How to hire top talent

Most employers want to hire “A” players. An “A” player is a top performer. Few people know how to go about it. It is not that the techniques are rocket-science. Securing top talent is a skill that can be acquired with time and effort once the basics are understood. We spoke to two top executive recruiters, Craig Saphin and Mark Henry Saft, to discover the secrets behind searching for and retaining “A” players.

Craig Saphin is President of en world Japan K.K. (formerly known as Wall Street Associates). He oversees a staff of 140 professionals. Mark Henry Saft is Chief Executive Officer of The Ingenium Group, Inc. Ingenium has a staff of 50 people. Here is their advice to hiring top talent.

According to Craig and Mark the keys to hiring are: 1) Define who you want to hire and why you want to hire them. 2)  Find your “A” players. 3) Chose your final candidates. 4) Make your pitch to them in a timely and compelling way.

Few employers clearly annunciate what they are looking for from a new hire. Typically an employer will define a job posting as a laundry list of required skills and experience. “That’s not the correct way to recruit,” said Mark. “Rather than defining what they’re seeking, such as, ‘I need someone with 10 years of software development experience,’ what they should be asking is, ‘I need somebody who within 90 days can assemble a team of software developers to deliver on time and within budget our ERP software solution for Goldman Sachs.’ That changes the focus from, ‘I need someone with XYZ skills and experience’ to, ‘I need someone who can do the following given the existing constraints’.

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To help clients define such performance based criteria, Mark suggests that hiring managers follow the SMART (specific, measurable, action oriented, results based, and time bound) methodology described by Lou Adler in his book, Hire With Your Head: Using Performance-Based Hiring to Build Great Teams. Towards achieving the same, en world follows the Topgrading methodology developed by Brad Smart of Smart & Associates. Topgrading provides employees with objective feedback as whether they’re doing a good job or not. Craig explained that, “Topgrading uses a “scorecard” process to define what a person looks like if they’re performing well. “A” players in particular love to know if they’re performing well. The average job description will not tell them that. The employer can then use this scorecard as the basis for interviewing and selecting appropriate candidates.”

Besides defining the role, there needs to be internal clarity and agreement among the various stakeholders. “When you’re talking about securing top talent, internally, everybody (the key personnel) has to be behind it,” said Mark. “Sometimes that is not the case. Sometimes there can be competing agendas within the firm.”

Having defined the role and having achieved buy-in from the stakeholders, it is time to find your “A” players. Everybody wants to hire “A” players. “They are already fully engaged with their work and happily employed,” said Mark. “That’s why they’re the best candidates.” The opposite also applies. “You don’t want to recruit the people who are eager for the job,” said Craig. “The one you want, is the one that doesn’t want to go. Because they’re usually the best.” According to Craig, a hiring manager might need to look at 50 or 100 people to find that gold nugget person. “You are going to have to look at a fair number of people because “A” players represent only 10% – 20%” of all candidates. Hiring managers must be able to reach into their virtual bench to pull out “A” players. But frankly speaking, even though I encourage my clients to do so, most people are too busy or aren’t that good at networking. This is why companies resort to advertising and to using recruiting companies.” Craig admits, “I’m sort of glad they do but I have to say the best hiring managers are not heavily reliant on recruiting companies.”

The next step in the process is to screen for top candidates. This can mostly be done by phone to prevent wasting time. “In 20 minutes over the phone it is usually possible to ascertain if a candidate is worth spending any more time with,” said Craig.  Mark concurred. “The telephone is our most effective tool bar none.”  The qualified few should be brought in for interview.

“Many interview techniques focus on situational problem-solving,” said Craig. “They yield a lot of duds because people are very good at being able to make, up on the fly, answers to questions such as, ‘If you have a planning situation where you’re trying to double growth, what would you do in that situation?’ What I focus on is, ‘What have you actually done? How do you define excellence? How did that compare with the other people in your company?’ Then you can set a benchmark in your mind about whether their idea of excellence matches your own expectations of excellence.” Mark also believes past performance is the best indicator of future performance. “It may not be exactly the same thing, but we all need to achieve things within certain constraints (time, money, personnel, for example). That is the sign of a good manager. It is someone who can get things done within those constraints.”

Craig provided a specific example of how he goes about interviewing for top performers: “If I were interviewing to fill a sales position, I might ask a candidate, ‘How many times in the last three years while at XYZ company did he make his sales targets?’ If it turns out the candidate exceeded his target by 150% each year and made Presidents Club, I would ask, ‘So how many people qualified for Presidents Club?’  If the answer is 20 people out of 800, that would impress me. If the salesman, on the other hand, said he was amongst the top 10 salesmen out of 14, then this fellow thinks he’s excellent, but that may not measure up to my idea of excellence.”

Craig continued to explain. “The first thing to ask a candidate is what is the most amazing thing they’ve done for that company. You make sure that the candidate quantifies and qualifies their reply. Then you measure that against your expectations of what excellence looks like. You ask them, most importantly, what mistakes did they make at the company? You’ll find that “B” players never make mistakes. It’s amazing! Even in their first job after graduating from university, they will invariably reply, ‘Well, I didn’t really make any mistakes.’ That is a red flag. A person that repetitively gives that kind of answer is not opening up. He is not being honest.  An “A” player, on the other hand will reply, ‘Oh yeah, I really screwed up on those occasions.’ Then when you do the reference check, you actually bring up the subject. You inquire, ‘So and so said that he made mistakes.’ Usually for an “A” player, the manager will reply, ‘Oh no, this guy is unbelievable. Yes he did make those mistakes, but it was really nothing in the grand scheme of what he achieved. He built on his mistakes and became better as a result.’  That is an “A” player. The next question you ask in the series is, ‘Who was your manager’? “B” players can never remember their manager’s name, and they don’t want you to know anyway. “A” players always know their managers, and they’ve kept in touch with them. Then I would ask, ‘What was the manager like to work with?’  I’d also ask, ‘If I were to talk to that manager, what would he say about your strengths and weaknesses?’ Then, to finish up I’d ask, ‘What were your reasons for leaving?’ Then you repeat that process for each of the candidate’s last three or four jobs. You either see a pattern of excellence, or you see a pattern of mediocrity. You might see a flash of brilliance. You don’t want the flash of brilliance, you want the patterns of excellence that match up to your perspective of excellence. There are no situational questions. It’s only what you did and what you would do differently the next time.”

Many executive recruiters like Craig prefer to use performance based interviewing techniques over competency based methods. Performance based interviewing requires first defining the performance objectives for the given job, and then turning them into questions, like those above, that are contextual. Competency based methodologies, on the other hand, seek to determine if a candidate has the required traits (leadership, communications, teamwork, for example.). They focus on asking the candidate for examples as to how he or she has demonstrated that trait in the past. Performance based interviewing techniques take more effort and planning than competency based interviews, but are thought to achieve better hiring results.

Once you have decided on who you want to hire, the next step is to sell the company to the candidate of choice. Often Japanese candidates have never heard of the company doing the hiring. “Candidates want to work for a known company,” Craig said, adding, “We have to do a lot of preselling to address candidates concerns about why they would leave a very well-paid job with a great career path and take a risk with a new company.” According to Mark, it also helps if the company has a good story to tell that grabs and sustains the candidates attention. “The story does not always need to be positive. A good story could be, ‘Our company has had some tough years, but now with new management and a new strategic direction, it is focused on a turnaround.'”

With your “A” players finally onboard, you can watch your business grow and succeed.

For this article, Beacon Reports interviewed:

  1. Mark Henry Saft, Chief Executive Officer, The Ingenium Group, Inc.,
  2. Craig Saphin, President, Representative Director, en world Japan K.K.,


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