I recently spoke with a VP of talent at one of the world’s largest firms. She told me that on a recent evaluation of more than 200 recruiters, those with domain expertise made more placements per month with stronger candidates. Domain expertise means the person was an accountant, engineer, store manager, sales rep, etc., before he/she started recruiting for these people
I also spoke to a number of staffing firm owners who said their best recruiters were all subject matter experts in niche areas. This allowed them to develop deep networks of strong talent that were nurtured and expanded over time. Then as positions became available, they could quickly tap into these networks to find great people who were open to exploring career moves. Recruiting in this way is like farming – understanding the crop of jobs and candidates, nurturing and building relationships, and eventually placing candidates successfully.
My own experience as a recruiter is similar, but with a huge “aha” moment.
When I started as a recruiter, I had a 10-year background in engineering, manufacturing, cost analysis, logistics and financial planning. For the first five years of my recruiting career I placed people in jobs I knew in these fields. I became a very successful recruiter very quickly using this approach.
However, after five years things turned sour.
I started to get bigger and bigger search assignments for jobs I was not familiar with. When taking these assignments with the hiring manager, it was clear to both of us I did not understand the job.
It was worse when I talked with candidates. I could not convince them of the career opportunity nor could I get any good referrals. And when I assessed them I was evaluating too many generic factors rather than the person’s ability to do the actual work required in the actual environment. As a result of this I had to present too many candidates to get a person hired and the quality of those who were hired wasn’t as high as when I was recruiting people for jobs I knew. I had transformed into a hunter, and it wasn't working.
It was a clear lack of specific job knowledge that was the core problem. After much trial-and-error, the solution turned out to be a scripted approach for defining the job as a series of critical performance objectives. For example, it’s better to say, “Lead a team of senior accountants overhauling the international reporting system within 12 months,” rather than “Must have a Big 4 CPA with 10+ years of international reporting experience and strong supervisory and systems skills with a “can do” attitude.”
Once I understood the job this way, my confidence improved as well as the quality of candidates I was sourcing, recruiting and placing. Pretty soon I was back on track requiring only 3-4 candidates to get a person hired and most of the time it only took a few weeks to source them.
Like the recent conversations with talent leaders and the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with recruiters around the world over the years, I believe that knowledge of the job can be your competitive advantage and transform you from a "hunter" to a successful "farmer" recruiter. Here are the 5 steps that are crucial:
1. Know the job
If you haven’t been doing the work you’re hiring a person for you’d better know the job, the hiring manager, the hiring team and the company culture.
2. Become SWK – Someone Worth Knowing
Gatekeepers don’t get referrals nor can they gain the trust and openness with both hiring managers and candidates. Both are essential when placing passive candidates. Being a specialist is critical. This is how you gain a reputation in the industry as a person handling the best jobs and placing the best candidates.
3. Be a farmer, not a hunter
Once a hot prospect agrees to engage in a conversation it takes hours spread over weeks (sometimes months) to get the person hired. This requires a nurturing process long before the hot prospect even agreed to engage in a serious conversation.
As long as you keep your network alive with strong talent you’ll be able to tap into it to find people who are ready to move for the right opportunity.
There is no reason a recruiter who follows the above principles can’t present 3-4 strong prospects for any open job within 3-4 weeks. If you’re falling short on these critical two metrics, I suggest you rethink your entire approach to recruiting. This does not mean becoming more efficient doing what you’re now doing. It means becoming better. And you’ll know you’re getting better when 50% of the candidates you present to your hiring manager are highly referred.
The other day a plumber and his assistant came to the house to find the cause of a major leak. After about five minutes the plumber told his assistant there were three possible causes of the leak and how together they would figure out the cause. He said it would take about ten minutes. He then told me in detail what he would do in each case and the approximate cost. I told him to proceed. The problem turned out to be relatively minor and he was finished in less than an hour. Exactly as predicted. Even if the problem was major there was no question in my mind he could have solved the problem. The ability to visualize and solve comparable problems is one example of the Leadership Fractal we experience every day but rarely recognize.
Here’s another example (or three), from history this time.
I remember reading in General Grant’s autobiography about the process he used to plan the Overland Campaign to end the Civil War. It started with a visualization of the series of battles that would likely be fought over the course of the next nine months and what he would do depending on the moves and countermoves of General Lee. While the cost was dear the end result was victory as predicted. Grant demonstrated the same Leadership Fractal during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. It’s also what Eisenhower did to plan and execute the D-Day Invasion and what Lt. Colonel Custer didn’t do at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Some more recent and relevant history establishes the idea that when interviewing plumbers, generals or candidates for any job look for the Leadership Fractal. This is the ability to visualize a problem and execute the solution on a consistent basis. The fractal part has to do with the growth rate of the accomplishments and their repeated success. I use two questions to figure this out. One digs deep into the person’s past accomplishments. The other looks forward to determine how the person would go about solving a realistic, job-related problem. The video explains the process in more detail. Here are some examples of how the two questions can be used to assess performance, fit and potential.
Many years ago I was representing a senior manager from a Big 4 CPA accounting firm for a Director of Accounting role with one of the major entertainment companies in Southern California. The VP Controller – the hiring manager – knew she was top-notch but was concerned she didn’t have any hands-on corporate experience. The candidate persisted though and put together a 12-month detailed plan of how the entire accounting department needed to be reorganized. This included staff and system requirements and how the reporting systems had to be massively upgraded. She was hired based on this plan and her track record of doing similar but smaller scale project work while at the CPA firm. None of us were surprised that she successfully implemented the program as described and was subsequently promoted.
For a general manager position I asked a VP Operations with an extensive but different plastics background how he would turn around a multi-plant manufacturing company in a totally different industry. We talked for 30 minutes about the process he would use to develop the plan and strategy required. This alone demonstrated his breadth of business understanding and depth of insight into the specific problems this company was facing. However, this was not enough for me to present the candidate to my client company. I asked what he had already accomplished that was comparable in scope, span of control and complexity to the open job requirements. He went on to describe how he took one plant in Asia with 100 people and expanded it to a 3,000 person international manufacturing and distribution system spanning the globe. While I thought he was perfect for the job, my client didn’t. Nonetheless, he was reluctantly hired when their first candidate rejected their offer. I was not at all surprised when two years later he called to tell me he was just named the CEO of the parent company leapfrogging the person who hired him initially.
After meeting dozens of candidates like these and tracking their careers for 10-15 years (and more) it was clear that half of the Leadership Fractal is the ability to visualize a problem in great detail and plan out a practical solution. The other half is successfully implementing the solution as planned. Doing similar things multiple times establishes consistency. If these projects are growing in scope and scale you can assess potential by looking at the growth rate of the trend line.
As you ponder this consider this revised definition: The Leadership Fractal is a combination of competencies, behaviors and skills that exhibits a repeating pattern displayed at every scale. This just could be the ultimate predictor of on-the-job success.
Benchmarking how the best people get ahead is a great way to get promoted. It's also a great way to prove you're the person every company should hire.
My job for most of the past 35 years was finding top people to fill critical jobs in a variety of companies in almost every industry imaginable.
More important, I personally tracked many of these people after they were hired and over two-thirds (more than 300 people!) took on larger roles or got promoted into bigger positions within their first 1-2 years at the company. This is remarkable but not unusual when companies hire people who have significant upside potential. More remarkable is that many of the traits these people demonstrated both to get hired and to get ahead can be mastered by nearly everyone.
Here are some things you need to do if you want to excel and get ahead:
One: Clarify and exceed expectations. One thing I noticed about most of the top performers I've worked with is they either force their hiring managers to clarify expectations up front or work for hiring managers who do this naturally. In fact, this is a critical trait of all of the best managers. As the Gallup research has demonstrated year after year, clarifying expectations up front is the #1 trait of the best managers. Whether you're a manager or not, if you want to get ahead you need to do more than required. Volunteering for stretch projects or the difficult ones no one else wants is another way to exceed expectations. Doing more of what you're required to do and/or doing it better is the most obvious way.
Two: Don't make excuses. Just do it. I've learned over the years that it's far better to consistently deliver reasonable results on time rather than perfect results that are always late. As part of this the best people didn't make excuses when things went wrong since things always go wrong, for everyone. The best people just accept the fact that things will go wrong, plan for it as best as possible, overcome whatever obstacles come along and then deliver the required results. Consistently.
Three: Be proactive - Do it before being told to do it. The best people I've met, placed and worked with don't need much more than general direction. They know exactly what to do without being guided step-by-step. They even know what kinds of problems to expect and they plan accordingly. So rather than wait to be told to do something, go ahead and do it. This is what taking the initiative is all about. If you don't mess up too often you'll be branded as a high achiever. As part of our performance-based interview I ask candidates to describe how they'd solve a job-related problem. This helps me figure out why some people are more proactive than others since they can see the future unfolding before it arrives. I then ask them to describe something they've actually accomplished that validates their approach to problem solving. The ability to visualize a problem and then deliver a solution is something the best people do naturally and consistently. Another term for this is leadership.
Four: Aim before firing. Two of Stephen Covey's master habits are "begin with the end in mind"and "seek first to understand before being understood." These are both necessary for influencing others and problem-solving. Asking tough questions is part of this. Also having the confidence and courage to ask questions that might brand you as naïve or uninformed is typically necessary for aiming and acting properly.
Five: Leverage the team. The key to cultural fit is working with and through other people to get results. This includes working with people in other departments and/or functions, as well as peers, subordinates and company executives. Getting the support of the people you work with is essential for getting ahead. That's why on every team project big or small it's essential that you demonstrate the above characteristics. Volunteering for some unpopular team project is one way to demonstrate your team skills as well as your character.
Some people might call the above soft skills. In fact, here's a list of a dozen others that are too important to be called soft. More important, if you demonstrate the above five traits on the job on a consistent basis it's likely you'll get assigned to handle bigger projects, work on more important teams with more important people and get promoted more rapidly than your peers. If not, it's likely you either haven't demonstrated these characteristics to the right people or your understanding of what you're expected to accomplish is vastly different than what others expect of you. If so, reread point one above. Exceeding expectations starts by knowing what they are.
I was working with a group of recruiters last week and I asked them how they’d handle some common candidate questions particularly, “What’s the compensation?” Whether you’re on the asking or receiving end of this question, responding properly is important.
The problem is that the question is a trap. And so is the answer.
Because if you answer it incorrectly the conversation will end. In this case, the best answer is a non-answer.
If you’re the recruiter, here’s one great non-answer:
Let’s be frank. If the job doesn’t represent a career move it doesn’t matter what we pay you because you’ll soon be unhappy. So let’s first figure out if the job is a career opportunity and then we’ll see if the pay works.
But there’s an even better non-answer that reveals the candidate’s underlying drivers of personal satisfaction.
So let’s get personal for a moment. I’d like you to role play your answer with me.
Imagine I’m a recruiter who contacts you and asks you if you’d be open to explore a situation if it represented a true career opportunity. You say, “Maybe,” but first ask, “What’s the compensation?”
But rather than answer it, I say something like the following. (Put your reaction and response in the comments below. They’ll help you and everyone else get a perspective on what’s important.)
Our company is known for being extremely competitive on the compensation side but before we get into the details I’d like to ask you a slightly different question. Think about the best job you’ve ever had. A job you truly enjoyed. A position you actually looked forward to going to on Monday mornings. Was your high degree of personal satisfaction attributed to the money you were being paid or the work you were doing? If it was the work, what about it was most satisfying?
As you can see below, few people said it was the money.
Most say it was the work itself or the importance of the work or the people they were doing it with or their boss or the company or the culture. Rarely do they say it was the money.
A personal example might help clarify the concept. My first job (long, long ago) was on an engineering project team designing missile guidance systems. At 22 I thought it was a pretty cool job but the older engineers on the team found it uninteresting and unsatisfying and as a result put in minimal effort. As I quickly learned, most of these same engineers had been recently transferred from the Apollo moon landing project. They told me they found this work inspiring and as a result worked 70-80 hours a weeks for five straight years and loved it. What I learned was that putting a man on the moon not only inspired the nation but also everyone who worked on the project. Surprisingly, it turned out the work was exactly the same as they were currently doing but the mission was different. I learned long ago that the mission and purpose of work matters when it comes to motivating people. It still does.
So what work inspires you? What’s the inner purpose that drives you? For some people it is the mission or the project. For others it’s the chance to learn something new. For some it’s helping others. Whatever it is you need to know it about yourself before taking another job and you need to know it about someone before hiring the person.
Being competent to do the work is never enough; being motivated to do it is what matters most.
Here’s one way to figure this out before you hire anyone ever again. During the performance-based interview process I use, I ask candidates to describe their major team and individual accomplishments at each of their past few jobs. (This technique is summarized in the Lynda.com video course summarized below.)
As I dig into each of the person’s major accomplishments I ask where the person proactively took the initiative or went the extra mile or volunteered to take on projects without being asked. A pattern soon emerges. Some want to be left alone to handle tough technical problems. Others want to handle challenging business issues or enjoy getting involved with teams or coaching others. Whatever drives people to excel is revealed by this type of fact-finding. Of course, and not surprisingly, these internal motivators usually correlate highly with what the person described initially as their most satisfying job.
So if you want to hire more highly motivated people, make sure the work you’re offering matches their natural motivators. And if it does, pay them whatever they need.
That’s why you can’t ever answer, “What’s the compensation?” before you know what motivates the person to excel. Because if you answer it incorrectly, you’ll never know.
An exhaustive list of skills and generic competencies doesn’t predict on-the-job performance. Worse, it excludes from consideration all high potential, diverse and non-traditional candidates who can actually do the work but who have a different mix of skills and experiences. It also excludes all passive candidates who are looking for career moves.
Recognize that competency to do the job is not the same as motivation to do the job. And motivation to do the job is not the same as motivation to get the job. The purpose of the interview is not just to determine competency and motivation to do the job but also to demonstrate to the candidate that the job is a career move. All three conditions are essential if a company wants to hire more high performing individuals.
The Discovery Interview addresses all of these issues. To use it you first have to define the work required to be successful. Based on this the interviewer can determine competency and motivation. For the job to also be considered a career move it must offer a combined 30% non-monetary increase in job stretch (bigger job), job growth (faster learning) and job satisfaction (a richer mix of more satisfying work). I refer to this as the 30% Solution.
Figuring out if your job meets all of these conditions involves a discovery process. The term relates to the needs analysis component of solution selling. This is the step in the sales process when the sales rep figures out the customer’s problem and based on this develops a custom solution. Here’s how this relates to the hiring.
Using the 5-Step Discovery Interview Process
Prepare a performance-based job description. Before you even start looking for a candidate describe the 5-6 things the person needs to do to be considered successful. Start with an action verb for each objective, describe the task, the timeframe and some measure of success. You’ll be comparing the candidate’s past performance to this benchmark to determine competency, motivation and the career opportunity.
Conduct a thorough work history review. As part of the work history review focus on why the person changed jobs and if the job change achieved the personal objective. Then look for formal recognition for doing a good job. Compare the reasons for changing jobs and the success achieved to what you need done. These should align closely. Specifically avoid candidates who have “Job Hopping Syndrome.”
Ask the most significant accomplishment question. Describe each objective in the performance-based job description and ask the candidate to tell you what he/she accomplished that’s most comparable. The fact finding associated with this question is at the core of the discovery process. It uncovers where the candidate excels, what motivates the person to excel and if your open spot offers the 30% non-monetary increase. It takes about 20 minutes to do this properly for each objective.
Ask the problem-solving question. Spend 20 minutes discussing the most important job-related problem the person will need to handle soon after starting. Don’t worry about the answer. Evaluate the person on the process used to figure out the cause of the problem, the clarifying questions asked and if the preliminary action plan is reasonable.
Calculate the Job Fit Index to predict Quality of Hire. Based on the Discovery Interview described above you’ll be able to calculate the person’s Job Fit Index. This accurately predicts on-the-job success. As long as all of the factors shown are true the person hired will be a great hire. Getting to yes on all of the factors is the challenge, but in the process of figuring this out you’ll have all of the information needed to make the correct hiring decision.
When it comes to anything, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never know when and if you’ve found it. The same is true in hiring. Unfortunately, when you define what you want in terms of skills, experiences and competencies, finding it doesn’t predict on-the-job success, motivation or performance. However, when you define your open jobs as a series of performance objectives the process of finding and assessing people is not only easier but more accurate. And as long as you offer people work that’s intrinsically motivating combined with more rapid learning and growth you’ll be hiring more top performers than you’ve ever thought possible. Now’s the time to discover the Discovery Interview for yourself before you hire another person. After the hire, it will be too late.