Selling Top Candidates – The Perils Of Projection

If you aspire to hire the “best of the best,” you have undoubtedly felt the pain of having your offer rejected. If you haven’t felt that pain yet, you’re probably not aiming high enough!

Top candidates are typically passive ones—they aren’t looking for a new job because they are happily employed in a job where they are adding enormous value and having fun in the process. Targeting a passive candidate involves a far greater risk of rejection, because you are up against an employer who will fight to the death to avoid losing their star employee.

There are multiple reasons why passive candidates reject your offer, but the greatest one involves inertia. The candidate says no because they have many options in their career, and there is always the “devil they know”—their current employer, who will offer higher compensation and promotion opportunities to keep them on board. If you want to get that candidate off the fence, you need to understand their deepest motivations, and fend off the voice in their heads that keeps them where they are. This is especially true of high performers who tend to harbor surprising insecurities regarding their career path—they are typically petrified of making a bad move.

The most common mistake I see in companies who seek to sell these “high value targets” is in projection—the psychological concept that leads us to imagine that others share our motivations and personalities. We end up selling a candidate on the huge equity upside opportunity (the thing that motivated us to take the offer) when all they really want is to know that they are going to learn and have fun (the thing that they really care about).

I have conducted hundreds of interviews with high-performing individuals who have made difficult decisions to move on to a new company. In these interviews, I ask them to rate, on a 1-10 scale, how important various factors were in their decision process—compensation, autonomy, culture fit, learning/growth, fun, geography, work/life balance, etc. What is most striking is the utter lack of a pattern—even in companies that have a very singular and unique candidate value proposition. Star performers change roles for an unimaginably wide variety of reasons. What matters most is to understand the unique pattern of motivators for this candidate vs. all others, and (most importantly) vs. ourselves.

Most high performers tend to be “on their game” in interviews. They are able to put themselves in your shoes and will tell you whatever they need to tell you in order to get the offer. Their goal is to create an option, and then take their own time to decide if they want it or not. When you ask them explicitly why they are interested in your company, you are likely to hear a story that jives with everything they have heard from you—from your website, from their conversations with you, from the people they know who have heard about your company. Then they will have the option to (privately) make a decision on whether to say yes or no.

The most powerful way to circumvent this process is to put less stock in their explicit responses to why they are interested in your company, and instead seek their implicit motivators—the factors that have actually driven their prior role or company changes. The best way to understand these implicit motivators is to have a thorough, high-trust/high-rapport conversation about their prior job transitions, including both promotions/role shifts and new companies. If they took on 3 of the last 4 role changes because of increased autonomy, this is a far more powerful indicator of their true motivations than their expressed interest in your world-changing mission. The mission may matter to you, but the hook is autonomy.

Many hiring experts recommend creating a detailed selling plan for each candidate, focused on a tailored view of the candidate’s mindset. Their thinking is spot on, but few companies I know are diligent enough to follow such a scripted plan. I recommend prioritizing what you will actually do vs. what sounds great on paper. Therefore I recommend slimming it down to 3 simple questions, gathered from every interaction you have had with them:

  • What uniquely matters to this candidate? What do we know about their prior job changes that points to the factors that matter most to them?
  • If we lose this candidate, what is the most likely reason? What will we hear when they tell us no?
  • What is the one thing we can do for this candidate that is most likely to move the needle in our favor?

Creating this simple selling plan takes little time—and therefore your organization is far more likely to follow through. If you want to avoid losing this superstar, put these questions in writing, and use them throughout your process.

There is one final piece to the puzzle: who is responsible for delivering the final selling message, and when? Keep in mind that when the offer is communicated, the bargaining power inevitably shifts. I strongly recommend that you appoint a chief seller to communicate the offer. Avoid the temptation of defaulting to the hiring manager or the recruiter, particularly if there is a person that has built stronger rapport with them. There is one critical question that can provide the most powerful “inertia buster” of all:

“Who is this person most afraid of disappointing by rejecting the offer?”

Career decisions rank below only romantic partnerships in terms of their emotionality. Humans are far more rational when it comes to any other kind of decision—who provides their internet, where to go on vacation, even what neighborhood to live in. Emotions matter! If you have found a superstar and you are convinced that your opportunity is a better fit for their career aspirations than their current employer, put that message in the hands of the person that will pull at their heart strings—the person that they are petrified of disappointing with a rejection. If that message speaks to their true motivations, and if it comes from a place of true alignment with their career vision, you will get a “yes” far more often than not.