Corporate recruiting is a field where there are distinct and measurable differences between the average and elite functions. In short, what that means is that “elite” recruiting functions (defined as the top 1%) produce superior results and act in ways that are totally different from the average function.
I am frequently asked during corporate presentations to cite the difference between “good and great” recruiting functions. Well, as a former chief talent officer and someone who has spent years devoted to identifying what makes the handful of elite recruiting functions unique, I’ve come up with an assessment tool. It is a checklist that can be used by recruiting leaders as a self-assessment tool in order to determine how they compare “side-by-side” to the few firms that have reached this elite status. The 40 defining characteristics are broken into seven distinct categories and they are listed in a numbered format for easy scanning.
The 40 Defining Characteristics of an “Elite Recruiting Function” in 2012
If you compare the strategic plans, processes, and programs of two recruiting functions at similar sized firms, you’ll find that the elite functions have or are planning to add at least a third of the following elements. In direct contrast, the average function will have but a handful to none of the items.
The Top Five Differentiators
The five most important differentiators between average and elite recruiting functions are:
- A business-oriented leader – the first and most important differentiating factor is the leader of the talent acquisition function itself. Elite leaders demand to be on the competitive leading edge, in spite of resource or other limitations. These leaders are much more businesslike and as a result, they are focused on creating business impacts and helping the organization reach its business goals. As a result, elite recruiting leaders are data-driven, more aggressive, and much less risk-averse than the average recruiting leader. They are usually laser focused on recruiting excellence and they expect to spend most of their careers in recruiting. Examples of these “elite” recruiting leaders over the last few years include Tony Blake at DaVita, Larry Clifton at CACI, Arie Ball at Sodexo, Paul Marchand at Pepsi, Jason Warner at Google and Starbucks, and the best of them all, Michael McNeal at Intuit. Elite leaders also help to improve the recruiting profession by sharing ideas through writing, blogging, and speaking at major recruiting events.
- Measures quality of hire — a recruiting function cannot know how effective it is and it certainly can’t increase its results to an elite performance level unless it measures the on-the-job performance of new hires. Often called “quality of hire,” this measure tells leaders that their recruiting process is producing hires that are top performers on the job, that have a high retention  rate, and that are diverse. This quality-of-hire statistic is then used to validate the effectiveness of individual recruiting tools and approaches.
- Converts results to revenue impacts — each year elite leaders can show the positive ROI of the recruiting function. Elite recruiting executives are focused on increasing business results in important areas like revenue. As a result, elite leaders work with the CFO’s office to develop a process to “convert” traditional recruiting metrics (i.e. time to fill, unfilled positions, employer brand image, and quality of hire) to their dollar impact on corporate revenues. They also calculate the performance differential between a top-performing hire and an average one in the same position, so that they can demonstrate the added value of recruiting top performers. And finally, elite functions focus their recruiting resources on positions that have the highest revenue and business impacts.
- Builds a recruiting culture — the best functions realize that there will never be enough recruiters or recruiting resources to do everything well, so they develop a plan to create a recruiting culture. Under a recruiting culture, every employee and manager accepts the role as a 24/7 “talent scout” and in that role every employee is constantly identifying high-quality prospects through their social media contacts and at professional events. Every employee also accepts the goal of “top grading” and as a result, they make only quality referrals and they push their managers to ensure that only the best are hired.
- Data supported decision-making – elite leaders make all major decisions based on data. They demand that everyone and every process use metrics  to measure results. They insist on measuring critical results including new hire performance, user satisfaction, referral hire percentage, the quality of those “not hired,” and source effectiveness.
- Leaders go first – the very definition of a leader is that they go first. As a result, elite recruiting leaders are willing to try new approaches and technologies before any other firm. Because they are risk takers, they are not afraid of failure when they pilot a new approach, because they learn a great deal from every major error using failure analysis.
- A compelling recruiting strategy — their recruiting strategy has a name and a written plan to guide those operating under it. The recruiting strategy is selected in order to optimize recruiting results. Leaders, hiring managers, and all recruiters can explain the advantages and the key elements of their own recruiting strategy. The recruiting strategy is also agile and it is adaptable to low, normal, and high business growth rates.
- Clear goals – in addition to a recruiting strategy, each recruiter, process, program, and the overall function has clear and measurable goals to ensure that operationally everyone is focused on the right things. Each goal is assessed at least every six months.
- Provide a competitive advantage — everyone in the function accepts the fact that recruiting is a competitive “zero sum game.” As a result, recruiting continually compares what it does and its results to each of their firm’s talent competitors. The goal is to provide a compelling case to your executives that you have produced a continuous and measurable competitive advantage over your talent competitors.
- It is future focused — because the function is forward-looking, it owns or actively participates in workforce planning . Leaders also forecast upcoming problems and opportunities and provide “alerts” to managers so that they can prepare for these events.
- Benchmark only elite functions – the best firms don’t settle on “best practices; instead, they strive to identify “next practices.” Because of that goal, they only benchmark against other elite recruiting functions like Google, DaVita, Sodexo, Zappos, Deloitte, CACI, and Intuit. They also study other successful internal business functions like supply chain and CRM for practices and tools that can be adapted to recruiting.
- A focus on talent solutions, not recruiting — average recruiting leaders are narrowly focused and they often see recruiting as “the answer” to all talent problems. In direct contrast, elite recruiting leaders see the big picture and work with those in the other talent management functions (i.e. development, retention, technology substitutes, and internal movement) to ensure that the “appropriate” talent management solution is used each time (even if it is not a recruiting solution).
External Indicators of an Elite Status
- Powerful employer branding  – leaders realize that the only way to build a long-term competitive advantage in recruiting is to build a strong external “employment brand.” Instead of relying on advertising and on their non-authentic corporate career site, they build their brand virally in traditional media, social media, and throughout the Internet. Elite leaders periodically measure their employer brand and compare it to their talent competitors’ brand rating.
- It wins awards — the company regularly appears on the Fortune, Universum, and on local “best place to work” lists. An elite recruiting function and its leaders regularly win awards and are recognized in national and global recruiting competitions and recognition ceremonies.
- It is talent centric – elite leaders understand that top prospects and candidates hold most of the power in a recruiting relationship. Because of that, they are “talent centric” so they focus on the needs and the expectations of the candidates. They also realize the tremendous negative impact that a weak candidate experience can have on future applicants, potential customers, and your employer brand. As a result, they use CRM approaches and measure and continually improve the candidate experience until it’s the best in the industry.
The Function Is Targeted and Focused
- Jobs are prioritized — because all jobs do not have the same business impact, the recruiting function prioritizes jobs and then disproportionately focuses additional resources on recruiting top talent into key positions. Recruiting processes and programs are also prioritized to ensure that the most effective recruiting programs and approaches receive the most funding and support and that weak performing programs are dropped.
- A focus on those not seeking a job – their primary focus at elite functions is recruiting the very best directly away from competitor firms. In order to meet that goal, direct sourcing  is the primary approach. This “passive” focus means that less than half of all hires are active candidates.
- Capability of hiring innovators – most business executives now fully understand the dramatic impact of innovators on business results. Therefore elite functions maintain a superior capability for identifying, attracting, and hiring both known and little known innovators from throughout your industry.
- Internal executive search capability – rather than outsourcing this high impact and high visibility area, elite functions develop their own effective internal executive search function.
A Focus on High-impact Tools and Approaches
- Employee referrals  exceed 50% – because referral programs produce such a high-quality hire, recruiting needs to develop a “world-class” program. Referral programs provide an additional advantage because they leverage employee time and their social media contacts. And as a result, referrals should get a significant budget allocation and the best recruiters should be assigned to referrals. Eventually, over 50% of all hires should come through the employee referral program.
- The mobile platform dominates — because of its 24/7 availability, its high response rate, and its multiple capabilities, there must be a plan to make the mobile platform the dominant recruiting communications platform. Applicants must be able to apply directly for jobs using only their mobile platform (and eventually without a supporting downloaded app.).
- Boomerangs and other high-impact tools – the recruiting function must identify and focus its resources on the highest impact sourcing and recruiting tools. That means that after employee referrals and the mobile platform, elite functions should focus on boomerangs, recruiting at professional events, professional talent communities, and hiring top-quality interns.
- Uses video interviews — because live video interviews dramatically increase the number of currently employed prospects that can participate in the interview process, live Internet video interviews are the standard (at least for initial interviews). Live video interviews also cut down on travel costs and candidate fatigue as a result of traveling.
- Social media for building relationships — because it is an excellent platform for building relationships over time, social media efforts are prioritized and focused on recruiting the hard-to-convince currently employed top talent.
- Market research to know the candidate – elite functions use marketing research tools to fully understand the job acceptance criteria of top candidates. Market research is also used to improve both the placement and the content of job announcements as well as recruiting and branding messages.
Powerful Approaches for Resolving Significant Recruiting Issues
- Motivating hiring managers – while average functions” blame” hiring managers for many recruiting problems and delays, elite functions assume the responsibility for successfully motivating hiring managers to meet recruiting timetables and expectations. Elite leaders work with cynical hiring managers to develop ways to convince and motivate all hiring managers to give a high priority to hiring.
- A global capability – even smaller firms must learn to recruit around the world. Rather than relying primarily on local recruiting agencies, elite recruiting functions use their standard recruiting processes to recruit remotely in all major regions of the globe. This global recruiting capability is especially important when so many jobs are becoming remote.
- Not relying on resumes — elite leaders realized the difficulty of getting current resumes from not-actively-looking prospects. Therefore they have a plan to keep a lack of a resume from becoming a roadblock by using LinkedIn profiles at least initially in lieu of current resumes and to accept “names only” for currently employed top prospect referrals.
- Internal candidate sharing — elite functions develop a process for rapidly and effectively sharing top candidate resumes across business unit boundaries. This ensures that top candidates are not “lost” due to an individual manager’s inaction or “team fit” issues.
- Diversity — elite firms use marketing research and borrow approaches from their ethnic marketing function in order to dramatically improve the effectiveness of diversity recruiting.
- Remote college recruiting – elite functions are shifting toward a “remote college recruiting” approach to minimize travel costs, while maximizing the number of quality students that can be considered.
Operational Excellence Within the Function
- A powerful business case — elite functions make an effective business case to demonstrate to senior managers the high economic return from great recruiting. As a result, they do not have to beg for more budget and their recruiters do not have to carry draconian req loads.
- Rapid best-practice sharing – everyone in an elite recruiting function learns rapidly. The leader of the function facilitates that learning by developing a best-practice-sharing process that allows the recruiting team and all hiring managers to quickly discover and adopt the most effective practices. The process also allows everyone to learn about current recruiting and branding problems and how to avoid them.
- Technology focused — leaders at elite functions realize that all recruiting programs must take advantage of the latest recruiting-related software, as well as Internet and social media sites. In addition, the function must be 100% paperless and electronic in order to be fast and global.
- Recruiting audits — elite leaders develop “excellence checklists” that can be used for auditing or assessing key recruiting programs and systems. Audits are scheduled periodically to identify potential problems and process weaknesses.
- Hiring and developing great recruiters – elite recruiting functions have clearly defined the essential competencies for a great recruiter and they have a plan for identifying and then attracting the best “headhunter type” recruiters in their industry. In addition, they provide advanced training to every recruiter before they are allowed to begin recruiting and they periodically provide training updates to all recruiters and support personnel. The leaders of elite recruiting teams also have a plan to develop the leadership capabilities of their upcoming recruiting leaders.
- Rewarding recruiters — elite functions are unique in that they periodically assess the performance of every recruiter. In addition, they “find a way” to recognize and reward internal recruiters for producing superior results.
- An SLA – elite functions have a written service level agreement with hiring managers to ensure that the roles and expectations of the recruiter and a hiring manager are clearly understood and spelled out.
- Integration with other HR functions – an elite recruiting function integrates with the onboarding and retention teams in order to ensure that those that are hired become productive fast and also stay on the-j b long enough to make a difference. The recruiting function also has effective relationships and formal SLAs with other closely related HR functions including compensation, relocation, and training for new hires.
- Outsource for increased capability — while most recruiting functions outsource in order to reduce costs, elite functions outsource primarily to increase their capabilities in areas outside of their core recruiting competencies.
Many recruiting leaders view this function as a stepping stone to other more desirable HR leadership positions. However, there are a significant number of recruiting leaders who, because they understand the power and impact of recruiting, hope to remain a part of it for many years. If you are a recruiter or a recruiting leader who strives to become one of the elite of this profession, understand the factors that differentiate a good function from a great one.
As Jim Collins so elegantly stated, “good is the enemy of great.” I hope that those who strive to be among the elite in our profession will use this checklist (or they will develop their own) as part of their plan to upgrade their function and their results to elite status. It’s a difficult task because only a few firms have ever attained an elite status and even fewer have been able to maintain that status for more than a few years.