A Tale of Two Searches

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

This past quarter, I conducted two senior-level management searches. Each one stands out as a shining example of what to do and what not to do. Understanding the differences can double your monthly placement rate in about half the time. Before reading the details, you should benchmark your own recruiting skills using this 10-Factor Recruiter diagnostic assessment to get a sense of what it takes to be a great recruiter.

Here’s a quick summary of what happened. One of the searches was for a director-level technical position for an industrial products company. This is the one I didn’t conduct too well. I had to present seven candidates, and the client would only see four of them. My normally accurate assessments were suspect, and I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in representing either the job to the candidates or the candidates to the client. Making matters worse, it was a long and difficult close with compensation being the primary discussion point. We got very few referrals on the search, and it took about 90 days from beginning to end.

The other search was a slam dunk. It was for a director-level project manager position for an alternative energy company. In this case, three candidates were presented, all were seen, all were considered strong, and the company hired one within 45 days. Our assessments were dead-on across all job factors. Making matters better, we had two strong backups in addition to the three candidates, and both were referrals. While the compensation issues were not insignificant, the short- and long-term career opportunity overwhelmed the other two jobs the final candidate was considering.

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There are some valuable lessons to be learned here. There are a number of factors worth considering that resulted in a 200% increase in productivity (half the number of candidates in half the time). Here are the ones that made the difference:

  • Understanding Real Job Needs. Although I prepared a performance profile for the technical job, it was a battle with the hiring manager (vice president level) all the way. He was insistent on a certain level of skills, experience, and industry background, and it was difficult to get him to change his point of view. The vice president of operations leading the project manager search was a different breed entirely. He quickly accepted the idea of emphasizing critical results and performance objectives as superior selection criteria rather than qualifications. Part of this was that he wanted to hire the best person doing comparable work, and he knew he would be able to find some all-stars outside of the emerging alternative energy industry.
  • Becoming a Partner with the Hiring Manager on the Search. I was pushed onto the vice president for the technical job by the vice president of human resources. While a very competent person, he was old-school and he found using Performance-based Hiring to be inconsistent with his old-line management style. Although we got along, it was more obligatory than sincere. The vice president of operations for the alternative energy company sought me out through referrals and wanted to use new techniques to find top performers. We hit it off right away. This alone helped communications and understanding. After preparing the performance profile, he knew I understood the job, and trust and openness instantly jumped up a notch.
  • Understanding the Market. I did my homework for the alternative energy company. Within a few days, I knew the players, the competition, how the industry was financed, and the short- and long-term market opportunities. On the other hand, the comparable market evaluation I prepared for the technical industrial products job was superficial at best, reflecting a minimal understanding of the industry jargon. Knowing the industry from a macro standpoint really helps when sourcing and assessing candidates, presenting the opportunity, and getting referrals. When you don’t know what you’re talking about, recruiters come across as a desperate car sales representative rather than an objective career consultant.
  • Conducting a Performance-Based Assessment. As you know, I advocate the idea of digging deep into a candidate’s accomplishments (performance-based interviewing) and comparing these to the performance objectives described in the performance profile. The purpose of this is multi-fold. First, to assess competency and motivation. Second, to identify gaps in the candidate’s background that can be presented as stretch opportunities if an offer is ultimately made. If you don’t know the job, you have nothing to benchmark the candidate against. This compromises the assessment and precludes the idea of recruiting on anything other than hot air and promises. Not only do you have little confidence when presenting your candidates to your client, you’re also pretty inept when negotiating an offer. All you have then is compensation as a bargaining chip. So, even though I conducted the same interview for all of the candidates for both searches, I had far less insight and even less credibility with those candidates for the job I didn’t understand as well.
  • Sourcing Active Candidates. As long as they can be easily found and are well-written, ads can attract the attention of top people who look on a casual and infrequent basis. With a little research, we found some great niche sites to post a compelling project manager ad. The title was something like “A Billion is a Lot of Green Project Manager Dollars.” It worked. We found a few strong candidates plus garnered a few quality referrals. While the technical director ad was interesting, we had less information and less desire to get creative. The results were satisfactory, but not stellar.
  • Sourcing Passive Candidates. Don’t pick up the phone and call a single passive candidate if you don’t understand real job needs as well as have a great understanding of the market. For one thing, without a great voice-mail message packed with insight and some salient facts, few people will return your call. Even those hungry enough to call you back will quickly recognize your lack of knowledge and confidence. While I didn’t actually do the cold calling, our sourcers spent about one-third the time getting the first group of 20 prospects for the project manager search. Within a few days, we had candidates we could present. FYI: We found all but one of the initial prospects on ZoomInfo and LinkedIn.
  • Networking and Generating Referrals. If you been to one of our training sessions, you know we spend a great deal of time teaching recruiters how to get great referrals from everyone. While there is much technique involved, if you don’t know the job and market, you come across as both insincere and superficial. It’s difficult to get strong referrals if you can’t build relationships, and it’s more difficult to build relationships if the person called doesn’t trust you. We expect to get 2-3 referrals on every cold call to a passive candidate. For the project manager, we came close to hitting these numbers; for the technical director spot, we were less than half the goal.
  • Negotiating the Offer. If you want to place a top person who has multiple opportunities, you’ll need to position your job as offering at least a 30% increase over everything else the candidate is considering. Your objective is to make this 30% a combination of growth, job stretch, benefits, quality of life, and compensation. You’ll be able to prepare much of this comparison by conducting the performance-based interview mentioned earlier, looking for gaps in the candidate’s background. By asking lots of insightful questions, you’ll be able to demonstrate how your job compares to the competition. However, to successfully pull this off you need to know the job, the market, the competition, and the leadership traits of the hiring manager, and have equal in-depth insight into the candidates’ abilities and desires. We did a great job in closing the project director position. The candidate had multiple opportunities, but ours was far superior when compared both tactically and strategically with the others. The technical director comparison was harder to put together and less effective.

On a side-by-side comparison, it required at least twice the effort required to find candidates and negotiate the offer for the director of technology spot as it did for the project director position. While the sourcing, interviewing, and recruiting techniques we used were identical, we lost most of the time due to a lack of understanding of real job needs and the weaker relationship I had with the hiring manager. At a minimum, this required us to source, recruit, interview, and present more candidates. And, even though I believe I’m a very good interviewer, I felt less sure about my assessment of the technology candidates. Collectively, much of what we did for the director of technology job was a waste of time, and eventually it became just a numbers game. Taking the assignment properly and developing a strong recruiter/hiring manager partnership upfront are the real keys to improving your productivity. No matter what else you do to become a better recruiter, don’t ever lose sight of this fact.

“…It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).

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2 Comments on “A Tale of Two Searches

  1. Awesome article. I want to double my placements, and will take this info to heart. I have faced some very similar challenges with uncooperative managers or searches outside of my expertise. Not a good use of my time. Great lesson here.

    APeters

  2. I guess the first thing I thought when I read the case that failed, was did you give the client too many choices? If you already knew he was difficult during the requirement gathering step, my guess he would be the same, given many candidate choices. I would think maybe if you’d just given him 1 or 2 choices first and let him shoot them down, he may have given you better clues as to what he was really wanting. No right answer here, just a thought.

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