Confessions of a Corporate Headhunter

Mar 4, 2010

Spring 2010 conference-logoAt the ERE Expo in San Diego, March 15-17, 2010, I’ll be describing what it takes to be a true corporate headhunter. This is a recruiter who can go head to head with his or her external rivals without compromising quality of hire or time to fill. To pull it off though, you’ll have to break some company rules and break from tradition. In the process you will probably aggravate your comp, compliance, legal, and I/O departments, at least at first. Hopefully, your recruiting manager will intercede and act as a buffer as you plow ahead making a positive contribution.

Before you know it, your hiring managers will be carrying you on their shoulders as you begin to consistently deliver far better candidates than your external rivals. Without unnecessary and contrived restraints you’ll also be finding more diverse candidates, passing every EEO and OFCCP audit and eliminating every wrongful hiring or discharge lawsuit. Within a year even the comp, I/O, and compliance departments will be singing your praise as you bring in more top performers without breaking the compensation budget. (The legal department might be a bit smaller though, since it will have less to do.)

Now to get started with my confession, which will soon become yours, you’ll need to get a sense of the hiring manager support you’ll soon be getting. As an example, here’s an email we just received from a former hiring manager client:

Many years ago Lou hosted an offsite manager event for Synaptics. A few months later I left Synaptics to found a startup with two good friends.It was a fantastic opportunity to take the Adler approach and apply it to a company on day one. I think Lou would be proud to know how much of an impact he has had on our organization four years later.

(Note: Synaptics is a major developer of touchpad technology, and the person’s new company is a well-known, rapidly growing social networking company.)

With this as a backdrop, here’s the short version of my confession, as to how I transformed from being a corporate recruiter into a more successful corporate headhunter. (Caution: go slowly as you try this out. This is only an overview. I’ll provide the longer version and more of the tactics at the 2010 Spring ERE Expo.):

  1. I stopped using traditional job descriptions when taking an assignment from a hiring manager. Instead I now find out what the person needs to do to ace the performance review. These are the same performance objectives we provide to our new hires during the onboarding process, so it made sense to use the same approach when defining the new job. Also, by clarifying job objectives up- ront we get buy-in from the hiring manager, the interviewing team, and the candidates before the person is hired. This list of performance objectives is called a performance profile.
  2. I don’t allow candidates to decide if they’re interested in the job. Instead I determine if I’m interested in them. To pull this off, you need to be a bit vague about the job, move a bit slower, and get the candidate to describe his or her background first. If you determine the job represents a real career move, you can then reel the person in. If not, you can get some great referrals by asking the person about some of their LinkedIn connections.
  3. I dumped traditional behavioral event interviewing since it didn’t help me hire better people or more accurately assess the candidate’s ability to ace the performance review. To replace it, I now use two foolproof questions that enable me to defend my candidates from managers who are superficial interviewers, including those who still use behavioral event interviewing. One of the questions involves getting a very detailed example for each of the performance objectives listed on the performance profile. This generally takes 15-20 minutes each and we assign each interviewer a few to dig into. We then share this evidence in a formal debriefing session when evaluating the candidate. This process naturally eliminates the superficial thumbs-up or down voting process, by going narrow and deep rather than broad and shallow when conducting the interview.
  4. I don’t use KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) and competency models when screening candidates. Part of the problem here is hiring the supposedly “well-qualified” person who doesn’t want to do the work required, or doesn’t fit too well with the hiring manager, team or company culture. The other problem is eliminating great people with a slightly different mix of KSAs who are demonstrated top performers. Many of these are vets and diverse candidates who have non-traditional backgrounds, so this opens up a new pool of top performers for us. For an example of how this works, just consider all of your best employees who get promoted internally or transferred to bigger jobs. They all have less of the K and S, and more of the A, M (motivation to do the work listed on the performance profile) and T (ability to work with and influence comparable team members). During the phone screen I have the candidates describe their most significant accomplishment. I then look at what KSAs, behaviors, and competencies they used to accomplish these results. Surprisingly, some of the best people have far less experience than would have been expected given their performance. These are the high performers I present to my clients.
  5. I don’t sell candidates on the job; I have them sell me. During the screening and interviewing process, I look for career gaps and voids between the candidate’s major accomplishments and the performance objectives listed on the performance profile (e.g., scope, span of control, budget, impact). I then ask candidates to tell me about comparable accomplishments they’ve handled that required them to stretch themselves. You learn a great deal about a candidate this way, and in the process of convincing me that their qualified, they’re also convincing themselves that this job offers a real career move. This not only makes the compensation less important, but it also allows the candidate to convince his or her friends and family that your position offers the most upside potential among other competing opportunities.

So I confess. I broke the rules. I had to. The old rules don’t work, and third-party recruiters don’t follow them, so I was at a huge disadvantage. So if you want to be competitive, you’ll need to become a corporate headhunter instead of a corporate recruiter. But be prepared to break the rules, too. In the process you’ll help your great managers hire more great people, and your average managers hire people stronger than themselves. Even better, the candidates who you hire will be more satisfied, have less turnover, fit extremely well with your culture, work better with their teammates, be more impactful, more productive, and have a great working relationship with their supervisor.

Isn’t it time to start confessing?

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