Why You Can't Hire High Achievers

If a manager is concerned about hiring a high achiever, you need to be concerned about the manager!

We just ran a quick poll (see question and results in graphic) to determine if hiring managers would trade off experience for potential if they didn’t have to compromise performance or results. Two-thirds agreed. How would you answer the question, and how would your hiring managers? If you’re not on the same page, you’re working a lot harder than necessary.

I decided to run this poll after a techie hiring manager at a recent training asked me how much experience  a person needs to have to be successful. My response: enough to do the work; some people need more; some need less; and the best people need the least. That threw the hiring manager into a dizzy, and he left scratching his head.

The point: if you don’t define the work required to be successful, success is problematic. The work determines what skills and experiences are required. The skills and experience don’t determine success. That’s why the idea of filtering based on skills and experience precludes a company from seeing the people it actually wants to hire: high-potential people who can do the work successfully with the least amount of skills and experiences.

If you want to see stronger candidates when posting jobs, emphasize the work that needs to be done rather than the skills needed to do it. For example, it’s far better to say, “lead and complete the marketing launch of the new fracking hydraulic high pressure control valve line by year-end,” rather than “must have 5+ years oil field industry experience, a BS in Mechanical Engineering, 2+ years of high-pressure fluid dynamics experience, exceptional interpersonal and communications skills, a go-getter attitude, and be able to work closely with engineering and operations in a lean manufacturing environment.” Key to this: if you can prove the person is competent and motivated to do the work described, they have exactly the level of experiences, skills, and attitude required. You can use The Most Important Interview Question of All Time to figure this out.

Here are some other ways to find out if the candidate is on a fast track:

  1. Find out if the person was assigned difficult technical or business problems before their peers. I used to ask first-year accountants at big CPA firms what clients they were assigned and why. The best ones were always assigned to big accounts with difficult accounting issues to handle. It’s the same with the best techies (and everyone else) who get assigned the most challenging tech issues to work on, not the simplest ones.
  2. Given early exposure to senior management. On a search for an HR director I asked a young manager at a small division if she ever worked with company executives. She went on to tell me about a special project she was leading, reporting directly to the corporate CEO (a Fortune 250 company) to implement a worldwide high-potential program. Of course, she was on it, too.
  3. Assigned leadership roles in multi-functional teams before others with more seniority. As part of the most significant accomplishment question I have people describe the teams they were on and their roles. For those with the best team skills these expand over time in size, scope, influence, and responsibility.
  4. Seeks out more responsibility and opportunities to fail. I remember a young manager of financial planning I placed who consistently went out of his way to get assigned to jobs over his head where it didn’t matter if he stumbled a bit. He’s now the EVP of a major Fortune 300 company. This is a common trait of high achievers.
  5. Ask about the biggest accomplishment achieved with the least amount of skills and experience. Don’t be surprised that the best people are consistently given bigger challenges far beyond what would be expected given their current level of skills and experience. Also, don’t be surprised that they’re typically successful.

High-potential candidates get more done with less experience and master whatever skills are required faster than their peer group. I find it difficult to comprehend why any manager or business leader would preclude these candidates from consideration. Yet 95 percent of jobs posted online do just that, and these very same managers and business leaders continue to complain they’re not seeing or hiring enough top people.

If you’re a recruiter who still box-checks SKAs, ask your clients if they’d like to see some high achievers who can absolutely do the work required but have less of the skills and experiences listed on the job description. Most will say yes. Then go find these high achievers who can do the work and are excited to do it. If they say no, be concerned, since you’ll just be spinning your wheels.

Why ‘Source of Hire’ Should Drive a Company’s Talent Acquisition Strategy

I decided to ask 1,582 U.S. company employees how they go their last job. I gave them four choices:

  1. Internal move or promotion
  2. Some type of proactive networking activity, or referred by someone within the company
  3. Contacted by a recruiter or hiring manager who found their resume or LinkedIn profile
  4. Responded to a job posting

I also asked if they were actively looking for a job at the time, or not. The results of this survey are shown in the graphic. Here’s a link to the survey itself if you’d like to take it and/or pass it on, and the preliminary analysis. Even though the data is not perfect, here are some obvious conclusions:

  • Most jobs in the U.S. are filled either via an internal move or through some networking activity (Steps 1 and 2). For active candidates these two steps totaled 58%, and for passive candidates an astonishing 81%. If suitable candidates are not found at this point, companies default to the “post-a-job-description” and “look-for-resumes” approach (Steps 3 and 4).
  • Only 27% of active candidates found their job by responding to an ad. Another 14% of active candidate got hired after their resume or LinkedIn profile was found by a recruiter or hiring manager. Key finding: if recruiters are spending more than 25% of their time posting ads or searching for resumes, they’re missing the heart of the talent market.
  • While networking is essential for job seekers (46% of active candidates and 49% of passive candidates found jobs this way) most corporate recruiters are not fully invested in this approach. It takes a great deal of skill and subject-matter expertise to do this effectively. Since this is how the best people are found, you might want to review a copy of our latest Recruiter Circle of Excellence Competency Model to see where you and/or your recruiting team ranks on this score.
  • The sequenced four-step process hiring managers use to fill positions is typically below the radar, yet it’s of strategic importance. The big point: the more direct knowledge the hiring manager has regarding the person being hired the less the person’s skills, academics, and experiences matter. For example, internal promotions are by definition based on past performance and future potential, since the objective of the move is to provide the person with more skills and experience. People who are hired externally, but are highly regarded and referred by a trusted source, are evaluated on a reasonable balance of past performance and skills and experience. Yet an unknown person who responds to a job posting or found in some resume database is screened and evaluated primarily on the depth and quality of his/her skills, academics ,and past experiences.
  • This four-step job filling sequence creates a hidden job market where performance and potential are more important than skills, experience, and academics. In the public job market this situation is reversed. This is probably the reason so few passive candidates are hired in the public job market — they are not interested in taking lateral transfer or doing the same work. Instead they’re looking for better careers. Key finding for recruiters: if a company wants to hire more talented passive candidates they need to find these people before the job requisition is officially open! (Note: please don’t use some legal excuse for not doing this. I asked David Goldstein, one of the nation’s top labor attorneys with Littler Mendelson, to validate the use of performance as an objective selection criteria. He did.)

I know the results of the survey are imprecise and the data is subject to swings of plus or minus five percent in any category, but this is no reason for not plowing forward. This is what bureaucrats do: procrastinate and make excuses why they can’t find enough good people. Real recruiters put their heads down and start making phone calls connecting with great people they don’t know. That’s the moral of this survey.

The 7 Things all Effective Recruiters Must Do

We just updated our Recruiter Circle of Excellence Competency Model to take into account the expected surge in hiring in Q2 and Q3. There was also an interesting story by the co-founder of Meebo who concluded that most recruiters are pretty bad. Her big points: recruiters are afraid to pick up the phone and call, they don’t know the job so they sell smoke and mirrors, and most just post boring jobs or search through LinkedIn. It was a pretty scathing summary. This approach might work when you’re trying to hire the 15% of fully-employed who are looking, but totally useless when trying to hire the 85% of candidates who are passive, even the bad ones!

So as part of updating the competency model to take this 85% into account, I decided to revisit my old virtual mentor, Stephen Covey, for some inspiration. You might find the results interesting.

Hiring the best person available for a position, rather than the best person who applies to a job posting, requires a different type of recruiter and a different type of recruiting process. In 1990 when Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, was published it seemed like a good framework for bridging this gap. Here’s my take on how to be a great recruiter using the Seven Habits as a frame of reference:

Begin With the End in Mind. There is too much focus on skills and experience when opening up a new job. By describing the job in terms of outcomes and the long-term career opportunity, the skills become a subset of performance. The idea is that if a person can do the work, the person has the right skills and experience. This allows a company to upgrade the talent pool to include more high-potential, diverse, and passive candidates without compromising quality of hire. When talking with strong candidates, recruiters need to be able to describe real job needs as a series of clear performance objectives (design new rapid response mobile interface) rather than emphasizing skills (must have 3 years+ HTML5 and a BSCs).

Think Win-Win. This is recruiting from beginning to end. Passive candidates need to see the career opportunity in another job before they’ll consider it seriously. This typically is a slow process taking days to fully absorb, not minutes to explain. So recruiters can’t rush it. They need to sell the next step, not the job. This requires a series of career discussions and in-depth interviews, including exploratory meetings with the hiring manager. If the job is a true career move and the candidate is exceptional, the compensation will be resolved without much duress.

Be Proactive. If you want to hire the best person available, rather than the best one who applies, pick up the phone and start getting referrals. Strong networking skills are a critical part of this. The direct way: use LinkedIn to find prospects connected to your first-degree connections and ask them about specific people. These people will call you back, so your productivity will soar along with quality of hire. The indirect way: find the best prospects in the entire LinkedIn database who are your second-degree connections, then find your first-degree connection and ask if they’re qualified. When getting referrals, don’t ask your connections if they know people who are looking; instead, ask them to tell you who is the best person they know in a specific field. Then call this person, mention the person who referred them, and recruit the person thinking win-win and begin with the end in mind.

Put First Things First. Prioritize and work on work that matters. This is the difference from filling the position with the best person who applies to seeking out and recruiting the best person available. Focus on urgent and important, not just urgent, and especially don’t focus on not urgent and unimportant. Too many recruiters spend their valuable time weeding out the weak, rather than attracting the best.

Seek First to Understand and Then Be Understood. Too many hiring managers overemphasize skills and experience when opening a new requisition. They then either overemphasize technical brilliance or the impact of first impressions when deciding to hire the person or not. If a good candidate is rejected for a bad reason, recruiters need to intervene by first understanding the real job, why the person wasn’t considered, and as a rebuttal, presenting detailed evidence the candidate has performed similar work at peak levels. Recruiters can’t use hyperbole to convince a hiring manager about the worthiness of a candidate, but they can use facts and evidence.

Synergize. This is team skills on steroids: working with, influencing, coaching, and developing people. For a recruiter it’s working with and influencing the hiring manager and the interviewing team to make the correct decision using the correct information. Too many recruiters aren’t willing to challenge those with more authority even though they know their decisions are flawed. Becoming a trusted partner in the entire hiring process is essential if a company wants to see and hire the best people available.

Sharpen the Saw. Constant self-improvement is not only a core characteristic of all top performers, but essential for recruiters who want to stay competitive. It starts by mastering the three primary sourcing channels: improving the yield and quality of all job posting efforts, using and nurturing talent databases, and becoming an expert at networking and passive candidate recruiting. Once these are mastered individually, shift the entire emphasis to passive candidate recruiting, since this represents 85% of the total talent market.

As the hiring market shifts into second and third gear, recruiters will become the front line for helping companies hire the best talent available. Don’t settle on the best person who applies. It’s time for recruiters to improve their game. Embracing the Seven Habits is a great place to start.

Why We Should Banish Job Descriptions and Resumes

As most of you know, I think the continued use of traditional skills-infested job descriptions prevents companies from hiring the best talent available. By default they wind up hiring the best person who applies. That’s the same reason I’m against the indiscriminate use of assessment tests. While these tests are good confirming indicators of on-the-job performance, they’re poor predictors of it (square the correlation coefficient to get a sense of any test’s predictive value). Worse, they filter out everyone who isn’t willing to apply without first talking with someone about the worthiness of the position.

I was blathering on like this recently, when I not only advocated for the scuttling of traditional job descriptions and pre-assessment tests but also made the claim that traditional skills-intensive resumes were equally dangerous, since they also filter out some really good people who might be more competent, but possess a slightly different mix of skills. If the best person who applies for a job is equal to the best person who is available, this is not a problem. However, you need to consider the 80% of fully qualified passive candidates who didn’t apply, diverse candidates of different shapes and sizes, returning military vets, and high-potential candidates who are light on the skills listed when making this quality of hire assessment.

As many of you know (since you attended a recent webcast) as part of my new book I asked a senior attorney at Littler Mendelson (the top U.S. labor law firm) to validate the legal implications of using performance-based job descriptions instead of traditional skills-infested job descriptions. He documented his views in a white paper stating that performance profiles were far superior from an objectivity standpoint, and more than fully compliant.

Of course, if we banish both job descriptions, pre-assessment tests and resumes, what are we left with? Which even I consider a fair question. For the answer, I’ll go back to the first time I proposed the idea to a client more than 30 years ago.

The hiring manager was the VP/Controller of a Los Angeles-based public company. He had given me the search assignment to find a GM for one of its electronic parts distribution divisions. Preparing the performance-based job description was easy, since I have always prepared these for every search I conducted. I just got the hiring team together and asked “what does success look like?” For this position, it was increase gross margins in their core business by 20%, lead the upgrade of the distribution technology, rebuild the national sales team, and set the company up on a course to grow at least 15-20% per year for the next few years.

Then I asked the hiring team for some relief on the “10-15 years direct industry experience, at least five years of direct P&L responsibility, an MBA, deep knowledge of electronics at the component level, strong leadership skills, deep values, strong verbal and written skills, and great interpersonal skills,” if I could find someone who could meet all of the performance objectives. They tepidly agreed, but asked a fair question: how would I assess the person if we didn’t use a resume? I responded that, of course, we’ll use a resume, but we need to read between the lines, focusing more on what the person accomplished with their skills and experiences rather than the absolute level of them.

I then put five S’s on the whiteboard standing for Scope, Scale, Sophistication, Systems, and Staff. The idea was that if a person’s accomplishments were comparable on these five measures then he or she was a viable candidate. The person ultimately hired had managed a team of 200 people, was using state-of-the-art technology to manage his business, was working for a well-known manufacturing and distribution company, and had full P&L responsibility for a profitable and growing business, although a little smaller, but one he turned around. The person didn’t have 10-15 years of direct industry experience, didn’t have an MBA, had limited knowledge of electronics, and I don’t have a clue if his written communications were any better than C+.

The person was extremely successful, and after a few years become the Group VP/GM. None of this would have happened if we used a traditional job description and screened the resume on a list of skills and experience that filter out the best people. This is pretty much the same story on the subsequent 1,000 or so placements my firm made in the next 20 years.

Matching skills and experience written in a poorly thought-out job description to what’s written on a resume never seemed like a great way to start the talent acquisition process. Adding some type of pre-assessment test to further weed out the weak in an attempt to add some level of legitimacy to a flawed process seemed even more incomprehensible. Since we promote people based on their performance, why don’t we hire them the same way? That’s why we should ban descriptions, pre-assessment tests, and resumes whenever the supply of top talent is less than the demand. Which just might be always.