Why Being a Farmer (and Not a Hunter) Will Make You a More Successful Recruiter

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.

4. Plant seeds

The probability that your open job is a perfect fit for the person being pursued is remote for a variety of reasons. However, the probability is high that the person being pursued knows someone who is a great fit. Getting these great referrals is what recruiting is all about.

5. Reap what you sow

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.

Getting to Yes, Often Starts with a No

Obviously, you want to hire more top-tier candidates. And often, those are passive candidates. But at the same time, you don’t always (if ever) have the budget to pay enormous salary premiums.

The good news is, it’s possible to hire the best without spending a fortune if you have these three things:

  • An offer that is a career move, not a lateral transfer. If your job doesn’t represent a true career move to the person being wooed, he/she will want a hefty compensation increase to make the move. And if the move is made on this basis there is a greater than 50/50 chance the person will be demotivated within a month or two, become disengaged as a result and start looking for a new job within a year. This is called the Vicious Cycle of Underperformance and why passive candidate hiring must start by defining the job as a series of 5-6 performance objectives that offer the new hire a combination of job stretch, faster growth, more impact and a mix of more satisfying work.
  • A fully engaged hiring manager. The best people want to work for the best managers. It’s not just the other way around! If a manager can’t, or refuses to, clarify job expectations up front as a series of big challenges and opportunities, he/she won’t hire any great people above the staff level. Google’s Project Oxygen recently revalidated the importance of clarifying expectations up front as originally espoused in the best-seller, First, Break All of the Rules – What the World’s Best Managers Do Differently.
  • A skilled recruiter to orchestrate the entire process. Since passive candidates aren’t looking, the recruiter must engage them at the top of the funnel and ensure they get hired at the bottom. This requires a “No, NO” mindset on the first call, and a “Yes, YES” negotiating ability when competing against counter-offers and competitive opportunities. Your open job will rarely be the one that offers the most money, but it must be the one that offers the best career opportunity.

As you know, number three is critical – and that’s where I want to focus. Without the skilled recruiter, it won’t matter if the quality of the job is strong enough or whether the hiring manager is fully engaged. Given this as a starting point, here are a few concepts recruiters need to master in order to become master conductors.

1. Don’t accept “no” for an answer on the first call

When a candidate tells me she/he isn’t interested in changing jobs, I say that’s why I’m calling. I only want to attract people who won’t consider anything other than a remarkable career move to change jobs.

2. Don’t ask questions that can be answered by “no”

You can avoid most "no" responses by asking people if they’d be willing to explore a situation if it were clearly superior to their current position and the career trajectory they’re now on. Most will say yes if you don’t mention the specific title by saying you’re handling a few different positions.

3. Put all objections and concerns in the parking lot

Acknowledge all concerns but ask: if they can be overcome, would the person at least be willing to chat for networking purposes?

4. Offer a 30% increase

When they ask about compensation, say it doesn’t matter if the job isn’t a career move. Then describe a career move as a minimum 30% non-monetary increase consisting of more stretch, growth, satisfaction and impact.

5. Get the candidate to talk first

Don’t start selling your job as soon as the candidate indicates she/he is willing to talk. This is like selling a great hamburger to a vegetarian because the person says she/he might be hungry. Review the person’s LinkedIn profile to see if you can find the 30% and if so, suggest another discussion.

6. Use the 1-10 interest test after the first interview

After every interview ask the candidate how your opening stacks up to a counter-offer or other jobs the person is considering. Whatever the number, ask what it would take to get to a “9,” meaning your opportunity is number one on the person’s short list. Then make sure you address all of these issues before making an offer. That’s how you get to be number one when it comes to making an offer.

7. Don’t make offers that aren’t going to be accepted

Test every aspect of your offer before formalizing it. Start by putting the compensation package in the parking lot and asking if the candidate wants the job. If the answer is yes have her/him explain why. If she/he can’t fully describe the 30% opportunity,, don’t make the offer until she/he can.

Hiring any great person is hard, but we all know it’s worth the effort. Unfortunately too many hiring managers balk when realizing how much work it involves. During the intake meeting when a manager tells me he/she wants to hire a top 10% or top 20% person I say great, let’s start by defining a top 10-20% job. This is the critical conversation you must get right or everything else you do later on won’t matter.