Hiring Top Performers Decoded
Whether internal or external, the best talent leaders always keep track of potential hires
The art and nuance of headhunting top performers is very refined indeed. Who calls and when is thus key
Organizations that are planning to scale up will no doubt seek to hire numbers, but every business and function needs force multipliers. Senior leadership teams ideally should be one of high performers. Yet, not every leader or company is able to identify and hire, internally or externally, top performers. At best, they succeed in hiring people who were high performers in their last job. How do you hire top performers for your needs?
Define top performance in your context
Many companies start looking for “high performers” without answering some fundamental questions. What would top performance mean in your specific context? What are your unique challenges? What are your aspirations? What skill or leadership gaps need to be filled to deliver high impact organizational performance? What time perspective do you have? Are you constrained by domain or industry? Are you trying to change your culture or accentuate your current reality? Questions like these help reflect and provoke leadership debate before deciding what are you really looking for. A top performer in a very different context may not be the one you necessarily should be hiring.
Hire for potential to be a top performer, not for past top performance alone
Once the firm is clear about what top performers it is seeking, it must get more specific about what it should look for in an individual. A common mistake is to internally promote a high performer in a lower job or hire someone who is doing extremely well in another firm. While there are many who remain high performers across roles and operating contexts, there is a huge danger of not being circumspect. I know of firms that value domain expertise at any level, while others see more ambivalent dimensions of wholesome leadership as success. Companies must break down the dimensions that will be mandatory to be a top performer in the new role. Maybe there are some overlaps, but chances are that very few competences will be needed. Maybe in that context, the ability to enjoy ambiguity or manage in a very turbulent environment is key. Hiring must be for that potential and not just be closed by looking at the rear view window.
Always keep top performers on your radar screen
Whether internal or external, the best talent leaders always keep track of potential hires. They keep their antennae out to hear of upcoming stars who should be on their scan list. Not only do they keep their dossiers updated, they seek to stay connected. Hiring top performers is never easy. They surely are not on tap. They may be equally ring fenced, financially and emotionally, in the current environments. It sure does demand some stretched effort, but it helps enable the tap on the shoulder. Creating knowledge sharing platforms, guest speaking possibilities or just simple stay-in-touch mails are always useful. They create moments for you to discover how they are thinking about their careers and if there is anything more they seek. If one cannot do it oneself, one could always engage search firms or any other third party to do this on your behalf.
Look for the moment
Every top performer too has a weak moment. Every smart recruiter on the prowl knows that is the time to strike. Timing is a very important aspect of ensnaring a top performer. In my own experience, I have had to wait for three global moves over a three-year period before I could make the move on a very top-notch profile! High performers typically are passive job seekers. One needs to know when and how to throw the opportunity. While search firms are very useful allies, I have discovered calls by the CEO or the CHRO directly is very effective. Such people feel flattered and are more willing to agree to engage than if a rookie recruiter reaches out. The art and nuance of headhunting top performers is very refined indeed. Who calls and when is thus key.
The hiring serenade
The entire candidate experience makes a huge difference to a high talent hunt. Making sure the most relevant people meet is mandatory. What adds to the appeal is getting some very senior leaders, who in that particular case need not have meet, spend some time with the high performing candidate. I have not met a single such person whose ego has not been massaged with this ‘extra’ bit. Not every such candidate wants to come to your office to be interviewed. There is a huge ask to maintain confidentiality. I have always preferred to have a ‘conversation’ than ‘interview’! Moving with speed again goes down well as long as one respects the other side’s need for some reflective time as these decisions have a lot of issues to think about. It is prudent to be ready to share answers to a variety of questions. Being authentic about the challenges and the opportunity as also not falsely promising the moon become very crucial to the candidate. She will do her bit of research on the people and the firms she is exploring with and it is better to be honest. Trust is at all times the foundation for hiring and keeping high performers.
In my own experience on multiple occasions, I have needed to woo the family more than the top talent. Shifts are not easy for them and it is very reassuring for a senior executive to fly down to speak with the candidate’s family. In today’s talent deficit reality, there are no old hierarchies; only a serenade before and a long honeymoon after.
Manager of the top performer is key
I have had many experiences where an identified high performer went through various discussions, but privately shared that the manager he was to report to didn’t inspire any confidence. Top performers baulk at the prospect of reporting to the Old Guard despite the soundness of the opportunity. People work for people and that’s even more so with the top talent. Companies need to ensure the organizational design enables the pairing of top performers with other top performing bosses. Such hires understand weak, uninspiring, behaviorally challenged supervisors are not worth their time.
Reward proposition must be compelling
Top performers typically are better rewarded in any case in their own environments. Organizations seeking to get such talent still get stuck with a range of issues like age, batch parity, pay bands, grade fitments and others. Top performers typically will always want to be marked to market and none of these sell with them. I have seen near closures collapse on such nitpicking. Both sides must see a value in making the deal work. There is still a lot of opportunity to be creative in tailoring deals that have claw backs and reflect a fair risk—reward balance to make the equation work. Constructing such deals is an exacting but an integral part of the hiring process.
Social assimilation is when hiring action is truly complete
I have always believed that hiring is relatively easy. Helping the new hire, especially a top performer, succeed is an onerous task. Often the cultural realities can be very different. Jealousy at parachuting a high flier is not totally to be unexpected. The expectations from a star hire are that as soon he takes to the crease, the runs will start flowing. Everyone needs to understand that transplanting tall green trees takes patience and effort. It is a pity that many companies do not invest enough in helping the top performer to settle down. Ensuring a very planned cultural assimilation is a huge value multiplier. Otherwise, such people remain on the tracker of the hiring sharks or even their last company.
The market reputation of a firm in the end is final
Even as companies hire and settle in the best performers, how does the market hear of the experience? What do such people share about their experience? How did the culture play out? Did they realize all the space and opportunity that was promised? Were they enabled enough to succeed? Did they secure the rewards that were dangled? Finally, an organization’s success at hiring high performers is reflected in the sentiment that the talent market has for it. If it is positive, it will contribute to future hiring efforts. If not, it may not remain alluring for the next set of high performers.
Clearly, hiring top performers is not like buying potatoes. It needs immense clarity in the minds of the hiring leaders and demands a talent scout mindset, which is often missing or not very common. It requires a certain level of sophistication in wooing and walking down the aisle, something that is not necessarily experienced always. And finally, it needs a sensitivity to ensure that high performers are settled in adequately to ensure the delivery of yet another high performance. Again, victory is declared a little too soon with the mere acceptance of an offer. Hiring and keeping top performers then is an art that needs careful practice, not conference polemics.