Zen and the Art of Original Research

We know we should go after targets to build a pipeline of candidates — but how do you do it? Let’s assume that you start with a list of 50 to 500 people who on paper have the titles that you want and are not off limits. Before you dial, assemble your tools:

  1. Hone the pitch. Write down a five-second elevator pitch such as the following:

    I am calling from TransCo. We are engaged in a search for the top 5 percent of widget developers to join a top flight team of developers. Your name was suggested as someone with the background who may know that top 5 percent.

    It must be short, sweet and genuine.

  2. Know the “why.” Imagine for a moment that you are a Ph.D. at Texas Instruments who develops chips for telecom. Put yourself in their shoes: Why should you move your family from Dallas, Texas, to Cambridge, Massachusetts to work at another company? Think about: a) Your company’s strengths against TI, b) your weaknesses against TI, c) the opportunities that exceed TI’s ability to propel this person professionally, and d) the threats that TI may pose in terms of behavior, money, and performance that can come back to haunt you. Don’t just “sort of” think about this. You must have cold hard facts if you want to get the top 1 percent. They will not talk with amateurs. You must display “street cred.”
  3. Know what this person cares about. He invested $100,000 to become a Ph.D., so he is not going to move to a different state because “we’re a great company.” Instead try, “I think you may find it interesting that we have a dominant market share in communications ICs for base stations, and since we are interested in maintaining that lead, we commit time, resources, and energy to enabling experts like yourself to win.”
  4. Take away the pressure to move. Lead with this statement: “I am not asking you to make a move. I want to get to know you over the next couple months in the event that you ever become interested in talking with us. I want to be the person you call to meet with our team.”
  5. Re-read the last paragraph fifteen times. You must be thinking, “I am getting paid to make hires every month. I can’t spend my time on engineers who can’t move right now. I need resumes and people now. I have to justify my salary.” Think about that reasoning. Engaging key talent over the phone that develops into candidates may be exactly what your value to the recruitment team is. Remember that cold-calling off of an original research list isn’t the only thing you do to build a pipeline. The time that you spend doing your phone work is just a concentrated effort made every day in addition to candidate referrals, mining, and posting.
  6. Don’t start with the end in mind. If you approach each name on the list as an opportunity to meet someone, you begin to do what I fondly call “percolating” candidates. You develop a group of people with varying degrees of interest. You let it brew. Your goal is to reach out and build trust, exchange contact information, do what you promise, and set up the next time to talk. In other words, treat them like people instead of candidates. You may be surprised with the results when you stop closing them too soon.
  7. Always have a follow-up in mind. For example: “What I want to do next is email you my contact information and talk again soon. Are you around in a couple of weeks?”

One question that I get from recruiters new to doing phone work is that they frequently get interrogated on what the source of the lead is. This question results in call reluctance because they feel uncomfortable answering that question. The answer to use every time is, “I really don’t know. We have a large research effort and I try to stay on top on who is who in industries, and sometimes I just plumb forget.” That’s pretty much the truth.

It’s an Art

One of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. It appears to chronicle the cross-country trip on motorcycles of a father and son. But what it is really about is “quality” ó which the author defines as “what is real, what is good, and what is moral.” He explores these values in a series of conversations — Chautauquas. It is interesting to liken building a relationship over the phone with a stranger as an adventure and as an art versus a science out of a textbook. I like to think of each call as a running dialogue that doesn’t have a finish line. There is something Zen in making contacts in the industry you’re knowledgeable and passionate about, something authentic. Some people may object to this approach. There is reluctance on the part of the recruiting departments internally to poach because of the fear of non-competitive lawsuits. You may find that a high-touch and soft-handed approach quickly disarms these objections.

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It’s Worth the Time

The market for candidates throughout the last two decades has been competitive for the top 1 percent of performers. Within top companies, there is a need to contact the performers at competitors and engage them in an employment dialogue on some level. If you establish a best-practices approach as outlined above and document the results, a recruiter and the company will be in a defensible position that is legal, moral, and viewed with integrity. The hallmark of this plan is calling people and introducing yourself as an industry expert in recruiting, especially when you don’t have the end in mind. Be patient, this process can take time: About 45 to 70 days more time than opening up Monster and pulling down a keyword search find a candidate who needs to move. But that person you meet is your contact, candidate, and network for life — so it is definitely worth the wait. Once you get the hang of it, it is a lot of fun. I find that when I sell them first and then win their trust, the candidate is more qualified, more committed, and the ultimate result is a longer-term relationship.

Allison Boyce is a senior recruiter/global field services at Cloudera. She is a former  international sourcer/recruiter at Guidewire Software.