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Skilled people don’t apply for jobs, you have to headhunt them

“Skilled people don’t apply for jobs, you have to headhunt them” — Is this true?

There are some beliefs that keeps resonating within a few startup founders who’re recruiting.

“Candidates who are really skilled, don’t apply for jobs”

“Candidates who are really skilled are already in amazing jobs where they are happy and headhunting is the only way forward”

Why are these beliefs existing?

One reason could be failure to attract quality candidates through job ads. Hence the belief that headhunting is the only way possible.

Why would job ads fail to produce quality candidates?

There could be variety of reasons for that including,

1) Ultra-short-term timing: Recruitment in several startups happen in the last minute where the founders are desperately looking for candidates ASAP. So, the time required to publish and run a job ad campaign may not be available.

2) Fewer skill availability: There are sometimes very few candidates in the market with skillsets sought by the startups. So, startups might believe spreading the job ad might not attract targeted enough candidates.

3) Crappy job ads: We normally see several job ads in the market that keeps listing requirement after requirement talking only about the demands that needs to be fulfilled for the job but rather miss to communicate vision, challenge, culture and values. So that could be a reason.

But why do companies immediately decide to go the headhunting way and not improve their time frame and job ad campaign for the future key positions?

That’s a catch22. Because if a startup believes headhunting is the only way to attract skilled candidate, they would not focus on creative ways to spread the word of their new role which would in turn produce lower quality candidates thereby reinforcing their belief that headhunting is the only way forward.

But ‘who gets headhunted and why?’ is an interesting question to look into.

What makes someone headhuntable for a company?

Broadly put, it would be

1) The Candidate’s specialization in narrowed skill niche that the company is looking for

2) Compatibility with the company’s talent signal beliefs

3) Digestible validation elements

Let us look into the above factors in detail.

1) Specialization in narrowed skill niche

Skill requirements in the market are moving towards more and more specific niches. For instance, we see the following transitions in today’s job titles from,

Software Engineer TO React Frontend Developer OR

Sales Manager TO B2B SaaS Sales Manager

  • The size of the company you’ve worked with (like startups, SME or enterprise),
  • Transaction (B2B, B2C),
  • Business model (like subscription, direct sales, etc),
  • Stack participation (frontend, backend, fullstack, etc)
  • Software Frameworks (like Reactjs, angularjs, etc) and so on…

All the above segmented specializations contribute to which specific skill niche. Candidates who have branded themselves within the skill niche that has the highest demand in the market get headhunted.

2) Compatibility with the company’s talent signal beliefs

In headhunting, the companies search for specific niched skill areas as mentioned above and from the resulting profiles, apply their talent signal beliefs to select the people they want to headhunt.

So, what could be a talent signal belief? And why?

This is a controversial area. Talent signal beliefs are anything that a company believes as a signal for right compatible talent for their team/startup.

The beliefs can be anything. Like:

1) Young people work hard and are cheaper in salary

2) Older people are experienced but expensive and may not work as long

3) Singles are more open to work late than married

4) Swedish candidates are more suited for our company culture than international ones

5) Americans are good sales people for international markets

6) Indians are good software developers

7) People who are a bit aggressive in tone are usually high in confidence

8) …

This is the problem with beliefs. We can believe anything we want but that doesn’t necessarily make it factually right.

So, manyatimes these talent signal beliefs held by companies act as filters for selecting profiles for headhunting even though they have absolutely no existential relevance of productivity, performance or compatibility.

Why do companies have these talent signal beliefs then?

A resume or LinkedIn profile has very little information to make any qualified decision. It can serve as a first step of information on skills and experiences but for any information we need after that, we need to get in touch with the candidate.

But if 100 profiles are listed for a skill tag search from a company, to choose the first 10 profiles to message, companies apply these talent signal beliefs as filter. These beliefs may also be applied for initial job application filtering in some cases.

3) Digestible validation elements

Every company or hiring manager or recruiter has an evaluation process. It can be as simple as, eyeballing a profile (looking at a profile with bare eyes) to more sophisticated evaluation process with skill tests, interviews and reference checks.

Most company’s recruitment goal is to do a low cost, low time evaluation process that ensures low risk. So more easily digestible validation elements present in a profile better chances of them getting headhunted.

Easily digestible validation elements can be:

1) Brands the hiring manager/ company recognizes (university, previous companies, etc)

2) Job titles that company recognizes (standard job titles are preferred)

3) Mutual network/ references written in profile from people the company recognizes / respects.

To summarize quickly on what makes someone headhuntable:

1) If a profile is in the same specific and niched skill area where the company is looking for,

2) Have a persona that fits their talent signal beliefs AND

3) Have branding or shared network and job titles or progressive job titles over timeline that matches the company’s search,

Then the probability of getting headhunted is high.

Now why is this is not right?

Regarding Niched skill areas:

Most talents are not aware of branding themselves in specific niched areas even though they have all needed skillsets.

Also opening up to allied skillsets within a domain not just opens up a larger talent pool to explore but also helps candidates to challenge us with new perspectives, knowledge and related skills.

Involving a domain expert to identify allied skill area is key. Recruiters or hiring managers who are not domain experts may not have the knowledge or luxury to explore allied skill areas which restricts opportunities for both company and talents.

Regarding talent signal beliefs:

Holding beliefs that is not true and working on it is not just wrong, it is dangerous for the company in the long run. The whole point of having a publicly published position is to open up the competition and see what kind of different talents, perspectives and skill sets we attract. But limiting it to our comfort levels just removes the possibility for any magical combo to happen.

Trust the market and it shall reward you with the best talent if you’re open up for it.

Regarding digestible validation:

Fascination for brands and network is understandable but even the best of recruiters in the market do not have the capability to evaluate a profile by just looking at it.

So, define data points that can and cannot be derived in each step and walk through at least a couple of steps with potential candidates before selecting or rejecting them in the process.

Having an evaluation process helps you identify talents that everybody has missed.

Finally, do skilled candidates not apply for jobs?

Yes! If your job ad is crappy and your employer brand sucks they don’t.

If your job ad only has,

1) Job description,

2) Responsibilities

3) Requirements

4) Additional bonus requirements

5) List of documents needed to apply

Then of course the best of talents wouldn’t apply because there’s no emotional content in the above format that attracts a skilled candidate.

If your job ads present a

1) challenge worth solving,

2) vision worth moving towards

3) team worth working with

4) culture and compensation that’s open and respectful

Every skilled person who cares about your vision and is intrigued by your challenge, would of course be happy to apply.

So rather than making our jobs more expressive, challenging and open, if we try to close ourselves to headhunting people we believe would be comfortable, we might be fighting a talent battle on the wrong end.

Headhunting does have its place in specific recruitment scenarios where the talent pool is incredibly limited and our need is very urgent. But that should never become your only solution to find and attract skilled teammates.

Recruit for vision, recruit for passion, recruit for values, recruit for skills, but DO NOT recruit for comfort!

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