Contest Recruiting: There’s No Better Way to Find Elite Talent, Part 1

Jul 9, 2006

article by Dr. John Sullivan and Master Burnett It’s no secret that some of the best engineers in the software industry didn’t graduate from MIT or Caltech, or any top-ranked school for that matter. It’s also true that some of the best chefs in the country didn’t attend a well-known culinary school, or intern in a world-famous restaurant. Our point is that oftentimes the best talent doesn’t exist in the talent pool recruiters so often cast their line into, but rather in the shallow ponds that often get overlooked. For a growing number of talent-savvy organizations, the solution to finding the prized fish in the shallow pond lies in awards programs and talent contests.

You may not have realized it, but a growing number of functional excellence awards programs are promoted, sponsored, and, in some cases, even organized by corporations. From math challenges to contests aimed at identifying the best customer service associate in a local geography, these events are quickly becoming a powerful tool used by organizations to build a who’s who database of talent. Even events that are not corporate affiliated are hunting grounds for good recruiters. Why are contents growing in popularity? Well, isn’t it obvious? If you wanted the fastest runner, what better way to find him or her than to wait at the finish line of a foot race? If you wanted someone that could dunk a basketball, the winner of a slam-dunk contest would be an obvious choice. Want the best golfer? Look for the one with the brand new tacky green jacket (at the Masters).

Finding the best in business is just as easy. If you want to identify the very best, it should be obvious that you should target any process that sorts through hundreds of professionals and then identifies the very best. Now is the time to begin looking at the winners of professional awards and contests as recruiting targets. Better yet, maybe you should consider sponsoring your own contest as a sourcing channel. The very best are not hard to find; their names have just been called as award winners.

Recruiting at Contests? I’ve Never Heard of That!

Now, maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “I’ve never heard of that before,” or “My company would never do that.” But, before you start thinking negatively, realize that the practice is actually quite common. Notable firms like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Intel, UBS, Bloomberg, Motorola, and even the National Security Agency have used contests as recruiting mechanisms. If you haven’t used them, you’re missing out on one of the most cost-effective mechanisms for identifying the very best. If you haven’t seen it, it might be because most awards and contest recruiting is stealthy.

The Benefits of Recruiting Contest and Award Winners

There are numerous reasons why you should recruit contest and award winners. Some of the primary reasons include:

  • It’s easy. Finding the winners is incredibly easy because the names of the winners and the finalists are almost always published.
  • Selection is based on results. Contests focus on results rather than the more prominent screening criteria of education or experience. As a result, when you recruit an award winner, you’re getting someone that has actually produced superior results.
  • They’re a great source of ideas. If you run the contest, even if you don’t end up hiring one of the winners, you do get to capture all of the answers and ideas that were generated. Many times, the business value of these ideas far outweighs the cost of the contest.
  • It’s also a learning tool. After identifying award and contest winners, the conversations with them can be great learning mechanisms, whether you hire them or not.
  • Referrals are another output. Obviously, you can’t hire every award winner, but you can certainly build a relationship with them and use them as a referral source. They might refer mentees, people they know, or even members of their own team that need new experiences or who are in dead-end positions.
  • It’s cheap. If the contest is run by someone else, there’s no cost in capturing the names of the winners. If you run the contest, most entries can be done online, so there’s no paper and the administration is easier. For software contests, the entries can even be assessed automatically using software.
  • It’s low-volume and high-quality. Most recruiting sources get you high-volume and low-quality candidates and, as a result, sorting is a nightmare. However, when you’re recruiting award winners and contest champions, there are no “turkeys” to screen out. All of them are winners, and often even non-winner participants are also top performers (in the Academy Awards, even the losers for Best Picture are probably outstanding).
  • They’re less biased. Because most contests are anonymous and are based on real problems, the process is generally less biased than most face-to-face selection processes.
  • It’s global. Because contests can be web-based, it’s possible to get global award winners and thus global recruiting targets without having to get on an airplane.

Still Not a Believer? Would You Believe That a Contest Can Find Gold Underground?

How about a contest to find gold underground that was won by someone a continent away that never set foot in the mine? In this example, a contest was held to find a business solution. Rob McEwen, a former banker with Merrill Lynch, followed the dreams of his father who had a passion for gold. Rob became a majority shareholder in Goldcorp, Inc., which owned an underperforming mine in the Red Lake gold district of Ontario, Canada. The mine had extremely high operating costs, labor issues, and was producing less than one-third the gold that other neighboring mines were producing. Rob looked at the output from a neighboring mine and decided he needed another way to find it. This industry had historically relied on hiring large teams of geologists who would conduct site studies, take core samples, and predict where the gold was, but this approach was not proving successful. Desperate, with resources being depleted, Rob’s investment wasn’t looking like a good one. While attending a conference on open source technologies at MIT, Rob was struck by the effectiveness of the open-source model. He soon realized that what he needed was a new way to get hundreds of scientists and geologists whom he could not afford to put on the payroll to help him find his mine’s gold.

With this in mind, he made a risky move. At an industry conference, he unveiled the “Goldcorp Challenge,” in which he challenged the best around the world to find his gold remotely. Rob made all of his company’s past geological data available to anyone who wanted it via the Internet, with the premise that whoever could provide the most viable solution to help him find his gold would win the $105,000 top prize. More than 1,400 parties in 50 countries registered and downloaded the data. To everyone’s surprise, a team of geologists and geoscientists in Western Australia, thousands of miles away in another hemisphere, used the data to produce a 3-D map of the mine, pinpointing where gold would be found. They won the contest based on a judging panel of five industry experts. Once implemented, the open source solution proved to be phenomenally successful, increasing output from the mine by an amazing 10-fold. The lesson to be learned is that contests can harness the talent of hundreds of off-the-payroll volunteers from around the world producing a ROI that’s nothing short of amazing.

Contests Also Prove Effective for Internal Sourcing

While most contests used for recruiting purposes focus on finding talent outside the organization, some companies have found them to be profoundly effective at identifying hidden talent already in the organization. MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, for instance, has used contests to identify star chefs, bartenders, and entertainers. During a black-box competition, the hotel’s version of Iron Chef (in which culinary employees from different venues compete against one another), the hotel found an unlikely replacement for an executive chef in a four-star restaurant. A 23-year-old sous-chef from one of the hotel’s more budget-oriented eateries rose to the top, besting professionals handpicked by the world’s most elite chefs. Under the direction of this new chef, sales in the four-star eatery have gone up more than 400%. No career planning process in existence would have predicted the move, and most organizations would have implemented processes and policies that would have prevented it. But, this approach allows the talent to shine, regardless of where it may come from.

The challenge is not only a great development tool, but it also serves as a morale booster for the rest of the hotel staff; if you can produce results, you can move from a support position on the buffet line to an executive chef of a four-star restaurant in little more than a single pay period!

Other Examples

Some additional examples might further convince you that it’s time for you to catch up and take advantage of this approach.

  • Top Coder. Clearly a best practice leader when it comes to running challenges in the software industry. It holds worldwide electronic code writing contests to identify the very best in software engineering for forward-thinking firms like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Not only do top contestants get job offers, but Top Coder figured out how to leverage the contests to produce code that they could, in turn, sell to organizations. Codewalkers provides similar contests in the web application and development area. WizardHunt offers “contestware” for firms.
  • Matching problems with problem-solvers. One company, InnoCentive, was recently highlighted in Bill Taylor’s leading-edge “Mavericks” column in The New York Times. InnoCentive’s leading-edge site allows companies to post their latest problems online and provides problem solvers an opportunity to submit solutions. The winning solution gets a monetary prize and the company gets outstanding answers and the names of some outstanding problem-solvers. If you can propose a catalyst system for an improved synthesis of a monoresorcinyl-triazine, your solution could be worth $50,000.
  • Professional associations. Nearly every professional association holds both national and local awards and contests. For example, the IEEE holds an annual Robotics Challenge, a prime recruiting event for electrical and mechanical engineers.
  • Department of Defense. Even the government has gotten into the contest game, offering prizes for university teams that develop driverless cross-country vehicles. Hanging around the pits at these events will produce candidates who are several levels above those who can be found at most college career centers.
  • Quicken loans. This forward-thinking firm has contest plans for the best customer service person and the best salesperson.
  • The best wait person. One major hotel chain held a “find the best waitress/waiter contest,” challenging its employees to identify the very best in their city. In essence, this created the world’s first employee referral contest.
  • Student challenges. Colleges have been holding “drop the egg from the roof” and “Concrete Canoe” contests for years, and the winners are highly sought after. Similarly, winners of debate contests are sought out as potential salespeople, and photography and film contests make it easy to identify the best students in media.
  • Scholarship contests. There is no better way to get detailed information about the best college students than offering a scholarship and then utilizing the application data to identify potential college interns or hires.
  • The best nurse. The New York Times recently ran a full-page ad asking individuals around the United States to submit the names and stories of wonderful nurses. Think of the learning, referral, and recruiting value if you could develop a contest or process that captured the names and stories of the best nurses in your region.
  • NFL-type draft. National Oilwell Varco holds an internal NFL-style draft for its college hires after they complete their initial rotations. A brilliant approach because competition raises management’s attention, and it also brings out the best in almost all situations.
  • The best in HR. Even SHRM holds Jeopardy-type contests among its university chapters. Anyone who wins an Optimas or ERE Recruiting Excellence award is certainly also at the top in his or her field.
  • The best salesperson. If you spend a lot of time at the bars of hotels that cater to a lot of company events, just look for those with brand-new Hawaiian shirts or leis around their necks. Invariably, they just won the best salesperson award and thus, a free trip to Hawaii.
  • Others. Interactive Brokers Group has an electronic trading Olympiad, the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, which helps identify the best at building barriers to hackers. In addition, Legoland California has a contest to find the best model builder, and L’Oreal has its e-Strat challenge.

As you may have concluded from all of the examples provided, contests are anywhere and everywhere these days. While top candidates will walk away from recruiting processes that feature in-depth online assessment, they love opportunities to showcase what they can do, and contests and challenges provide that opportunity. Hopefully, your creative juices are flowing and your competitive spirit is engaged, and a concept for contest or challenge is brewing in your mind. If you’re ready, stay tuned; next week, we will discuss the major action steps required to take advantage of contest recruiting.

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