He came dragging into his office, completely deflated. Collapsing into his chair, he just stared blankly out the window. This was easily the tenth time in the last two weeks he’d been in a meeting like that, and he was completely exhausted. Yet again, he’d been assailed, by his own manager, and the company president. He saw no reason to treat him like that, or why he should put up with it.
When the phone rang with a recruiter on the other end, he picked up. And this time, it would be different.
A C++ compiler is an extremely complicated piece of software. It translates the language of the programmer into the instructions for the machine. It’s used by the best technicians to create some of the most sophisticated products in the software world. From operating systems and databases, to games and social media apps, a compiler is at the center of what makes computers work.
We were hiring someone to work on the “back end” of the compiler. These are the true geeks working on this geekiest of tools. Their’s is the final output, the machine code, the ones and zeros of the instructions the chips actually run. These geniuses tweak bits and bytes in ways most mortals can’t comprehend. But because their work is at the heart of so much of the computer world, every millisecond they can squeeze out pays dividends millions of times over for literally every computer user in the world.
At the top end of the compiler game, there was a known universe of less than 100 of these magicians. And we knew every single one of them. Not just their name and their title, we knew who they worked with, we tracked their schedules, and we even knew their families. Oddly, a small pocket of these people worked at Kubota, the Japanese tractor company. That was one of the odd quirks of the computer science talent world, and I’m not sure I ever knew why. But we knew those people too.
We had a couple of very dedicated recruiters with a portfolio of these stars. They called or emailed them every few weeks. Not to recruit, but to establish a relationship. To talk about the weather. Inquire about their hobbies. Discuss changes in the industry. To be there when the time came.
And on this day, that time came. So, when the recruiter called, he was just frustrated enough to take her up on the offer. She had him on a plane to Seattle the next morning. And he flew home that night with a fully signed and executed offer in his hands. He gave his notice the following day, much to his president’s chagrin. He and his family moved within weeks. He became a valuable member of the team almost instantly, contributed to some breakthrough products, and stayed with the company for years.
You won’t get that kind of win from Zip Recruiter, Indeed, or LinkedIn. That’s not hiring. That is even more than simply recruiting. That is hunting. And that’s what this is all about.
This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.
In this podcast, we’ll take a look at how people meet the challenge of managing smart people in this Brainpower Age. Each episode, we’ll explore everyday problems and provide practical tools you can use to be a better and smarter leader.
This is the first of our episodes looking at the challenge of hiring brainpower workers. In this episode we’ll take a look at what it takes to find and land the best senior level talent. This is Episode Six: Hunting Skills.
I was on the board of the Overlake School in Redmond, Washington for almost 20 years. It was the independent school that my children attended, and I enjoyed giving back by helping the school grow and flourish. I led the Personnel Committee for a most of those years, was a President of the Board for a term, and contributed to, even chaired more than one multi-million-dollar capital campaign.
But the accomplishment that meant the most to me, and the school, was leading the team that hired the latest head of school. I had repeatedly seen the impact a great leader can have to an organization. Schools especially benefit from a leader who can nourish a great culture. And I wanted that for Overlake.
The previous head of school was a good friend and had been there for over 15 years. He had shepherded the school from brash upstart to one of the top schools in the Pacific Northwest. When it came time to hire his replacement, I was ready, and studied the role and the market for at least a year.
Like the market for most senior positions in any industry, it’s a relatively small world. There are only few thousand peer schools in the world, and just fraction of those have openings for a head in any given year. The pool is small, and not very well stocked. The hunting is difficult.
Yet, Overlake was well placed to recruit for this job. It is financially quite strong, with ever increasing applications, and it sits on a gorgeous wooded hillside campus. It also boasts a constantly improving reputation among alumni, parents, college, and the independent school community at large. Attracting a top tier head to lead the school should be easy, I thought. So, I set about hiring a headhunter to help us.
Here too, there are just a handful of consultants to assist in the hiring of independent school heads. I interviewed 13 of them. 11 were simply former heads of schools with minimal recruiting experience who retired and hung up a shingle. All but one was in New England, where the independent school tradition was born, almost 3000 miles – and continent’s culture – away from Seattle.
The consultants were largely identical. They would post the job in school industry publications, on a range of message boards, or even in their own “newsletter”. Then they would sit back and sift through the resumes that arrived in reply. Even the large industry leading firm, a well-established company with dozens of recruiters, operated in the same way, although they occasionally held their own branded career fairs. For all of these firms, this was largely just a filtration operation. Chum the waters and see which fish rose to the bait.
But we hired a different firm, Brigham Hill out of Dallas. Linc Eldredge, the founder, was a veteran of the corporate recruiting world, and he handled the job quite differently. He understands that hiring great people isn’t filtering or sifting. It’s not an inbound process, it’s outbound. Great recruiting is more than trolling, it’s hunting.
We discovered this in our first committee meeting. Linc presented us with a binder of 105 people who had responded to the usual postings that they had placed. To say it was disappointing would be a significant understatement. Half of them were just barely qualified, hoping I guess that we would be desperate enough to hire them. The bulk of the rest were on the run from something, either a failing school or a record of mediocre performance. Only a couple were experienced in the head job. In general, it was a sad lot.
After the meeting, I pulled Linc aside and expressed my disappointment. He explained that he just wanted us all to understand the market and how slim the selection choices were. We discussed again the kind of leader we were looking for and Linc did what a great recruiter does. He worked through his contacts to find someone ideal for us. Not someone who had applied, but rather someone who was a great fit.
And he found just such a person. Matt Horvat was senior leader at a prestigious school in Chicago. Linc had known Matt’s boss for years. Matt wasn’t looking for a new job, and he had even rebuffed Linc’s first phone call. But Linc talked him into examining our opportunity. Matt agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to look at just this one school. He took a chance on a visit, mostly it seemed as a favor to Linc.
The rest is history. We liked Matt from the very first conversation, and he saw the school for the gem it is. He has been an outstanding head of school for the last six, almost seven years.
Once again, like with the compiler specialist, I saw effective recruiting in operation, and the end result was marvelous. Recruiting, especially for a senior position, is not about posting the job and sifting through the pile of resumes. That rarely, if ever, results in a quality hire who excels at their job and makes a long-term impact.
This is mostly because of the kind of people who apply to posted jobs. The vast majority of people who respond are looking for a reason. Usually not a good one. If they are employed and trolling the job sites, I find myself wondering why? Are they performing poorly and need to escape? Are they difficult and have made their current position untenable? If they aren’t employed, it too begs the question, why? Too often you don’t want to know the answer.
Sure, some are smart and ambitious people who are just looking for a change. Perhaps they feel their current job is a dead end. Or their boss is holding them back. Or the organization isn’t doing its best. Or they left a terrible situation.
However, the best employees see these not as problems but as a challenges. They are eager to make something of what looks like a dead-end job. To help make their boss into a better leader. To dig in and lift their whole organization. Great senior people don’t escape terrible situations, they fix them.
In short, the people you want to hire aren’t looking for great work, they’re doing it. They’re not scanning elsewhere for opportunity, because they see opportunity all around them. That ideal employee you want is too busy being great to troll the job sites.
Yes, the job sites help, and are well worth an advertisement. Some, like LinkedIn even work hard at prodding great employees, tempting them with job offers in their field. But even there, people doing amazing work rarely have time to maintain a great up-to-date LinkedIn bio, or even log in to respond to that kind of pitch.
The biggest value of the job sites is in knowing the playing field. Who are the firms competing for the talent you need? What kind of messages are they sending? What will you have to do to stand out from the crowd? So sure, post your senior job there, perhaps you’ll get lucky. But don’t hold your breath.
What are the steps to great hiring for senior positions? Prepare for the hunt.
First, define the known universe. Decide exactly who you’re looking for, and where they likely to work today. Don’t be blinded by your preconceived notions but take the time to understand those jobs and those organizations in detail. This can help you not only know where to look, but also to craft the role you’re trying to fill. In my experience, especially at senior levels, the known universe of people who will excel at any given role is much smaller than you think. Small enough to know in detail.
Second, be careful in picking your recruiting partner. You want a hunter, not a net fisher. You need someone who understands that recruiting at the senior level is an active, not a passive job. Those great recruiters exist, probably even inside your organization. You just have to find them. And as we saw in my two examples, great help in recruiting is worth its weight in gold.
Third, know your targets. Make a list of the people excelling at the job today. People who stand out in your industry. People you’ve been impressed with at conferences. People who are smart on social media. Maybe you don’t know their names, but you know their title. You know where they work. And with some good research, you can know who they are.
Fourth, hunt them down. Once you specifically know who you’re looking for, do the research necessary to understand them. Find out how they tick, what makes them excited, what attributes of a job would make them move. While the research into these can be done by the recruiter assisting you, the best case will come from you. You need to be clear what you can offer, what they can expect, and how you can close the deal.
This is where too many hiring managers fail. They expect the recruiter to just deliver a candidate to them on a silver platter. They do little more than wait in their office to sign the new hire paperwork. But especially at the senior level, the hiring manager needs to take the lead. They need to be the actual recruiter, to convince the person – who already has a great job – to jump ship and join their team. An outstanding knowledge worker is won over much more by the manager than by the job, the title, or even the money. They want to work in and for an exciting organization, where they can do their best work.
In a future episode, we’ll look at the role of the visit and the interview in finding, attracting, and closing great talent. But the key thing to remember is that it’s not about you, it’s about them.
We’ll also talk about employment testing and interview tactics, but if you’ve done your homework, you already know they can be great at the job. Tests and tricks will only make them wonder why you asked them there in the first place. At the senior level, you’re not trying to test for specific skills anyway. The kind of person you want can and will learn the details of the new job in short order. Testing them on specific skills is at best a waste, at worst, it’s insulting.
Rather, the kinds of things you need to discover in your interview are what they need to be successful. What kind environment makes them excel? Do they like a challenging fast paced workplace that pushes them every day? Or do they do their best work in a more casual environment where people are more self-motivated? And most importantly do you offer a workplace culture that matches those expectations?
But you have to be careful not to focus on “fit” too much. Focusing on whether someone will “fit” can lead to a homogenous organization that lacks the diversity to handle a broad range of challenges. We’ll look at this hazard of focusing on fit and the effect of diversity on the workplace, and the work product, in a future episode.
But if you strive to ensure you have a match for the kind of environment your candidate can excel in, your mission rapidly moves to closing the deal. And that’s where your sales skills are most important. If you love your work, though, that will show through and this will be the easy part.
On the downside, if your culture, your position, or your candidate are not a match, it’s best to admit that early in the process. Few things bother smart, talented people more than wasting their time. Best to acknowledge it promptly and end the process quickly. And be sure to do it with grace and care. If as we’ve seen, the known universe of people is small, they will talk. A bad hiring experience can quickly lead to a reputation in your industry as a workplace to avoid.
Finally, this has all focused on the senior hire. Where the job is mostly knowledge work, and the universe of likely candidates is manageable. For lower level jobs, or one where the candidate pool is vast, you need to take a different approach. And that’s the subject of the next episode.
But if you’ve done your preparations correctly, the odds are you’ll have a very easy decision to make. Your hunt will find someone who can make lasting contributions to your organizations, and they will be excited to dive in. You will just have to move in for the kill.
Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site, CLWill.com. That’s C-L-W-I-L-L.com. Or find me on social media as theCLWill.
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I also hope you’ll participate. Do you have questions about managing people? Do you work in an industry that faces these kinds of challenges? Are you, or do you know, someone I should be interviewing? Let me know. Each episode has a page on my web site, and comments are welcome. Or just send me an email to email@example.com. I can’t promise I’ll answer or interview everyone, but I read every email I get.
That’s it for this episode. In the next episode we’ll continue our look at hiring brainpower workers. Next we’ll look at hiring entry level people, and it’s called “Testing Limits”. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.