Hiring a Targeted Innovator Requires Bold Approaches

Feb 18, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 1.47.30 PMThe top 30 boldest actions for recruiting individual innovators

I just returned from the always-powerful CoDev conference, where a prime focus was on the difficulty of hiring and retaining innovators. Almost everyone agrees on the value of innovators, but unfortunately, because of their design and their lack of boldness, most corporate recruiting processes simply cannot successfully hire a highly desirable innovator.

In case you have been unable to get innovators to complete your interview process or to accept your offers, I’ve put together a list of bold but effective approaches that can make it possible to sell and land even the most fought-over innovators.

If you have identified and successfully contacted an individual innovator who you have been targeting (most innovators simply do not apply for jobs), you may be wondering what you should do next. The boldest actions that individual hiring managers and recruiting departments can take to increase their success rate in hiring targeted individual innovators are listed below. These approaches are bold and out of the ordinary, but you simply can’t successfully hire an innovator by offering them the standard employee treatment, candidate experience, and offer content. The 30+ recommend actions are broken into six recruiting steps or categories.

Step 1 — Strategic action steps before you contact them

The recruiting function should complete five strategic steps before the actual recruiting begins. These steps include:

  1. Create a “most wanted” list in advance — at the beginning of your fiscal year, make a list of the 10–20 innovators who would really make a difference at your firm and spend whatever time it takes to build relationships with them. Once a longer-term relationship has been established, the innovator is much more likely to accept an invitation to meet and talk about opportunities.
  2. Create a corporate resource position — it would be a pure coincidence that you happen to have an ideal open position at the exact same time when the innovator was looking for a new opportunity. So, an alternative is to create a corporate resource or “evergreen” position that remains permanently open until they or another targeted innovator is ready to accept an offer. Make sure that the innovator is aware that the position is being held for them.
  3. Agreed to take a risk — varying the hiring process for innovators carries with it a small amount of risk, so let your lawyers know that you are aware of and that you accept that risk.
  4. Create a hiring team — because it takes special skills to land an innovator, put together a special hiring team made up of members with a successful recruiting track record. Provide them with the resources that they need and make sure that they are recognized and rewarded handsomely if the innovator accepts.
  5. Personalize your recruiting — personalize the screening and the interview processes around the prospect’s individual interests and needs. Make sure the process is designed to provide information that meets each of their requirements.

Step 2 — Convincing innovators to come in for a discussion or an interview

Even after you’ve contacted them, it will be extremely difficult to convince them to come in for a discussion or an interview. Some of the approaches that can get them to “yes” to an initial discussion include:

  1. CEO calls having the CEO call them shows the innovator how much the firm is interested in them. You can double the power of the call if the CEO or senior executive will also agree to meet with them personally.
  2. Colleague calls — identify any of your current innovators or top-performing employees who your target knows well. Then ask them to make a contact and to communicate to the innovator how well they would fit and make an important contribution. The colleague can also note that they would consider it a personal favor if they would agree to an interview.
  3. Meet them at an event — many times a personal meeting can be more effective than a call, so an alternative is to look them up at a professional meeting that they regularly attend or to request a meeting over coffee.
  4. Have your best recruiter call — because the initial contact is critical, you can make sure that the person calling is highly experienced at selling individuals at this level by assigning the task to your best recruiter.

Step 3 — Action steps for your first meeting or contact with them

If they agree to a meeting, a telephone or video interview, or a formal interview, here are some action steps to consider. Make sure you have a written plan that covers the do’s and don’ts of the critical first meeting or interview.

  1. Learn their job acceptance factors — ask them the first chance you get to highlight the criteria that they will use to accept a new job. Then later on, periodically ask them throughout the hiring process to acknowledge the factors that have been met and those that have not. Obviously you should use this list of criteria to guide the information that you will provide them with.
  2. Ask them why they are leaving their current job — use this information to convince them that those negative factors are not present at your firm or in this position. Also ask them to identify any deal breakers and then avoid each one like the plague.
  3. Give them a dream job sheet — provide the very best with a dream job sheet. This is essentially a blank sheet that they fill in with their ideal responsibilities, elements of the job, and opportunities they would like to have. Any applicant, not just an innovator, appreciates the fact that the job is being designed around their strengths and interests.

Step 4 — Involve the right people in the interview process

Because who they meet and interact with will have a great impact on their decision, carefully include other innovators, people with good sales skills and people they respect in the interview process.

  1. A peer interview — set up an interview with your other strong innovators. Candidates simply trust their peers to tell them the real truth about the job and company. Because they do the job every day, the candidate will likely feel that they are getting an accurate picture and honest answers to their questions from their peers.
  2. Ask them who they need to talk to — give them input into the interview schedule and ask them specifically who (by title) they need to talk to in order to make their decision. If they need to see work samples or project plans, let them. Educate each individual that they want to meet so that they effectively contribute to the overall sales pitch.
  3. Involve coworkers who they would admire — make sure you also include people that they admire and people with similar backgrounds throughout the hiring process so that they feel comfortable that “people like them” thrive here.

Step 5 — Interview and the candidate experience action steps

The interview process itself needs to be exciting and tailored to the innovator.

  1. Pre-assess them — remember that you’re talking to an innovator with a proven record, so you don’t need to be excessively grilling them and looking for weaknesses. Most of the assessment should be done in advance by reviewing their work and talking to their colleagues, so that a larger percentage of the interview time can be spent “selling them.”
  2. Select and prepare the interviewers — innovators act differently and expect different things during interviews so everyone involved in the interview process has to be trained to accept a little arrogance and some outside-the-box behaviors. You must expect innovators to dress differently and to be highly critical during the interview. Also prepare a list of stories, features, selling points, and examples so that those involved in the hiring process can easily provide the innovator with a high volume of compelling information that builds their excitement over time.
  3. The interview — the interview and in fact the entire assessment process must be redesigned so that it is “tolerant” and inclusive (i.e. expect some craziness) if you expect to get a single innovative person hired. The interview should include elements that specifically requires /allows applicants to demonstrate their innovation and outside the box thinking. The process must not be so structured as to inhibit or even punish people who innovate or think outside the box. Innovative ideas that are captured during the interview process should also be forwarded to the appropriate internal sources if the interviewee does not accept the job.
  4. Complete your interviews in one day — most innovators already have a job, so it is quite difficult for them to attend interviews that are spread out over several days. The best approach is to complete your interviews in a single day. You should also limit the number of interviews to four, so that they don’t get frustrated from “death by interview.” If necessary, offer to hold the interviews at night, on weekends, or on a holiday. You should even consider holding the interviews at a conference that they are attending.
  5. Give them a problem to solve — few interview questions have even a possibility of exciting an innovator. So skip most routine interview questions and instead give them a real problem to verbally solve in order to excite them and to give them an opportunity to show off their creativity (innovators often have significant egos and they want to show off).
  6. Show them your work — often the most effective selling technique is showing them your best work and allowing them to meet your team. Let them see, touch, and interact with your most compelling selling points. Yes, you might be giving away some secrets, but that may be a necessary price to pay in order to convince them.
  7. Go over their dream job sheet — if you have provided them with a dream job sheet, use the interview and meeting time to reinforce the items that you can meet. If they ask for things that are difficult for your firm to provide, make them contingent on their on-the-job performance.
  8. Drop “fit” as an assessment criterion — recruiters and managers have a long history of using the vague term “fit” to determine if they will likely “fit” the department, manager, or firm. Innovators by definition are different and thus they “do not fit” neatly into most organizations. If you want innovation, look for people that actually do not fit perfectly! In some cases they will change the organization (a good thing) and in other cases, most will simply learn to adapt.
  9. Improve the candidate experience — most hiring processes are just plain ugly when it comes to customer service and providing a great experience for the candidate (aka the candidate experience). That weakness becomes critical when you’re attempting to hire innovative individuals because they are almost always in high demand, and as a result they’re less tolerant of being treated poorly during any interaction or process. In fact, many will judge the innovativeness of your screening, hiring, and offer process as an indication of your company’s actual state of innovation. And as a result, if your screening process is dull or intolerant of risk takers, most innovators will take it as a warning sign and they will drop out and even worse, they will spread the word to their colleagues. Make sure that innovators are allowed to be themselves and that they are also treated with the same level of respect that they get at their current employer (because in most cases, their easiest alternative is to simply stay with their current employer).

Step 6 — The offer process

Obviously the offer itself must be compelling, so spend some time refining it and including factors that are difficult to resist.

  1. Avoid the legalese — innovators don’t generally like rules and restrictions, so make the actual offer letter easy to understand and compelling. Avoid legal language whenever possible. In short, make it a simple but compelling “sell sheet” to cement the deal.
  2. Same day hire — because the innovator’s current boss will likely make a counteroffer, give them the offer immediately after the last interview. Encourage them to accept on the spot. Adding incentives for a fast decision (it is known as an exploding offer) can be highly effective.
  3. A meeting with the CEO — having the CEO meet with them and give them their offer is a powerful closing tool.
  4. A salary reopener clause — if their required starting salary is beyond your reach, consider offering them a reopener clause. With the reopener, you agree to renegotiate their salary after they have proven themselves through performance, three or six months after they start.
  5. Show them where they will be in two years — provide innovators with a profile of what “others like them” have accomplished and learned while at your firm. Excite them by showing them where they could be in a year or two if they were to join your firm (Google is a benchmark firm in this area).
  6. Include an “unexpected” surprise in the offer — where possible, try to include something in the offer that was not discussed and that they would not likely anticipate. Surprising them with a WOW or even in a small way will increase your chances of getting a “yes.”
  7. Hire them both — one of the most compelling elements of an offer is the opportunity to work alongside someone they trust. For exceptional candidates, offer to hire a current or former colleague, their own manager, or even a family member. Remember that you’re getting a great innovator, so don’t overly dwell on the qualifications of their “buddy hire.”
  8. Hire the entire team — a difficult-to-afford but powerful incentive is to offer to hire away their current entire team or a significant sub-group of it (this is known as a lift-out). When you hire a group, you get a team that already knows how to work together, so they are likely to produce great results almost immediately.
  9. Influence the influencers — innovators are well connected, so you can be sure that they will check with their mentors and colleagues before they make a final job switch decision. As a result, part of the offer process should involve influencing those influencers, as well as their spouse or significant other.

Final Thoughts

Because innovators may be worth 300 times the value of an average worker in the same job, it is worth the effort that is required to put together a tailored hiring process that can effectively convince these difficult to sell individuals. Even though your firm might have a bad history of recruiting innovators, critical that you now adopt some of the successful approaches used by “innovator magnets” like Google, Facebook, and Apple that have been outlined here. In my experience, the major limiting factor is simply a lack of “courage” on the part of talent management leaders at established firms.


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