18 Things Recruiters Can Do To Hire More Innovative People

It is almost impossible to pick up a business magazine without reading about a chief executive officer demanding more innovation within the firm. If you have read The World is Flat, you know that the global marketplace is becoming fiercely more competitive.

The time it takes for a competitor to reverse engineer and copy a product shrinks every month and brand is weakening as a mechanism to maintain customer loyalty given the pricing pressure that such competitors can leverage.

Clearly, the key to future business success is developing processes that drive continuous innovation throughout every aspect of the company. I have written elsewhere about the important role HR can play with regards to increasing innovation, but it’s important to segment out the recruiting function, which can impact corporate innovation by reengineering candidate sourcing and assessment systems to support the hiring of more innovative individuals.

As a talent management or recruiting professional, take the following steps to increase your success rate in hiring innovative individuals:

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  1. Make hiring innovators a primary goal. Before you even begin the planning process, you must set as one of your primary goals and metrics in recruiting the increased hiring of more innovative individuals. Try to get a senior manager to be your champion in this effort.
  2. Realize the current system may be broken. Your current system probably restricts the hiring of innovators. Look at every phase of the hiring process to see where nontraditional, diverse, and/or innovative individuals are most likely to be screened out, overlooked, or discouraged. This process should include telephone interviews and surveys with individuals who appeared to have a high capability to innovate, yet they either dropped out or were screened out by failure to comply within system parameters. Typical barriers include applicant-tracking systems that cannot adequately process “creative” resumes and interview approaches that systematically reject individuals who act and think outside the box.
  3. Develop a hiring plan for innovators. Create a checklist of which problems and barriers are most critical, starting with the jobs where innovation has a clear dollar impact. In that plan, prioritize your jobs and business units to make sure that your limited resources and time are directed toward those jobs that, when filled with innovators, have the most business impact.
  4. Create your brand recognition. Don’t expect to have any success in hiring innovative people if you don’t make an effort to spread the word by writing and speaking about how your firm desires innovators and more important, provides them with opportunities to continually innovate and take risks. The employment branding function must develop a plan to spread stories and provide differentiated examples to potential candidates. Branding should start by developing an innovation “story inventory” (a list of stories about how individuals have been allowed to innovate) that can be used to increase your visibility in industry publications. The department must also identify what magazines and websites innovative people frequently read, and make a special attempt to get mentioned in those publications and sites. Employees should be encouraged to mention innovativeness in their blogs, in chat rooms, and on listservs. Finally, branding can develop a slogan that can be used both internally and externally to emphasize your focus on innovation.
  5. Encourage external hiring. If your organization is currently conservative and scores low on the risk-taking scale, you might find hiring external innovators a lot easier than transforming current risk-adverse employees. If you believe in the importance of the diversity of thinking, it’s a good idea to split your new hires so that some significant percentage of the individuals who fill vacancies come from outside the corporation. Some should be fresh out of school, while others should be industry leaders. Some should come from outside your specific industry and still others should come from outside your own country. Yes, it’s important to promote individuals internally, but if you want radical ideas and innovation, most of these individuals are likely to be found outside your corporation.
  6. Position descriptions. Unfortunately, most position descriptions don’t mention the need for innovation at all. If you expect to be successful, the desire for innovation must be part of every job description and assessing the need for innovation should be part of every job analysis.
  7. Postings. Innovation must be part of every job announcement, recruitment ad, and recruiting brochure. Incidentally, you can’t just use the word innovation, because everyone does that. Instead, clearly differentiate how your jobs allow individuals more freedom to innovate and take risks than other firms. Use your organization’s “culture of innovation” as an attraction tool to bring in the very best innovators in every job category. In addition, interview your own innovators to ask them what they read, what events they go to, and what organizations they join so that you can make sure your job postings appear in those venues.
  8. Referral focus. Nothing improves the recruiting of any targeted group better than specifically asking your employees to be on the lookout for referrals who have those skills or characteristics. Refocus your referral program so it is clear to every employee that you’re looking for innovators and that you expect them to identify them whenever they come across these individuals at events, online, or in their reading and benchmarking. If you do it right, expect the majority of your innovative candidates to come from these targeted employee referrals.
  9. Initial resume screening. The initial screening process for resumes is usually a primary barrier to innovation. Redesign your system so that it includes options for accepting out-of-the-box resume formats and content. It is a fact that some innovative people refuse to produce standard resumes. Innovative individuals frequently offer no resume or they may offer anything from poems, DVDs, or online portfolios. The key is to make sure that your process doesn’t outright reject innovative applications and that it instead captures and gives special treatment to these individuals. Periodically test the system with excellent out-of-the-box resumes to see what percentage are prematurely screened out.
  10. The interview. After resume screening, the interview is a second weak link in hiring innovators. The interview, and in fact the entire assessment process, must be redesigned so that it is tolerant and inclusive (i.e., expect some craziness) if you expect to get a single innovative person hired. The interview should include elements that specifically require/allow applicants to demonstrate out-of-the-box thinking. The process must not be so structured as to inhibit or even punish creative thinkers. Unfortunately, most current recruiting programs immediately screen out any individual who varies even slightly from the norm. Innovative employees should be specifically included in the hiring and screening teams in order to excite the candidates, as well as to accurately assess the most innovative candidates. Novel ideas that are captured during the interview process should also be forwarded to the appropriate internal sources.
  11. Simulations and creativity assessments. Whether an online prescreening tool or verbal scenario provided during the interview process, simulations are an effective tool that can excite as well as assess potential applicants. There are a variety of online assessment tools, innovation/creativity tests, and simulations available to capture candidates’ ideas.
  12. Contests. Because most interview formats do not assess the candidate’s ability to innovate, recruiting needs to consider contests as a supplement to help identify those that offer innovative ideas and approaches to the problems faced by the company. Companies like TopCoder have been used by firms like Microsoft and Google to identify relatively unknown programmers from around the world. Their “contest” format attracts a large number of applicants and serves as an effective screen device for identifying those with the most innovative approaches. While a contest will obviously provide you with some great candidates, it may also provide you with a good number of innovative solutions to your existing problems.
  13. Improve the candidate experience. Most hiring processes are just plain ugly when it comes to customer service and providing a great candidate experience. That weakness becomes critical when you’re attempting to hire innovative individuals because they are almost always in high demand. Being in high demand means that they have many options and as a result, they’re less tolerant of being treated poorly during any hiring process. In fact, many will judge the innovativeness of your screening process as an indication of your company’s actual state of innovation. As a result, if your screening process is dull or intolerant of risk takers, most will take it as a warning sign and will drop out. If you want to recruit great innovators, revise your recruiting process (and least for these particular individuals) so they are allowed to be themselves and are treated with the same level of respect that they get at their current employer. Give honest feedback to these high-demand innovators, and try to tailor your job opportunity to fit their unique interests and capabilities. If you treat them poorly, not only will they not take a job, but you can also expect them to spread the word that your company doesn’t “walk the talk.”
  14. The corporate website. Almost all candidates, innovative or not, will test the validity of what they have heard by visiting your corporate website. If the message they get there differs from what they’ve heard, you will lose them in an instant. As a result, it’s absolutely essential that your corporate job site contain some compelling “wow!” elements. Emphasize your corporation’s desire for hiring innovative individuals; perhaps profile how the corporation allows individuals to be different and innovate.
  15. Target “magnet” hires. An effective way of attracting innovators is having the recruiting team specifically identify and target well-known individuals who are known for their innovation. Many organizations use the hiring of industry or functional icons as a type of magnet to attract other innovators and to send a message, internally and externally, that innovation is critical in your corporation’s future and that if you are innovative, this is the place to be.
  16. Follow through with orientation. Unfortunately, even after they accept your offer, the need to reinforce your message is critical. As part of the orientation process, emphasize the importance of innovation in your organization, educate the new hire on how and where to report ideas, and share how innovation is rewarded.
  17. Follow up with retention. Even though recruiting doesn’t control retention, it is in their best interest to work with retention program managers to ensure that new hires don’t immediately exit out the back door. The key is to make sure that the promises made during the hiring are kept during the first six months. If they are not, recruiting must work to re-deploy these individuals to areas where they can thrive.
  18. Improve with metrics. No matter how well your system is designed, it’s critical that you track your success and failures in hiring innovative individuals. Use metrics to improve and quantify the dollar impact that your innovation hiring effort has had on the organization.

Final thoughts

Not everyone in recruiting thinks that they can have an impact on corporate innovation, but nothing can be further from the truth. With turnover rates increasing and most companies planning on both organic and non-organic growth, the opportunity to hire innovators is before us.

Incidentally, recruiters can make a major impact beyond research and development, product development, and marketing. The recurring function must also look for innovative individuals who manage processes, customer satisfaction, and company expansion to ensure that the entire umbrella of corporate functions are innovating at essentially equal rates.

If you believe that most recruiting departments are currently leading other corporate functions with regards to innovation, think again. But that’s a subject for another article.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on staging.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.



3 Comments on “18 Things Recruiters Can Do To Hire More Innovative People

  1. My Monday Morning ritual: cup of green tea – or two, crank-up the PC and read Dr. Sullivan’s and Master’s articles. Controversial? At times and I’m so grateful. In your face? Often! Sometimes heavy doses of external spice are needed to survive life in corporate cubicle Alcatraz.

    About three years ago I stumbled into a proverbial fountain of innovation, college interns. This generation of college students is the first to grow-up in the digital world with the Internet, wireless and animation approaching reality. The brightest of these kids are walking application building machines. They innately see digital solutions to complex problems that elude the rest of us.

    Are they smarter than previous generations? Not at all! Do they posses next generation tools sets for the global digital world. Absolutely!

    Here’s what I learned. Bring in a few of the best and brightest interns majoring in computer science, economics or marketing. Do not view them as apprentices. View than as elite consultants. Give them complex technical projects and just let em go. Come back in two months and get ready. You will witness staggering innovation in most cases.

    Valero’s award winning predictive workforce modeling, workforce supply chain and human capital metrics did not happen without the innovation of college interns. We have won four awards for innovation. I give 75% of the credit to our college interns. They rock!

    The future of innovation is here and now. It’s right over at your local university. And there’s a side benefit. Their energy, enthusiasm and unbridled possibilities are contagious. They make life in cubicle Alcatraz pretty exciting.


  2. Wonderful article.

    Remember, however, that many creative/innovative people tend to abrade other’s egos, step on toes, and generally don’t always mesh well with the corporate culture.

    Too full of ideas and drive, they just don’t SEE the structure, in too many cases (or don’t care).

    They need to be kept away from folks who view the process as more important than results, who are afraid of change, and, worst of all, from those who don’t LIKE subordinates who are ‘smarter’ or more creative than they are………. After all, they might become a threat to that manager down the road.

    Monday morning meanderings by a 3rd party recruiter, who has been doubly frustrated by this situation.


    Jon Williamson IT Manager, Webmaster, Candidate Recruiting

    Williamson Employment Services, Inc.
    213 Hilltop Rd.
    St. Joseph, MI 49085

    Are you LinkedIn? If so, send me a connection request!
    If not, visit my profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonwilliamson for information.

    My Main Phone: 269-353-4735
    Fax: 269-983-8955
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    Other IM contact information available on request

  3. Unfortunately Jon is correct. Many companies, large and small, want innovative – out of the box thinkers – yet when unleashed – they do everything to stifle or snuff them. I was once or twice brought into an organization as ‘new blood’ and brought a different perspective and questioning of ways, summarily my analysis was considered ‘negative’ and my creativity too disruptive and scary for the organization to adopt – hence the end of the relationship. In another organization, I was perfectly suited to the position and could feel the energy becoming a volcano – major growth and movement forward was starting to happen. The management did not like my style – style! That ended devastatingly. The company pretty much collapsed after I was gone.

    I am doing what any other super innovative, creative, out-of-the box intelligent person does:

    Start my own company.

    Rachel Schneider

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