be too surprised when you start making fewer mistakes and start hiring more top performers who are excited about the work you’re offering. Common sense sometimes makes sense.

Stop Doing Searches Over Again

Adler’s first rule of recruiting: Don’t do searches over again. Once is enough. If you’ve presented a slate of 3-4 strong candidates for the position, one of them should get hired. If not, you have a problem.

Adler’s second rule of recruiting: If you present more than 3-4 candidates to a hiring manager on any search and one of them doesn’t get hired: STOP! Don’t send any more candidates to be interviewed. Something’s wrong. Figure out what it is and correct it before you waste your time on a fool’s errand.

Adler’s third rule of recruiting: When you first meet a person wait 30 minutes before making any yes or no decision. If you and your hiring managers put your emotions in the parking lot for these first 30 minutes you’ll cut the number of times you need to follow rules one and two by 50%.

Over the past 12 years I’ve written over a thousand articles, multiple books, and spoke at hundreds of conferences and training sessions on this and related topics. Here are the top five things that are the typical causes for “too many candidates before one is hired” syndrome:

  1. Someone doesn’t know what they’re looking for or how to find the person, or typically both. Banishing job descriptions and using performance profiles instead will solve most of this problem.
  2. Someone doesn’t know how to measure what they’re looking for accurately, even if they found the person. This is always part of the problem.
  3. Everyone overvalues first impressions. This is a big problem, even if you do everything else right. That’s why it’s my third most important rule. (See below for some quick ideas on how to fix this.)
  4. You have a real company constraint like the person as described doesn’t exist, your job or company really is awful, or your pay is not competitive. You need to get your executive team to solve this problem. Doing searches over again won’t help.
  5. You’re probably using a “talent surplus” approach to hiring in a “talent scarcity” situation. Watch this video and then get your executive team involved. This change is so big it impacts points one to four above.

The “number of candidates interviewed to hired” ratio is a great metric for recruiters and recruiting leaders to track on a weekly basis. If it’s too high or trending up, it’s an indication that something is wrong. Surprisingly, most recruiters ignore this obvious warning signal.

While four of the above five causal factors require significant process or strategy changes, the “Wait 30 Minutes” rule can be applied on your very next search. The only point is that everyone on the interviewing team needs to follow it, so it’s a bit like herding cats. Nonetheless, it might reduce your candidates interviewed to hired ratio by 50% or more, so it’s worthwhile spending a few minutes on how to use it.

More hiring mistakes are made in the first 30 minutes of the face-to-face interview than at any other time. Most interviewers unconsciously react to the candidate’s first impression, good or bad. Prospects who are prepared, confident, friendly, outgoing, communicative, and professional in appearance tend to be instantly considered viable candidates for the open position, even if they lack critical skills. If you’ve ever hired someone who makes a great first impression, but doesn’t deliver the results needed, you’ve experienced one side of this first impression bias problem first hand – hiring the wrong candidate for the wrong reasons.

Not hiring the right candidate for the wrong reasons is a waste of time, too. But it happens frequently. If a candidate is slightly less professional than expected or a bit nervous, managers become uptight, convinced the person is not qualified, and then go out their way to ask tougher questions, attempting to prove the candidate is not qualified. This is how we lose good candidates who are actually top notch. Stopping or minimizing this unnecessary loss of good candidates is one way to improve your interviewed to hired ratio. Waiting 30 minutes before deciding yes or no can help the interviewer become more objective and see past the superficiality of presentation and focus on the person’s ability to meet the performance needs of the job.

Many of you will loudly protest the need for this 30-minute delay, arguing that good first impressions are essential for anyone in a sales position, working with executives, or being part of multi-functional teams. However, if you just try it out, you’ll discover that after just 30 minutes about a third of the people aren’t nearly as great as you initially thought; another third will be a lot better than you first imagined (you might even want to hire a few of them); the remaining third will turn out to be pretty much as you first imagined. In addition to reducing the need to present too many candidates, you’ll also stop hiring people who are long on presentation and personality, but short on ability.

Here are some practical ways to force yourself to remain objective for at least 30 minutes:

  1. Use Yellow Stickies. Put these on the top of every résumé with the words “Wait 30 Minutes.” During the initial 30 minutes of the interview conduct a work-history review looking for the Achiever Pattern and ask one job-related Most Significant Accomplishment question. Your emotional reaction to the candidate will have changed completely by then.
  2. Use the Plus or Minus Reversal Technique. When you first meet a candidate note your initial reaction to the person with some type of plus or minus indictor. Then force yourself to do the exact opposite of what you’d normally do. For those people you don’t like, ask them easier questions, going out of your way to prove they’re fully competent. Ask those you do like tougher questions, going out of your way to prove they’re not the least bit qualified for the job. This mental reversal is how you offset your natural reactions to first impressions.
  3. Treat candidates as consultants. Assume everyone you’re meeting is an expert for the job at hand. Under the consultant umbrella you assume competence, you give respect, and you listen attentively, assuming the person has more expertise than you do. You do this even if the consultant makes a bad first impression. Since you don’t require a consultant to be a close co-worker, first impressions and friendliness are less important in your ultimate decision, so it’s a great way to reframe the situation.
  4. Phone screen the candidate first. You would never invite a person for a face-to-face interview if you didn’t think they were reasonably qualified. Conducting a 30-40 minute phone screen helps you make this assessment. When you meet a person whom you know something about, first impressions are naturally far less impactful. You also have something already invested in the person, so you feel more obligated to conduct an objective assessment.

Doing searches over again is a waste of time. If you didn’t do it right the first time, figure out why before continuing. You’ll discover it’s usually some fundamental process problem or a skills gap with the recruiter, hiring manager, or someone on the hiring team. While these changes could take weeks or months to implement, they are essential changes you need to make. However, you can get started right away by waiting 30 minutes when you meet your next candidate. In 30 minutes you’ll notice the difference.

The Secret to Recruiting Top Performers - Stay the Buyer

Most recruiters think that recruiting means being able to sell or talk your candidate into the merits of your job.  To me, this is a 10% solution at best.  While it will work some of the time, it misses the forest for the trees.

The best people – whether they’re active or passive and not desperate – will not be swayed by your cleverness.  Instead, they will make a career-oriented decision focusing on short- and long-term criteria like the growth opportunity, the size of the challenge and potential impact, the chance to learn and grow, and the compensation package, among others.

Aside from the variables they’ll consider, the way they make the decision is equally important.  While some will be more formal than others, they’ll all take more time to decide than you’d like, and they’ll all consult their friends, family, and advisors hoping for support.  Managing this group of personal advisors is essential if you want to maximize your placement rate.

The problem with the personal advisory team is that they are not honest brokers.  They will take a short-term view of things (more money and/or benefits) or maximize their personal stake in the situation (don’t relocate).  If you want to get this group to give your job a thumbs-up, you’ll have to ensure your candidate has the information needed to make a persuasive case that your offer is, on balance, the best career move among competing alternatives.  You do this by getting the candidate to sell you on why he or she is worthy for the position, rather than you selling the candidate.

If candidates can’t honestly sell you on why your offer represents a career move, how can they possible convince their family, friends, co-workers, other recruiters, personal advisors, and boss when the person resigns?  That’s why getting the candidate to convince you of his or her merits is a critical aspect of recruiting and closing top performers.

Here are some ideas on how to pull this off:

  1. Know the job – prepare a performance profile when you take the assignment.  A performance profile defines the work that needs to be done, not the skills required to do the work.  Recruiting is sales, and when you’re dealing with top performers your candidates are very discriminating buyers.  As you know, in sales lack of product knowledge can kill any deal before it starts.  Recruiter credibility with clients and candidates alike starts by knowing the real job, not the qualifications required to get it.  Once you know the real job, you'll discover that the hiring manager will focus more on the candidate's ability to achieve comparable results rather than having comparable skills.  This is a great shift to make right away.  From a candidate perspective a performance profile provides you the information you need to represent your position as a career move.  You do this by looking for gaps or stretch points between your job and the candidate’s experiences.
  2. Create an opportunity gap.  This is the difference between the candidate's current job and the real job you're representing.  You can’t figure this out unless you’ve prepared a performance profile when you took the assignment.  By asking questions during the screening process, good recruiters look for areas of growth and challenge that can offset other objections and concerns the candidate might have, such as location and compensation.  This is how you convert a job into a career move.  If the opportunity gap is more than 10-15% in comparison to the person’s current job or other opportunities the person is considering, you’ll be surprised at how soon the candidate begins selling you on why they’re qualified.
  3. Delay the comp discussion.  Don't get caught in a compensation discussion too soon.  This is a clear sign of an unsophisticated recruiter and shows a lack of applicant control.  Instead, call a time out and ask the prospect to consider the jobs he/she has previously held that provided the most personal satisfaction.  Then ask if the satisfaction was due to the pay or to the type of work being performed.  Then ask, “Wouldn’t it make sense to at least discuss an opportunity if it offered the chance to maximize personal satisfaction and growth in combination with a competitive compensation package?”  Most people will say yes.  This shift gives you the chance to look for the gaps and voids required to shift the decision from one based on compensation to one based on growth and learning.
  4. Advertise careers, not jobs"Don't use Wal-Mart advertising techniques to attract Tiffany customers."  Discriminating people don't make decisions about applying for a job based on a boring title and a list of qualifications.  Instead, describe the challenges and growth opportunities and add a clever title.  Then put the job on a niche board the good people you're trying to attract use.  One of our clients near Napa Valley used this ad to attract government contract administrators to a non-aerospace locale: "Contracts and wine... together at last!"  The ad copy described the challenges with little about the qualifications.  She had 15 qualified candidates the day the ad ran.

It’s never been a buyer’s market for top talent.  It will be even more difficult to hire these game-changers once the economy starts creating jobs.  The key to this is to convert your jobs into career moves and get the candidate to convince you they’re worthy enough to take on the career challenge you’re offering.  In the process of convincing you, they’re also convincing themselves as well as their personal advisory team.  In the overall scheme of things, managing this group you’ll never meet is the real secret to hiring more top people.