In Search of the Perfect Candidate

Everybody wants to hire the perfect candidate. And why not? These are the people who have great track records, great academic backgrounds, great personalities, great experience, and have worked at companies doing just what you want done. Even better, these great people are just like you — smart, savvy, and ready to move ahead. To make it even better (or worse), line managers from first-level supervisor to CEO can look you straight in the eye and tell you without hesitation that they can spot this perfect person in just a few minutes. So they blame the recruiting department for not finding more of them.

If the truth be told, though, anyone can spot the perfect candidate. They stand out like bright shining orbs in a desert of mediocrity. The problem, however, is they are so few in number that the cost to find them is often not worth the effort. But there is good news here — perfect candidates exist in high enough quantity to make it worth your while to seek them out. To find them, all you need to do is redefine perfection. But first, look at the following two-by-two matrix. It shows the four possible outcomes when comparing a candidate’s interviewing presentation skills to the person’s on-the-job performance.

Interview Presentation
Perfect Not So Perfect

Job Per-


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Perfect Hired (good) Not hired (bad)
Not So Perfect Hired (bad) Not hired (good)

Here’s a quick description of the four possible outcomes. A candidate who makes a great or perfect presentation and who also has a great track record of performance is typically hired. This is a good decision, but quite frankly it’s not that tough a call. Anyone can recognize this type of perfect candidate. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the person who does poorly in the interview and has an obviously poor track record. This person is never hired. Which is also a good decision. But again, it’s not that tough to figure this out. Anyone can spot a dud with little effort. Despite these trivial accomplishments, managers who make them believe they possess a keen sense of judging talent and laud it over us mere mortals. But wait: Payback is not far away. One way is the hiring of a candidate who makes a great presentation but doesn’t have a perfect track record of performance. Unfortunately, some managers get cocky and assume they can assess complete competence based on just a few traits in combination with a great presentation.

When an incomplete evaluation is conducted this way, people get hired who are partially competent, or competent but not motivated to do the work you need done. Of course, during the interview these candidates all contended that they would do the work, not really knowing exactly what the manager had in mind. This happens frequently when we incorrectly assume that motivation to get the job, or high energy displayed during the interview, is the same as motivation to do the job or a strong work ethic. Now for the other bad decision — the one you never see. It’s not hiring a great person — a perfect performer — because the person doesn’t make a perfect presentation. Now a not-so-perfect presentation doesn’t just mean blowing the interview, although this is part of it. Part of the not-so-perfect presentation includes industry experience that might not be a direct hit. It could be an academic background that’s just not quite right, or a little less experience than assumed necessary.

Of course, the wrong race, religion, physical appearance, gender, and age come into play here, as well, but no one talks about this. Maybe the person was too talkative, too tall, too quiet, or just too much. Or maybe the perfect candidate was cautious or not convinced your opening was a perfect fit and wasn’t too enthusiastic. How many managers expect candidates to express their enthusiasm for a job before they even know what it is? Perfect candidates won’t. How many perfect candidates has your company not hired because your standards of perfection are inconsistent with reality? Don’t despair. There is a shortcut available for you to find and hire more perfect candidates. Just redefine perfection. Here are some ideas on how to get started:

  1. Ask the manager to define perfection. When you get a new req, don’t ask the hiring manager what he or she is looking for. You’re just heading for trouble this way. They’ll start describing personal attributes like skills, experience, academic requirements, and desired personality traits. To avoid this, ask the hiring manager what the person in the job needs to do to be considered extremely successful. Done properly, you’ll obtain a list of four to five things the person taking the job needs to do over the course of a year that defines great on-the-job performance.
  2. Put the person in the parking lot. When managers start describing personal traits and required skills, call a timeout and mention that the manager is not describing a job, but rather a person taking the job. Suggest that the real job should be defined first. After that, you’ll both figure out what type of skills the person needs to have to excel doing what needs to be done. This is especially important if you want to hire more top diverse people. These people won’t have the same background, experience, and personal attributes as the hiring manager. It’s important for all managers to understand this.
  3. Determine the big changes required. For staff level or manager positions, ask the hiring manager to give you a pro forma vision of what a great person taking the job would have accomplished after three, six, and twelve months. Add a year or two if it’s an executive level position. From this, ask what would have to change in order to achieve this improved level of performance. This type of questioning will result in another two to three critical tasks or performance objectives.
  4. Benchmark the best. For admin or process positions, ask the manager to describe what the best people do differently than average people. Also, ask what the worst people do that must be avoided. From this you’ll probably get at reliability, consistency, how they need to interact with people, and more.
  5. Convert having to doing. If a manager is insistent on the prestigious degree or some specific level or type of experience, ask the manager to give you an example of how these skills are actually applied on the job. You’ll typically get some description of a critical project or some task that requires critical thinking. With this information, ask the manager if he/she would see someone if they could accomplish the task at an extremely high level, even if they didn’t have exactly the skill or experience required. Most managers will easily agree.
  6. Put all of the tasks in priority order. From the process described above you’ll be able to develop six to eight different performance objectives. Now put them in priority order. This should be based on degree of difficulty or importance ó not the order in which the tasks need to be done. For example, if a developer needs to launch a new application in six months, the most important task might be completing the detailed code within a very short time span, even though the product specs need to be agreed upon first.
  7. Get everyone on the hiring team to agree. This is the hard part. You’ll need to get everyone who has a vote on your candidates to agree to this revised and realistic list of job requirements. Achieving consensus on real job needs is critical if you expect to achieve consensus once you start presenting candidates.

If you follow this process as described, you have just defined what the person taking the job needs to do to be considered the perfect candidate. Perfection defined this way is referred to as a performance profile in performance-based hiring terminology. There is no need to lower your standards. There are some great people out there who are absolutely perfect. They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. These are the people with exceptional talent; they are extremely hard working, they can develop, work with and lead teams, and they can solve any tough task or problem thrown at them on time and on budget. Unfortunately, they don’t fit into old-time thinking and standard job descriptions. So if you want to hire more top people, including top diverse candidates, define perfection not by what skills and experience they need to have but rather by what they need to accomplish. The search for the perfect candidate is a worthy goal. You’ll just need to use a different map to get there.

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).


3 Comments on “In Search of the Perfect Candidate

  1. Lou once again puts his finger on a tremendous problem in our industry. How many times has your client not even wanted to phone screen your ‘perfect candidate’? A Clinical Services E-learning company wants a VP for clinical operations and you find one, and he has a Ph.D in computer science from John Hopkins and not even a phone screen?

    Obviously it is either you or the client that is practically brain dead here. (I always assume it is the client in these situations.) You are thinking, ‘WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO HERE?’

    We’ll here’s the answer. YOU need to get a better definition of the perfect candidate up front. (I still think my client is brain dead, but I think I’ll try this next time.)

    Thanks Lou!

  2. And while we are getting an idea from the client as to what they want accomplished from the person who hopefully will fill the open position, we should also be asking the client ‘just exactly what do you want me, as an outside recruiter looking in, to accomplish?’

    Because it isn’t always what it seems. A recent project comes to mind. A Director of Nursing need in a specialized facility. Naturally I source 2 candidates with 20 plus years experience in the same type facility, Master’s level degree, etc. etc. And also we provided another candidate with similar credentials and great leadership abilities, but without the niche background. And what happens? The person with the leadership skills won out over the niche experience.

    We got the hire, but I was dissappointed because I thought I had provided two other ‘better’ candidates. But in the end, it was the leadership skills that out-weighted the niche experience. If I had asked all the right questions, I might not have had to work quite so hard to target the niche! But I do have a happy client.

  3. Another excellent article by Lou. Our clients tell us that before they hired for talent they would rank their top five job finalist from #1 to #5. The first job offer would go to #1 but after hiring for talent they realize that they were making the best hiring decision about 20% of the time. Yes, they hired competent people, in fact the most competent, but not the best employees.

    If we search for and hire the best candidates, we make the best hiring decision about 20% of the time. We need to hire competent people who have a talent for the job. The hard part is getting hiring managers to measure talent. If we can’t measure talent, we can’t hire for talent. Talent must be hired since talent cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire. This explains why so many new hires fail to become successful employees after they are hired and trained, they lack the talent.

    The book ‘First, Break All the Rules, what the world’s greatest managers do differently’, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman of the Gallup Organization, does an excellent job of explaining why hiring for talent is so necessary. The authors’ recommendations are based on Gallup’s interviews of over 80,000 managers in over 400 companies across numerous industries. The authors’ definition of ‘a talent’, see page 71, is ‘… a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied … The emphasis here is on the word ‘recurring.’ Great managers say ‘Your talents are the behaviors you find yourself doing often.” This is why hiring for talent is so effective at selecting good employees.

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