Hardball Recruiting: Getting Back to Basics

Now that recruiters have to recruit again, it’s worthwhile dusting off the old recruiter training manual and getting back to basics. To maximize their effectiveness, recruiters must understand and follow the unwritten golden rule of headhunting ó a.k.a. “hardball recruiting” ó revealed in today’s article. (Before you read the following, you must agree not to reveal this secret outside of the profession. Formerly, it was part of the secret initiation ceremony for third-party recruiters, but somehow during the mid-’90s it was revealed to our corporate recruiting brethren. Hopefully it will never be revealed to a candidate or client.) The Golden Rule of Recruiting: Candidate and Client Control Candidate and client control is critical to recruiter success. If you want to find and hire top people for discriminating managers, you must have control of the situation. This is a big step above influence, which is not unimportant. Control means that you must be able to convince great candidates to consider your opportunities and accept a fair offer 90% of the time. Control means you must be able to convince dominant managers to move the process forward (meet, interview again, hire), even if they have some doubts about a candidate. Control takes courage, skill and persuasiveness. You can get some courage if you read my article The Hidden Secret to Better Recruiting. You can get some skill if you read my article Using the One-Question Interview to Recruit Top People, Assess Potential, and More. In this article, you’ll learn a little about what it takes to be controlling. For one thing, don’t take “no” for an answer. For another, make sure you phrase your questions so that “no” is not a possible answer. (That last sentence is worth reading again.) Here’s how to start the control process with candidates. When you first talk with a pre-qualified top person whom you have never spoken to before, say this exactly as written.

Hi, my name is _______. I’m a recruiter with ________. Your name came up the other day as someone I should contact regarding a senior-level position in _________. Let me ask openly, would you be interested in exploring a situation that’s clearly superior to what you’re doing today?

Ninety percent or more of the people you ask will say yes. Now, stop and take a deep breath. You are in control. Don’t lose it by telling the person anything about the job or where it’s located. Did you notice that the title of the job is not in your opening question, just a vague description? Your goal at this moment in time is two-fold: first, to determine if the person is qualified and interested, and, second, if not, whether the person knows someone who is. If you have pre-qualified the candidate properly before calling (see my article The Best Way to Find Top People Is Still Networking), you already know this is a good person or someone who knows good people. However, they will never tell you anything about people they know until they trust you. You gain this trust by asking them questions about their background, not by telling them about the job. I call this process “engage first, network second.” Here’s how it works. After the person says yes, state the following exactly as written: “Great. Let me ask you a few questions about your background. It will only take a few minutes. I’ll then give you an equally quick overview of the position. If we’re mutually interested in going further, we can schedule a time to discuss this opportunity in more depth.” Then conduct a quick background screen. If the candidate is qualified, you’ll need to present the job and set up a time for an interview. If the person is not qualified for one reason or other, you’ll then need to network with the person. When working with candidates, the promise of a great career opportunity puts you in a dominant or controlling position. Don’t lose this by describing the job until you know the candidate’s background. This allows you to control events. If the candidate determines that the job is not worthwhile too soon in the discovery phase, you lose on two fronts ó the chance at a great future candidate and the chance to do some great networking. Client Control Obtaining client control is equally important, but it’s not as easy. It starts when you take the assignment. We’ll use the classic hiring manager complaint ó “I don’t have any time!” ó as an example of how to take control. This is a common hiring manager comment. There are a few basic reasons why it comes up so often. Sometimes hiring managers have something else to do that they really believe is more important. Sometimes they believe the recruiter should know the job requirements without asking for clarification. Sometimes they don’t believe that the recruiter adds any value. Whatever the reason, to obtain client control it’s up to you the recruiter to change the hiring manager’s perception of the recruiter’s true role. The following are a few ideas on how to break this logjam and get the 30 minutes you need to prepare complete performance profiles. When a manager says they don’t have time, ignore them and just ask one or more of the following questions. You can even leave this on voicemail. People always answer questions. Again, always make sure “no” is not one of the possible answers.

  • What are the two or three things the person in this job needs to do to be considered successful?
  • What do the best people on your team do differently than everyone else?
  • What’s the single most important thing the person must do to be considered successful in your eyes? This is the deal breaker ó the one thing about the person you won’t compromise on.
  • Could you please put the job description in priority order? This will help me sort the best candidates we’re seeing from all of the rest.

If you want to rebut the manager’s lack of time response directly, you can try one of these replies:

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  • I can understand why you wouldn’t want to waste your time, but I’m more interested in saving it.
  • A few minutes up front can save you time in two big ways. First, you won’t have to see any unqualified candidates. By me knowing more about the job, I’ll be able to screen out people you won’t need to see. You won’t even need to see their resumes. This will save you at least four to five hours over the course of this assignment. Second, do you know the biggest time waster of all time? [Pause.] It’s hiring people who are competent but not motivated to do the work. How much time do you spend pushing your below-average people just to be average? If I can prevent you from hiring this type of person, you’ll save much more than the 20 minutes I need to better understand what drives on-the-job success.

And if you’re really bold, try this one:

  • Are you aware that you’re about to make a long-term decision using short-term information? Hiring a talented person can have a huge long-term impact on your personal success and on the company’s. I’m not interested in finding and presenting average candidates to you. That’s why I need 20 minutes of your time to better understand the difference between average employees and top performers. While you might not have enough time at this moment, the cost of not spending it now will make matters even worse in the future if you hire someone you shouldn’t.

Recruiting is not about pushing average or above average candidates through the hiring process. On the candidate side, recruiting is about convincing a top person with multiple opportunities to consider your opportunity and accept a reasonable offer if one is presented. On the client side, recruiting is about convincing a discriminating manager that the candidates you’re representing are fully qualified and better than anyone else available, even if they don’t meet all of the specs. Control is needed to take an imperfect and imprecise process and create a perfect match. On my opening day on my first real job as an engineer (working as a systems engineer on the Minuteman missile program), my new boss gave me an unusual assignment. He sat me in his office and said he was going to summarize everything I needed to know on this complex job in just two principles. The first one was “E=MC2.” I already knew this, so I thought I had this job aced. The second one, though, set me back a bit. He said the second principle of engineering success was, “You can’t push on a rope.” He then asked me to come back that afternoon and tell him what these two principles meant. I didn’t do too well. It took me about five years to really figure out what he meant. What do you think he meant? Of course, it’s related to the real theme of this article. Email me your comments and thoughts (lou@adlerconcepts.com). The most insightful responses will win two free passes to any one of our public recruiting workshops. Don’t take no for an answer.

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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