If it was mid-November 2009 and you were looking to recruit a great golfer to guide your team to a championship, Tiger Woods would certainly top your short list. Competition for Tiger would have been steep, and few organizations would have had a chance at landing the golf legend. That would not have stopped them from thinking about it.
Two months later, Tiger still is still as skilled, but due to some turmoil in his private life, the number of opportunities available to him has dwindled and less well-known firms that he would never have considered could be his only suitors.
Tiger has a history of “snapping back” from major obstacles, like major knee surgery last year, so there should be little doubt he will return to the game in top form. That said, this is not an article about hiring golfers!
The focus of this article is advanced recruiting and Tiger Woods provides a great example to illustrate a recruiting strategy that you might not be aware of. It is variation of off-cycle recruiting that I call “recruit down, but not out stars.”
A Rare Opportunity to Recruit a Star
Recruiting down but not out stars during a short down period in their life provides a firm with a rare opportunity to hire a top performer when competition is not as intense. At first glance, this might seem like a high risk approach, but the rebound rate of stars is actually quite high. Examples abound: in sports you have Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Kobe Bryant; in entertainment you have Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and David Letterman, and in the corporate world Steve Jobs is a great example. The key with this approach is to determine when a bump in the road is just that and not something more, and to make your move when they are on their way back but before too many notice.
Advantages of Hiring the Down but not Out
Before you reject this strategy out of hand, consider some of the key benefits of pursuing this approach for a percentage of your hires:
- You land a star — you get a recognized star with superior capabilities and a long track record (with only one short interruption) of producing superior results.
- Easy to recruit — because you’re recruiting these individuals when there is little demand for them, it doesn’t take a sophisticated recruiting process or a great hiring manager to capture them.
- Lesser firms have a chance — because the individual’s choices are limited during this brief period of time, they will likely consider work, firms, and industries that they would’ve previously brushed aside. They may even have empathy and therefore consider firms that have also gone through a recent downturn.
- No repeat downturns — you will find that these individuals, because they are smart and they hate failure, will learn from their downturn, and in almost all cases, will never make the same mistake again in their career.
- A loyal employee — although there are no guarantees, it is unlikely that the stars will forget the fact that you helped them when no one else would. They are likely to return the favor by working extremely hard and by staying longer at your firm than you might expect.
- Low cost — although I don’t recommend that you purposely lowball them, it is highly likely that they will work for much less guaranteed compensation than they were previously paid.
- Speed — because they are likely to be currently under or unemployed, they can make a job acceptance decision rapidly and start right away.
- Now’s a great time — because of the down economy, currently, there is literally an abundance of down but not out stars. In addition, many executives are currently unwilling to take risks on these individuals, which means that there is little competition for them.
- Learning opportunity — in addition to their superior on-the-job performance, these individuals are knowledgeable and well-connected. Hiring them will allow your firm and its employees to benefit from their knowledge and connections.
- Visibility — even though these individuals might not be highly respected at the moment, they are still well-known, and as a result, people will take note when they join your organization. When they return to high status, your firm will get additional positive employer brand and product visibility.
- Additional customers — recruiting someone with a great track record and a loyal following will likely also help you land some new customers.
Action Steps to Implementing a “Down but-not-Out” Recruiting Strategy
Define “down but not out”
Start by clearly defining the type of individuals you are targeting. Make sure that the individual has an exceptional record of performance and that whatever bumped them from their perch is most likely only a short bump in the road.
Identify unacceptable transgressions
Clearly spell out what transgressions or errors are unacceptable, such as theft, repeated substance abuse, felonies, etc. Also identify acceptable causes of career downturn, such as business closure, unfair competition, being caught by a manager in the process of looking for another job, or budget freezes that led to talent stagnation. As in Tiger’s case, the cause may be personal problems, i.e. a family breakup as a result of the economic crisis that might have little or no long-term impact on their work.
Conduct a comprehensive assessment
Obviously you need to begin with a detailed professional reference check, but those executing the check should revise evaluation criteria so that “down but not out” stars are not blackballed. I further recommend that during your interviews, you also make sure that they understand what they did wrong, that they regret it, and that they show what steps they are taking to ensure it will never be repeated.
How to “identify” them
Remember that these individuals are stars, so they are well known and well connected in their industry or function. In addition, their individual downturn may also have been publicized, so they are not difficult to identify. The most effective sourcing tools for finding these individuals are employee referrals and social networking. I recommend that you specifically ask your managers and employees to be on the lookout for these types of individuals. Educate your employees to look specifically for individuals who are leaving consulting, have been part of a recent project/product failure, or who worked at firms that have completely shut down.
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Additional sources include professional events, “boomeranging” corporate alumni who experienced their own downturn, outplacement firms, and executive recruiters (who over the years may have established a personal relationship with them.) If your firm has already cataloged or inventoried the desirable talent in your industry, use Google alerts and searches to keep track of them.
Initial screening process
Even if you don’t implement a formal process to proactively seek out these down but not out individuals, make sure that your screening process at the very least is capable of identifying them, should they apply at your firm. Work with your resume screeners to ensure that their resumes are not rejected solely because of recent issues.
There is a high probability that these individuals will need some special treatment during onboarding. If they’re currently depressed for example, counseling or coaching might be necessary. Their coworkers might need to be provided with the true story about what happened to them, in order to squelch or prevent rumors. The hiring manager might need to spend more time with them in order to help them understand how your company’s management approach and culture varies from what they’re accustomed to.
Yes, There Are Risks Involved
Let me be clear: all recruiting strategies that focus on top performers will have a high failure rate, so don’t be frightened away because there are risks associated with this approach. Some of the key risks that you need to develop a plan to assess and mitigate include:
- Bad PR — hiring an individual when they’re down may, in the short-term, generate some bad press. It may also cause some of your customers to re-think their relationship with your firm. You will likely also encounter internal criticism from managers and employees.
- Legal issues — you need to make sure that the transgression that led to their downfall will not expose your firm to legal issues.
- Another error — don’t forget to calculate the probability and the related costs if they slide backwards and repeat the same transgression (especially if the cause was substance-abuse).
- Slower assimilation — it may take time for the individual to snap back or to acclimate to a less prestigious firm that moves at a slower speed.
- Resistance — some employees may argue that you should not be rewarding bad behavior. Such employees should be made aware that the risks and the pressures associated with being a top performer cause almost all “stars” to eventually fail at least once. Managers should be reminded that the cause of their turmoil may be personal issues, and as a result, privacy and legal constraints limit their consideration in the hiring decision.
This article was published in January 2010. If you’re reading immediately upon publication, you will likely think that it would be crazy to hire Tiger Woods when every other firm is clearly distancing themselves from him, but mark my words, by June Tiger will be bouncing back and everyone will be courting him. His case will most likely mirror that of Kobe Bryant, who rebounded quickly from a similar transgression.
Down but not out stars are not limited to sports and entertainment. They can be found in every industry and within every function. Fortunately during these tough economic times, there are significantly more of them available than during any time in recent memory. If you want to do something bold and strategic in recruiting and you have limited budget and resources, consider recruiting the Tiger Woods of your industry. It’s easy, cheap, and it can have an immediate and measurable strategic impact.