Raiding Wall Street: Now Is the Time to Cherry Pick the Very Best

You would have to be clueless to not be aware of the turmoil on Wall Street these days. Banks, investment firms, insurance companies, and nearly every type of financial services institution is facing severe budget cuts, layoffs, and bankruptcy. This kind of turmoil makes even the very best employees rethink their current employment situation. When people question their future with a firm, it provides an opening for corporate recruiters at stable firms to proactively raid Wall Street and to “cherry pick” the very best away from firms that in the past were literally impossible for most recruiters to crack.

For great recruiters, this is an historic opportunity that can’t be missed. The elite of the elite are teetering — firms that have for decades had their way with the best talent from around the globe. If you haven’t already developed a recruiting plan to poach the best individuals and yes, even intact teams, there is no time to waste.

Target Top Performer and Innovator “Survivors” Who Hate Stagnation

The obvious recruiting move would to be to target the thousands of financial professionals and MBAs who are about to lose their jobs. While that is OK, if you want to land a true “find,” my recommendation would be to instead target the “survivors.” Survivors are those top performers and innovators who are almost guaranteed to still have a job because they are so valuable. Normally these extremely high-value individuals would be untouchable by corporate recruiters outside the financial industry. However, for a brief period these top performers and innovators will be considering other opportunities because these individuals have difficulty coping with the frustration that comes with frozen budgets, cost containment, limited risk-taking, and the politics of mergers and acquisitions. These top performers and innovators are so good that they will almost certainly survive any buyout, merger, or even a bankruptcy.

This state of uncertainty and stagnation doesn’t bother most employees because they are just happy to have the security of a job, but top performers and innovators hate stagnation. They want to be “in the competitive game” constantly. They don’t want to take a break from the competition. Take Tiger Woods, as an example. If he was on your golf team but senior managers decided with little notice to play no matches for the next year, what would his reaction be? You could assure him till you were blue in the face that he would have a job and a paycheck, but it would matter little; Tiger wants to play against the best every day.

Great players and great employees want to be competing every day. They want to try new ideas and face new challenges. And that can’t happen in an organization where budgets are frozen and executives are laser-focused on trying to restore stability. Anytime an organization freezes hiring, pay, promotions, or budgets, the loyalty of top performers and innovators shrinks immediately.

Perhaps an example will help to illustrate the point. I know an exceptional top performer who had worked only at great high-tech firms from Intel to Cisco. Eventually, he moved to an emerging firm because it promised him fast decision-making and the opportunity to innovate on the “bleeding edge” of technology. He was energized and excited and he threw himself into the opportunity. But suddenly, with no warning, he abruptly quit one day. I was startled because he was so excited about the opportunities and challenges that he faced. So, I asked him: ‘Why the sudden turnaround in loyalty?’ He said, ‘I had no choice, because they froze all development budgets for the next year.’

Because I work at a university where budget decreases come on a weekly basis, I was puzzled. I asked him why the budget freeze was such a big deal; after all, it wasn’t a cut, only a freeze. He answered without hesitation, ‘I couldn’t stand the thought of not taking risks and innovating for an entire year. The stagnation would kill my spirit!’

He made a year with no budget increases sound like an eternity, but to him it was.

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Corporate recruiters are always talking about becoming more strategic, but unfortunately few find the time or develop the courage to take advantage of strategic opportunities when they are presented with them. While the turmoil on Wall Street is a terrible thing, it has presented stable companies with cash in the bank a very rare opportunity. Not only is it a great time to recruit top talent away elite firms, it is also a great time to swoop up smaller- and medium-sized firms that rely on credit to fund operations because credit will be in short supply. Acquiring companies for their talent is not a rare occurrence; unfortunately, it is rarely one proposed by corporate recruiting functions. Truly strategic recruiters should understand the employer pecking order in the labor markets, the business models of talent competitors, and be able to build a short list of “labor investments” that offer great return.

Action Steps for Identifying Top Performers at Troubled Firms

Identifying who you should target to “poach” is easier than you think. Here are some tips on how to do it:

  1. Remember: don’t look on layoff lists. Stars will still be employed.
  2. Use social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) to identify individuals from these firms. Ask those who you do identify to help you out by naming others.
  3. Search blogs written by employees at target firms for the names of top employees.
  4. Ask your own employees and especially new hires if they know any top performers and innovators at your target firms.
  5. Use “names” search firms (research firms have ways of identifying these individuals). There are numerous research firms that, for a relatively small fee, will provide you with the names and the contact information of anyone at a target firm if you know their title.
  6. Identify famous or well-known individuals by running their “Google score.” Key people always have high Google scores. They can be found by searching for major technical terms or job titles, along with a firm name.
  7. Search seminar, association events, and trade show brochures for speakers who come from these key firms. These survivors are likely to be authors and/or speakers.
  8. Offer an increased referral bonus (bounty) for the next few months for top-performer referrals from these key firms.
  9. Purposely include a representative from key competitors in your interview list for job openings. During the interview tell them that you assess top talent in part by their ability to “name other top talent.” If the same names appear across multiple interviews, you are getting close.
  10. Contact former employees at these key firms and ask them for names.
  11. Ask suppliers, customers, and consultants who work with your firm for names.
  12. Use sites like Jigsaw (which collects business cards) to identify individuals with key job titles at these firms.
  13. Use executive search firms that specialize in these industries.

Selling Them on Your Firm

Once you identify the individual, obviously you still have to convince them to make the switch from an unstable firm to a stable one. Some tips that might help you include:

  • Put together a portfolio of arguments demonstrating that your firm has the resources and the executive support to invest in innovation and new ideas.
  • Put together an interview team of executives and innovators who excel at exciting and “selling” others on the vision of your organization. Use this team to convince your target to make the move.
  • Expand your offer letter process to include information on the type of resources, budget, and opportunities that the new hire will have if they accept your offer. Make whatever promises you need in order to convince them that a switch to your firm offers challenge and financial support.
  • Directly ask your candidates what they would need to be successful at your firm, and what it would take to convince them to make the shift. Obviously, you need to use that information to better “sell” the candidate.

Final Thoughts

In a competitive business environment, recruiters must learn to be proactive and seek out opportunities to hire truly exceptional individuals. The turmoil that is resulting from the current financial crisis will affect not just the well-known firms that are going through bankruptcy and mergers, but also many tangential firms that will freeze their budgets and limit innovation as a result of the crisis.

If you have the courage and the ability to act quickly, now’s the time to cherry pick a handful of the survivors and bring them into your firm. Incidentally, if you’re successful, it is highly likely that each one will also bring along a handful of top talent with them, making the ROI of your initial recruiting initiative even higher.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.