How to Activate the Best Passive Candidates in the Federation

Whenever I need an idea for an article I call Doug Berg, the CEO and/or founder, or something like that, at Jobs2Web. So to meet this week’s need, Doug suggested I write about my reticular activator. I thought this was a bit personal, and while initially offended, it turned out to be great advice. I think you will, too.

Many of you know I’m into whole brain interviewing, so focusing on the reticular activator makes lots of sense as a sub-specialty. Whole brain interviewing is based on the idea of controlling your emotional brain to remain objective and using the two-question performance-based interviewing process to map a candidate’s left and right brain responses. This isn’t as exotic as it sounds. In normal-speak it means asking candidates about their major accomplishments to see how they compare to real job needs. (Email me for more on this.)

The reticular activator is the part of the brain the separates the boring do-to-day stuff from the potentially important and critical stuff. For example, if you ask a candidate if she’d like to hear about a cost-accounting job in Topeka, you probably won’t get as favorable a response as if you ask the person if she’d would like to be considered for the last open cadet position at the Star Fleet Academy’s next class.

The point of all of this is that too many recruiters are boring when they leave voice mail messages for passive candidates. To get a top person to call you back, you can’t be boring. You need to tap into the person’s reticular activator to get them to call you back.

Back in the 90s I spent a year teaching a group of hotshot researchers how to get 100% of their voice mails returned. We got close to 85%, so this was a pretty good record. Here are some of the ideas we actually tried out. Some of them didn’t work at all; some of the them worked some of time; some worked all of the time. Modify the ones below to suit your needs and try them out. Track your results until you get to 80% or more. Don’t be surprised when people start calling you back, saying you’ve aroused their interest.

Some Great and Not-So-Great Reticular Activating Voice Mails

  1. Your mother called and told me she wanted you to consider this job. (This actually worked.)
  2. Your boss just called and strongly suggested you consider this job. (This didn’t work too well, but it’s worth a shot.)
  3. You’re the 87th person I’ve called for this senior-level creative director level position, and I haven’t found anyone creative yet. I hope you’re not like the other 86. Even if you’re not interested in the job, I’d love a new idea for a better voice mail.
  4. We’re trying to adopt the marketing concepts Obama used to become President. We’d like to talk to you, if you think you can help.
  5. Our team of seven ASIC design engineers is looking for a new leader. Two of them said they’d like that person to be you.
  6. We just opened a req for a new security analyst cadet for Star Fleet Academy’s Class of 2387. Is this something you’d like to explore? There is some travel involved.
  7. Have you heard the story about the priest and the rabbi who went into the bar across from Fenway? If not, I’d like to tell you about it and what it has to do with our new Plant Manager position.
  8. I call every person I’m referred to at least eight times before giving up. This is the 3rd call.
  9. (Name) just suggested I give you a call. He said you’re one of the best people he’s every worked with, and while you’re probably not now interested in our executive marketing position, he thought you’d know someone who would be. (This one always works if the name is important enough.)

There are a bunch of points and principles demonstrated by these types of messages. First, they’re marketing-oriented. Since they’re not boring, the candidate’s reticular activating system won’t filter them out. This is the critical point. While the person still might not call you back, at least you’ll get noticed. As your callback rate rises, fine tune your messages to get to the 80% threshold.

Now when the person calls you back, don’t blow it and lose your mojo. Don’t be shocked. Maintain your composure. If you don’t, you might say something stupid, like telling the person about the job. If the job has no interest, or it sounds boring, you’ll shut down the person’s reticular activating system, faster than a bear trap on a frigid day in Montana. Not only won’t you secure a great candidate, but also the possibility of any good referrals. (Here’s an article on this critical point you might find useful.)

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So instead of flubbing it, keep the candidate interested with more compelling information and clever pre-planned pitches. Think of this as the old carrot and stick approach by withholding some critical information to induce the candidate to reveal more about herself. Here are some ideas on how to pull off this critical step:

  • Once you get the person on the phone, just ask if she’d be open to explore a position if it represented a significant career move.
  • The candidate is sure to say yes since he called you back. Then say, “Great. Could you give me a super short overview of your background. I’ll then give a snapshot of the opportunity, and if it sounds like something mutually worth pursuing, we can schedule a time to talk in more depth later.
  • Don’t push the process. If there’s a relo involved, or if you’re not sure the candidate is ready to move quickly, suggest another call in a few days, after you’ve talked to the hiring manager. Alternatively, suggest there are other strong candidates you want to contact first before setting up a detailed conversation. For a high-achiever, competition is a great way to maintain or increase interest.
  • Don’t be the pursuer. The idea here is to switch roles. If you can get the candidate to pursue you, and sell you on her competency and interest, you’ll not only close more deals, but compensation won’t be the decider.

Whether you follow this process exactly as described, or not, the point is to understand how the reticular activator can be used as a switch to get and keep a top person interested in what you have to offer. Too many recruiters rush the process, lack an understanding of basic human nature, and complain that everyone they call says they’re “not interested.” You know you’re successful here, when you’re the one deciding if you’re interested in the hot passive candidate, not the other way around.

Lou Adler

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).