In Search of the Perfect Candidate, Part 2

In a recent article, I made the contention that perfect candidates for your open positions might not have exactly the same background listed in your job descriptions. Furthermore, some of these best people, even if you can find them, might come across as disinterested or less effervescent during the interview then managers would like. This is a big Catch-22 — we inadvertently eliminate the best people because their skills don’t meet some invalid standards or because they won’t fake interest in a job they know little about. This is idiotic. If you want to find and hire more perfect candidates — including more passive and diverse candidates — you need to make three big structural changes. From what I can tell, unless you’re an employer of choice or have an excess of top candidates knocking on your door, these are not optional.

First: Redefine perfection. Focus on what a person needs to do to be considered perfect, rather than what the person must have in terms of skills, experience, and academic background. The technique for doing this was described in Part I of this series. Replacing the traditional job description in this approach is a list of the top six to eight critical tasks, in priority order, that the candidate taking the job is required to perform to be considered successful. This document is referred to as a performance profile.

Second: Use a consultative interviewing process rather than an inquisitorial one. Most managers use some form of behavioral interviewing or technical inquisition to assess competency. From this, they select those candidates who seem to fit the bill. Once the super short list is established, the recruiting process begins. The underlying assumption in all of this is that all candidates want the job and they’ll endure some level of disrespect to get it. “If the person doesn’t want the job, we don’t want them,” is the standard fallback retort of the na?ve manager when it’s suggested there are better ways to interview and recruit candidates. We’ll describe specific techniques in more depth in Part 3 of this article series, but here are a few ideas to consider now:

  • The best people want to earn the job, rather than having it handed to them. They don’t mind competition; in fact, they prefer it. But don’t start the interview with this mindset. Save this for later.
  • Initially assume that the person being interviewed is not actively looking, but rather exploring a number of various opportunities. In this case, use the early part of the interview to better understand what the person is looking for in a new job and what is motivating the person to even consider exploring.
  • Follow up by conducting a work history review, and then dig deep into a few of the person’s biggest career accomplishments. Now you have enough information to get serious. Top people prefer this type of interviewing format, since it shows respect for what they’ve done. They also like to talk about their most significant accomplishments, so make sure you spend at least 10 minutes on each one, guiding them along by asking fact-finding questions. This is how you start the recruiting process.
  • If the person is a potential fit, you’ll use the balance of the interview to further assess competency and begin a more aggressive recruiting process. These must be done in tandem.
  • This second round starts by describing some important project that’s clearly bigger than the candidate has ever worked on. Then ask the candidate to describe something he or she has accomplished that’s most comparable. While there’s a little more to it then this, demonstrate that the new job offers significant career stretch. You want to demonstrate this during the questioning process rather then waiting until the end of the interview. If you wait, it comes across as selling. When done in tandem, it’s career consulting.

The interview is a powerful tool which few managers know how to use properly. The objective of a good interview is to demonstrate respect for the candidate, while having them earn the right to the job. This way, they learn on their own why the job is a great career move. If you need to sell top candidates or to provide salary premiums to get them to accept your offers, you’re probably not getting the most out of the interview.

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Third: Change how you find and hire perfect candidates. The best people don’t look in the same places, they don’t look for the same things when considering new opportunities. If your sourcing strategies and marketing approaches don’t correlate with how top people look for work — including diverse and passive candidates — you won’t find many. Developing better sourcing programs starts by knowing the decision criteria a top person uses when accepting a job. It’s largely dependent on these five factors:

  1. The quality of job itself. The key here is determining if the new job offers job stretch and an opportunity for the person to excel, grow, and change.
  2. The quality of the hiring manager. Top people want to work for other top people. To hire top people, the manager must come across as a strong leader and potential mentor.
  3. The quality of the team. Top people want to work with other top people. A strong team of other high-performing people is a clear indication of a strong organization with significant upside potential.
  4. The quality of the company. While more important early in a person’s career, the overall company reputation and growth prospects are a part of the acceptance decision ó but to a lesser degree than the actual job. Regardless, this link can be strengthened by tying the person’s job directly to some major company initiative. This is called job branding.
  5. The compensation package and quality of life issues. Although compensation is important, it’s usually not the overriding issue when the job-manager-team-company match is a direct fit. These are long-term or strategic factors. Compensation, relocation, and quality of life are tactical or short term factors. Top performers always consider the strategic factors more important than the tactical issues.

As you can see from the above, the performance-based interviewing process recommended in step two is designed to tie directly into how a top person ultimately decides whether to accept an offer. But the interview is way too late to begin. You need to use the same criteria during the sourcing stage. Here are some things you can do now to help you get more top performers into the initial pool of candidates:

  • Rewrite your ads. Try out this test. Remove your company name from your online job descriptions and ask some top people if they find the jobs as written compelling. If not, rewrite them. These descriptions must stand on their own. If top people who are currently employed aren’t excited about your online descriptions, the ads are worthless. And don’t complain that you don’t have the time. You’ll save time by having more top people ó including passive and diverse candidates ó apply for your openings if they’re exciting.
  • Reverse-engineer your hiring process. Find out how top people look for jobs. Most use Yahoo or Google — not job boards — when they look online. Some want to get referred by a current employee. Some want to be called. Make sure your process maps to their process — not to one of your bureaucrat’s.
  • Stop wasting money: conduct a sourcing channel review. Conduct an online survey of how your best people — not your average people — got hired into your company. Then spend your money on improving these channels rather than wasting your money using unproductive job boards.
  • Put a search engine on your career site. Get rid of the pull-down menu and job agent concept of finding jobs. Top people won’t endure this. Instead, allow candidates to put in a job title and location in a search bar and return with a list of opportunities. Each job should have a great title and two sentences so compelling that the person can’t refuse your offer to click for more info.
  • Fire your recruitment advertising agency. Stop listening to excuses. If you’re not seeing top performers, your recruitment advertising agency isn’t any good. Hire a consumer products marketing agency instead. For the same money, you’ll get 300 to 400 percent better performance ó and a new way of thinking.
  • Expand your employee referral program to get names of people who aren’t looking. Ask your best people to give you the names of the best people they’ve worked with in the past who aren’t looking. Then call and recruit these people. While you’re at it, ask them to give you more names of great people who aren’t looking.
  • Use your phone and ZoomInfo. The person you’re going to hire is either listed in ZoomInfo or is known personally by someone listed in ZoomInfo. All you have to do is get on the phone and recruit and then network with the person. If some of you have forgotten, this is the definition of recruiting.

The search for the perfect candidate is not a difficult journey. It starts by redefining perfection using a performance profile instead of a job description. This needs to be combined with an aggressive sourcing program that mimics the process top performers (not average candidates) use to find new opportunities. The final piece is a sophisticated performance-based interviewing process that meets the needs of both discriminating managers and top performers. Throw in a little leadership and some courage and that’s all there is to it.

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).


4 Comments on “In Search of the Perfect Candidate, Part 2

  1. I won’t bother going into a defense of recruitment advertising agencies, because, as an employee of one my opinion is clearly biased. But I would love to hear a case study or two from someone that could quantify Lou’s claim that ‘for the same money, you’ll get 300-400 percent better performance.’

    On what grounds can you make this claim? First of all, consumer agencies are used to budgets that are significantly higher (I’m making a big generalization here, but so did Lou with this statistic he’s quoted in his article) so if they were to take on a recruitment client, you’d be likely to get their smallest and least experienced team. To a big consumer agency, a 2 million dollar account (huge by Recruitment Advertising standards) is a drop in the bucket.

    Second their process is different. Recruitment Advertising agencies (at least the ones I have worked for) are constantly recommending research, planning and statistical analysis to our clients and most of the time these recommendations are not approved because HR didn’t have the budget, didn’t think it was necessary, or simply need resumes NOW. No consumer agency worth anything would even take your account on if you’re not willing to do research. The best marketing comes from the research. In fact, many of them expect you to deliver research to them, because they are used to working with Marketing Departments who often commission their own research and then give it to the agency to come up with the creative and campaign strategy. Then there’s the fact that you have to pay for media planning, and sometimes to a completely different company than the one doing your creative.

    I would argue that unless you’re willing to change your process, you’d end up spending 300-400 percent more money to get the same result. I have worked at 2 of the major US recruitment agencies in my career and found that in both cases, they had all of the skills and tools necessary to deliver great work as any consumer agency I’ve been exposed to.

    Your whole article is great Lou, except this one point, especially the unquantified statistic could set many HR departments down an expensive and unsatisfying. I don’t mind saying that if your recruitment advertising agency isn’t delivering, fire them… but the blanket claim that a consumer agency will automatically deliver 3-4 times better results is ludicrous.

    Choose the agency that understands your brand, that understands why people choose to work for you and why people stay. That are excited to have your business and whose personnel fit with your organizations. If that all feels right and they ask you to try things that are beyond your comfort zone, try it. Take a risk. The companies that do make themselves (and their agencies) look really good.

  2. I don’t always agree with you Lou but this time I’m on board; especially with how companies can often create the false definition of ‘the perfect candidate’.

    I find after two decades of racking my brains with some of these large corporate clientele … that the adult version of 5th Grade ‘Bullying’ exists only in a different form.

    Many managers, in their quest to bolster their own ego and self-image of grandeur, will find fault after fault with what I know are stellar candidates doing the same job or better at a competing company.

    Call it the Stockholm Syndrome, or other form of psychosis … but a Clique mentality exists making hiring almost impossible.

    I can often hear what the thought process must be in their heads:

    ‘Look at us … we’re so-o-o-o-o good and so perfect examples of corporate management … that it takes 98 candidates to even come close to someone as good as us. Aren’t we something!?’

    I know one company that is on 8 months of recruiting and wants to know why its taking so long. I keep telling them its their problem.

  3. Lou great article, I send out a link to my whole recruiting team with a link to your article Monday mornings but every once in a while you throw out something that completely surprises me.

    This statement: ‘Find out how top people look for jobs. Most use Yahoo or Google ? not job boards’ this is ridiculous, maybe a SEO expert would claim this. I would say top people find jobs in this order a) referral b) an agent c) niche job boards.

    Might be different for your industry but if my candidates search google ‘.net developer job mclean virginia’ they get 824,000 hits! The best candidates don’t waste their time searching they have someone else do it for them.

  4. But they’d look at the first 10 if the jobs were any good!

    We took a survey of over 100 plus people including developers and most who were actively looking look this way. The article did not contend that all top performers look this way. In our pool most didn’t use agents, but they do use referrals and they would take a call from a recruiter. Remember that we’re talking about top performers so this narrows the channel they use. We’re also looking at trends and changes in processes used, so this also skews the data.


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