A ‘Most-wanted List’ — a Forward-looking Way to Hire Exceptional Talent

most wanted

One of the most frequent questions that I get is, “What are the best practices in recruiting?” Well, one best practice that always appears near the top of my list is developing a “most wanted list.”

Unfortunately, this approach is rare in the corporate world, where 100 percent of all hiring is “immediate need hiring.” What this means is that when a manager has a sudden opening as a result of new budget or turnover, they go to Sourcing and ask for help in quickly filling their immediate need. But what if your recruiting target was Stephen Curry or someone of that caliber? You would be relying on what I call “coincidence hiring” in order to capture him. It’s called coincidence hiring because it would be a pure coincidence for Mr. Curry to be available during that precise window of time when you have a job opening available for him.

Well, when you’re trying to recruit truly top talent, like senior executives, innovators, industry icons, and purple squirrels, you can’t leave things to coincidence or chance. Under the traditional “post-and-pray” hiring approach, it’s mostly luck if the most desirable candidates decide to enter the job market precisely when you coincidentally must have a job opening. Also, if you want to hire an industry icon, you simply can’t approach them out of the blue, sight unseen, and expect them to be willing to even talk to you, no less consider your job or firm. Instead, you would need a recruiting effort which allows you to approach them slowly and then to use “personal courting” to build a relationship with them.

Once you build up a trust relationship, then you will have a reasonable chance of landing them, provided that you had an opening precisely when they enter the job market. Their window of availability is likely to be quite small, because top candidates are out of the job market in as few as 10 days. But fortunately, there is a recruiting program known as a “most-wanted list” that is designed specifically to capture these hard-to-hire executives, purple squirrels, and industry icons.

The concept behind the most-wanted list recruiting approach is simple. At the beginning of the year when there is no rush to hire, you work with senior executives to put together a list of the game-changers who you should target throughout that year. These are individuals who are so impactful that they can by themselves give your organization a phenomenal boost in capability. Once everyone agrees on who to target, you focus your recruiting effort on slowly building the trust relationship with them over time. And the final component is that you set aside an open position, often known as a “corporate resource position,” so that when one of the targeted individuals enters the market, you have a slot available for them.

This pre-need most-wanted approach is a type of talent pool. It is superior because it provides you with sufficient unrushed time to build a relationship with them and an immediate opening at the precise time that one of your target icons becomes available. In the Curry example, obviously, you would need to build a relationship before he would even consider your team, but you would also have to wait until the season ended and his contract was up before he would consider a new job. Under the most-wanted approach, you would have time to “court” him. And fortunately, you wouldn’t have to tell him when he became available that he would simply have to wait until you had a vacancy. This is what often happens with standard coincidence hiring.

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How the Most-wanted Approach Works and Its Many Benefits

A most-wanted list is a strategic approach that is borrowed directly from the sales function. Salespeople could choose to wait for major customers to come to them. However, any salesperson worth their salt instead realizes that a more proactive approach is required. The sales version of this most-wanted approach creates a list of the most desirable customers in advance so that the salespeople can focus their sales efforts on those targeted customers. It’s time for recruiting to learn from sales and to adopt a similar process.

  • It’s forward-looking — It’s a pre-need workforce planning approach, so it’s an opportunity to impress executives with the fact that you are forward-looking. And you also demonstrate that you are prioritizing and focusing your recruiting resources on the exceptional talent that can really make a huge difference to the firm.
  • Continually identify names — This pre-need approach provides recruiting and your executive team with an opportunity to pre-identify the top talent you want to target during the next year, during a time when there is no rush to fill an immediate opening. Obviously, all of your top employees need to be involved in the continuous process of identifying possible names for adding to the most-wanted list. Depending on the size of the firm, the most-wanted list can range from 10 to 100 targets. And incidentally, don’t forget to look at your very best former employees, who could become a boomerang rehire.
  • Also, try to predict future openings — Tie your most-wanted list approach closely with your succession plan and your list of most likely retirees. Incidentally, by identifying exceptional talent by name early on, your managers have no excuse for not knowing what exceptional talent is really like. And as a result, you minimize the chance that a manager or recruiter will “settle” on a second-grade candidate from “off the list.”
  • A relationship of trust must be built — It’s rare to find these prized icons as active job seekers. Instead, these highly sought after individuals are likely to be currently employed at one of your competitor firms. Being fully employed means that you must build a strong trust relationship with those on the list before you can expect to have any chance of poaching them away. The goal is to place a “someday I’ll work there” picture in their minds. Incidentally, this approach works exceptionally well when you’re looking for diverse executives who are always in high demand.
  • Assigned referrals improve your chances — Once everyone knows who you’re targeting, you can assign each of your targets to an employee, one who is most likely to be able to build a relationship with them and turn it into a referral. Having your “same-level” employees involved is key because most industry icons have no interest in talking to a recruiter. Encourage your employees to seek out the targets at conferences and to positively comment on their work and what they write. But just to cover your bases, you should also simultaneously assign a top recruiter to them, so that they could also simultaneously begin working on finding a way to contact them and slowly build a relationship. You can use this extra time to sell them on your culture and to assure them that they will be a perfect fit.
  • The possibility of an “I’m available alert” — With an existing relationship of trust and a “someday I’ll work there” picture in their minds, it is highly likely that your target candidate will alert you when they are about to enter the job market.
  • More accurate assessment — And because you have been courting and building a relationship with your target for some months, you will have already had an opportunity to thoroughly vet them and their work, in order to completely assess their interest, capabilities, and fit. This extra time for close assessment (that is not available during rushed hiring) increases the odds that you won’t make an expensive hiring mistake. If you find everything to be satisfactory, you can officially “prequalify them” for hiring.
  • Once they’re available, act quickly — Once they enter the job market, your firm would activate the corporate resource position that you held for them. You would then activate your speed hiring program, finish your final assessment, and make an offer within a day or two … before they were “bid on” (raising their price) by other firms seeking to recruit them. Incidentally, by building the relationship over time, you can dramatically increase your offer acceptance rate with these easy-to-find but hard to sell powerful recruiting targets.
  • Calculate the ROI — You would obviously use on-the-job performance/quality of hire metrics to ensure that these most-wanted hires turned out to be superior performers. And also that the executive was satisfied and the program had a high ROI.

Final Thoughts

Best practice firms like Cisco, EA, Pixar, and Red 5 Studios have all at some point used the most wanted concept with success. Users find that not only do you bring exceptional talent to their firm but you also slow down your competitors by taking away their top talent! An additional advantage of hiring well-known industry icons is that they will bring other top talent along with them. I’ve found that managers love this forward-looking concept and that they are more than willing to help you compile the list of names to target. So if executives at your firm have been clamoring for you to start some workforce planning, a most-wanted list is a good place to start.

About the Author

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Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.