It’s All About Performance

It’s all about performance. Over the past four or five years, I have seen a steady increase in organizations spending time and effort to define and measure employee performance. Firms like Success Factors, DDI, and Authoria have had good commercial success in providing the tools and processes that make this easier to do. Oracle and SAP offer modules that ease the process of defining competencies and measuring employees on their contributions.

As the economy heads into a recession and profits are under scrutiny, this will become even more important. No organization can afford people who do not contribute and who cannot perform consistently at a high level.

But, what is often lacking is a connection between employee performance and the traits recruiters look for in candidates. Many recruiters just take the generic job description and base their interviews and selection on competencies that may not be aligned with the reality of the position. Defining a great performance and tying it back into the competencies, skills, and traits that candidates have is essential.

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If we are serious about finding the best people with the most talent to recommend for hire, here are the five steps we have to take:

  1. Identify and Measure. First of all, we have to work harder than we do at identifying and measuring the low, middle, and high performers. We need to establish indicators of success and of high performance for each position we recruit for. Indicators could be the number of sales made in a month, the number of reports written that resulted in consulting assignments, the amount of revenue their group has generated, and so forth. This is hard work. There aren’t a lot of benchmarks to go by, but we all know more or less who contributes the most to our organizations. Our task is to quantify that and find a way to measure it. Focus groups of managers and customers can help define what constitutes good or poor performance. Recruiters, along with managers and customers, can put together tentative lists of criteria and measure current performers against them. Over time, it will become clear which indicators are most accurate.
  2. Develop Profiles. Once we have the indicators or criteria determined, we can work with managers and develop profiles of the high performers in each group. We can look for commonalities and traits during the screening and interviewing process that predict success. These could be competencies, activities they engage in, work methods, or processes. There are many firms that can help you determine these critical success factors (as they are often called), and even help you develop tests to identify them. If this is well done, often clear patterns emerge. For example, several years ago, a firm was hiring technicians to repair precision-manufacturing equipment. By using the process described above, it was able to identify several skills that led to success. It learned that people leaving the armed services who had been trained as mechanics had the highest success rate. Then, the company focused its recruiting on exiting service personnel.
  3. Find Them and Target Your Messages. The next task is to discover where these people are and what they enjoy doing. This is necessary so that you can target your advertising message and placement toward this audience. To do this well requires a focus on competitive intelligence (CI). CI is well known in the industrial world and many companies employ CI experts to ferret our information about production capacities and equipment installations at competitors. The same principles apply to recruiting. You can gather information from competitors, vendors, and suppliers about where good people may be located. You can certainly use your employee-referral program for the same purpose. And, every time you actually find candidates with the right profile and skill set, ask them where more people like them are. One of the most useful ways to collect information is to ask incoming new hires for referrals and for general information.
  4. Build a Database. Collecting and capturing this information is critical. The knowledge you gradually accumulate is valuable and should be put into a database that can be shared with other recruiters. This is a form of knowledge management and, when properly done, it can save thousands of hours of work and bunches of money. After all, headhunters rely on their own human knowledge-management systems (i.e., their brains) to do this all the time. Our challenge is to make this more broadly accessible and to keep it current. I like to think about these sorts of databases as the recruiters’ gossip place. It is an online forum for chatting about competitors, successes, and failures and for collecting bits and pieces of information that, alone, may not be valuable. However, when they are combined with other bits, they represent a treasure trove.
  5. Decide Whether to Recruit or Develop. The final step in this process is to determine whether there are enough highly skilled people to recruit efficiently and economically. Sometimes, it is actually cheaper to develop people internally. The recruiting function must become a talent agency, which is something it has not been. Talent agencies recognize talent and develop it for strategic purposes. We, as recruiters, need to take our knowledge of what high performance looks like and then, using market knowledge and competitive intelligence, make a recommendation as to whether we should continue to try and recruit the people who have “it,” or whether we should put together a development process.

The only limits are our own vision and our ability to work the politics of our corporate environments. One way to find employees with potential to move to new positions would be to open all of our screening processes to anyone and then select those who seem likely to be successful. The Internet and our recruiting websites make this very easy to do. The key is that recruiting is not only about finding talent, but it is also increasingly about developing it. If we are to move our profession upwards, these things I have described are what it is going to take.

Precision, measurement, quantification, and process rigor are elements I have been focusing on for some time now. Recruiting generally needs to improve in all of these, and now that economic times are getting tough, when could be a better time to start?

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


8 Comments on “It’s All About Performance

  1. ‘Once we have the indicators or criteria determined, we can work with managers and develop profiles of the high performers in each group.’

    We have been doing that successfully since 1991 and the approach dates back to the 1960s.

    This is not rocket science but it does appear to be well kept secret. I guess the cat is now out of the bag–assessing for talent works.

  2. ‘As the economy heads into a recession ……..’ I always cringe when I hear these words. It doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence that the more the media, etc. mention the ‘r’ word, the faster consumer confidence dives and the self-fulfilling recession does indeed follow.

    As a side note, being a recruiter since 1978, some of my best (and worst)years have been during recessions.

  3. The real genesis of ‘profiles’ lies in the Balanced Scorecard work of Robert Kaplan & David Norton (1992, Harvard Business Review). The concept of ‘Job Families’ (and moreover, ‘Strategy Maps’) is actually theirs, so I’d like to take a moment to attribute them credit.

    Recruiters and TA Leaders, If you want to stay ahead of the game, review their original work and you’ll effectively become consultants in your own regard!

  4. The word ‘recession’ got thrown around here so I thought I’d chime in since I have nothing better to do with my backlog of millions of searches spread across our three desks here in the office (tongue-in-cheek).

    Recession is commonly defined by government agencies as follows:

    Recession: Two consecutive quarters of declining GDP.

    That’s it. That’s six months total. Some last longer.

    What goes up comes down. To have life you need death. To have night requires day and male requires female (except in San Francisco and the Greenwich Village district of Manhattan but I digress).

    Recession and economic booms go hand in hand just like a dance on the dance floor.

    If you are a savvy long-term business person (such as the person that made the previous post stated) this should be a non-event worthy of nothing more than ONE BIG GAPING YAWN.

    I knew this was coming. Anyone with half a brain observing service station attendants and Quick-Check cashiers earnign $12.00/hour buying condos with no documentation mortgages could see that someone would soon have to pay the piper.

    Everyone was ‘passing the buck’ in the mortgage ponzi scheme and now the tax payers (through HUD) are left holding the hot potatoe which infuriates me that these affected people feel the ‘government’ (me) should fork up money to ‘help them’. If I had my druthers they would not get one dime.

    By the way the same mortgage meltdown occurence took place in 1990 … the year before I launched IRES my search firm. Back then the RTC (Resolution Trust Corporation) had to take over S&L’s that were melting down all over the country for their inpropriety … who paid?

    No … not the government. YOU AND I the taxpayer paid to the tune of billions of dollars in HUD guaranteed and FDIC payouts. It disgusts me that companies can behave so inappropriately and the bag is left to the taxpayer.

    I’ve planned for this for two years and have enough reserves to drink margaritas through the storm — and If I have to I will use the remaining tequila to fuel my car instead of gas.

    If you have not yet prepared … there’s still time to bank away your next several placements in your cash reserve bank account – you will most likely need it. Better to address the issue than live in denial.

    And yes, after the storm … those of us that did not get scathed will be here to ‘clean up’ all over again as has been the case during every other ‘recession’.

    I’ve been through several of these now and have it down to a science.


    Back to work.

  5. Frank,
    I applaud your business savvy and maturity. The excesses of our ‘more is better, particularly when it’s in my pocket’ culture always result in the collapse of the proverbial house of cards. How we deal with it, who gets blamed, etc. forms the basis of our political and social structure.

    We periodically elect conservatives on the promise to exercise fiscal restraint, and minimize the largess of taxpayer money to ‘the people’ who are often characterized as lazy and irresponsible. Yet, as you note, there is always enough tax money to support whatever industry is in trouble regardless of how culpable in their predicament. I only wish to point out that there is only an illusion of philosophical difference. The true difference is in who benefits.

    When all is said and done, you vote for ‘the people’ or the corporations. That we can vote and choose is what makes America great. I encourage everyone to vote in November.

  6. Frank –
    It may not matter whether we end up in a recession as up to 3 of 4 (according to one survey) thinks we are and the damage could be done. The Dow is in trouble on better news – except for the bank losses which we already suspected – Countrywide is off the market, oil is down a tad & defaults seem to be leveling towards the 1 mil. figure that will end up ‘on the street’ in the next 2 years as the Fed throws money at the problem and will continue to drop rates.

    Officially we may not know until the 1st look at Q2 (if it and Q-1 are minus), in July, as Q4 will be OK (#s were good thru November) – probably 2%+.

    For us, 3 of the last 5 weeks were the busiest in years, yet more companies have a cautious approach, until they look at all their planned but unmanned projects. -Jon

  7. I have been in the recruiting business for 13 years. I started out in technology and rode the wave until the dot com crash back in 2000. As a result, I was forced to look at moving into another recruiting niche- which I did. Up until this point, I was very successful and had a lot of confidence in my abilities. After the crash, I thought that the methodologies and systems I learned and created could be applied in any industry. I often joked with my staff that it made no difference what you industry you were recruiting in- it was all about the process. If you followed the process than you were guaranteed success! Little did I know that one day I would be forced to test my theory..

    After the dot com crash, I decided to take a stab at Biotechnology. This was not a long thought out decision; I merely looked at what industries were hot at that time and decided to take the plunge. I did my research and decided to be very specialized and focused on one area of Biotech. Sales positions in capital equipment. I further refined the niche; to only deal with companies that were selling mass spectrometers (don’t ask me to explain this). Here comes the testing of my theory. The best way to enter a niche is to find a most placeable candidate (mpc) and market them. I got on the phone- cold called several sales people in the niche-(side note- I did not have any background or insight in biotechnology, I knew none of the buzz words nor had any hard core knowledge of the industry).

    I learned as I spoke with several sales people in the niche. As I asked a series of standard questions, I would ask the candidates to explain the technology to me. I was upfront with the candidate about my lack of technical knowledge, but more than made up for this by the line of questioning. You see I was still confident in my approach and I could smell talent no matter where it came from! I finally landed the fish I was looking for. A stand out accomplished sales person with outstanding numbers and a dynamic personality to boot. When I asked this person who were the leaders in her industry she respected, she told me. Five minutes after this conversation, I contacted 5 of those companies she gave me. I presented her background, set up 3 interviews. Two weeks later I had an offer and I was off to the races. I was able to build this niche over the next two years, and at the end I had a reputation and was known as the expert in recruiting sales people in this narrow niche. Problem- the niche was so narrow and eventually I exhausted all the companies in that niche… Time to retool again… I could have stayed with Biotechnology- but mortgage banking and homebuilding caught my attention. I decided to test my theory once again. This time one month into this new practice I landed a large homebuilder account and collected a $250,000 fee and billed over 1 million with this one client over a 3 year period!!

    D?j? vu- MORTGAGE BANKING IS IN THE TOILET?Time to retool?? At this juncture I saw this one coming so I retooled- by teaching someone else the basics and process of our industry- in yet another industry ?nonprofit. The moral of the story is- don?t forget the basics of this great profession. Practice them religiously, don?t take short cuts, have faith and confidence in your ability and make sure everyone on the other end of the phone can feel your power! Incidentally, I have not given up on mortgage banking still doing some business?

  8. Hi Michael,

    I read your article here about having to change Niches and would have to say it was the most succint and well explained way of how and when you should switch gears. I would like to talk more about your experiences in this regard and may be open to discussion possible split assignments given your background.

    If your open to any of the above, please feel free to contact me at your earliest convience.


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