How to Activate the Best Passive Candidates in the Federation

Whenever I need an idea for an article I call Doug Berg, the CEO and/or founder, or something like that, at Jobs2Web. So to meet this week’s need, Doug suggested I write about my reticular activator. I thought this was a bit personal, and while initially offended, it turned out to be great advice. I think you will, too.

Many of you know I’m into whole brain interviewing, so focusing on the reticular activator makes lots of sense as a sub-specialty. Whole brain interviewing is based on the idea of controlling your emotional brain to remain objective and using the two-question performance-based interviewing process to map a candidate’s left and right brain responses. This isn’t as exotic as it sounds. In normal-speak it means asking candidates about their major accomplishments to see how they compare to real job needs. (Email me for more on this.)

The reticular activator is the part of the brain the separates the boring do-to-day stuff from the potentially important and critical stuff. For example, if you ask a candidate if she’d like to hear about a cost-accounting job in Topeka, you probably won’t get as favorable a response as if you ask the person if she’d would like to be considered for the last open cadet position at the Star Fleet Academy’s next class.

The point of all of this is that too many recruiters are boring when they leave voice mail messages for passive candidates. To get a top person to call you back, you can’t be boring. You need to tap into the person’s reticular activator to get them to call you back.

Back in the 90s I spent a year teaching a group of hotshot researchers how to get 100% of their voice mails returned. We got close to 85%, so this was a pretty good record. Here are some of the ideas we actually tried out. Some of them didn’t work at all; some of the them worked some of time; some worked all of the time. Modify the ones below to suit your needs and try them out. Track your results until you get to 80% or more. Don’t be surprised when people start calling you back, saying you’ve aroused their interest.

Some Great and Not-So-Great Reticular Activating Voice Mails

  1. Your mother called and told me she wanted you to consider this job. (This actually worked.)
  2. Your boss just called and strongly suggested you consider this job. (This didn’t work too well, but it’s worth a shot.)
  3. You’re the 87th person I’ve called for this senior-level creative director level position, and I haven’t found anyone creative yet. I hope you’re not like the other 86. Even if you’re not interested in the job, I’d love a new idea for a better voice mail.
  4. We’re trying to adopt the marketing concepts Obama used to become President. We’d like to talk to you, if you think you can help.
  5. Our team of seven ASIC design engineers is looking for a new leader. Two of them said they’d like that person to be you.
  6. We just opened a req for a new security analyst cadet for Star Fleet Academy’s Class of 2387. Is this something you’d like to explore? There is some travel involved.
  7. Have you heard the story about the priest and the rabbi who went into the bar across from Fenway? If not, I’d like to tell you about it and what it has to do with our new Plant Manager position.
  8. I call every person I’m referred to at least eight times before giving up. This is the 3rd call.
  9. (Name) just suggested I give you a call. He said you’re one of the best people he’s every worked with, and while you’re probably not now interested in our executive marketing position, he thought you’d know someone who would be. (This one always works if the name is important enough.)

There are a bunch of points and principles demonstrated by these types of messages. First, they’re marketing-oriented. Since they’re not boring, the candidate’s reticular activating system won’t filter them out. This is the critical point. While the person still might not call you back, at least you’ll get noticed. As your callback rate rises, fine tune your messages to get to the 80% threshold.

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Now when the person calls you back, don’t blow it and lose your mojo. Don’t be shocked. Maintain your composure. If you don’t, you might say something stupid, like telling the person about the job. If the job has no interest, or it sounds boring, you’ll shut down the person’s reticular activating system, faster than a bear trap on a frigid day in Montana. Not only won’t you secure a great candidate, but also the possibility of any good referrals. (Here’s an article on this critical point you might find useful.)

So instead of flubbing it, keep the candidate interested with more compelling information and clever pre-planned pitches. Think of this as the old carrot and stick approach by withholding some critical information to induce the candidate to reveal more about herself. Here are some ideas on how to pull off this critical step:

  • Once you get the person on the phone, just ask if she’d be open to explore a position if it represented a significant career move.
  • The candidate is sure to say yes since he called you back. Then say, “Great. Could you give me a super short overview of your background. I’ll then give a snapshot of the opportunity, and if it sounds like something mutually worth pursuing, we can schedule a time to talk in more depth later.
  • Don’t push the process. If there’s a relo involved, or if you’re not sure the candidate is ready to move quickly, suggest another call in a few days, after you’ve talked to the hiring manager. Alternatively, suggest there are other strong candidates you want to contact first before setting up a detailed conversation. For a high-achiever, competition is a great way to maintain or increase interest.
  • Don’t be the pursuer. The idea here is to switch roles. If you can get the candidate to pursue you, and sell you on her competency and interest, you’ll not only close more deals, but compensation won’t be the decider.

Whether you follow this process exactly as described, or not, the point is to understand how the reticular activator can be used as a switch to get and keep a top person interested in what you have to offer. Too many recruiters rush the process, lack an understanding of basic human nature, and complain that everyone they call says they’re “not interested.” You know you’re successful here, when you’re the one deciding if you’re interested in the hot passive candidate, not the other way around.

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).


12 Comments on “How to Activate the Best Passive Candidates in the Federation

  1. It may just be me, but if anyone called and left those messages I would find them extremely annoying. As a recruiter I have always valued a real, down-to-earth conversation for candidates at all levels not fake, clever, salesman like conversation. I think this would be a real turn off.

    Most of the time Lou’s tips are great, but this post seems a bit old school to me. For what it’s worth….

  2. Excellent article, Lou! In possibly stating the obvious, however, I’d like to mention that the real key in getting passive candidates to call you back regarding a particular opportunity you are calling them about is to make contact with the right kinds of passive candidates.

    Calling Cost Accountants at well-known firms in New York or Chicago regarding a Cost Accounting job in Topeka will get you far less candidates calling you back than if you had spent your time and/or money trying to identify and contact Cost Accountants in Topeka working for firms that are smaller or otherwise less attractive than the client you are hiring for.

    Getting down to the brass tacks of any Candidate Development endeavor, though, any opportunity can be attractive to the right person. The key is having the foresight and the tools to craft a strategy that identifies the right candidates.

    Why put lipstick on a pig when you don’t have to? (No offense to Sarah Palin).

  3. As Darren points out, you need to do your homework first and identify your target audience. Then you have to develop your messaging around their needs.

    Recruiters often assume that what seems odd to them in attracting someone’s interest, might not be odd to the target audience. Regardless, testing different ideas and messaging concepts out is the point of the article, not the actual messages presented in the article. As long as you’re getting an 80% or better response and getting more high-quality referrals, you’re doing something right, so keep it up!

  4. Lou- This is a GREAT article from an “Industry ICON”..

    Someone very wise told me once “Products and Service are sold, they are NOT bought”

    It truly amazes me when words are taken as “literal”. The message here (to me)is to be creative, have fun with it, and TEST, TEST, and when your really tired, TEST MORE…


    Thank you for your WISDOM,

  5. I totally agree with both of you. Absolutley you must have passion, creativity and action to be sucessful. You must understand your target and speak to them based on their motivations. I even think the themes Lou speaks to in this article are the most effective ways of gaining qualified, interested candidates. I was simply commenting on the suggested “activating voice mails.” While it may not have been the main point of the post, it screamed out to me as some of the things I would not want to hear/say as a recruiter.

  6. This is actually very amusing to me. I received one of these calls a few years ago–I thought it was a bad joke. (I received number #8). I did not call back (hence the 85% response rate?), but the recruiter did call me again. I asked him why would he leave a message like that, he said he had attended a training session and this was one of the methods suggested–I thought he was just scamming me and I told him he should ask for a refund =)

    While I can appreciate creativity, I have to agree with Barb’s comment, I did not find this very professional. The article had some good points, but the messages??? Having been a “former recipient”–leave a lot to be desired and I would not–and did not return the call

  7. Hello, this is great conversation, I LOVE it…

    Merlynn- Can you recall when you received that unprofessional call were you Happy or Unhappy with your current job?

    Reason I ask is, if that recruiter/used care salesman left that message the day your best friend earned a promotion over you, (that you truly deserved), and the recruiter was recruiting for a dream job/for a dream company, would you have cared about the “unprofessional” voicemail? Or would you have wanted to learn more because of the circumstances in your job, and/or the promotion you deserved and got passed up for political reasons?

    I am curious, if you be willing to walk away from a “dream job” because of an unprofessional VM?

    Thanks in advance for your time, and feedback…


  8. Brian…Great point. I guess if I was seriously unhappy then I may consider the call back to one of these messages since it would be an opportunity. I know that our goal as recruiters is not necessarily to reach the seriously unhappy job seeker. While that may be fine some of the time, we should be striving to seek the happy and passive seeker (with the exception of course during a near 10% unemploymnet rate time.) Thanks for the comments. Very interesting.

  9. The big point of this article was to leave a VM that caused the prospect to respond. Obviously, the messages we left for people was different. For an engineer or an accountant with 3-4 years of experience was different than for a mid- or senior-level manager. If the prospect didn’t respond it was a bad message. If the prospect did respond and was excited to talk with us it was a good message. Most of the people we called were extremely happy in their current jobs, but the message intrigued them enough to call. We didn’t want unhappy people. We used the messages to have the best people consider something even better.

    The idea here is to understand your audience and be creative and then test it and test it and test it until it works.

  10. Brian–actually, I received the call shortly after being informed that my company (at that time) was being acquired and my position was being eliminated–which was why my initial reaction was that I thought it was a bad joke.

    As I indicated in my previous post–the recruiter did call back and I talked to him. But, had he not called back–no I would not have return the call. Based on the message I received, “#8–I call every person I’m referred to at least eight times before giving up. This is the 3rd call.” –there was nothing to indicate that this was a dream job.

    Although I no longer consult, I did spend 7 years as an HR management consultant in the high tech area, so I use “cold calls” I receive, as part of my networking strategy, and I do return a high percentage of calls I receive. I network with a fair amount of people in the HR and Staffing area and we update each other when we are looking for an opportunity. If I am not interested in a position and if I know someone who is interested–I will pass on a contact lead, but, I do obtain a significant amount of information about the position before hand.

    Merlynn Bertini

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