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How to Recruit Passive Candidates and Early Birds

by
Lou Adler
Dec 18, 2009, 5:47 am ET

h6520piMaximizing your use of time is the key to hiring more top performers. In a recent webinar with Jobs2Web, I described the sourcing sweet-spot. This is the point just before and just after a fully employed person decides to consider looking for another position. This time-frame represents the window of opportunity to hire the best passive candidates and early-birds with less effort and salary premiums than any other point.

If you get to these top people first, you’ll have no competition, and they’ll be much easier to recruit since they’ve already made the decision to pursue a new job. However, it’s what you do when you first connect that will determine whether you’re successful or not in hiring them. This involves a number of critical recruiting key skills. These are described below.

If you’re a recruiting manager, evaluate your current crop of recruiters and any new hires to determine whether they have these skills or the ability to learn them. If you’re a recruiter and you want to hire more top performers, you need to be exceptional in these areas. As you’ll see, hiring top performers without paying unnecessary compensation premiums requires great recruiters, great opportunities, and great hiring managers. Without these, it just becomes a numbers game. But as Chicken Little, or some other similar authority, once said, “the early bird catches the worm, as long as you have a good fishing pole.”

Passive candidates and those just entering the job market — the early-birds — are a different breed of prospect. For one thing, they’re not desperate. This changes the game entirely from those who have been looking for more extended periods of time. More important, if they’re good, they’ll be very choosy and they will get multiple offers. But since you’re first, and if you play your cards well, you should be able to reel in these top performers in greater numbers than those recruiters who find them after you do. In this case, your competition has to play catch-up. This is a great position to be in. But to pull it off you have to be an exceptional recruiter. Here are the key recruiting skills needed to turn these top candidates and prospects into great hires.

Recruiting Skills Required to Turn Hot Prospects Into Great Employees

  1. You must be able to walk very slowly, not run. People who are fully employed and very strong always have options, even when you get to them first. Most important, they will not move fast. They want to evaluate the situation and compare it to others that will come along. They will give more value to the long-term career growth opportunities than the short-term issues. Good recruiters know they must move slowly, not selling the job, but selling the idea of a staged series of steps where information is mutually shared, all leading toward the best career move among competing alternatives. Moving too fast is a turn-off. It’s equivalent to making a passive candidate complete an application before you talk to the person.
  2. You must be able to instantly convert your job into a career move. Passive candidates and early-birds don’t need another job; they want a better job, generally some type of significant career move. If you don’t know the job at a detailed level, you’ll sound like a used-car salesman selling smoke and mirrors. Knowing the job allows you to ask a few questions early in your conversation to see if there are any gaps or voids in the person’s background that your job fills. If you can fill enough of them, your job becomes a career move. For example, if the budget or team the person has managed in the past isn’t as big as your opening, you have a tremendous chance to excite the hot prospect. Doing this with flair, sophistication, and aplomb is essential, but it all starts by preparing a performance profile with the hiring manager. Without this, assume you won’t be hiring too many great people.
  3. You must have exceptional verbal and written skills. Top people need to see the recruiter they’re using to advise them as someone credible. This means you need to speak well, have a complete understanding of the job (the performance profile), your company, and your industry including the competition. This includes preparing well-written emails and professional advertising copy. If you’re not comfortable speaking to people you don’t know who are more senior to you organizationally, you’ll not be able to influence them to consider what you have to offer.
  4. You must understand human behavior. Candidates’ job requirements change depending on how long they’ve been looking and how desperate they are. You need to find this out right away. If a candidate is not looking, but open-minded, or has just started looking, you need to recognize that the person wants career-oriented information, not detailed job specific information. I wrote a few articles on Maslow a while back that provide some insight on how to adjust what you say and what you do based on where the person is in their job-hunting process. If you don’t modify your approach with this in mind, it’s comparable to selling a hammer to a plumber, or a laptop to someone who wants a smart phone.
  5. You must be a partner with your hiring manager client. Good hiring managers — those who can attract and hire strong people to work for them — are an essential element in hiring more talented people. Good recruiters come next. Eliminating job descriptions is number three on the prerequisite list. Four is recruiters and managers working together, both having a completing understanding of real job needs, trusting each other to accurately assess candidates and jointly working through the recruiting process. If you don’t have all of these elements in place, you won’t be able to hire stronger people unless you have a great brand, an excess supply of top talent, and a willingness to spend more than necessary to convince people to accept your offers.
  6. You must break some rules. If you want to hire top performers who you’ve found in the sourcing sweet-spot, expect to break from tradition and aggravate some people. For one thing, ignore the job description. For another, ask for forgiveness, not permission, from the comp department. Top people are not part of the average population. They make more money, have less experience, and won’t play by the rules. So you can’t either, if you want to hire them. If you’re uncomfortable with this, you need to only handle candidates who have responded to your ads. You won’t find many top people this way, but you’ll sleep better at night.
  7. You must get the candidate to sell you. Selling isn’t recruiting. Paying salary premiums isn’t either, or playing hard-to-get with a person who’s desperate. Anyone can do this. Presenting a career move in a persuasive manner in order to get a top person who’s fully employed and/or has multiple offers excited enough to tell you why he or she is a perfect fit is recruiting. Being able to pull this off is the key to hiring more top performers. It requires that you know the job, use the interview to look for career gaps, and ask respectful, but challenging questions, that encourage candidates to present in-depth insight into what they’ve accomplished. By staying the buyer this way, you’re able to establish and maintain applicant control.
  8. You must determine if you’re interested in the prospect, not the other way around. Most recruiters waste so much time calling up top people — both active and passive — making a bumbling pitch about a job opening, hoping for a statement of interest from the prospect. If not, they move to the next name on the list. If the person says yes, they then qualify the person and hope the person is reasonably good enough to send to the hiring manager for an interview. This is a very low yield and time-consuming process. By presenting your opening as a career move, you’ll be able to get the candidate to describe his/her background before you give too many details. Done properly, you’ll be in a position to determine if you’re interested in the candidate for the opening, rather than the candidate making this decision. This is one of a number of critical steps involved in maintaining applicant control.

You know you’re getting better at maximizing the use of time when top prospects tell you they just started looking or are not looking. If you’re determining interest, you can either then decide to move forward at a slow-but-steady pace, or obtain two to three great referrals if you decide they’re not qualified. Since you’re a partner with your hiring manager clients, 100% of your candidates will get interviewed. Since managers are using performance profiles, not job descriptions, to determine competency and fit, fewer candidates will be excluded for bad reasons or superficial interviews. Since you’re offering career moves, rather than non-descript jobs, fewer candidates will voluntarily opt-out of the process along the way.

On top of this, with a career move as the focus, fewer candidates will be screened out at the beginning and fewer offers will be rejected due to monetary reasons. Collectively, this is how you hire twice as many top performers in half the time. Of course, these are rules you must not break.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Russ Moon

    Agree, recent experience with this population of passives/Early Birds totally paralleled the content of this post.

    They are different, slow is fast, they want more control of the process, the dialogue on their terms in order to begin peaking their interest.

    They are seeking an exchange of information in order to determine if they are interested.

    Yes, even in those initial moments of introduction you do need to gently guide them to begin selling themselves to you even at the subliminal level.

    Thanks for posting this, it really helped reinforce that my experience was not an abnominally.

  2. David Nesbitt

    Exceptional Article. Thank you Lou and ERE.
    Happy Holidays!

    David Nesbitt, CPC | President | Keystone Consulting Solutions, LLC
    T 828-651-0068 | C 828.275-2217
    1059 Columbine Rd. Suite 250 Asheville, NC. 28803
    david@keystonesolutionsco.com | http://www.keystonesolutionsco.com

  3. Jeremy Langhans

    “passive candidates” is so 1999

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  5. Som Halikhede

    this leaves me wondering, no matter what technology one has at the disposal, when it comes to being great in recruitment one should have these skills which are completely human. Technology can never replace these. They can only assisting and make one get more time.
    Very insightful article.

  6. Keith Halperin

    Hmmm. If your time is worth more than ~$10/hr, you or I probably shouldn’t be doing the sourcing, because that’s the retail cost of a strong, virtual telephone sourcer.

    Cheers,

    Keith Halperin

  7. Maureen Sharib

    Keith, I’m going to ask you ONE MORE TIME. Maybe this time you’ll answer – put it out here so all of us can see the proof in this claim. Where in the world are these “$10/hr strong, virtual telephone sourcers”?

    I’m in the business and I can’t find them. Believe me, I’d like to. So, as I requested before, let’s hear some testimony from some satisfied customers who “have” found these wandering minstrels so I might avail myself of this resource.

    You seem to have the answers.

  8. Recruiting Animal

    @Keith – I’ve done contract work for a number of big name classy recruiting firms.

    The guys who make the most money are the people who sell the searches and sell the candidates to the companies.

    But most of these guys could not find a candidate if their lives depended on it.

    Without the sourcer, they have zero to offer.

    And you ain’t gonna get a good sourcer for $10.

    PS: It’s absolutely untrue that everybody is online.

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  10. judy kerns

    Lou Adler “knows his stuff!”

    I am an Executive Sourcer and do nothing but passive candidate sourcing via cold-calling…and I am good at it! I recently recruited two CEO’s for top companies in their respective industries whom have domestic and international responsibilities. None of the candidates I sourced were actively looking for a change.

    I work primarily for independent Executive Recruiters who are recruiting senior-management and C-level executives across many industries. I personally have many years experience working in high tech inside sales where I honed my skills calling on upper-level managers within the IT industry.

    I charge $75/hr and guarantee results! I am based in San Francisco, but conduct searches internationally.

    Should you be interested, please contact me.

    Happy Hunting!

    Judy Kerns
    Executive Sourcing Group
    415.710.4894

  11. judy kerns

    Maureen,

    I have done work for RW Stearns…

  12. Lou Adler

    Judy – you’re doing much more than sourcing here. You’re actually recruiting these top performers. (PS – I knew Richard quite well.) There’s no doubt what you’re doing is worth at least $75 per hour. I’d pay you a heck of a lot more. Send me your email address. We have some searches coming up.) However, I think some people commenting are equating sourcing with just name generation, which isn’t worth this amount.

  13. Keith Halperin

    Lou and Judy, I think you’re both right.
    Lou, I agree with you: building a relationship with a candidate and convincing a candidate/hiring manager to go ahead is recruiting and not sourcing, IMHO.

    Judy,it sounds like what you do is much more than identifying and verifying the contact information of a candidate- you’re providing high-touch, high value-add service which CAN’T be eliminated, automated, or outsourced and is worth every bit of $75/hr and more.

    As I see it, the only folks who have to worry are those that DON”T provide Judy-level services and charge more than about $10/hr.(Maybe there’s some middle-ground, butI don’t know what that would be.)

    -kh, San Francisco

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