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.
However, identifying top talent is not the same as recruiting top talent. And since most of the top 25% in any field are not looking to change jobs, recruiting these people is the real challenge.
Given the accelerating need to emphasize passive candidate recruiting skills, we’re in the process of updating our classic recruiter competency model. Here’s a survey you can take to see where you stand. The skills and competencies are described below using the following 1-5 ranking system. As you rank yourself or other recruiters, recognize that a Level 5 is considered an industry Most Valuable Player (MVP) and a Level 1 is considered a rookie.
The Recruiter Competency Model ranking system
Level 5.0: MVP – Recognized industry leader. Consistently far exceeds aggressive performance standards for recruiting the best passive candidates for the most critical positions.
Level 4.0: All-star – Recognized company leader. Consistently exceeds aggressive performance standards for recruiting passive candidates for hard-to-fill positions.
Level 3.0: First-string – Can be counted on to consistently meet the performance standards.
Level 2.5: Role player – Has the basic skills but needs some coaching and training. Inconsistent.
Level 2.0: Bench Player – Needs a great deal of training, coaching and support.
Level 1.0: Rookie – Developmental player.
As you review the following traits and skills of the best recruiters, use the above 1-5 scale to rank yourself.
What the best passive candidate recruiters do
1. Make placements with top quality candidates.
These recruiters don’t just fill positions with the best people who apply. Instead, they seek out the best people, work with them closely and ensure the best ones get hired.
2. Emphasize fewer candidates, advanced networking and more recruiting.
The best recruiters don’t need a lot of candidates to make great placements. Instead they identify a small group of top tier candidates (15-20) using advanced searching tools and proactive networking. Converting 80% or more of these into career discussions is the key to their success.
3. Have top of the funnel metrics that are over the top.
Since the pool of prospects is small, the yield must be high. This requires a campaign approach to convert 80% of their outbound efforts into conversations and converting 80% of these conversations into interested prospects or more pre-qualified referrals.
4. Know the job inside out.
A job is not a list of skills or experiences. It’s a list of performance objectives that define the required results and the best process to achieve these results in the actual environment, the true culture and with the actual manager. As important, the best recruiters can convince hiring managers to define the job this way.
5. Use a consultative vs. transactional process to create a true career move.
It takes hours spread over weeks for a top-tier person to fully appreciate the long-term career opportunity inherent in any job. Good recruiters orchestrate this effort ensuring the decision to proceed or not is based on the difference in what that person is doing now and could be doing in the future.
6. Trusted and accurate interviewer.
The best recruiters conduct top-to-bottom interviews that focus on fit, performance and motivation. They can recognize top talent and their hiring manager clients give them a full vote on whom to hire.
7. Equal partner with the hiring manager.
Hiring top tier candidates who have multiple opportunities can’t be done without a strong partnership between the recruiter and hiring manager. Part of this involves coaching and influencing the hiring manager at each critical step.
8. Considered trusted career advisors by their candidates.
Recruiters profoundly affect people’s lives, especially top tier and passive candidates who don’t need to change jobs or have multiple opportunities. Developing this trust also results in high-quality referrals of other top tier candidates on an on-going basis.
9. Can negotiate and close offers based on career growth rather than compensation maximization.
The best recruiters don’t box check skills or filter candidates on compensation during the first call. By setting the conditions for a career move during the first meeting, the best recruiters achieve high close rates within the budgeted comp ranges.
10. Applicant control is not considered distasteful.
Ensuring candidates don’t opt-out before understanding the full opportunity is the essence of passive candidate recruiting. Controlling the conversation this way is referred to as applicant control. The best recruiters fully understand the importance of this technique.
Now that it's easier to identify passive candidates, it’s time for recruiters to up their game and learn how to become true recruiters. This is the only way any company will be able to hire the best talent available, not the best people who apply. Mastering these 10 skills is the place to start.
Being a top performer is only half the solution. The circumstances matter just as much, often more. In the right circumstances just about anyone can be a top performer.
During my business career I've had the rare opportunity to work with some outstanding people. One of my first jobs was working with CEOs and their VPs reviewing their operating plans for businesses ranging in size from $100 million to over $1 billion. Then, as a recruiter I've had a chance to track the performance of scores of talented people over a 20-30 year time span including many of the hiring managers and business leaders I worked with.
Collectively this is what I discovered seems to be at the core of their success. The video describes the process I used to discover them.
Possibly the 10 Core Traits of Managerial Success
They deliverresults. The best people don't just talk a good game; they make things happen. As part of that they make big plans, get them approved, obtain the resources needed, and then achieve the planned results.
They don't make excuses. Things always go wrong. Rather than make excuses, the best people I've seen take responsibility for the whole project and then figure out how to get back on track.
They hire, develop and manage great people. One of my first bosses told me hiring great people was the most important thing any manager could do. He did it and went on to become the youngest CFO at any Fortune 500 company in history.
They clarify expectations. As part of our search process I always ask the hiring manager what the person in the role needs to do to be successful. They always know. This single idea has been proven as the #1 trait of all hiring managers. It also heads Gallup's Q12 list of drivers of employee satisfaction.
They know how to delegate and develop. Some people need more clarity and direction than others. The best managers give just enough support and direction to maximize the performance and development of each team member.
They expect and obtain great performance of themselves and others. Inspiring oneself is tough enough. Inspiring others is the foundation of true leadership.
They think strategically. I was in the room when the CFO of a top Fortune 50 company lambasted a group president with the admonition that, "Strategy drives tactics, not the other way around. Even if you have good tactics your strategy is fundamentally flawed." The best people I've met in any field naturally think this way.
They think and act multi-functionally. I remember a Director of IT I placed who was responsible for implementing a major ERP system. As he planned out the project he immersed himself in the other departments, fully understanding their needs. The project was a roaring success. Optimizing any effort begins with understanding the perspective of all of the stakeholders.
Stretching themselves gives them the confidence to think and act bigger. To get ahead faster you need to stretch yourself on multiple fronts. I remember a project manager who asked to take over a troubled project where she could get 3-4 years of experience in 12-18 months. She was clearly light for the job but was successful. This type of stretching builds the confidence needed to take on even bigger tasks. Sometimes their managers put them in positions to get stretched.
They take nothing for granted. One of my clients was the CEO of a mid-sized bank long before he was 40 years old. He told me that as an immigrant going to college he took nothing for granted and had to prove himself every day as an undergrad, when he went into public accounting and when he joined the bank. Five years after I worked with him he was formally recognized as one of the top leaders in his industry and the state. It was no longer a mid-size bank by then.
One could argue these are not the correct traits. They'd be right.
I started out with a list of 20 and selected these as the ones that seem most common to the best people I've interviewed, placed and worked with over the past 40 years.
What I discovered is that it doesn't matter which six, eight or ten factors you select.
What matters is that you look for exceptional performance during the interview.
During the process you'll develop your own list of traits of top performers. What you'll also discover is that possessing these traits of success are not enough to ensure a great hire. For this you need to make sure the person also fits the culture, can work with the hiring manager and is both competent and highly motivated to do the work you want done. A great person in the wrong situation is a recipe for failure. And in the right situation just about anyone can become a great person.
I’m now working with a big industrial company to help them overhaul their internal mobility program. The company just started using our Performance-based Hiring Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard for external hires and now wants a version to identify current team members who have significant upside potential. Following is a quick description of what we recommended.
First, their current ranking system needed to be upgraded. Part of this was to provide more objective guidance based on a person’s track record of past performance in comparison to the person’s peer group as the benchmark. The company’s existing internal ranking scheme was too vague on all these fronts inviting bias and subjectivity. Following is how we clarified our generic Performance-based Hiring 1-5 ranking scale to address these issues. (Note: Job seekers can use this as a guide to help “prove” you’re a high-performing individual. Make sure you ask forced-choice questions to ensure you’re asked the right types of questions, though.)
Level 1: Basic competency only. Needs significant extra support, coaching and/or learning to meet minimum standards of performance.
Level 2: Adequate competency. Needs some extra support, coaching and/or learning to meet current standards of performance.
Level 2.5: Average performance among peer group. Needs normal or minimal support, coaching and/or development to meet current standards of performance.
Level 3.0: Top-third performance among peer group. Consistently and proactively gets whatever support, coaching, and/or training is needed to meet challenging standards of performance that exceed peer group performance.
Level 4.0: Top 10-20% performance among peer group. Consistently does more, better and/or faster in comparison to their peer group. Recognized within the department and/or company as one of the best. Considered the go-to person for the skill, trait or factor.
Level 5.0: Top 5-10% performance among peer group. Not only consistently far exceeds peer group performance but often achieves something unexpected. The person is recognized outside the department by company leadership as one of the best for the skill, trait or factor.
The key to this ranking system is that the assessment is based on the person’s past performance in doing the actual job and it’s made in comparison to their peer group doing comparable work. On top of this add consistency of performance into the evaluation. All three conditions need to be present to make an accurate assessment.
Given this ranking system, I then suggested that Zooming, Swimming, and Leadership were the best predictors of upside potential for both internal promotions and external hires. Here’s the quick descriptions and some ideas on how to assess these traits.
Zooming: Zoomers have the ability to dig deep into a problem to figure out the root cause and then zoom out to figure out the best solution among various alternatives. The best of the best Zoomers are multifunctional in perspective and consider the strategic and tactical consequences into their evaluations. I ask the job-related problem-solving question to determine a person’s Zooming ability. It takes a great Zoomer to rank a Level 4 or 5 on problem-solving.
Swimming: Promotable people have both the ability and desire to take on broader technical, team and project responsibility. Most often these are the people who have been thrown into situations that stretched them. Emerging, i.e. swimming, successfully builds confidence. I ask the most significant accomplishment question multiple times to determine how deep the person can swim. I discover that those who rank 4 or 5 haven’t stopped swimming yet.
Leadership: In my view those who demonstrate leadership have the ability to not only visualize a solution to a problem but also have a track record of implementing successful solutions. Many of these include assignments where they’ve been asked to swim in the deep end of the pool. This pattern is fully revealed in the Performance-based Interview and assessment process I’ve been advocating for the past 25 years.
A track record of consistent past performance has been shown to accurately predict future performance doing comparable work. When this same information is evaluated using an accurate assessment system and examined through the predictors of future potential, more insight is gained. That’s why I recommend hiring and promoting people who can zoom, swim and lead. You'll soon discover these are the people who continue to take on bigger roles and get promoted the most often.