Stop Making Bad Tacos — or How to Establish an Internal Executive Search Function

Jan 21, 2011

As the hiring recovery gains momentum, some older recruiting strategies are coming back in vogue. One that seems to be high on many HR executives’ action plans is the need to develop an internal executive search capability within the corporate recruiting department. While the idea offers great merit, the approach many companies take is hiring recruiters or researchers who have worked in retained executive search and have them implement their personal “best practices.”

In my opinion, the likelihood this approach will work is problematic at best, idiotic at worst.

It’s like hiring accountants to do debits and credits any way they want, or letting engineers design products any way they want, or letting salespeople sell your products any way they want, or letting taco cooks make tacos anyway they want. I selected taco cooks only to mention that at Taco Bell they use an extremely detailed checklist on how to make tacos, so they taste exactly the same everywhere. However, most companies seem okay with letting recruiters make tacos any way they want. This, by the way, is my definition of idiotic.

The lack of standardized corporate recruiting processes and practices is why hiring good recruiters is not the first thing to do when building an internal executive search team. In fact, it’s the last thing one should do. The first thing is to recognize that the primary objective for this group to even exist is to fill critical staff, manager, and executive positions with A-level talent. The secondary goal is to reduce the amount of fees paid to external search firms for filling these same positions with equally qualified people. The quality of hire objective should be more important than the cost savings one, since the first is strategic, the second tactical. If you don’t get this order right first, what you do next really won’t matter.

With quality of hire as a primary goal, you next need to consider the A-level candidates you want to hire. Most likely they’re passive, or at least not actively looking. Since they’re looking for career moves rather than lateral transfers, traditional job descriptions shouldn’t be used for messaging or screening. These people might also be outside of the typical comp range, so this needs to be addressed, too. Then consider the fact that they rarely want to work for managers who aren’t leaders or for companies that lack vision, seem unprofessional, or have superficial recruiting and interviewing processes in place. And then to top it off, they won’t talk with recruiters they don’t trust. All of this should be resolved before you begin to hire recruiters.

Now let’s get into the weeds. Part of this is designing your recruiting and assessment processes based on how A-level people who aren’t looking, or are very selective, find and accept new opportunities, rather than how people you don’t want to hire do it. Most companies get this part backwards. They build their processes around a high-volume model designed by some ATS vendor on top of a bunch of legal and comp restraints. This is not how external executive search firms find A-level candidates, so companies shouldn’t either.

It also takes strong recruiters and researchers who are subject matter experts with respect to the job, the company, and the industry. Part of this is having the complete trust of the hiring manager. Most A-level people, who don’t have a short-term economic need to pursue another job, want to engage in a brief exploratory conversation with a hiring manager before getting too serious. Recruiters need to convince managers to agree to do this based just on their recommendation, often without a resume, and the manager must be open and eager to do this. Quite frankly, if the hiring manager isn’t 100% committed to hiring A-level talent, don’t even bother trying. Hiring A-level talent, especially without a well-known employer brand, requires fully committed managers who will put in a 110% effort.

Process consistency — doing the right stuff every time — is also an essential part of the puzzle. While there are many successful approaches, here are the common basic steps that must be followed on each search assignment if you want to hire an A-level person on each assignment:

  1. First, turn the job into a career move, describing the short-term objectives and long-term opportunities, including the employee value proposition. This gets the recruiter and hiring manager aligned with the A-level person they want to hire.
  2. Next, develop the candidate profile, describing demographics, supply/demand constraints, connections, intrinsic motivators, and likely sourcing opportunities. This way you can customize how, what, and where you describe the career move defined in Step 1.
  3. Then create a compelling career-oriented message that can be “pushed” to likely prospects either directly or through referral networks and social media sites.
  4. As part of Step 3, prepare a time-phased sourcing plan that tracks and optimizes quality of hire. This is the most detailed of the steps and needs to be customized to meet the specific needs of the job and the likely candidate demographics. This includes the selection of niche job boards, the development of proactive employee referral networks, using social media, name generation, email campaigns, cold calling, and networking.
  5. As you begin implementing the sourcing program, make sure your recruiters can recruit. This means engaging candidates who might not want to be engaged. As part of this, track email and cold call success rates, candidate quality, and number of high quality referrals per call.
  6. Don’t forget the hiring managers. They have to “own” Step 1 and be willing to talk with everyone the recruiter recommends, even those prospects who want to have a preliminary discussion before getting too interested.
  7. Use an assessment process that works. For a variety of reasons I don’t like traditional behavioral interviewing (e.g., answers can be faked, A-level candidates find it superficial), but I do like an intense performance-based interview that lets candidates know you have high standards.
  8. Use a solution-selling based closing process that creates an irresistible win-win. Recruiting is sales, and all salespeople go through extensive training. Solution or SPIN selling is a process used to craft a custom solution for a buyer with complex needs that needs to be part of a recruiter’s skill set. In the case of A-level talent, it needs to be a formal decision-tree like process that compares your opportunity against all others from a best-career-move perspective.

If you want to develop an effective internal executive search team that can compete with the best outside search firms, start by creating the right culture and redesigning the underlying process as the first step. Then hire the best recruiters you can who can implement this process. Otherwise, you might just wind up with a bunch of tacos not worth the three-for-a-dollar price you paid.

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