Hiring Superstars is Different

Superstar actors in Hollywood don’t read scripts and audition. Producers get on their hands and knees and beg Tom Cruise to accept their gig — not the other way around.

In business, most of the hiring advice to CEOs presumes a clear power dynamic in favor of the employer. But when you are the one begging Tom Cruise — when you’re recruiting someone senior, someone hard-to-close, someone happily employed elsewhere — the hiring advice needs to evolve.

Here are some specific hiring dynamics that apply when trying to close stars:

  • You have to sell before you know if you even want to buy. You sell the candidate on the opportunity before evaluating them formally. You need to sell him/her during your evaluation. You need to sell after evaluating and trying to close. Sell, sell, sell. And yet…you need to remember you don’t actually know if you want to hire the person. It can be hard, psychologically, to not accidentally trick yourself into thinking the person is great given how much selling you’re doing. Indeed, the odds are the person actually isn’t the right fit. But you have no choice: selling creates the option to buy.
  • You can’t run “structured interviews” where you ask all the questions. The interviews need to be more of a conversation, more personalized, more fun. You’re building a relationship. You’re selling. You’re not really interviewing. (Although you are, secretly, still interviewing.)
  • You can’t easily reference check them on their recent accomplishments. Why? Because they’re currently employed by a company that likely wants to keep them. They probably haven’t told the company they’re leaving and they’re paranoid about keeping their informal interview process a secret. So referencing becomes a lot harder. You can talk to employers from earlier in their career, of course, but those references are inherently dated. Your best option is to talk to employees who recently left the company your candidate is current working at.
  • You will probably need to nurture the relationship for months/years before successfully closing them. Big companies do this more proactively — they’ll put a target person on an advisory board or begin inviting her to key events. It’s harder for startups to do this; startups tend to be more reactive and just-in-time with their hiring. But as much as possible, if you see a key role opening up in the future, begin nurturing candidates well in advance. If you haven’t spent years in effect recruiting someone, have you really spent time recruiting them?
  • Given the person’s comp and impact, you need to spend a lot of the “hiring time” working internally on alignment. Get your board aligned ahead of time. Set appropriate expectations: “We very well might not get this guy, but if we did, what could we pay him?” Have a “hunting license.” You don’t want to do all this work and have your VC be lukewarm. Or have them take a meeting and show up late, wander off script, pay half attention, and then say “actually you should work at this other company in my portfolio.” Hiring a star senior person is so time intensive because of all the people you need to talk to who aren’t the candidate herself.
  • Even if you do everything right, there’s a decent chance it won’t work out medium to long term and you’ll do it all over again. Exec hires frequently bounce. One CEO told me he expects a lower than 50% stick rate. This is the nature of the beast. It’s easy to become disillusioned and try to cut corners next time around. Which is a mistake, because when you land a star talent that sticks, the organization is never the same.
(Thanks to Josh Hannah for input on this post)
2 comments on “Hiring Superstars is Different
  • I could relate to the first point on where the work you put into selling can trick you into believing this is the right candidate.

    I would say many of these points also apply to Director/ VP level candidates.

    What are your thoughts about strength tests such as the one from Predictive Index improve the stick rate?

    • I think some of the strength tests can be useful, and I’ve heard good things about Predictive Index.

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