Hardball Recruiting, Part 3: Influencing Hiring Managers

This is the third in a four-part series on hardball recruiting. The topic of next week’s final installment will be how to negotiate and close offers. If you’re dealing with mid-level staff or more experienced positions, you’ll need to become an expert at hardball recruiting. Employer branding is less effective in attracting these strong, more seasoned candidates. For this type of candidate, the actual job, the hiring manager, and the recruiter are the keys to getting a top person hired. For these more important jobs, you can’t afford to do searches over again. After you’ve presented three or four solid, maybe even superior, candidates, the worst thing a manager can say is, “Do you have any more candidates?” Preventing this is one of the reasons why you must be able to influence hiring managers at every step in the hiring process. As long as you’ve prepared a performance profile, your best opportunity to influence hiring managers is during the first round of interviews. This is when the decision is made to move forward with one or two candidates, or look for more. Here are some ideas on how to prevent the dreaded request for more candidates:

  1. Be involved. If you’re not in the meeting when the decision is made to move forward, you have no chance of affecting the hiring decision. You will not normally be invited to this meeting, so invite yourself. You might even volunteer to lead the debriefing session. During these sessions, you’ll need to be the person who makes sure that every other person voting on a candidate has conducted a thorough interview. This is pretty easy to figure out. Superficial comments and generalities means the interview was incomplete. Lots of specific details with examples means the interview was effective. Comments like “a good fit,” “smart” and “a real go-getter” are too soft. So are their opposites: “slow,” “too quiet” and “doesn’t have it.” However, comments like the following indicate the interviewer dug deep: “led a team of six developers on the successful launch of the Panther software product in 2003,” or “made quota in all but one quarter in the past seven periods and was rookie of the year in 2001.” Challenge other interviewers if they are using soft information to make these hard decisions.
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  3. Be a solid interviewer. To gain respect, you need to know both the job and how to interview well. This way, hiring managers will trust your judgment. In fact, if you’re really good they’ll even invite you to the debriefing sessions. Here’s my favorite suggestion for interviewing: get detailed examples of the candidate’s biggest accomplishments. Spend 10 minutes or so on each one. This will give you the information you need to write up your assessment and lead the debriefing session. (See my one-question interview article and download my performance evaluation kit if you’d like more on this.) It’s especially helpful when you know more about the candidate’s accomplishments than the other interviewers. Then you can calmly refute any incorrect comments which come up during the debriefing session.
  4. Remember that no one is perfect. You’ll never find a perfect candidate. So you need to make sure that hiring managers don’t use the traditional job description to assess competency. The performance profile describes the deliverables the person must accomplish. This way the assessment decision is made on a candidate’s ability and motivation to meet these objectives, not skills, experience, or academics. This is easy to do if you use the interview to focus on the candidate’s past accomplishments. Then use the assessment to compare these to the job requirements.
  5. Balance is the key. We suggest using a multi-factor approach when evaluating candidates. The performance evaluation kit includes a template you can use to accomplish this. This ensures that the candidate is assessed across all job needs, not just one or two, and prevents the common problem of managers who globalize strengths or weaknesses. For example, too often a candidate without exactly the right experience or with the “wrong” education is immediately discarded, or one who is smart and assertive is assumed to be universally competent. When you debrief the interviewing team, don’t start by describing weaknesses. Many people will jump on the bandwagon and kill an otherwise competent candidate by magnifying weaknesses out of proportion. Start by describing strengths; then weaknesses can be discussed in a balanced and fair way.
  6. Prepare a decision matrix. List key job needs and performance objectives in a column on the left side of a table. Some of these might include technical competency, size of the team to be managed, and key job deliverables (e.g., complete project X by June). Then prepare a separate column for each candidate, and rank each candidate on an ABC scale for each factor. This way, you’ll be able to quickly compare all candidates across all the important job needs. Using a decision matrix like this is a good way for a recruiter to facilitate the group debriefing session. Of course, demand an example to justify every ranking.
  7. Stay involved. You can’t influence anybody if you’re not available and present at the key decision points in the hiring process. If you want more influence with your hiring manager clients, you need to proactively stay involved every step of the way. It does take more work on your part, but overall it will be more satisfying. It’s much better than finding more candidates for searches that by all rights have already been completed.

Whenever I present this concept, many corporate recruiters come back with the common retort, “I don’t have enough time.” Rather than answer this directly, I’ll use an analogy. Some of you will find this insightful, others won’t have enough time, or won’t buy it. The analogy: rank your own performance just as you should rank your candidate’s. You might even want to use my 1-5 scale, described in abbreviated fashion below: How To Rank Candidate Performance When Submitting Them for Consideration Level 1: Incompetent. Ineffective, no evidence of working with teams to achieve success. The sports analogy: Doesn’t make the first cut. (Note: Do not submit these candidates!) Level 2: Competent, but not motivated. Need extra coaching, supervision, and pushing to achieve average performance. These people make excuses about why they can’t do the work. They show very little self-improvement. They don’t naturally cooperate with others. They defend the status quo, because changing requires additional effort. Sports analogy: Makes the team, but never plays. (Note: This is the most common of all hiring mistakes. It’s due to measuring presentation rather than performance, and is what this article is intended to prevent.) Level 3: Competent and motivated to do the work. Will meet all job expectations. These people fully cooperate with others, show consistent evidence of self-improvement, and take on extra work to improve personal and department performance. Sports analogy: Makes the team, a role player, sometimes starts. (Note: This person should be hired unless a far stronger person is available.) Level 4: Far exceeds expectations in most areas. Does more, does it faster, does it better. Goes out of his or her way to help others. Strong work ethic to improve personal performance and takes on added responsibility to insure team success. Sports analogy: Always starts, sometimes an all-star. (Note: You need one or two on every team.) Level 5: Outstanding performance in all areas. This person excels in all aspects of the job, including motivating and inspiring peers, subordinates, and superiors. Pushes change. Relentless even in the face of major obstacles. A positive and winning attitude. Sports analogy: Always an all-star, sometimes an MVP. (Note: Every strategic game-breaker position should have a Level 5 employee. There are usually at least two or three required in every business unit.) How would you rank your personal performance on this 1-5 scale? Recruiters must lead the hiring process, not react to it. This is the key to increasing your influence with hiring managers and clients alike. Lead the effort by taking the assignment. Then lead the effort again by conducting a thorough and professional interview. Finally, lead the effort by volunteering to facilitate the debriefing session. Leading is how you move from Level 3 to Level 4. Soon you’ll be invited in before the requisition is even approved to help determine the real job. That’s the day you’re recognized as a valued asset to your company. It’s a great day.

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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