Confessions of a Corporate Headhunter

Spring 2010 conference-logoAt the ERE Expo in San Diego, March 15-17, 2010, I’ll be describing what it takes to be a true corporate headhunter. This is a recruiter who can go head to head with his or her external rivals without compromising quality of hire or time to fill. To pull it off though, you’ll have to break some company rules and break from tradition. In the process you will probably aggravate your comp, compliance, legal, and I/O departments, at least at first. Hopefully, your recruiting manager will intercede and act as a buffer as you plow ahead making a positive contribution.

Before you know it, your hiring managers will be carrying you on their shoulders as you begin to consistently deliver far better candidates than your external rivals. Without unnecessary and contrived restraints you’ll also be finding more diverse candidates, passing every EEO and OFCCP audit and eliminating every wrongful hiring or discharge lawsuit. Within a year even the comp, I/O, and compliance departments will be singing your praise as you bring in more top performers without breaking the compensation budget. (The legal department might be a bit smaller though, since it will have less to do.)

Now to get started with my confession, which will soon become yours, you’ll need to get a sense of the hiring manager support you’ll soon be getting. As an example, here’s an email we just received from a former hiring manager client:

Many years ago Lou hosted an offsite manager event for Synaptics. A few months later I left Synaptics to found a startup with two good friends.It was a fantastic opportunity to take the Adler approach and apply it to a company on day one. I think Lou would be proud to know how much of an impact he has had on our organization four years later.

(Note: Synaptics is a major developer of touchpad technology, and the person’s new company is a well-known, rapidly growing social networking company.)

With this as a backdrop, here’s the short version of my confession, as to how I transformed from being a corporate recruiter into a more successful corporate headhunter. (Caution: go slowly as you try this out. This is only an overview. I’ll provide the longer version and more of the tactics at the 2010 Spring ERE Expo.):

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  1. I stopped using traditional job descriptions when taking an assignment from a hiring manager. Instead I now find out what the person needs to do to ace the performance review. These are the same performance objectives we provide to our new hires during the onboarding process, so it made sense to use the same approach when defining the new job. Also, by clarifying job objectives up- ront we get buy-in from the hiring manager, the interviewing team, and the candidates before the person is hired. This list of performance objectives is called a performance profile.
  2. I don’t allow candidates to decide if they’re interested in the job. Instead I determine if I’m interested in them. To pull this off, you need to be a bit vague about the job, move a bit slower, and get the candidate to describe his or her background first. If you determine the job represents a real career move, you can then reel the person in. If not, you can get some great referrals by asking the person about some of their LinkedIn connections.
  3. I dumped traditional behavioral event interviewing since it didn’t help me hire better people or more accurately assess the candidate’s ability to ace the performance review. To replace it, I now use two foolproof questions that enable me to defend my candidates from managers who are superficial interviewers, including those who still use behavioral event interviewing. One of the questions involves getting a very detailed example for each of the performance objectives listed on the performance profile. This generally takes 15-20 minutes each and we assign each interviewer a few to dig into. We then share this evidence in a formal debriefing session when evaluating the candidate. This process naturally eliminates the superficial thumbs-up or down voting process, by going narrow and deep rather than broad and shallow when conducting the interview.
  4. I don’t use KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) and competency models when screening candidates. Part of the problem here is hiring the supposedly “well-qualified” person who doesn’t want to do the work required, or doesn’t fit too well with the hiring manager, team or company culture. The other problem is eliminating great people with a slightly different mix of KSAs who are demonstrated top performers. Many of these are vets and diverse candidates who have non-traditional backgrounds, so this opens up a new pool of top performers for us. For an example of how this works, just consider all of your best employees who get promoted internally or transferred to bigger jobs. They all have less of the K and S, and more of the A, M (motivation to do the work listed on the performance profile) and T (ability to work with and influence comparable team members). During the phone screen I have the candidates describe their most significant accomplishment. I then look at what KSAs, behaviors, and competencies they used to accomplish these results. Surprisingly, some of the best people have far less experience than would have been expected given their performance. These are the high performers I present to my clients.
  5. I don’t sell candidates on the job; I have them sell me. During the screening and interviewing process, I look for career gaps and voids between the candidate’s major accomplishments and the performance objectives listed on the performance profile (e.g., scope, span of control, budget, impact). I then ask candidates to tell me about comparable accomplishments they’ve handled that required them to stretch themselves. You learn a great deal about a candidate this way, and in the process of convincing me that their qualified, they’re also convincing themselves that this job offers a real career move. This not only makes the compensation less important, but it also allows the candidate to convince his or her friends and family that your position offers the most upside potential among other competing opportunities.

So I confess. I broke the rules. I had to. The old rules don’t work, and third-party recruiters don’t follow them, so I was at a huge disadvantage. So if you want to be competitive, you’ll need to become a corporate headhunter instead of a corporate recruiter. But be prepared to break the rules, too. In the process you’ll help your great managers hire more great people, and your average managers hire people stronger than themselves. Even better, the candidates who you hire will be more satisfied, have less turnover, fit extremely well with your culture, work better with their teammates, be more impactful, more productive, and have a great working relationship with their supervisor.

Isn’t it time to start confessing?

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).


7 Comments on “Confessions of a Corporate Headhunter

  1. Lou, your approach is definitely effective. In order for your approach to be successful it requires that the corporate headhunter and hiring team take the time to come up with valid performance outcomes. This also requires that the recruiter have a deep understanding of how the roles support the performance of the business. You’ve also hidden one of the most important aspects of good recruiting in your post. That compensation becomes less of an issue when the recruiter artfully engages the candidate in self assessing/matching themselves to a better career fit.
    Marguerite Granat @MGRecruiter

  2. You raise some interesting points, especially the parts about how to handle candidates and the low-value of job descriptions. However, for the casual ERE reader, three of your personal revelations could use a little more clarity.

    Recommendation #1: In my experience most performance appraisal forms are one size fits all…They are not job-performance specific…So I can’t understand what’s better about defining a job based on a generic form instead of identifying on-the-job KSA’s?..In fact, you describe the same kind of rudimentary job analysis occasionally done by I/O’s when there are no incumbents to interview.. But who cares what people who actually do the job think, Eh?.

    Recommendation #3: I don’t know how you define a behavioral event interview, but probing the candidate’s performance and converting that information into job-related competencies sounds familiar. That is, if you ask a candidate about his or her past performance, use that information to infer competencies, and then predict future job performance, you have participated in a poor-man’s BEI. Sorry.

    Recommendation #4: This is slightly off base. People already in the job have already demonstrated sufficient KSA’s not to get fired. Of course, when an employee is good enough not to get fired, then attitudes, interests and motivations become much more important…In my experience, incompetent (i.e., wrong KSA’s) people get canned. I don’t understand why you thought KSA’s were important in recommendation #3, but summarily dismissed in recommendation #4?

    As to quality of hire, professional recruiters may measure their success by placements who survive the guarantee period, but the organizations I know measure success by overall turnover, training time, on the job performance, and time to productivity. I hate to break this to you, but when it comes to assessment, you are re-discovering what all those pesky I/O’s have been suggesting for some time.

    Finally, while it may be your normal way of doing business, it seems to me that your candidate base could be just a wee-bit too specialized to make sweeeping assumptions about all positions.

  3. Thanks, Lou. I believe that your points are valid and the underlying rationale is faulty.

    Great TPRs are worth every penny they charge, and shouldn’t be wasted on any folks that can be found off a board or a SNA, using a $2,000/mo sourcer, or that a Corporate Recruiter can hire under usual circumstances. IMHO, great TPRs should be paid LOTS of money for finding/developing purple squirrels and/or closing….

    Also, if I were in a situation where I’d have to prove my worth against TPRs, I’d be out looking to find a better place to work. IMHO, if we’re asked to prove our worth not against ourselves or our colleagues but against people who work in a different type of environment, it sounds like a somewhat dysfunctional environment. If I have to go around breaking rules to be effective at what I do, it sounds like a VERY dysfunctional environment.

    Best of Luck at EREcon!


  4. Lou- Excellent copy/content!

    “Instead I determine if I’m interested in them..” This is what distinguishes Good Recruiters from GREAT/TOP Recruiters.. (“Prove to me that I want to spend my time on your career development!”) My firm is definately “BUYING” (vs. Selling)

    Amazing it has taken this long for TPR to be recognized for there contributions to our industry… RE: “Corp Headhunter’s”…

    Best, Brian-

  5. While I can’t speak to the five point overview of the metholodology – I can say BRAVO and that the principle is excellent advice.

    As one of the few ATS vendors that serve both corporate employers and agency recruiters, SmartSearch has long been an advocate of building an executive search level function in the corporate environment.

    Our clients are primarily interested in proactive sourcing, relationship building & networking, and active recruiting — not waiting for candidates to hit their web site.

    I have thrown away corporate RFPs we’ve deemed “process oriented” rather than “results oriented” — and that result should be filling job openings fast, with the right people, even if you have to break a few rules to do it.

  6. Great article Lou, not sure how anyone would want to break the rules in recruiting though.

    @Sylvia Why would you ever risk your company’s liability by not following a validated recruiting process. Many of the recruiting processes are designed to ensure fair and balanced recruiting,

    Michael Brandt
    BrightMove Recruiting Software

  7. Lou we have implemented Performance Based Hiring across the City of Edmonton now. We follow the Methodology out lined in you article. As you already know our team of recruiters has be Adler Certified. The results have been amazing! Our quality of hire has increased and we have over 1000 hiring managers that have personally experienced the difference when following your methodology and would attest to the results achieved by following it. This was no easy change managagement project however again the results have been worth ever bit of effort we put into making this change accross the City of Edmonton.

    On the Head Hunter piece, I am personally hiring an internal Corporate Head Hunter to hire all Direct level and above positions and agee totally with your analogy of this topic. Hiring the leadership of our or any organization I believe is the most critical hiring you can do for that organization. I look forward to having this role present in my organization and the ROI it will generate in a short period of time from our Senior Management Team.
    Thanks for the great article Lou.

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