Don’t Put the Cart before the Horse if You Want to Find More Top People

Here’s a story that gives horses a bad name. This is a continuation of a series of articles focusing on the national skills gap problem we’ve been hearing so much about lately. As you’ll see, my take is that we have a thinking problem that makes whatever skills gap we have worse.

From what I’ve seen, the root cause of most hiring problems starts by using the wrong talent strategy. Most companies use a surplus of talent strategy in a scarcity of talent world. I call this the Staffing Spiral of Doom Catch-22. (Here’s a video that I put together with LinkedIn summarizing this idea.) The underlying assumption behind a surplus model is to get as many people to apply as possible and weed out the weakest, with the hope that a few good ones will remain. This doesn’t work of course, if the surplus assumption is wrong. If your company posts boring job descriptions, hiring managers are disengaged, candidates are forced to apply and then screened out on factors that don’t predict success, you’re using a surplus model. This will work if there are plenty of good people to choose from, but if not, you’re just spinning your wheels, mistaking activity for progress.

A talent scarcity strategy starts with the premise that the demand for top talent is greater than the supply. As a result, the company needs to put the necessary resources and processes in place to attract and hire these people despite the competition. Since the best people always have multiple opportunities they are not the least bit interested in jumping through hoops for something that appears to be a lateral transfer. Yet most companies, even in the face of a talent shortage problem, continue to use traditional skills-based job descriptions for advertising, screening, and selection purposes. This is certainly putting the cart before the horse, with the driver (aka, the recruiter) somewhere behind both, doing what’s necessary to clean up the mess. As you’ll see even from a compliance standpoint (OFCCP and EEOC), putting the horse in front increases not only compliance, but your company’s share of top talent.

The graphic below summarizes the hiring decision-making process into four big time-phased groups. The problem with a surplus of talent strategy is the focus on “Before Day 1” criteria to screen out people, when the best people are using “Year 1 and Beyond” criteria before they’ll screen themselves in. It doesn’t take much to figure out that this backwards thinking eliminates everyone who is any good.

This is the Catch-22 problem mentioned above, screening out good people for skills most of them don’t have. And even if they do have them, they aren’t interested in getting more. Here are some ideas on how to solve the horse-cart-driver problem:

  • Before Day 1: This is what the candidate needs to have in terms of skills and experience before being allowed to enter the assessment process. It also represents the bulk of what’s described in the posted job description and what’s used to screen out the undesirables. From a compliance standpoint this is considered “objective” even though it’s not valid. If you’ve ever hired or promoted a person into the role who’s been successful with less than what’s listed, you know that this stuff is mostly guesswork. Just imagine how many good people get screened out using this “flawed” objective criteria.
  • Day 1: This is what the person hired gets on the first day on the job: a salary, in some office, at some company, in some city, with some generic title. Most good candidates want to know this information right away to see if it’s worth spending more time with a recruiter. What’s surprising is that while this criteria is used as an initial filter for candidates, it’s second or third or unimportant when the person decides to take the job, or not, especially if they’re comparing multiple opportunities. So unless you can bridge this “engage vs. accept” logic gap you’ll lose another chunk of great people.
  • Year 1: This is what the person actually does on the job and who they do it with. This is the work itself, including what the person is going to learn and do. The hiring manager and the team are equally as critical. Collectively, this is what drives satisfaction, and if the work is important, exciting, and done well, it leads to long-term growth. Equally important, it’s the primary information a top person uses to compare offers. Surprisingly, most companies don’t even discuss this stuff with anyone other than final candidates. By then, many of the best people have opted-out on their own, or never entered the fray in the first place.
  • Beyond Year 1: This is what the person can become if he/she successfully completes the challenges of Year 1. This is the career growth opportunity represented collectively by the job, the hiring manager, the team, and the company. While implied in many postings and discussed superficially, it’s mostly vague and generic, and as a result, downplayed.

Here’s the dilemma exposed by the graphic shown above. There’s too much emphasis on what the person brings to the table and what the person hired obtains on Day 1. The Catch-22 problem is that there are great numbers of people who can do the work required (Year 1) who don’t have the exact skills listed on the job description (Before Day 1). Many of these people, especially the best ones, would be interested in considering the opportunity represented by Year 1 and Beyond, but never get the chance. For one thing, jobs aren’t advertised this way. For another, some recruiter or hiring manager screened them out based on the wrong factors. Worse, the best prospects screened themselves out, since the offering as described represented a lateral transfer.

Emphasizing Before Day 1 requirements, screening out on Day 1 criteria, and hoping the best prospects will somehow figure out the Year 1 and Beyond opportunity severely limits the pool of people being considered. Yet this represents the fundamental hiring process used by most companies. This is a Surplus of Talent strategy and mindset in action. This problem is aggravated when these same companies use these same processes to hire passive candidates, who aren’t looking for another job, but might be open to evaluate a job if it represents a true Year 1 and Beyond career opportunity.

The key from a compliance standpoint is to ensure objective criteria is used to screen people out or in. However, objective criteria is not limited to skills, experiences, and academics. Year 1 criteria listing key tasks and measurable performance objectives are equally as objective. In fact, one could easily argue that “installing an SAP consolidations module in six months” is more objective than “must have a CPA and five years ERP systems background.” More important, the “Year 1” project is far more exciting from the candidate’s perspective than meeting the “Before Year 1” experience standard.

By defining Year 1 and Beyond before defining Day 1 and Before, the horse is put in its proper place, and there’s no mess left behind. And then when the Year 1 and Beyond criteria is used for advertising and screening, the pool of exceptional prospects increases dramatically. For one thing, it opens up the door to more minority, military, and diverse candidates who have a different mix of leadership experiences, but are fully qualified to handle the challenges defined with minimal training. As far as mixing metaphors goes, not only is the horse put in its proper position this way, but you can then have and eat your cake, plus all of the icing.

How to Achieve the Recruiting Performance Trifecta of Quality, Cost, and Time

Let me start with three basic points:

Point 1: active candidate recruiting leaves a lot to chance, primarily quality-of-hire and time-to-fill, primarily since hiring managers will procrastinate as long as possible to find their “ideal” candidate. This waiting time is random, unless the supply of top people is greater than the demand, or the manager becomes pressured to decide. Of course, the longer the wait the more the cost.

Point 2: The lack of a correct and agreed upon definition of pre-hire quality adds more randomness, time, wasted effort, and cost to the process. No one uses the job description for measuring quality and we’ve all had hiring managers confidently say “I’ll know the person when I see him.” This is a problem with passive candidate recruiting, too, but it’s more like playing the lottery when you’re only sourcing active candidates.

Point 3: passive candidate recruiting emphasizing direct networking techniques, i.e., calling pre-qualified referred prospects, reduces the time to find prospects to a few days.

How to Achieve the Recruiting Performance Trifecta

With this as background, here’s a basic passive candidate recruiting process that will maximize quality of hire, minimize time to fill, and reduce cost per hire:

1) Get agreement on quality of hire by everyone involved before you start the search. In my search practice, I define it along these three dimensions:

  • The prospect possesses the “achiever” pattern. This indicates the person is in the top-third of his/her job class. While these are different for each job there are many obvious clues on the person’s resume or LinkedIn profile. Some clues include a series of industry or company awards and honors, a work-study fellowship, rapid progressions, special leadership roles, patents, whitepapers, or industry conference speaker.
  • Define on-the-job success up front. We work with managers before starting a search, defining what the person must do to be considered successful. As part of this, convert every competency or “must have” into some measurable task. Prospects then must have a track record of accomplishments comparable to what’s described in these performance profiles.
  • Skills, academics, industry, and experience are subordinated to the above two factors, with the only proviso being that the prospect has “enough” of these to accomplish the tasks listed in the performance profile.

2) Get the hiring manager to agree to have an exploratory phone conversation with every prospect the recruiter recommends. During this 30-40 minute session the hiring manager has three objectives. First, review the prospect’s profile and biggest accomplishments in comparison to the performance profile. Second, describe the job and its importance. Three, if appropriate, offer the prospect an opportunity to interview onsite. The recruiter might need to support this later effort.

These two prerequisites are essential. They put some critical control parameters around quality and time. The exploratory meeting also passes “ownership” of the prospect to the hiring manager. Even more important, when the prospect and hiring manager meet for the first time after the phone call, the impact of first impressions is minimized. Collectively, this reduces time spent on meeting weaker candidates and increases the likelihood good people won’t be eliminated due to improper assessments

In my Golden Rule article on these pages a few weeks ago, I described how to produce a slate of highly-qualified passive prospects in 72 hours using LinkedIn Recruiter, so I won’t repeat them here. However there are some big points worth highlighting again.

  1. While it’s easy to identify possible prospects, this isn’t the objective. With LinkedIn Recruiter this can be done in 30 minutes. Instead, the recruiter must personally contact these people, qualify the person, and get the prospect to agree to the exploratory call.
  2. The only way you’ll make the 72-hour target is if 80% of your outbound calls are to pre-qualified warm leads. This means that most of your 72 hours (i.e., three working days) must be networking calls, not cold calls. There is not a single researcher or sourcer who ever worked in my search firm for more than three months who didn’t become exceptional at this. The Golden Rule article describes how to do this using LinkedIn Recruiter.
  3. Recruiting leaders need to track some metrics to ensure every recruiter/sourcer is hitting their targets. Specifically: warm referrals per call, warm call to cold call ratio, quality-of-prospect per call, hiring manager conversion from exploratory call to onsite interview. These metrics have to be in real time (daily tracking) in order to implement the necessary training and follow-up to ensure the metrics are achieved.

Managing the top of the sourcing-recruiting-hiring funnel this way will go a long way toward achieving the recruiting performance trifecta of maximum quality, minimum time to fill and lowest cost. In future articles I’ll describe how to complete the task of getting these high-quality prospects hired at reasonable compensation levels.

In my mind the key message here is that by engaging hiring managers in the process and defining pre-hire quality, you force hiring managers into a decision-making process, rather than allowing them to endlessly wait for their “ideal” candidate to show up. Shortening the time to fill this way by defining quality also reduces cost, so all of the big three metrics are optimized using the same approach. Recruiters are not let off the hook here, though. Networking is the key to passive candidate recruiting. Calling pre-qualified warm leads is the only way to take the randomness out of the active candidate “post-and-pray” sourcing approach or the “dial for dollars” passive candidate technique used by most corporate recruiters.

From an intellectual standpoint, the real reason all of this works is that you’ve made quality and time the primary drivers of the process, rather than secondary results of other process changes. Too many companies start with reducing cost as their primary emphasis hoping quality and time will improve as a result. This is comparable to a dog chasing its tail. Maybe it’s time to switch dogs.

This article originally was published in the Electronic Recruiters Exchange ( Check out ERE for more great recruiting information.

The Golden Rule of Passive Candidate Recruiting

There are about 20 things involved in the process of meeting the 72-hour target. Following are the most important:

  1. Don’t use job descriptions. During the intake meeting with the hiring manager, define success as a series of 5-6 critical performance objectives. Then ask managers if they’d meet someone who had achieved comparable objectives, but doesn’t meet all of the experience requirements listed on the job description. This is a critical step, and you’ll never make the 72-hour goal if you use job descriptions. The trade-off: you won’t compromise on performance or potential, just on absolute skills and experience. (Here’s a more detailed article on how to prepare these performance-based job descriptions.)
  2. Find the “ideal candidate.” During the intake meeting find someone on LinkedIn who is a high achiever or identify a fast-tracker inside your company. Fast-trackers always have less experience than their peers, so this is important. Then ask the manager if he/she would be open to meeting someone like this who is clearly a high performer, but with less experience than listed on the job description.
  3. Use LinkedIn Recruiter to clone the “ideal candidate.” LinkedIn offers two easy ways to develop a prospect list of 20 or so people in less than 30 minutes. One is the “similar profiles” button to the right of the person’s name, and the other is on the right-hand side, titled “Viewers of this profile also viewed …” In less than one hour after the intake meeting you should be able to identify 15-20 possible prospects.
  4. Prepare creative and career-oriented job branded messages. Messages including voicemails, emails, and postings. The key to all of these is to lead with the employee value proposition and highlight the 2-3 big performance objectives. Tie these to the company strategy and vision. This is job branding and will attract a stronger group of candidates. Even passive candidates will check out the posting after initial contact, so this is important. Here’s an example of a this type of career-oriented posting.
  5. Ask the “yes” question to establish applicant control. Ask prospects if they’d be open to discussing a possible career move. Then, don’t describe the job; instead, ask them questions about their LinkedIn profile. Getting candidates to talk first is part of applicant control and essential for meeting the 72-hour goal.
  6. Convert your job into a career move. During the initial screen, look for gaps between the performance objectives of the job and the person’s experiences. Use these gaps to establish your opening as one worthy of continued discussion. For example, if your job offers a faster growth rate, more visibility, and some stretch, you’ll be able to use these as reasons for the candidate to move forward in the process.
  7. Connect, re-search, and Cherry Pick. Make sure you connect with everyone on LinkedIn during the preliminary call. If the person is not appropriate for your job, you’ll then be able to search their connections. Call the person back and ask about specific people who might be better suited for your opening.
  8. Follow the 80/20 networking rule. If a person is not appropriate for your opening, you must get 2-3 warm referrals via Cherry Picking. This is critical to meeting the 72-hour objective. Warm referrals call you back, and since they’re already pre-qualified, you’ll find strong prospects quickly. Here’s more on how to Cherry Pick and network on LinkedIn.
  9. Search on achiever terms. One way to find great prospects quickly is to search on things your ideal candidate has done that would indicate the person is in the top-half of the top-half (i.e., B+ or better talent). This would include terms like award, patent, whitepaper, fellowship, scholarship, work-study, honor, and the specific names of honorary societies, leadership titles, and awards, among others.
  10. Find nodes. Find people who have worked with your ideal candidate, like project managers, customers, vendors, and professional associates. For example, partners in CPA firms know high-achieving accountants who have left their firms, and Agile Scrum managers know great Ruby developers. Connecting with nodes allows you to quickly Cherry Pick their connections as a means to quickly get your 2-3 high-quality referrals per call target.
  11. PERP your ERP to create a Virtual Talent Community (VTC). Proactively get your employees to connect with their best former co-workers. Then when you search and Cherry Pick their connections you’ll have more than enough great people within hours after taking the assignment. These top-notch first- and second-degree connections represent a VTC and are far more valuable than a pool of random followers or a stack of resumes.
  12. Be SWK and an SME. Passive prospects will always check out your profile before calling you back. So make sure it’s clear you’re Someone Worth Knowing and a Subject Matter Expert. This is how you leverage your online identify and get even more referrals.

Since everyone will soon have instant access to the same people, active candidate recruiting will become even more problematic with quality of hiring becoming even more random. Since 83% of the fully-employed members on LinkedIn classify themselves as passive, this is where the future action will be, and recruiters who can implement the Golden Rule of Passive Candidate Recruiting will be in high demand. Expect the 72-hour Golden Rule to become the new normal, and those recruiters who can implement it become the new rock stars.

This article originally was published in the Electronic Recruiters Exchange ( Check out ERE for more great recruiting information.

Bridging the Gap: Passive Candidate Recruiting: Part 3-1

The criteria top candidates use to accept an offer are not the same as the criteria they use to decide to engage in a discussion about a job. Understanding this difference is a fundamental key to improving your passive candidate recruiting effectiveness. It’s best to break these decision-making criteria into three broad categories to help distinguish the differences.

Day 1: These are the aspects of the job the candidate will get on the start date. It includes the compensation, location, company, title, and a quick overview of the job.

Year One: These are the factors that affect on-the-job performance and satisfaction during the first year. They include the actual work itself; what the person will be learning, doing, and becoming; the scope and importance of the position and the impact it could make on the company; all of the team and cultural fit issues; work/life balance; and the total rewards package, not just monthly compensation.

Beyond Year One: These are the long-term components of the job including factors like opportunity for advancement, the company’s strength and resources, the industry and economic issues, visibility of the position within the company, the opportunity to develop relationships with senior management, and the leadership qualities of the hiring manager.

While all of these factors are important when deciding whether to accept an offer or not, it’s pretty obvious that for a person looking for a career growth opportunity, Year One and Beyond criteria are more important than Day 1. Unfortunately, most good people focus too much on Day 1 criteria when first contacted by a recruiter.

Being an effective passive candidate recruiter requires the ability to “bridge the gap” between Day 1 and Year One and Beyond decision-making. Bridging the gap properly can improve a recruiter’s end-to-end candidate yield – i.e., turning prospects into interested candidates – by 3-5X! This means instead of getting one in ten prospects agreeing to seriously evaluate your offer, you’ll get at least three or four. Alone, this will shorten time to hire. Even better: by developing relationships with those who aren’t appropriate for the job, you’ll be able to instantly search on their LinkedIn connections and find other worthy passive candidates you can contact. Developing a great list of pre-qualified referrals who will call you back can provide another 3-5X boost in productivity.

Contacting passive candidates requires a sound process that’s implemented correctly. Bridging the gap is part of this, but it’s important to see this in the context of the whole engagement process. This is shown below.

Moving Passive Prospects from Bystander to Interested Prospect

  1. Post a career-oriented compelling job. Passive prospects will often check out the actual posting before returning your call, so make sure your job is compelling and career focused. If you’re still posting traditional job descriptions designed to weed out the unqualified, you’ll also turn off the candidates you want to attract.
  2. Send a compelling email. Tell a story rather than cut and paste a job description. Make sure the subject line is engaging enough for the person to read the whole email. Make sure the first line highlights the “and Beyond year one.” As a minimum make sure the email includes the employee value proposition and a few highlights of the challenges involved in the job.
  3. Leave a unique voice mail. Regardless of how you got the person’s name, you need to call and connect. Most likely, you’ll need to leave a voice mail. It’s important to track the percent of people who call you back, with a target goal of 75%. One way to boost your percentages is to describe your opening using Year One and Beyond criteria, with an offer to spend just a few minutes to discuss it.
  4. On first contact only ask questions that can be answered by a “Yes.” Asking if the person is interested in a cost manager’s job in Toledo is less likely to get a Yes than asking if the person would be open to discuss a senior financial management role if it represented a serious career opportunity. The idea behind this is to make sure the person you’re calling doesn’t opt out for Day 1 reasons.
  5. Proactively “Bridge the Gap” if the person asks Day 1. When first contacted by recruiters, people naturally first ask about the compensation, the location, the company, and the job title. Rather than answering, just ask the person if the best job they ever had was based on the money the person was making or the work itself. Most people will say it wasn’t the money, but the job, the people, or the growth opportunity. Then ask if the person would be open to talk 5-10 minutes just to determine if your job offered something comparable to this and better than what the person now has.
  6. Anticipate the negatives and turn them into positives. There are some things about your job that just might stink. It could be the location, the fact that your company is struggling, or there’s lots of management turmoil. Don’t hide these issues. Confront them head on. A company in turmoil can be career enhancing if the person is brought in to make a difference. Suggest that taking a risk or moving to a different city might be worth it to jumpstart a stalled career. The idea is to bridge the gap to give yourself a chance to have a serious exploratory discussion.
  7. Don’t sell the job, sell the next step. Underlying many of these ideas is the principle that recruiting passive candidates requires the sharing of more information over many steps. Too many recruiters rush the process, trying to convert a cold lead into a hot candidate on the first call. Instead, suggest to the person that moving from a Day 1 decision-making mode to a Year One and Beyond career evaluation requires multiple steps.

In Part 3-2 of this article, we’ll provide specific details on how to actually Bridge the Gap (Step 5 above). From an introductory and positioning standpoint, this series of steps provides a good overview of when this technique needs to be applied during the initial recruiting process, and what you have to do ahead of time to make sure it works. Equally important is what you do afterwards. Hiring top talent can be a scalable business process, but first you need to have a process that works, and then it has to be implemented properly and monitored constantly.