Lessons from Lord of the Rings

Being able to find a single perfect candidate quickly is the holy grail of recruiting.

Those who can do it consistently are much in demand and highly paid. Those who can’t are dependent on others and less compensated. Those who teach how to find good people are also highly sought and well paid. It seems an elusive skill, yet there are principles we can all learn.

I recently hosted a conference in Australia where the kickoff speaker was Miranda Rivers, the extras casting director for Lord of the Rings and King Kong. Her talk illustrated the issues all recruiters face and gave a glimpse at the solutions to many sourcing dilemmas. Rivers has truly mastered both the science and the art of sourcing.

Let’s face it: finding hundreds of people willing and capable of being hobbits, elves, and orcs in a country of about four million people was a challenge in itself. Add to that some overwhelming demands. She had to recruit hundreds of people of specific physical types who were willing to work long (16+ hour) days in inclement weather for about US$70 per day.

They had to wear makeup and heavy costumes. Some of the preparation took hours and then they would have hours of waiting before being filmed. To top all of this off, she had virtually no budget and could not go outside of New Zealand. Most of us would have said it was an impossible task.

Rivers, however, tackled it with the precision thinking and optimistic spirit that has to be part of any recruiter’s skill set. She laid out several principles that I think apply to all kinds of sourcing and recruiting.

Principle #1: Define the Requirements and the Work

From one perspective, her job was easy. She was hunting for people with a specific, defined look. Their attributes were clear as well: willing to work long hours for little pay. Most roles were not speaking ones, so acting wasn’t a major requirement.

Peter Jackson knew just what he wanted, and Rivers’ job was to find it for him. Screening was a matter of looking at a candidate for physical characteristics, but also to make sure that they were capable and willing to live with the many hardships of filming.

Defining the competencies, skills, and attitudes of the ideal candidate is one of the first hurdles recruiters have to deal with. Many recruiters work only from a skimpy requisition, often rehashed from some past job and rarely thoroughly vetted by the hiring manager.

Managers often say, “I can’t give you exact requirements, but I’ll know the right person when I see one.”

The best recruiters push back and force a discussion. They find exemplars in the workforce and use them as a model. They spend time to make sure they have a blueprint or a map that will tell them they have found what they need. Then they determine what screens and assessments will narrow the potential numbers down to a handful to interview.

After all, what’s the point of wasting your time and the hiring manager’s time to find candidates who are not appropriate?

Principle #2: Go Where the Candidates Are

Rivers planned her sourcing as carefully as a general plans a battle. She identified towns where she thought certain types of people might live. She worked towns near the filming, going to towns further away as she needed to.

For the most part, her recruits were passive candidates. Only a handful of people were actively seeking roles, especially in the beginning. She held recruiting fairs, approached small play groups, and ran newspaper ads.

As always, though, many came but few were suitable. Screening became a time-consuming issue as inappropriate types showed up repeatedly hoping for a part. And as word spread, more and more people came. Her screening was quick and focused on essentials such as physical looks, strength, and endurance for the long waits in bad weather, positive spirits, and flexibility. All screening was face-to-face and simple.

She kept her eyes open and used her network to identify places where particular types of people might hang out. She found that bowling allies and senior centers were good sources. She tapped into local acting groups. She stopped people on the street and asked them if they were interested or knew someone with a similar appearance.

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Referrals were an important part of her strategy. She also called on people who had acted in previous movies.

Principle #3: Use the Appropriate Tools and Technology

Rivers realized that in rural New Zealand, most people would not be looking for work or have access to the Internet. It took her physical presence and networking to get the word out.

Applying the appropriate technique is critical to success and a good sourcing plan specifically lays out which are likely to work best. For many jobs, flyers and postings on bulletin boards still work. For other jobs, the Internet is essential.

Rivers knew from previous movie recruiting experiences which candidates would be most likely to succeed. She applied that data to her sourcing and screening. She knew that only a face-to-face screen would meet the speed requirements she was up against and also be in harmony with the candidates’ backgrounds and experiences.

Successful sourcing is not a one-dimensional process. The Internet is a powerful tool, but at times simply showing up somewhere or picking up the telephone can be the best approach.

Many recruiters have narrowed their options down to the Internet and the telephone. I think this is a huge mistake. Ordinary mail, print, and broadcast still have uses and meeting people for lunch, a briefing, or just for a chat can be more effective than 10 emails.

The lesson is to have a varied basket of tools and use each of them appropriately.

Principle #4: Experiment and Explore

One of the most distinctive characteristics I saw in Rivers was the courage to experiment and to try out new approaches. She found certain people who, when properly made up, could stand in as one or another type of character. She was willing to push the directors into accepting them and using them.

She was constantly thinking of how to find more people, attract previous ones back, or use the same person in more than one role. She used women as men and vice versa, and she even was challenged to recruit horses and riders!

All of us can learn from her experiences. As I spent time with her, what became clear to me is that her approach was driven from common sense and need. She is not a trained recruiter, but rather an actress who got diverted by Peter Jackson’s needs.

By applying her creativity and approaching sourcing without any idea of how to do it, she helps shed light on what we all do.

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 ERE.net, 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 kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

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3 Comments on “Lessons from Lord of the Rings

  1. Inspiring Article.
    Great Thanks to Kevin for writing it…

    I especially like the final points encouraging us to not rely soley on technology to find our talent. It’s true, isn’t it, that recruitment existed even before we all had email and internet explorer…

  2. Thanks for the article Kevin. I was at the conference and heard Miranda speak. It was inspiring to hear how she overcame so many challenges to deliver for her client (Peter Jackson). The principle message I took away from Miranda’s presentation that ‘there are never any impossible recruitment assignments, I just haven’t thought laterally enough, yet, to find the right solution!’

  3. True to my General Theory of Listening (Listen long enough and the truth is often clearly stated.), Kevin arrives at the true significance of Miranda’s success, almost as an afterthought. Miranda isn’t a professional – just someone with knowledge of the business she’s recruiting for, some imagination, people skills and drive.

    Kevin’s previous 1,000 words were obviated by the revelation of the last paragraph. Good recruiters can be trained… but starting with the right people sure puts you ahead of the game.

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