The Biggest Mistake Companies Make When Trying to Hire Talented Employees

The strongest talent in any field often has a different mix of skills and experiences than listed on the traditional job description. Shifting to a performance qualified approach removes this artificial lid on quality of hire.

It doesn't take much convincing to recognize that job descriptions which emphasize skills, experience and competencies put a lid on quality of hire and eliminate the chance to hire more high potential diverse talent.

If you answer yes to these four questions you'll agree with this ceiling premise:

  1. Have you ever met someone who has all of the skills and experiences listed on your job description who isn't a top performer?
  2. Have you ever met a top performer who doesn't have all of the skills and experiences listed?
  3. Do high potential candidates, people who have been promoted internally and diverse candidates have a different mix of skills and experiences than listed on the job description for the same role?
  4. Are top people, including the strongest diverse talent, more interested in career growth than lateral transfers?

Whenever a hiring manager hands me a job description emphasizing skills and experiences, I ask the above four questions. Even from the most cynical I always get four yesses. To overcome the problem I then suggest we define the job as a series of 5-6 performance objectives describing what the new hire needs to do over the course of the first year to be considered a top performer. I then tell the hiring manager I will find people who have done comparable work in similar situations. However, I ask for some relief on the skills and experiences list. I make the case that if it can be proven the person can do the work he/she has exactly the mix of skills and experiences required. I then invoke this principle:

The Principle of Success

It's what people DO with what they HAVE that drives their success, not what they HAVE.

To shift to a performance qualified assessment approach, I then ask these questions to define the work required.

  • What's the most important thing the person needs to achieve in the first 6-12 months in order to be a top tier performer (top third of their peer group)?
  • What do the best people in this role do differently than the average person?
  • What does the person need to do in the first 30-60-90 days to ensure the major goal will be achieved?
  • What's the biggest change or improvement the person needs to make?
  • What are some of the critical team issues the person needs to address?
  • What's the biggest problem the person needs to solve?

Each of these performance objectives need to describe the task, the action the person needs to take and some measurable result. For example, "Complete and validate the production test plan for the new Apple speaker electronics module by year-end." During the interview you'll ask candidates to describe accomplishments that best compare to these performance objectives. That's how you prove competency, motivation and fit.

With these performance objectives in hand it's important to ask the hiring manager to define the employee value proposition or EVP. Then answer the question, "Why would a top person want this job for something other than a big increase in salary?" Typically the reasons have to do with satisfying the person's intrinsic motivator. For someone in healthcare this could be helping patients in some way. For people in technology it usually relates to learning more and applying their skills to build something important. For those in management it could be related to team building or improving organizational performance.

Regardless of what the EVP is, it's important to capture it in specific terms that relate both to the job and the person doing the job. Generic boilerplate is not good enough to attract the attention of someone not looking for a job or someone who is being pursued by multiple companies.

As you begin meeting stronger candidates it's important to prevent people from accepting jobs for reasons other than what they'll be doing and becoming if successful. Too many candidates overvalue what they get on the day they start a job rather than what they'll be doing on the job. This leads to instant satisfaction but long-term disappointment. To prevent this problem, recruiters and hiring managers need to ensure candidates are intrinsically motivated to do the work described in the performance-based job descriptions. This means deferring the compensation discussion until the person fully appreciates the career opportunity inherent in the job.

Raising the talent level at your company starts by shifting to a performance qualified mindset. This opens the pool to anyone who is competent and motivated to do the work required and who fits within the company's culture and hiring manager's leadership style. As important, the person needs to see the job as the best long-term career opportunity among competing opportunities, not the one that offers the best compensation package on the start date. Pulling this off requires a fully-engaged hiring manager who is committed to raising the talent level of his/her department and a sophisticated recruiter who can execute at every step in the process. While a tall order, it's worth whatever effort it takes to achieve it.

When Talent is Scarce, This is Where Recruiters Should Focus Their Efforts

When it comes to a recruiting strategy, I usually advocate a 40-40-20 sourcing mix. This means spending 40% of your time networking, 40% searching for candidates online and using campaign marketing to get them to respond to your messaging, and 20% of your time creating compelling job posts that are reverse engineered to be found by those who are looking.

However, in a talent scarcity situation – when the demand for talent exceeds the supply – this should be shifted to a 50-40-10 mix. That means more time networking and less time on job descriptions. Why do this? Because this is how you get referrals.

Why recruiters should focus on referrals when talent is scarce

I was discussing this mix idea with the CEO of a small staffing agency in the UK the other day and asked him how his recruiters now spend their time. He told me it was more like 10-70-20 (less networking, more job posts). I told him he would either have to reduce his fees to stay in business or present too many candidates to get a person hired.

My contention is that the best candidates are those who have been referred – especially when talent supply is low. I call these people recruiter’s gold. Here’s why:

  1. They call you back 100% of the time.
  2. The call is more natural since the person is connected to a common acquaintance. Your first degree connections’ connections are referred to as weak acquaintances. Mining these weak connections is the sweet spot for top talent.
  3. You’ll only call people who are prequalified.
  4. You’ll only call people who are in the budget range.
  5. The person would see your opening as a career move by asking the referrer if the person would find the job a good move.
  6. The hiring manager is more likely to hire the person if the referrer is a trusted person in your company.

Given this extraordinary bundle of benefits, you need to ask yourself why a recruiter wouldn’t spend most of his/her time getting these types of referrals. The typical excuse is they don’t have enough time. The real reason is probably a lack of confidence or call reluctance.

Regardless of the reason, here’s what I told the staffing agency CEO his recruiters need to do to get on the phone and start getting referrals.

1. Know the job

The job is what a person does, not what a person has in terms of skills and experiences. The difference in your opening and what the candidate is doing now represents the career opportunity. If you don’t know the job, you can’t figure this out.

2. Partner with the hiring manager

If the person who first talks with a passive or referred candidate hasn’t personally met the hiring manager, the likelihood of convincing the prospect to seriously consider what you have to offer is unlikely. That’s why sourcers and recruiters need to be SWK – Someone Worth Knowing.

3. Be proactive about getting referrals

Cherry pick your connections’ connections using Clever Boolean to identify 2-3 top people. Then ask your connection if these people are as strong as they appear. Then mention the referrer’s name when reaching out to the prospects.

4. Sell the discussion, not the job

It takes hours over weeks for a passive candidate to decide if a job is a true move. The process starts by just exploring this possibility, not hustling your open job as an “awesome” opportunity.

5. Position a career move as a 30% increase

A career move needs to provide stretch, growth, improved satisfaction and more impact. Using this measuring stick as the basis of the discussion is a great way to focus on the future rather than the compensation.

6. Conduct discovery during the first call

When reviewing the candidate’s profile look for the 30% growth opportunity.

7. Set up a 2nd call to validate the 30% increase

Once I find 3-4 factors that could indicate a career move I describe these as reasons to have a second more in-depth call to validate them.

8. Use the goldilocks reposition to get more referrals

I tell candidates who are too strong that the open job is beneath their ability. I tell those who are too light that the job is too big a stretch. I then connect on LinkedIn and search on their connections for perfect referrals.

I can understand that cold calling is not fun. But calling referrals is not cold calling. While it’s not the same as a warm call pitching a job to someone you know, it’s darn close. More importantly, by spending more time with fewer high quality, referred candidates you’ll save time in the long run and improve quality of hire. In my mind, getting referrals is how all recruiters should be judged. This is the essence of recruiting and also it's future.

What 4,000 Talent Leaders Believe About the Industry (and Why They are Wrong)

I’ve just taken a deep read into LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends 2017 research report. LinkedIn surveyed more than 4,000 talent leaders from around the world to uncover their challenges, thoughts and future plans. However, I just went to LinkedIn’s Talent Connect 2016 in Las Vegas in October and what I heard and learned there was at odds with some of the more important survey findings.

It’s important to recognize that a survey like LinkedIn’s is not research into what should be done but a pulse of what is actually being done. Given these disparities, I’ve decided to chime in with my perspective on how to resolve these conflicting messages.

The biggest finding: Leaders believe talent acquisition is an important aspect of every company’s growth plans and talent acquisition wants and has a seat at the executive table.

Talent acquisition has been important since long before I entered the workforce almost 50 years ago. I lucked out early in my career to be part of the corporate financial team of a Fortune 50 company. Not only were we put into important stretch roles we were also responsible for MBA recruiting and finding our replacements. I learned quickly that the right talent acquisition strategy, or any strategy for that matter, needs to be the driver of tactical planning and process design, not the other way around.

This “strategy drives tactics” concept is the basis for the graphic and the Catch-22 Staffing Spiral of Doom video I did with LinkedIn a few years ago.

The big idea behind this is that a left to right process built under the assumption that there is a surplus of talent strategy will fail when a surplus of talent doesn’t exist. Job boards, ATSs and most related hiring technologies are designed with this left to right “weed out the weak” mindset.

In a talent scarcity situation, a right to left “attract the best” model is a superior approach. This emphasizes what the person will do and could become and deemphasizes the laundry list of prerequisites. This maps directly to the findings of the LinkedIn research highlighting that the best candidates want to understand the career opportunity before becoming serious candidates.

From an assessment point the logic is that if the person can do the work, he/she will clearly have the appropriate levels of skills and experience.

In my opinion, not recognizing these surplus vs. scarcity process design differences is the root cause of most of the problems uncovered in the survey.

Finding: Leaders believe quality of hire and time to fill were considered the most important metrics.

From my perspective, there is no question that quality of hire is a critical metric since it represents the measure of success of the entire hiring process. However, companies continue to struggle with even figuring out how to measure this.

Measuring quality of hire is not difficult when the job is defined as a series of performance objectives – the “DO” part of the graphic. Assessing it starts by asking candidates to describe (in great detail) their most comparable accomplishments for each task. Mapping these to real job needs using the performance-based assessment approach I suggest then becomes the measure of pre-hire quality.

After the hire, track the new person’s performance against the same targets. If the targets haven’t changed, then the pre and post measures of quality should align closely. If not, then it’s an indication the interviewing process wasn’t conducted properly.

As the survey pointed out, there is no question that time to fill is an important metric. But the solution, in my opinion, is not to be more efficient, but to rethink the problem. In this case, the obvious solution is improved workforce planning. Knowing hiring needs 6-9 months in the future allows a company to move from a reactive to a more proactive just-in-time hiring sourcing approach.

Finding: Leaders believe employee referrals are the best source of talent.

Also, as the survey pointed out – and what’s been long known – employee referrals a top source of talent. Generating these referrals is the hidden strength of LinkedIn Recruiter that I believe is underutilized. One way to do this is to implement a proactive employee referral program where recruiters search on their co-workers’ connections seeking out the best talent and then asking for the referral.

The role of the Hiring Manager

Regardless of any of the changes advised, without the full support and engagement of the hiring manager, success is problematic. So when a hiring manager balks at replacing the traditional job description with one describing performance objectives, I suggest a simple A vs. B test. This involves asking the hiring manager to compare two groups of candidates – those who have all of the skills to those who have done comparable work.

This is all of the proof needed to demonstrate that improving quality of hire, reducing time to fill, improving on-the-job performance and increasing new hire job satisfaction starts with the right strategy. Being more efficient doing the wrong things mistakes activity for progress and in my mind that’s what the LinkedIn survey actually revealed.

Hiring Better Talent Begins with a Better Strategy

I recently wrote a post describing why good people underperform. These were the top reasons.

  • The job was poorly defined.
  • The new person didn't mesh with the hiring manager's style.
  • The candidate took the job for short-term convenience reasons.
  • The interview focused on assessing competencies, behaviors and depth of skills that only weakly map to the actualwork required to be done.
  • Being motivated to get a job is not the same as being motivated to do the job.
  • The interviewer was seduced by the candidate's affability and first impression.

At a recent training course for recruiters I asked why they're having trouble finding enough good candidates to present to their hiring managers. Here were their top reasons:

  • We're handling too many requisitions to spend time recruiting passive candidates.
  • The best candidates are passive candidates and they want too much money.
  • Hiring managers are not engaged.
  • Hiring managers eliminate top people who don't want to take lateral transfers.
  • The best people don't want to work for weaker hiring managers.
  • We're not an employer of choice.

Last summer I spoke with 150 high-tech hiring managers who wanted to hire more top software developers. They couldn't because of the following reasons:

  • Our recruiters aren't capable of attracting passive candidates.
  • Our recruiters don't understand our jobs or requirements.
  • We don't pay enough.
  • Our legal, HR and compliance departments restrict what we can do to hire stronger people.

While all of the reasons are valid, collectively they're symptoms of a bigger problem: The companies these people work for have the wrong talent acquisition strategy. As a result they have erected an impenetrable wall precluding them from seeing and hiring the best people. And this incorrect strategy problem can be traced to one single cause: An incorrect assumption about the size of the talent market.

In a talent scarcity situation, when the demand for talent exceeds the supply, you can't design processes assuming there's a surplus. In a surplus of talent situation companies develop processes to weed out the weak. In a talent scarcity strategy the company needs to use processes designed to attract and nurture the best.

A surplus of talent process is fundamentally different than a scarcity of talent one. That's why I advocate a Zero-based Hiring approach for situations involving the need to recruit and hire people who are in high demand. The differences between both strategies is summarized in the graphic. For example, a top technical leader might be open to discuss a possible stretch career move but won't apply or even discuss the same position if it appears to be a lateral transfer. When a company starts off with the wrong strategy, being more efficient or faster doing the wrong things won't help them hire stronger people.

Processes designed based on an assumption that there is a surplus of talent can do no better than maintain the company's current talent level. This is what happens when cost and efficiency combined with poorly defined jobs dominate who's seen and who's hired. This is a very transactional process emphasizing the hiring of active candidates based on their level of skills and compensation needs and who are also willing to take lateral transfers.

In a scarcity of talent situation processes need to be designed to reach out and attract the best people, offering career moves. If the career move is big enough it will often offset the need to pay salary premiums. However, this type of raising the talent bar strategy requires better jobs, more sophisticated recruiters and highly engaged hiring managers. This is a consultative process with the recruiter, hiring manager and candidate involved in a series of "discovery" meetings to clarify the actual job requirements and to determine if the job represents a true career move.

While companies all profess a desire to raise the talent bar they make excuses why it can't be done. These come in the form of legal, compliance and compensation restraints that tie their collective hands. This is hogwash and here's the legal justification from the top labor attorney in the U.S. to prove it. I refer to this excuse-making as HR's Hiring Catch-22.

A few years ago I wrote an article suggesting that leadership can be simply defined as having the right strategy combined with the right execution. Getting this backwards or having the wrong strategy as a starting point winds up as a costly and futile experiment. Unfortunately too many companies are still making the same excuses about talent and getting the same results.

Hiring the better talent begins with a better strategy.

Use Zero-based Hiring to Raise the Talent Bar

When I wrote Hire With Your Head more than 20 years ago, I started with this image I had a friend draw. It summarized all of the existing hiring problems most companies faced at the time. The objective of the book was to solve all of the problems.

The book was obviously a failure. All of these problems still exist.

So when I was recently asked by a writer about my predictions for the future of hiring, I was somewhat cynical.

I suggested that nothing will be different.

Companies will still advertise ill-defined jobs. They'll still filter people on their level of skills and salary requirements. They'll still allow hiring managers to use their "pet" questions and personal assessment techniques. They'll still let recruiters source and recruit any way they want. They'll still let the legal department and the compensation group put up ill-advised barriers to entry. They'll still focus on efficiency and cost per hire, ignoring the idea that doing the wrong things faster is not a strategy. They'll still train hiring managers in behavioral interviewing despite the fact that there are more effective techniques available that hiring managers will actually endorse. hiring-criteria-lou-adler-groupThe senior executives will still advocate the importance of hiring talent, but they won't fund it, measure it, or make hiring managers responsible for it. And they'll still treat candidates as commodities, but they'll be nice to them since they know it will affect their reputation.

Sorry for the cynicism.

But maybe collectively that's why quality of hire has not improved in 20 years and employee disengagement has been hovering at 68 percent for the past 20 years (according to science)!

A new idea-zero-based hiring.

What about implementing zero-based hiring? This means starting over. From the beginning. With a whiteboard. Blank. With this as a starting point here are a few suggestions I'd write on the board.

  • Define the work, not the skills needed to do the work. Every job can be described by six to eight performance objectives. If a person is competent and motivated to do this work, the person will not only be successful but likely have a different mix of skills than those listed on the old-fashioned job descriptions.
  • Convert competencies and behaviors into performance objectives. Generic competencies and behaviors are poor predictors of success. It's better to describe how the competency or behavior is used on the job as a performance objective. Then add the most important to the performance-based job description above.
  • Prevent people from applying for jobs they're not qualified to handle. Too much time is spent filtering the weaker candidates out. It might be better to prevent them from entering to begin with.
  • Stop posting individual jobs. Too much time and cost is involved with job postings. It would be cheaper and more efficient to create a microsite hub for all related positions and let the system figure out the best jobs for the person.
  • Stop filtering the best people out based on what they have and what they get. There is too much time spent filtering people in and out of jobs based on their level of skills and their salary requirements. The best people care less about the salary if the job represents a career move, and the best people always have a different mix of skills. That's what makes them the best people.
  • Make hiring managers responsible for hiring top talent. If hiring top people is really No. 1, managers shouldn't be managers if they can't or don't do it. Start by putting this as No. 1 during the performance review.
  • Offer careers, not lateral transfers. A career needs to offer some combination of job stretch, faster job growth, and a mix of more satisfying work. Add a process to modify jobs to better align with a person's growth needs.
  • Go slower. Hiring top people is not a transaction. This leads to job hopping syndrome. Instead implement a consultative discovery process that focuses on creating the career move.
  • Make hiring a business process with feedback controls. A bunch of steps bolted together with duct tape and APIs controlled by data that's weeks or months old is not a business process.
  • Implement an interview and assessment process that actually predicts quality of hire. Proving a method with statistics is not the same, nor as effective, as finding the method that works all of the time through trial and error. One method that actually works is based on what the best managers who consistently hire the best people do.
  • Train recruiters to recruit. No company would let its sales people sell its products without training around best practices. This is so obvious, yet no one seems to see it.

This is a great list for jump-starting the zero-based hiring process. It's my bucket list.