The Ultimate Guide for Finding Innovators — Use It to Jumpstart Corporate Growth

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Feb 18, 2019

Even though increasing corporate innovation is almost always a top-five CEO goal, surprisingly few in recruiting realize that the highest business-impact action in corporate HR is the hiring of innovators. Innovator new hires make an immediate quantum difference in an organization’s performance, direction, and image. Top executives at firms like Google, Apple, and GE have calculated the tremendous “performance differential” of their exceptional talent (this differential is the number of times that their produced value exceeds that of the average worker in the same job). Multiple differentials can range from 10 times to a breathtaking 300 times.

Even though the hiring of executives and salespeople also make a difference, their bottom-line impact pales in comparison to that of hiring powerhouse product innovators who get their ideas implemented. Because of their tremendous value, executives and hiring managers at almost every firm consider innovators to be game changers. And that’s why they are currently clamoring for more innovators.

The Highest Valued Firms Excel At Hiring Innovators

It’s no coincidence that the firms that are consistently rated as serial innovation firms are also consistently the top-ranked firms in market cap (currently Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, and Facebook). If you need to jumpstart corporate growth or turn around a struggling organization (like Sears or Yelp), hiring more productive people simply won’t be enough. Instead, you will need to recruit as many innovators as possible, because it’s almost impossible to quickly develop them internally.

A Quick Illustration of the Tremendous Dollar Value of Innovators

A quick story might highlight the value of simply knowing the names of these innovators. I was helping a Wall Street Journal reporter during the last war for talent who had just published a story highlighting the top 10 emerging innovators in the Silicon Valley. During our conversation, she mentioned to me how surprised she was that a company had contacted her after the story ran and offered her $5,000 for each of the remaining 10 names that didn’t make it into her published article. Ethically, she could not accept that $50,000 offering but the incident made it clear to both of us the tremendous value of “just knowing the names” of emerging innovators.

What Exactly Is an Innovator?

Before you can find innovators, recruiters need to know what to look for. I define innovators as those who had and implemented a corporate idea that improved product or process performance or features by at least 25 percent. And when you are looking, also target serial innovators, those who have successfully implemented their innovative ideas multiple times.

The Biggest Roadblock Is That Innovators Are Extremely Hard to Identify

I started my research on identifying innovators over five years ago with my then-associate Trena Luong (now at Google). Our research found that convincing innovator candidates to accept a job is difficult, and by far the biggest roadblock was identifying potential recruiting prospects who were actually innovators. Also, identifying innovators is made more difficult because the word innovator is not in their job title. Surprisingly, they seldom actually call themselves “innovators” anywhere in their resume or LinkedIn profiles. Most are continually employed. They seldom look at job postings or respond to recruiter calls because they are seldom active jobseekers. The most effective recruiting approach is to first identify them, build a trusting relationship over time, and only then to try to actively recruit them.

My research has also revealed that using an intuitive approach seldom works when you’re recruiting innovators. The only effective innovator sourcing approach is a data-driven one. So, here is my checklist covering the most effective data-proven approaches for identifying innovators as recruiting targets.

The Ultimate Idea Checklist for Identifying Innovators to Target

Start off your sourcing plan by realizing that there is no single silver bullet solution for identifying innovator recruiting targets. Instead, what is required is a combination of identification approaches. Here are over 25 effective sourcing approaches to consider if you need to build a strong pipeline of innovators. They are broken into four categories, with the most impactful ones in each category listed first. Pick the ones that best fit your culture and your level of recruiting aggressiveness.

I) Human referrals are still the best way to identify innovators

Despite the emerging technology tools today, human recommendations are still the best way to identify innovator prospects.

Boomerang rehires. Innovators with a proven track record that you know the most about are former employees. Fortunately, some of your former innovator employees might be willing to return. So, maintain a relationship with the best and periodically let them know that they would be welcomed back. Incidentally, it also makes sense to revisit past candidates that you labeled as innovators that might now be more available, skilled or interested.

Referrals from your own innovators. Innovators know other innovators. Take advantage of that fact by asking your own innovator employees in a face-to-face meeting for referrals, stimulating their thinking. Ask them to identify innovators who they have worked with directly at other firms, knew in college, and those that they follow online and in the functional literature.

Also, ask your innovator employees if they are mentoring anyone, because at least one of their mentees is likely to also be an innovator. Be careful about asking average employees to refer innovators because they may flood your referral system with people who are not even close to being innovators.

Referrals from proven job references. Go back to the job references of last year’s new hires who have successfully recommended innovators. Thank them and then ask them if they know any other innovators, even one of their mentees. If they provide good names, ask them to become a permanent referral source.

Referrals from new hires. During onboarding ask all new hires to identify both the proven and the emerging innovators who were working at their last two firms. Consider offering them a significant bonus if they help to land any of them.

Referrals from innovators already in your talent pipeline. Once you build a relationship, ask innovation candidates in your own recruiting pipeline (who are not ready to change jobs right now) to provide you with the names of other promising innovator prospects who they know.

College hires and grad assistant recommendations. If you’re targeting college innovators, realize that my data reveals that rather than professors, their graduate teaching and research assistants are most likely to be able to precisely identify the true innovators. Teaching assistants work alongside the best innovators.

Ask association leaders. Professional association leaders in each technical field to know of emerging innovators. Also, ask industry journal editors to periodically provide you with names.

II) Identify innovators through their work

If you wanted to identify an emerging innovative artist, you would spot them by viewing their work. Fortunately, the same approach works for corporate innovators. So, identify innovators through their online work.

Ask your employees to look for innovative work when they are learning and benchmarking as part of their job. Recruiters seldom have the expertise to identify innovators by looking at their posted work. So, periodically remind your innovative employees to be on the lookout for pictures, videos, or designs that reveal innovation. When they find innovation during their normal work efforts, simply ask top employees to capture the names of the creators of innovative work or ideas that they find in articles, blogs, and comments on technical forums. Also, ask employees when they find a new innovative best practice at a firm to dig a little further to identify the name of the primary innovator behind that practice.

Ask employees to look for writing covering emerging innovation trends. Innovators are always forward-looking and open. They often write about emerging and future trends. Encourage your employees who read emerging trends types of articles and blogs to capture the names of contributors.

Ask employees attending innovation conferences to be on the lookout. Ask your top innovators to name the conferences or seminars that many innovators are likely to attend. These may vary from “the future of …” conferences to Comic-Con. Then ask them if they are attending to be on the lookout for innovators in your targeted technical areas.

Look at the people who your innovator prospects endorse. Innovators are well aware of other innovators in their field. A backdoor way of identifying more innovators is once you identify an innovator prospect, use their LinkedIn profile to see whom they recommend, endorse, connect with, or follow. These professional connections are also likely to be innovators.

Look at patent applications. In many fields, innovative ideas are patented. Ask a technically knowledgeable employee to periodically scan recent patent applications in their functional area. Search for existing patents in a prospect’s resume and social media profiles.

Look for the winners of online contests. Many online technical contests require innovative solutions in order to win. Look at contest finalists as potential innovator recruiting prospects.

III) Look for innovator identification actions that innovators routinely take during their innovation process

When you’re sourcing innovators on the Internet, look through online resumes and social media profiles. Unfortunately, identifying innovators through their use of self-descriptive key words (maker, disruptor, inventor, and pioneering) that reveal an innovator can be problematic. Many innovators simply make no attempt to label themselves as innovators. Instead, try to identify innovators through the actions that they take. I call them “innovator identifier actions.” There are certain actions that are required in order to produce successful innovation results (e.g., collaborated with downstream teams). Start by conducting an analysis of your own innovator employee’s resumes and social media profiles to see if they routinely take any of these “10 identifier actions” (or any additional ones) during their innovation process.

They seek out disruptive solutions. Innovations are by definition disruptive. Look for people who set goals to disrupt or create an inflection point. Those who simply strive for continuous improvement are not innovators.

They practice self-directed leading-edge learning. Research at Google found that two key factors that contributed to innovation were self-directed discovery learning and collaboration. Look for individuals who begin their innovation process through self-directed leading-edge or bleeding-edge learning. Google also looks for those who have the “intellectual humility” to admit that they don’t know it all and to actively explore solutions they might not have initially supported.

They collaborate. Collaboration is a major contributor to innovation. Look for indications that they work closely with others in order to flesh out their ideas and to ensure that their idea gets implemented.

They don’t give up after several failures. When you’re innovating in a new field, expect a series of failures. Innovators are not discouraged by even a series of failures. However, they don’t give up and they consciously learn from each setback.

They strictly use a scientific data-driven approach — rather than brainstorming, intuition, and simply dreaming up creative ideas. Innovators almost always start exploring new ideas by gathering data. They also exclusively use the scientific method and data to make decisions. They also prove each of the steps of their idea using “proof of concept” tests.

They spread their ideas through articles, blogs, and presentations. Unless their company (i.e., Apple) prohibits it, innovators often act like peer academic scientists who are eager to share their ideas, their successes, and even their failures. So, look for those who spread the word about their successes and failures in written form and during conference presentations.

Look for indications that they view everything as soon-to-be obsolete. The primary factor that drives them to seek out innovation may be because they see everything as “soon-to-become obsolete.” As a result, I label many innovators as people who see the Glass as Half Empty and Leaking (a GHEAL). Therefore, don’t reject innovation prospects who may initially appear to be cynics or critics and who are “not optimistic.”

They take calculated but high risks. Risk taking is an essential part of the innovation process. Look for those who have taken above average but calculated risks.

They use cross pollination. Rather than working exclusively within their own backyard, they consciously try to learn from other functions, business units, and industries.

They conduct failure analysis. After all major failures, they conduct a formal failure analysis in order to maximize their learning from each failure.

IV) And finally, still attempt to identify them through key words and phrases

Start by searching for technical terms. Although finding innovators with a keyword search is difficult, it’s still worth a try. But don’t start by looking for words like innovator. Instead, focus on looking for technical terms that only an innovator would likely use.

The first step is to work with your existing innovators to identify the advanced technical words or phrases in a functional area. Try to identify advanced words and phrases that indicate that your prospect is more than casually involved with any of the emerging bleeding-edge technologies or solutions that you are targeting. Their use of these advanced technical terms in their social media profiles, resumes, or online writing may in fact be the most effective keyword-based approach of all.

Next, look for phrases that indicate their intent to disrupt. Modern ATS systems are now much better at identifying top prospects through keywords, skills, and capabilities. As a final effort, it still makes sense to look for phrases that might identify an innovator. Conduct an analysis of your own innovators’ resumes and social media profiles to see if they routinely use consistent words and phrases to describe themselves, their goals, and their work.

  • A maker or a builder — are terms that may be used to describe themselves.
  • “Disruptive solutions” or “Industry upheaval” — are phrases that describes strategic work goals.
  • “Leading-edge technologies” — may be used to describe their learning target in the technology area.
  • Their goal was to “completely reinvent it” — when referring to their approach they often say that rather than building on existing systems, they instead completely reinvented it.
  • Words and phrases they use when they self-describe their targeted level of change — innovators often use descriptions of their targeted level of change that include … pioneering, vanguard, revolutionary, transformational, experimental, a radical approach or a 180° shift in direction.
  • Words and phrases they use when they self-describe their solutions — innovators often use these words to describe their final solution including … ingenious, inventive, original, a breakthrough, state-of-the-art, a break with tradition, or unconventional.
  • Job title –most innovators don’t have the word innovator anywhere in their job title. However, a few firms like IBM, DuPont, HP, and AMD bestow the title of “corporate fellow” to senior innovators. But these individuals would be extremely expensive and hard to recruit away, so also consider targeting their mentees.

Be Prepared for a Few Surprises

Once you find enough recruiting prospects who are innovators, don’t be surprised when the following occurs.

  • Creative people differ significantly from innovators — those who say that they are creative may only be idea people, but not successful innovators. Because they don’t collaborate and they are not team players, they don’t get their ideas implemented.
  • Many innovators do not turn out to be top performers — when you’re looking for innovators, don’t bypass candidates simply because they are not ranked as top performers. These innovators may not be rated as top performers because they sometimes mentally wander into other areas and as a result they put less emphasis on their standard job description responsibilities.
  • Those who have served in leadership for a long time may cease to be innovators –be aware that remaining in a manager role for a long time may drain a person’s innovative spirits. Be wary of those who were innovators a while back but they have been in a leadership role for too long.
  • Getting innovators through your interview process can be difficult — innovators are often quirky, highly critical, and even egotistical. They don’t always perform well during traditional interviews. Improve your chances of getting a hire by warning hiring managers in advance to be tolerant of some degree of quirkiness. If you need more information on how to evaluate and land innovators who are now candidates, my article covering those topics can be found here.

Final Thoughts

Successfully recruiting innovators has such a direct and significant business impact because innovators have such a high impact on product and process development. But in addition, by recruiting a cadre of innovators, you are likely to increase innovation at your firm even further. This is because they will create competition and your current employees will be forced to strive to meet the new higher standard of innovation.

But in order to receive all these desired transformational results, make it your No. 1 priority to identify, build relationships with, and eventually hire innovators. Prioritizing innovators means assigning the most resources and the top sourcing and recruiting talent. And finally, successfully recruiting innovators in this highly competitive marketplace requires a data-driven approach. So, recruiting leaders need to begin gathering their own data on the most effective ways for identifying and selling innovators.


Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s April event in San Diego on “recruiting in a candidate-driven market.”

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