How To Find (And Land) The Top 5-10%

I have yet to meet a technology company where sourcing—particularly top-performing engineering talent—is not a mission-critical pain point. The market for top 5-10% talent (a.k.a. the "best of the best") is one of the most intensely competitive markets in the world. Top performers can change the destiny of their companies, turning also-rans into household names. As a result, demand for these candidates outstrips supply by a wide margin, even in a down economy. Nevertheless, SOMEBODY employs these people—why shouldn’t it be you?

Capturing your “unfair share” of top 5-10% talent is entirely possible, but it requires an unconventional strategy. This is not a numbers game. Using ads and recruiters to stuff the top of the funnel won’t get you any closer to your goal—top performers rarely browse job postings or respond to inbound requests from unknown parties. Stuffing the funnel in this way actually pulls precious resources away from the efforts that differentially attract elite talent.

The most important first step is to think like your target. Take top engineers, for example—the individuals that, according to one oft-quoted study, deliver 10x the impact of their average counterparts. Having personally interviewed over 50 such individuals about their decisions, a few patterns are quite common. Here is a fair characterization of their mindset:

  • I am busy. I’m not really looking, but yes, I’m always thinking about my options.
  • I am on a roll in my career, but I’m actually quite anxious when it comes to taking on new roles—I can’t afford to make a bad career move.
  • I don’t want a job—I can get just about any job I apply for. What I really want is to be inspired. I want to be excited by my work, rewarded for my contributions and fulfilled by the impact I am having.
  • I care more about cultural fit than you do. There’s always the “devil I know” (my current employer). How can I be sure this will be a better fit?
  • I want someone to take the time to learn about what I have already done in my career—if you fail to ask me about my prior successes, I fear I will be undervalued.
  • Above all, I do NOT want to work with mediocre colleagues. I want to be surrounded by awesomeness!

When you truly put yourself in the shoes of these high-value targets, you can quickly see that a traditional recruiting process won’t do the trick. Here are some specific strategies and tactics to help you win their hearts and minds:

  • Focus on the “heroes” you already know. Talk to the people in your own networks who are exceptional performers themselves, regardless of whether they are looking. They may not be candidates themselves, but they are the ones who know those candidates by name.
  • Talk to them live, one-on-one. Ideally, connect with them when you are already with them (a dinner party, an alumni event, etc.) Reaching out to them for the sole purpose of recruiting can come across as transactional.
  • Be specific. Don’t ask for the best engineer they know, ask for the best Android developer they know—human beings are far better at recalling names when given specific prompts.
  • Pick the right outreach person for each lead, and aim high. Do NOT pitch these leads over to your recruiting team, as tempting as it may be. If you do, you will skew your responses away from the very best performers. My interviews revealed a clear pattern in who top candidates respond to: #1 People they have a personal connection with. #2 People they respect (e.g. your founder, CEO, or other impressive individual affiliated with your company). #3 People they feel some kind of affinity with—i.e., if all else fails, a high-value target is more likely to respond to someone they view as a peer even if they do not know the person. Recruiters, unfortunately, fall to the bottom of the list—particularly external ones.
  • Get them talking first. What are they excited to do in their careers? What do they love about their current job? What do they not love about it? This is essential! Top performers are turned off by a sales pitch. Getting them talking reveals their motivations, of course. But more importantly, it requires them, subconsciously, to justify to themselves why they are sharing this information. Why am I telling this person about my career aspirations? It must be because they are important and are worth talking to!
  • Play back what you have heard. Inspiring a top candidate means communicating a message that is personal and specific, not a canned pitch about your company’s potential. If they love the learning and growth in their current role, but are frustrated with the bureaucracy, focus on how this opportunity specifically addresses those needs.
  • Sell them on APPLYING. You have two sells to make, and the first is to get them to say “yes” to interviewing. Do not attempt to interview someone who is “just exploring their options” (see my 10/17/2015 blog: How Savvy Candidates Avoid Being Interviewed). If it requires multiple conversations, that’s fine—better to cut off a tire-kicker than burn a day in salesy interviews.
  • Once they are in your process, interview them—thoroughly. Great candidates love to be vetted. They are differentially attracted to companies that go deep into all of the impressive things they have done in their past. And critically, they will use the rigorousness of your process as a proxy for the quality of your team. If my process was superficial and salesy, I assume it was for everyone else as well. Remember—top performers desperately want to work with other top performers!
  • Ask about their prior job changes. Even top candidates are likely to tell you what they think you want to hear if you ask them explicitly why they are interested in you—they have little incentive to do otherwise. But when you ask them what led them to make prior changes, you will reveal the implicit motivators that have actually made them move in the past. For example, they may tell you they are impressed with your market opportunity, but every prior job move was about having more autonomy. Focus on autonomy (to the degree you can legitimately offer it), and you will have a far more powerful message for your candidate.
  • Likewise, pay attention to their questions about the opportunity. Candidate questions reveal hidden obstacles that may bite you down the road. If you ask them for what concerns them about the role directly, you may get a watered-down response.
  • "Set the hook" before you make the offer. Once the offer is made, the bargaining power shifts, often dramatically. Ask them what it will take to accept an offer while they are still in the process, and address whatever those items are vigilantly. Keep in mind, your biggest competitor for elite talent is often a better opportunity at their current employer, not a competing offer elsewhere. Getting them to tell you what will get them to say yes, in advance of an offer, is a powerful inertia-buster.
  • Tailor your selling plan. Once the offer is made, craft a simple, three-question selling plan: (1) What uniquely matters to THIS candidate (vs. all others)? (2) If they decline, what is the most likely reason? (3) What is the one thing we can do as a team that will move the needle most? Put this in writing, circulate it with the team, and execute flawlessly against it.

Any company, regardless of size or brand name, can acquire an unfair share of top talent. But they must be committed to that goal. Success requires having a disciplined process and relentless execution. It also requires a substantial commitment of time from senior leadership. Is it really worth the time?  Consider the best performer you have ever hired in your past. Picture them in your mind. How much impact did they have? How much value did they create? And most importantly, how much time did they save YOU in the months and years that followed? The answer is likely to be in the hundreds or thousands of hours. If you invest just a fraction of that time in hiring the very best, there is no question that you will earn that time back, many times over.