Identifying and Recruiting Achievers

Oct 7, 2010

There are two core types of recruiters: those who fill positions with any available candidate, and those who source, recruit and hire Achievers. I define Achievers as those in the top-half of the top-half. These are people who raise a company’s talent bar. In a recent ERE article I described the important of measuring quality of hire and how to do it. Hiring more achievers is how you do it. Now consider this: recruiters who can hire Achievers on a consistent basis are worth their weight in gold, and at $1,300 per ounce, that’s significant.

Unfortunately, finding and hiring Achievers is no easy matter. For one thing, based on a recent survey we conducted with LinkedIn, 75% of them aren’t looking (see more below). For another, they’re harder to recruit, they tend to get more counteroffers, and if they are looking, they get snatched up quickly.

In this article I’d like to accomplish three things:

1) define the Achiever pattern; 2) describe how to quickly identify it during the phone screen; and 3) offer some ideas on how to recruit people who are Achievers. (For those who are less inclined to read, here’s a YouTube summary of this article.)

First, let me offer this generic definition of an Achiever: a person in any job who, year after year, is in the upper 25% based on performance in comparison to his or her peers. This would be considered a B+, or better. Here are some of the ways I would suggest how to define performance, but don’t hesitate to contribute your own:

The Classic Achiever Pattern

  • Consistently meets or exceeds performance objectives.
  • Performance objectives get more challenging each year.
  • Delivers high-quality results on a consistent basis on all types of projects.
  • Works well with all types of people and with cross-functional teams.
  • Works well with all levels of people inside and outside the organization.
  • Makes a significant technical or business impact.
  • Self-motivated, requiring little direction.
  • Goes the extra mile. Does more than required.
  • Gets the results despite the problems and challenges.
  • Doesn’t make excuses, makes it happen.

As a result of the above, the classic Achiever tends to get promoted more quickly, gets formal recognition, and typically earns more in comparison to the 75 percent not in the top quartile. Interestingly, in the first 5-10 years of their careers, Achievers tend to have less absolute experience (in years) than their peers, due to their more rapid promotions. So if a company screens on years of experience, they’ll tend to eliminate many of the high-potential candidates from consideration before they even have a chance to evaluate them. (Note: this is a huge, counterintuitive point. You might want to review your sourcing process to see if this is happening to you.)

From an assessment standpoint, it’s pretty easy to recognize this Achiever pattern, if you don’t first get seduced by the candidate’s first impression and presentation skills, strong or weak. I suggest that during the interview or first phone screen, spend at least 20 minutes on the work-history review. As you go through the person’s resume, look for evidence of this Achiever pattern. This evidence consists of things like:

  • Rapid promotions or assigned to bigger projects at quality organizations.
  • Higher compensation, including extra bonuses and bigger raises.
  • Assigned leadership positions for a variety of projects consisting of multi-functional groups.
  • Formal recognition for exceptional performance, including awards, honors, and letters of commendation.
  • Technical recognition including patents, whitepapers, presentations, and industry acknowledgments.
  • Strong academic background, academic awards, and strong institutions.
  • Upward growth including an expanding portfolio of accomplishments.
  • Mentored others and was mentored.
  • Hires top people including previous employees or was hired by a previous supervisor.
  • Exceptional skills in one or two areas.
  • A pattern of self-development, especially during gaps in employment.

A person doesn’t need to have all of these to be categorized as an Achiever, but to claim the title, look for a pattern of exceptional performance over extended periods of time — especially recently — if you want to hire the person.

Identifying Achievers is actually far easier than finding and recruiting them. The key idea to remember here is that Achievers don’t look for new jobs or accept one the same way as everyone else. The chart above will help explain this.

The blue line represents a growth curve for the typical Achiever over time. During the early phases of a typical next job, the Achiever is growing rapidly, making a big impact, and highly satisfied. This is represented by the far left steeper part of the curve. These people would be the Super Passive candidate.

If the job doesn’t change much after a year or so, growth and impact starts to decline, along with satisfaction. During this phase of diminishing growth, the Achiever isn’t likely to proactively seek another job, but would be open to taking a call from a recruiter to explore better career opportunities. The key to attracting these Explorers is the need for a clear career move. Since they’re fully employed, not looking, and reasonably satisfied, they have no need to compromise. To attract Achievers in this phase, you need to move slowly and engage in a series of career-oriented information gathering sessions.

Many Achievers find new jobs during this Explorer phase. Obviously, not every top person finds a job this way. If not, and growth continues to decline, Achievers move into the Tiptoer phase. In this job-hunting phase, these people call former close associates and previous mentors, asking to be considered for opportunities as they develop. The scope of this is very narrow, contacting trusted confidants only, since the person is still fully employed. This is true networking, and many of the remaining top people get jobs this way. While they’re not as picky during this phase as Explorers, Achievers won’t settle for less than a significantly better job.

For those Achievers who don’t find new opportunities either during the Explorer or Tiptoer phase, a more classic job-hunting process begins with using search engines, niche job boards, and more expansive networking. If they’re fully employed, they’ll still be looking for the best opportunity in comparison to what they have, or what they’re considering. From a recruiting standpoint, they’ll be picked up very quickly, typically within a week or two after starting their expanded search process.

My advice to companies and recruiters who want to attract more Achievers is to be different, be first, and offer career moves, not lateral transfers. Very few Achievers are ever so desperate that they’ll take a job that doesn’t offer significant upside opportunity. If you do happen to hire someone under these conditions, expect the person to leave at the first sign of an economic upturn.

At a primary level, being different means your job postings have to emphasize career opportunities and clearly define what’s in it for the candidate. (Here is a LinkedIn and SHRM posting that will give you a sense of how job advertisements should be written.) Being first is important, too. Unless your recruiters or employees are snatching these Achievers up before, or as soon as they enter the market, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to source and hire enough of them to raise your talent bar. But even if you do find enough of them, you still need to offer them true career opportunities in order to hire them.

We just completed a joint survey project (September 2010) with LinkedIn focusing on the job hunting status of its 75mm+ members. These results will be published shortly, but for now, consider the fact that more than 75% of the people categorized themselves as Super Passive, Explorers, or Tiptoers. This means only 25% are active or semi-active. So while the idea of hiring more Achievers is a worthy objective, achieving it will take a major redirection of the sourcing, recruiting, and hiring processes most companies now employ.

You can quickly determine if you need to rethink this process at your company, just by categorizing all of your candidates as Achievers or not, using the definition presented earlier. If you’re not seeing or hiring enough, you know you need to start doing something different.

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