The Seven Secrets of Passive Candidate Recruiting
Between 1978 and 2002, I personally made 457 placements. These represented a combination of retained and contingency searches ranging from professional staff to general management. In addition, I was actively involved in another 283 search assignments where I either got the retained assignment, or had my candidates as finalists. In total, about 60 percent of these were true passive candidates. The others were hot tiptoers who didn’t need the job we were handling, but were looking for the best career move among competing alternatives.

In order to maximize revenue and productivity, my partners and I figured out how to optimize the probability of closing the search as efficiently as possible. To ensure we did it right, we investigated every aspect of the search, from taking the assignment through closing, even including what happened after the person started. Part of this was figuring out the common characteristics that drove the process and resulted in long-term success. From this, about 20 factors stood out. The following seven were the most important. Collectively they form the core of the Performance-based Hiring process described in my book, Hire With Your Head. While we cover all 20 in our full-year recruiting training program, without these core seven in place, hiring a top person who delivered the results as predicted was unlikely.

The Seven Secrets of Passive Candidate Recruiting

1. The job.
Skills and experience-based job descriptions were quickly determined to be useless. The best passive candidates wouldn’t even talk with us if our openings didn’t represent career moves. Job descriptions were inadequate for this. At best they represented lateral transfers. This is why performance profiles came into being. They describe the work that needs to be done – not the skills required to do it – and the career possibilities. The Performance-based Hiring assessment process then validated that a person could actually perform at the peak levels required for success. In many ways this process is more akin to how top people are promoted from within, based on their performance, not how someone was selected from the outside, based on the their skills and experience. This shift changed everything.

2. The manager. He or she had to be a clear leader, or the manager’s manager was. Top people want to work for someone in their own image. It’s not just the reverse that holds true. This means the hiring manager has to be a potential mentor and someone who was going places career-wise. If this was not the case, we had to find someone in the company who could bypass the hiring manager and act in this mentoring role.

3. The decision. Taking a new job for a career-oriented person who didn’t need to change jobs was an agonizing decision. More so if there were multiple opportunities to compare your opening against. To maximize our success, we made sure the candidate made the decision across a full set of short- and long-term factors (e.g., growth, job satisfaction, hiring manager, team, company, compensation, etc.). This same process allowed us to find out how our job compared to others the person was considering and the possibility of a counter-offer. In all cases, we made sure the person took the right job for career reasons, not the one that offered the most compensation.

4. The deciders. No top person makes a career decision among several opportunities without seeking the advice and counsel of friends, family, and co-workers. If the candidate can’t sell your opening to others, he/she won’t accept an offer. To address this, make sure you present your opening as a clear career move using the interview to find career gaps that your job best fills (this includes scope of the job, impact, span of control, etc.). As part of this don’t oversell. Instead, get the candidate excited enough to sell you on his/her worthiness for this bigger role. This way, they’ll be able to convincingly sell their personal decision team as to why your job offers the best opportunity for growth, even though the location might not be perfect and the compensation might not be the best.

5. The compensation. You need to take money off the table quickly. One way is to present the idea of starting with an exploratory discussion to just determine if your opportunity represents a true career move. You’ll never have enough compensation in the budget, so this is a critical early step. Of course, at the end compensation will become a critical negotiating point, but as long as your comp package is competitive, and your job represents a first-rate career opportunity, you’ll have a great chance to hire the people you want. Unfortunately, you won’t have a chance to even consider these finalists, if you focus on comp instead of careers when they’re just contenders.

6. The recruiter. The recruiter is the key cog keeping this dynamic wheel turning. Passive candidates won’t talk with just anyone, and they’ll be getting a lot of calls from recruiters desperate for their skills. To push through this aggressive crowd, you need to be persistent, a subject matter expert, and someone worth knowing. This means you must not take “no” for an answer and you must know the job, your company, your industry, and your hiring manager. You know you’re a player in this field when your best candidates – even those you lost – call you seeking your advice and referring their best co-workers, without you even asking.

7. The process. The process for hiring a top person is more akin to solution selling rather than a negotiated transaction. This means understanding your candidate’s career needs instead of trying to force the person into a narrowly defined and skills-infested job description. The key difference here is to formally change the initial engagement step, letting candidates engage in a career discussion, rather than requiring the candidate to formally apply. The best passive candidates won’t even consider this, so eliminate the apply step if you want to play the high-stakes game of passive candidate recruiting. (Here’s an article on the exploratory interview you might find useful.)

From this point forward, you should look at each of your search assignments from the perspective of these seven drivers. Attempt to shore up any factors that are inadequate. You’re wasting your time and resources if you don’t. If anything, 25 years as a full-time recruiter has taught me that you can’t short-circuit the process of doing it right the first time.