Stop Making Excuses!

The entire October 30, 2006, edition of Fortune was devoted to the subject of greatness. The primary conclusion drawn from the numerous articles on the topic is that greatness is achieved through hard work in combination with continuous self-improvement. Talent or ability alone is never enough.

To measure a candidate, I use a form (the 10-Factor Candidate Assessment template) with a 1-5 scale using 10 strong predictors of on-the-job success. Surprisingly, the scale isn’t much different from the one described in the Fortune articles.

The following is a quick summary of this ranking, which is a system that you can apply to measure candidate quality and determine whether you are a great recruiter.

A Ranking System to Measure Candidate (and Recruiter) Greatness

  • Level 1. No talent. It doesn’t matter how hard the person works; improvement is unlikely.
  • Level 2. Talented enough to do the work, but puts in barely enough effort to get by. As part of the daily work routine, Level 2 performers tend to make excuses or blame something or someone for their lack of progress. This is the person who needs to be pushed to get average results.
  • Level 3. This person has both the talent and motivation to do the work, consistently and on time without making excuses regardless of the difficulties. As a recruiter, you want to make more placements like this, but you have to convince your clients that a Level 3 performer is not a compromise. A Level 3 person is promotable into a bigger job in a reasonable time frame.
  • Level 4. The person is extremely talented and highly motivated to do more work, or do it faster or at a much higher quality level. In the process, the person will demonstrate continuous personal improvement, will assist others on his team of co-workers in getting better, and will improve the processes under his responsibility. This is a person who can take on a significantly bigger role in a relatively short period of time. Managers need to recognize that they need to offer bigger jobs and bigger challenges in order to retain Level 4s.
  • Level 5. This person has already demonstrated greatness. This is the type of person who takes her work to a higher, and unexpected, level of performance (e.g., exceeds quota by 100%). A Level 5 performer is not only dedicated to self-improvement, but will take personal responsibility for helping co-workers and the company get better. It’s this multi-dimensional aspect (personal, team, process, company) and continuous improvement that garners a Level 5 ranking.

I’ve been tracking individual performance for over 30 years, and have found 10 factors than can be measured during the interviewing process that best predict on-the-job performance. When presenting candidates to my clients, I evaluate them across each of these 10 factors using the above 1-5 scale.

Some factors include technical competency, team leadership, motivation to do the work required, job-specific problem-solving, and planning and organizing comparable work. By treating and defining 4s and 5s as elite and rare, I’ve been able to make a convincing case that hiring 3s is not a concession. In fact, the real secret to successful hiring is to stop hiring Level 2s. Striving to avoid this mistake means all teams will be comprised of 3s, 4s, and 5s, which is a winning combination.

Using a clearly defined ranking system like the one above can eliminate most common hiring mistakes, even when using a sophisticated competency model or behavioral interviewing system. It also allows recruiters to make a convincing case for why managers should be excited about hiring a Level 3 performer.

Based on the 1-5 ranking scale, a 2.5 ranking is average. This means the person is talented to do the work and gets the required work done frequently, but not always. When the person falls short there is a tendency to make excuses, rather than take personal responsibility.

For recruiters, these excuses take the form of blaming a person (“The sourcing department is running bad ads.”); the lack of resources (“The ATS isn’t any good.”); the lack of time (“I have too many reqs to fill.”); the lack of cooperation of others (“Managers won’t spend time discussing the job.”); or just too many things to do (“Most of my time is spent reporting, not recruiting.”).

By definition, most people are Level 2.5 performers, using excuses to justify why they’re not better. So if you’re making the excuses about why you’re not closing more deals, you’re performing at a 2.5 Level or worse, even if you have the capacity to do better.

A Level 3 ranking is justified when the person consistently completes all of the required work despite the circumstances and problems without making excuses. It’s the “without making excuses” part that’s so important here. It means that the person has had to overcome tough challenges and problems every day to get the job done.

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We’ve discovered that recruiters who can rank their own performance honestly then do a better job of assessing candidates. We’ve created a 10-factor online diagnostic form when evaluating recruiters to help here.

When taking the questionnaire, rank your performance, not just your skills, on the following five factors (this is the short version). Keep the 1-5 rankings clearly in mind, especially the “no excuses” part. Grading yourself will make you appreciate why a Level 3 hire is such a great person and why you need to fight harder for your Level 3 candidates.

If you’re honest with your self-appraisal, you’ll see that greatness has more to do with effort than with talent. In a nutshell, that’s what the series of articles in Fortune was really all about.

Recruiter Self-Appraisal

Rank yourself on each of these factors on two dimensions: how competent you are and how much effort you put into the task. For example, if you’re great at the skill described, but make excuses why you can’t or won’t do it, rank yourself a 2.

  1. Taking the assignment. The recruiter clearly understands real job needs well enough to accurately assess a candidate on the 1-5 scale. A Level 3 ranking here means that you’re able to do this extremely well, and that you do this on every assignment without making excuses.
  2. Sourcing active candidates. The recruiter can find enough strong active candidates using whatever tools are needed. Level 3 performance here means you’re probably writing better ads, researching the best boards, reverse-engineering the whole process, and tracking your results. You’re certainly not making excuses. Level 2 performance means you’re posting boring job descriptions where someone else tells you to, then complaining when you can’t find anyone good.
  3. Networking and getting referrals. A Level 3 ranking here means that the person gets at least 50% of his voicemail messages returned, can get just about anyone to talk, and gets at least one good referral on every call. To get a Level 4 ranking here, the recruiter would be working hard to get better on each of these factors. A Level 2 person makes excuses about why no one returns calls, and even those who do aren’t interested in the job and didn’t know anyone anyway.
  4. Recruiting and closing top performers. This is what recruiting is all about: keeping the best people engaged throughout the process, closing top people on fair terms, and minimizing counter-offers. A Level 3 ranking is deserved if the recruiter uses logic, job knowledge, and strong negotiating skills to close most deals. A Level 4 ranking is based on handling more complex and senior-level assignments with more variables. A Level 2 ranking is justified if the recruiter complains that the comp plan is not competitive, the final candidate got a better offer, or the person wouldn’t return the phone calls.
  5. Partnering with hiring managers. Influencing hiring managers at every step in the hiring process is a core recruiting skill. It starts when you take the assignment; it continues as you present top performers who might not meet every qualification listed in the job description; and it ends when you get your client to say yes to hiring the best performer, not the one who makes the best presentation. If you’re a true partner in the hiring process and you do this all the time even with the clients you don’t like, rank yourself a 4 or 5. Give yourself a 3 if you do this at least for the clients you do like. You get a 2 if you make excuses about why your managers won’t spend time with you, won’t take your advice, or if you feel you’re treated as an HR person or administrator in the process.

So how did you score on this greatness quiz? The standards of excellence here were tough, and there was no curve. Consider this: if on the job you’re reacting, making excuses, blaming your clients or circumstances beyond your control most of the time, you’re describing Level 2 performance.

In any job, a Level 3 performer gets the work done consistently despite these challenges. So if you want to become a Level 3 recruiter, stop making excuses and learn how to defend your Level 3 candidates from your hiring manager clients who don’t think they’re good enough.

In the process, you’ll learn how to become a great recruiter.

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).