If you work for a large company, you probably take it for granted that whenever you need to make a new hire, there’s a dedicated recruitment team on hand ready to help you bring the right person on board. If on the other hand you work for a start-up or for a scaling company in the earlier stages of its growth journey, then you’re probably a lot more hands-on with finding new talent.
As a talent consultant working closely with high-growth companies, I all-too-often see the same mistake being made: even for critical roles within the firm, there is no process in place to identify and engage prospective hires until the position is sitting vacant. This is a mistake that can have serious repercussions on a company’s growth momentum and, therefore, on its bottom line.
While many well established companies would do well to up their own sourcing game, this article is targeted more towards early stage companies, where budget constraints and low and unpredictable hiring volumes mean that it’s the founders who are still primarily responsible for the company's hiring activities. So if you’re a founder or early joiner, my objective is to give you a clear blueprint for how to hire more efficiently and cost-effectively by adding yet another string to your bow: being a badass talent sourcer.
"Even for critical roles within a firm, there is often no process in place to identify and engage prospective hires until the position is sitting vacant."
What is talent sourcing?
Talent sourcing is all about building pools of pre-assessed and pre-qualified talent for key positions which may not even need filling yet. Yes, you can and often should proactively source candidates - rather than just post a job ad and hope for strong candidates to apply - to help you fill a currently vacant role, but building talent pipelines works best when you aren’t actually looking to hire someone just yet. Rather, this hiring approach pays greatest dividends when you are looking to:
(i) get to know a cohort of candidates better
(ii) give those candidates the opportunity to get to know you and your company
(iii) be positioned to swiftly hire the right candidate(s) if and when a position for them becomes available.
In short, talent sourcing is about putting in a bit of time and effort today to save you a lot of time, effort and money down the line.
Surprisingly few companies – even those with large budgets and significant strategic hiring know-how – have a strong sourcing operation in place. To fill their open roles, most companies do exactly what you probably associate with a typical hiring process: they post an ad online, wait till their inbox is flooded with applicants (many of whom are far from qualified for the role), then lose precious time screening through hundreds of applications in the hope of identifying at least a few candidates worthy of being invited to an interview.
Here’s the real problem with that sort of approach: at any one time, only about 25% of candidates are “active” – ie. are looking at job boards and are applying to open roles. So when you post a job ad and wait for active jobseekers to apply, you are effectively making the conscious decision to discount three-quarters of the workforce – ie. all those “passive” candidates who at that point in time are not actively seeking a new role to apply for. And here are two key facts to keep in mind about passive candidates (ignore them at your peril!):
(i) The best talent out there is usually passive. A company’s highest-performers are well looked-after by their employer, they are paid well and receive the promotions they deserve, and they therefore tend to be very happy in their role. So they are not actively looking for their next position. And in a market downturn, companies will fight tooth-and-nail to retain their best performers.
(ii) Passive talent does NOT mean disinterested talent. Just because someone is happy in their current role, it doesn’t mean they are not open to hearing about new opportunities. On the contrary, most candidates are keen to learn about relevant and interesting new positions, especially if it’s at a promising young company. (On a side note, I would prefer if 'passive' talent were called 'latent' talent – the interest in your role is there, but it is hidden.)
The lesson here? If you want to hire the very best people on the market, then you must implement a hiring strategy which allows you to get your company and your (future) open roles in front of not only active candidates, but also and especially passive candidates. Getting these passive candidates into your company's hiring funnel before you actually need to make a hire will greatly increase your chances of acquiring world-class talent for your key roles.
Building pipelines of pre-qualified talent is relevant even if you don’t expect to be actively hiring any time soon: it allows you to build solid succession plans for your key positions, which in turn allows you to quickly replace an incumbent if he or she decides to resign.
"At any one time, only about 25% of candidates are “active” – ie. are looking at job boards and are applying to open roles."
In order to know how to source passive talent, you first need a clear picture of what the process of candidate sourcing looks like. Here are main steps:
1. Requirements: Defining the role you are building a talent pool for and the profile of the ideal candidate;
2. Channels: Determining the right sourcing strategy to find the required profiles (Which channels will you use to find your candidates? Where and how will you search?)
3. Identification: Finding the right candidates for the role (Which requirements will you prioritise in your search? How will you surface the best and filter out the rest?);
4. Outreach: Approaching relevant candidates with the right sort of messaging in order to pique their interest in the role and in your company;
5. Engagement: Establishing an early relationship with candidates in order to build increased interest in the role and to gently sell the opportunity to them;
6. Assessment: Conducting further candidate evaluation and qualification for the role (Do they have the right skills? Do they have the right personality? Do they fit the company culture?). The more you can standardise this across candidates and roles the better, since that will ensure that you are hiring based much more on evidence and capabilities than on perception and assumptions (ie. it removes bias, and improves diversity);
7. Next steps: Ensuring transparency and clear communication about when an appropriate role might become available for the best candidates that you source (Does it depend on revenue milestones? On the next funding round?) and about how the process will likely evolve (Will they speak to anyone else at the company at this stage? When can they expect a next conversation?).
Keep in mind that talent sourcing is a dynamic and continuous process. You will leave money on the table if you build a great talent pool today then let it go stale before a role for those candidates becomes available; the best sourcing ninjas keep the talent warm and engaged, even if it only means a quick phone call or email every month or so. Your efforts and foresight will pay ample dividends when you need to fill a role and all it takes to hire a standout candidate will be a phone call to someone you know and like already.
If you’re currently a startup founder and your company has fewer than 25-30 people, then you have likely never faced the need to build talent pools before, and it’s quite possible you’ve also never needed to post a job ad. Up until that size, your own extended network, and that of your co-founders and/or early hires, will likely have yielded the talent needed to fill those first few dozen roles. Experienced founders who have successfully scaled businesses will often tell you that it’s around the 30-employee mark that the need to operationalise hiring comes in, which brings with it the need to go beyond extended personal networks for hiring, and often a need to hire a first dedicated in-house recruiter. The importance and value of proactive candidate sourcing only grows as the company scales, because there will be more critical roles that need to be filled with standout talent.
"Just because someone is happy in their current role, it doesn’t mean they are not open to hearing about new opportunities."
So regardless of what your current role is in your company, here are some practical tips for making sure you're at the top of your sourcing game:
- Identify your critical roles
With limited time available to invest in sourcing talent, you don’t want or need to do this for each and every position in your company. Instead, figure out what are the 20% of your roles which deliver 80% of your value/impact, and then set about building talent pipelines for those roles where additional hires are likely in the next 12 months.
- Know your hunting ground
Where you source your candidates will very much depend on the sort of talent you want to attract. LinkedIn remains the most comprehensive general-access database of talent and should never be ignored, but you’ll also want to search GitHub or Stack Overflow for developers, ResearchGate for scientists/researchers, Dribbble for designers, etc. Searching by hashtags in Twitter, Quora, Reddit, or in Slack communities can also help uncover standout talent within a specific community or skillset. You can find great talent in the speaker lists for relevant conferences and events, on the advisory boards of other companies, and in industry newsletters, podcasts, and publications.
- Set aside some weekly sourcing time
It’s hard to fill a 20-minute gap in your schedule with a bit of sourcing, as doing it well requires you to ‘get in the zone’. So block a couple of hours each week for your dedicated sourcing efforts. Spend this time looking for great candidates, sending them messages, and having informal conversations with them.
- Establish clear targets
As an entrepreneur, you've got to be on top of all your metrics and KPI’s - including your hiring ones. So each week, give yourself the target of identifying and reaching out to at least 10 new standout candidates, and qualify at least 3 of these via a conversation for inclusion in one of your talent pools.
- Get your team involved
This should not be a solo effort on your part – get your whole team involved! Everyone should be spending some time searching for and engaging with promising candidates. Make sure your team asks for referrals from their network, and then asks those referrals for further referrals (you can incentivise your team with a reward if someone they source ends up being hired). Involving your team is also good for employer branding, as it projects a more accurate picture of your company’s culture into the market.
- Organise an event/meet-up
This is a great way to bring relevant candidates into your orbit in a non-pressurized setting. It allows both parties to do some early due diligence on the other, and is an effective way for you to cultivate your network of potential hires. In-person events are always preferable, but virtual ones are of course becoming increasingly common, and effective.
- Craft an artful approach
You’ll have a much greater chance of attracting the interest of top talent if you reach out to them with a message that is targeted, relevant, and authentic (and if need be, also a little creative/different). You want to engage with them because they are particularly skilled at something, so tell them what that is. Compliment them. Stroke their ego a bit. And be sure to tell them 'what's in it for them' - ie. why it is in their interest to reply and talk to you.
- Post a job ad
This can actually work well for engaging with new candidates. But please, don’t be that company that pretends it has a job opening only to disappoint candidates when they find out you just want their CV; be transparent, and let candidates know that you are posting the ad with a view to connecting with great candidates for your future hiring needs. They’ll appreciate your honesty and respect you for your strategic approach to talent acquisition.
- Get organised
Be structured in your approach to sourcing. Use a good CRM/ATS to keep track of candidates and candidate conversations (avoid spreadsheets or sticky notes). The best tool for finding and reaching out to candidates is without doubt LinkedIn Recruiter, though it’s a very expensive one (c. $9,000/person/year) and I would only recommend investing in that once you're sourcing at scale.
- Be nice (invest in good karma)
This one may seem a little self-defeating, but do a little paying-it-forward when it comes to some of the candidates you uncover. If one of them could be a great fit for an open role at another company you know, then introduce them to that company. If they get hired, it’s one less candidate in your pipeline, but a whole lot of karma you’ve collected – from the company and from the candidate.
- Employer branding
It’s always easier to engage a great candidate if he or she has already heard of your company, and has a positive impression of its culture and mission. So make sure you’re also setting time aside each week for creating good vibes in the community – for example, through a quality content marketing strategy. Taking the time to systematically respond to every candidate who applies for a role and is rejected also goes a long way in this respect.
- Upgrade your skills
Sourcing is an integral part of smart recruiting, but the skills of a great sourcer are actually quite different from those of a recruiter. Advanced sourcing can be surprisingly technical. To learn more about the practice, follow true sourcing ninjas like Guillaume Alexandre, or sign up to Hung Lee’s excellent weekly newsletter (it’s about recruitment in general but there’s plenty on sourcing there). Sourcecon.com has some good resources,
If your company has already passed the 100-employee mark, then I hope you already have at least one full-time talent sourcer on board - or alternatively that you regularly invest in external sourcing support. But for smaller companies with tighter budget constraints, where the need for standout talent is arguably even greater, the systematic and proactive sourcing of passive candidates is something the whole team should be doing – including and especially the founders. It’s the most cost-effective way of ensuring you're in a position to attract and hire exactly the right talent, when it’s needed, and for the right price.
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