3 Things You Need to Do to Close the Prize Hire (Confessions of a Recovering Headhunter)

bust of Socrates

I’ve always thought corporate recruiters could learn a lot from “headhunters” — not because I’m biased due to years spent in third-party recruitment (both as a recruiter and manager). It’s just that when I came to the “other side” I noticed one glaring weakness.

Corporate recruiters are very “process driven” and not very good, well, “hunters”; at least that tends to be the case for corporate recruiters newer to the profession. They get the procedures down quickly but they just haven’t been exposed to the world of recruiting and closing higher-level talent. More senior corporate recruiters, on average, have been exposed to both sides and may already use some of the principles I’ll discuss.

A few quick facts about recruiting top talent in the U.S. Currently in the U.S. unemployment is hovering around 8%, yet, more than 52% of employers (according to the Wall Street Journal) say they cannot fill their positions. How can this be? How can we have, in this economy, a jobs gap of nearly 4 million?

We have a lack of talented folks out there. In the U.S., we graduate nearly five times as many liberal arts majors as we do engineers. What this means for you (Mr. or Mrs. Corporate Recruiter) is that top talent is hard to find, and it’s only going to get harder. Before the “great recession” one of the greatest worries in recruitment was the “coming shortage of a skilled workforce” due to retirements of baby boomers. With Wall Street and 401(k)s rebounding, it’s no surprise to see that, in this market, a machinist can essentially “write their ticket.” Stop for a moment, read that again and let it sink in. Wow.

What this means for you, the corporate recruiter, is that Jane Engineer is in demand and knows it. Yes, unemployment is high, but for a Petroleum Engineer? It’s less than one half of one percent; wow. Your organization is depending on you to find these skilled folks and to close the deal on an offer. This is where “thinking like a headhunter” will help you. Headhunters only know recruiting the skilled, the sought after. If they didn’t, no one would pay their outrageous fees. While we can’t go over every trick and tool to snag top talent, here are three simple things you can do in your next interview to land the “prize hire”:

Ask Open-ended Questions

There are two types of questions (as anyone in sales can vouch): open- and closed-ended. Closed-ended questions are “yes/no” questions like, do you have a dollar to spare? Open-ended questions are of the philosophic variety (call me the recruiting Socrates!) and have no definite answer.

The reason this is so important to landing the “prize candidate” is the same reason it’s important in sales: open-ended questions get people talking. Ask questions that are pointed, but open, like: “If there were a handful of things you could change about your current position, what would they be”?

You can’t be afraid to ask that. As they indulge you, take notes, as these are what I call “doctor questions.”

Just like a doctor asks you “where it hurts,” you want to find the pain and write it down. The pain is what you will use to close the deal.

Side note: open-ended questions are great tools in general. Not just in landing a “prize candidate” but in increasing the quality of your talent pool and avoiding mistakes. They essentially give bad candidates “enough rope to hang themselves,” which is good for you.

The Most Important Words in Recruiting Are…

A mentor (and a boss) of mine, years back, found me on a day when I was unusually ornery. He wanted to know why I was feeling so melancholy. When I told him I had had yet another in-demand candidate back out of a job on me, he gave me invaluable advice in this simple phrase: “the most important words in recruiting are: If, Then, is that Correct”.

I can’t tell you how much those words have helped me. In the short term, I stopped feeling like a victim but in the long term they meant much more.

Article Continues Below

Likewise, I hope they will for you too. The reason these words are so powerful is because it not only “closes” the candidate but it finds any objections they may have while you still have a chance to overcome them.

As you ask your open-ended, “pain” questions and find the pain along the way, you should try minor closes: “so it sounds like, Mr. Candidate, if you had a job with XYX then you’d make a change, is that correct?”

Those small yes’s will lead to the big one at the end when you finally ask for the offer. Just remember to use those magic words: “If, then, is that correct.”

Let Me Paint You a Picture

Finally, you’ve done it. You closed the “prize hire.” They’ve accepted. Well done. Your work is still not done, since 1 in 4 employees making over $60,000 accepts a counteroffer. Know the math — don’t fool yourself. Before I end an interview I always address the issue of a counteroffer; again it goes back to those “pain questions,” which are like ammunition.

This isn’t exact, but my conversation to a candidate is kind of like: “Mr. CFO tomorrow, you’re going to go into work and tell your boss you’re quitting, so let me paint you a picture of what it’s going to look like. All of the sudden all will be well, the XYZ issues you told me about will be solved, and your boss will probably offer you a raise. When he does, I hope you ask yourself, ‘why didn’t he or she offer me this before? When this happens, what do you intend to do?’”

It’s not a comfortable conversation, but I’d rather put the very real scenario that they probably haven’t thought about in their head before they get there. When they do, I don’t want surprises.

No recruiting process will ever be perfect, and there are tools that both corporate and third-party recruiters could learn from each other. However, a lot of the corporate recruiters I’ve managed tend to treat interviews like interrogations. They focus on questions directing a candidate to proving themselves, such as “why did you leave your last job” or “why should we consider you?” They’ll mention some selling points about the company, but the real psychology of a sale lies in asking questions and listening, and then using that information to close your target.

If you’re a corporate recruiter and take anything away from this article, I hope it’s that in order to get the “prize hire” you need to sell them (and close them) as much as they need to sell you. If you take nothing else away, you’ll be a better recruiter for it. Best of luck.

Adem Tahiri is a senior HR and recruiting consultant, writer, and investor. While he currently serves clients with corporate recruitment expertise, he also has experience as a director of recruiting, staffing manager, and recruiter for third-party recruitment firms. In addition to writing about recruitment strategies, he writes for various investment publications, providing analysis on employment trends and how they impact the financial markets.

Follow him on twitter @adem_tahiri


8 Comments on “3 Things You Need to Do to Close the Prize Hire (Confessions of a Recovering Headhunter)

  1. I have never considered third party search fees outrageous-it’s a lot of risk and work to make a real search fly.

    Do you have any idea of the skills/experience required to be a good machinist, or the damage a bad one can do?

    Every recruiting effort has some balance of people coming in and recruiters reaching out: it changes with every market, role, and roll of the dice.

    Generally I could not agree more that corporate Recruiting has to be seen as a sales role more often than it currently is- our business has been built on that undeniable fact.

    The pre-couunter offer inoculation does not work nearly as well as it used to- people are more savvy than ever about stroking outside recruiters along as leverage to improve their current setup. Its unethical, but it happens.

    Gotta make sure YOUR not the being sold !

  2. Thanks, Adam. A good overview.

    A couple points:
    1) Many corporate/contract recruiters aren’t paid to get quality butts in chairs on time and within budget, they’re paid to follow dysfunctional recruiting/processes created without our input and consent, much of which clearly take away from the value we can provide.(One place I worked for had us spending 20% of our time documenting what we did the other 80%.) If a hiring manager’s deliverables included getting quality people hired on-time, within budget, every time, no excuses (like their product or service deliverables), there would be considerable improvement.

    2) If a company can’t find people who have the skills you need for the price you’re willing to pay: pay more, hire the people you can afford and train them (or your existing employee) to do what you need them to do, and stop WHINING! To hire the best, you’ve got to pay (or be) the best. Who ever said YOU and your company were special, or that you can have everything you want?


    Keith keithsrj@sbcglobal.net

  3. These are great tips! The tip about asking open-ended questions is especially helpful. Whether you’re talking to a great candidate in person or through online video, these questions are great ways to get people talking and get your prize candidate to admit they might not be as happy in their current work situation as they thought. As you mentioned, open-ended questions are also great for any kind of interview, as they allow bad candidates to ramble and good candidates to show value.

  4. Good reminder for us all. Substance over Process. Some say we are a vanishing breed, headhunters, executive recruiters or Executive Search. To all of you who move the best to the best, we salute you. FYI: along these same pathways of thought, one of best Closures just passed and he will be missed. Buy Zig:
    You are the experts of a dying art. OR maybe the genius for the new age.

  5. @ Daniel: As a contract recruiter who came out of contingency (Note: “came out” of contingency, I don’t do it anymore), I have great respect for what they do, and do not believe you are a dying breed. Furthermore, I think that when you provide a needed high-value add service that can’t be effectively performed by less-skilled individuals you should make 30% fees- it’s well worth it. As I said before, you shouldn’t look for quality on the cheap.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *