I am an enthusiastic (though not very skilled) fly fisherman. Anglers know fish are very selective when feeding, and the biggest fish are the pickiest of all. They’ve grown bigger by virtue of their superior judgment—they’re not easily fooled, and they won’t bite just anything. At any moment they will be feeding on a short list of items, usually a particular species of insect in a specific phase of its life cycle. If you don’t have what they want, presented to them in exactly the right way, you will work for hours with no result. You’ll have a nice day on the river or lake, but you won’t catch anything.
So it is with recruiting. If you want to catch talented employees, you must understand what they want, what motivates them, and why they might want to come to work for you. The best talent is also the most selective. If you don’t have what it takes to attract them, you won’t catch them, and unlike fishing, you won’t even have a nice day spent in the outdoors to show for it.
Consider the goals of elite performers, the ones you would like to join your team. What do they look for when changing jobs? While every candidate has a unique set of motivations and goals, there are a few common threads that tie together top performers, and they can be summarized in four simple points.
First, the very best people are exceptionally thoughtful in making job changes. They view their careers almost as long-term military campaigns, and plot them out with the same great thought and precision as a general. They want every new position to be a step forward in the plan they
have created for their own advancement. Every new job must contribute to career growth in a meaningful way.
Second, they want to join a company with a promising future. That can mean different things to different people, depending on an individual’s objectives. For some it means a Fortune 100 company, for others a startup, and for yet others it might mean a turnaround. Whatever the case, the best people must see opportunity for advancement and financial reward. They won’t join a laggard that’s unlikely to improve. Those companies are for lesser performers who don’t have as many options.
Third, the best people want interesting and challenging work. They want to be stretched and gain new skills. They are not interested in making lateral moves that amount to doing the same old job in a new place. That’s boring, doesn’t add to their repertoire of skills, and doesn’t provide career advancement.
Finally, great people want to work for effective leaders. For our purposes— executive hiring—the basics are fairly simple. The best people want to work for strong leaders who provide clear direction and who give the executive team freedom to do their jobs without micromanagement. They want to work for leaders who foster a culture of teamwork. And they want to work for leaders from whom they can learn something—who will help them advance their own careers.
The corollary is that great people will not work for weaklings. Some weaklings don’t have enough intellectual horsepower. Others don’t or can’t provide clear direction, or constantly change their minds—like a squirrel that cannot decide whether it wants to cross the road. Some weak leaders— like screamers, control freaks, or those who lack empathy or basic ethics— seem to be psychologically damaged.
Now that we have considered the candidate’s objectives, think about what’s happening in a first interview. Just as you are evaluating the candidate during that first meeting, she is evaluating you and your company.
Before she walks in the door, she has done extensive research on your company and you. If the company is public, she has pored over your SEC filings. If you are privately held, she has been through your website and everything else she can find. She has also reached out to people in her network who know you, to get a feel for your reputation.
During the interview, she will be asking herself whether you are the type of person for whom she would like to work. She will be looking for clues about your management style, attitudes, and personality.
Look at your own company and yourself from a candidate’s point of view. Are you offering the kind of opportunity that will attract top talent? Are you the kind of manager for whom the best people want to work?
Excerpted from Mastering the Art of Recruiting (Praeger, 2015)