At LinkedIn’s Talent Connect in San Francisco and London, I went out on a limb and suggested that companies put a ceiling on the quality of the people they hire. To prove it, I asked the audience of over 1,200 people to raise their hands if they or their hiring managers do any of the following:

  • Hire in their own image, aka “mini-me’s”
  • Put a “must have” requirement on the level of skills and experience required to do the job
  • Use salary ranges that eliminate outliers
  • Enforce the hiring of people who “fit the culture”
  • Focus on efficiency and cost reductions rather than improving quality of hire

Everyone’s hands were raised.

I then asked, “what if …..”

  • the best people only want to work for managers in their own image?
  • the strongest people have fewer skills and less experience, but can still do the work and far exceed expectations?
  • the best people sometimes earn more than your salary range?
  • the best people have a different style that can improve your culture?
  • a slight increase in cost per hire resulted in a major increase in quality of hire?
  • diversity candidates have a different set of skills, experiences, competencies and academic backgrounds than those listed on your job descriptions?

I then asked, “If most of these conditions were true, wouldn’t your existing hiring approaches eliminate all of these best people before they were even considered? If so, doesn’t it mean that you’ve put a ceiling on the quality of people you’re hiring?”

How to overcome the talent ceiling limit

Your answer to this question is likely the same as those who were at Talent Connect.

I didn’t have enough time at the event to give a complete solution for what it takes to break the talent ceiling, but I suggested that rethinking your company’s talent acquisition strategy might be a good place to start.

Consider these four words:


All hiring problems start with them. Here is why:

Step 1 in the hiring process is writing job descriptions that consist mostly of what people need to HAVE. This starts the filtering process, since most of the best people don’t meet the artificial and subjective requirements. Worse, even those who do are unlikely to apply since they’re not interested in what appears to be a lateral transfer.

Step 2 continues the filtering process with both the company and the candidate needing to agree to move forward based on what the candidate GETS on the start date: a job title, a location, a company and a compensation range. What’s odd is that this is comparable to negotiating a contract before either party knows what’s being bought or sold. Surprisingly,  while candidates demand more money before they know the job, they’re less concerned if it represents a significant career move. Unfortunately, most never get to this point.

Step 3 and Step 4 consist of the actual work itself – the DOING – and the upside opportunity – the BECOMING – if the work is done well. Collectively, this includes the quality of the hiring manager and the team, the company’s prospects and culture, and the impact and importance of the job.

The problem with the left to right order of the traditional hiring process is that the best people never get considered on the stuff that matters – their ability and motivation to DO the work. The best people are equally culpable when they ignore possible career moves by overvaluing stuff that doesn’t matter in the long term: what they GET on the start date.

With these four words on the screen I suggested that the key to breaking the talent limit ceiling is simply to reverse the process. Rather than emphasize what a person needs to have and what he/she will get, focus first on what the person needs to do and could become.

Every recruiter could try this out on their next search assignment, but it requires two big steps. The first one: ask your hiring managers what the person must do or accomplish in the role to be considered an outstanding success. As part of this, ask the hiring manager if he or she would see an outstanding candidate who has a track record of comparable results even if the person has a different mix of skills and experiences than those listed on the job description. Have them read this if they say no.

The second big step is to not allow your candidates to succumb to Day 1 thinking. When they ask about the compensation or any short-term concerns (which they always will), suggest none of it matters if the job doesn’t represent a career move. You’ll need to get proficient at dealing with these issues, but this is the essence of good recruiting.

So, the one thing you must do to break the talent limit ceiling at your company is to work backwards. There are two small steps involved, but they represent a path to big results for you, your candidates, your hiring managers and your company.