How to Recruit A+ Execs Without a Recruiter

Like many business functions, recruiting talent to your organization is not rocket science.  It is a simple matter of understanding the steps, and then having the resources, skill and motivation to execute them with excellence.

Simple, but not necessarily easy.  And while few things have the potential to impact your organization more than hiring “A players,” you don’t necessarily need to rush to engage a recruiter.

One of your more accomplished employees actually has a pretty good chance of outperforming a typical recruiter – especially when that employee:

  • Is resourceful in locating a pool of peak performers that are not actively looking for jobs
  • Has strong instincts about how to engage top performers
  • Is available to spend focused time filling the open position (likely 3-5 hours a day for multiple weeks to build and maintain momentum)

Armed with the attributes above and the information gleaned below from years of successful executive searches, you can recruit high-caliber executives without a recruiter.

12 Steps to Follow

1) Identify your goals.  What compelling business objective are you trying to accomplish?  Be crystal clear about where you want to go as a company and how you expect the new executive’s actions to advance the corporate objectives.  This will help the hiring team focus on the right variables and help build a foundation for hiring that will pay dividends throughout your recruiting process.

2) Consider if hiring an executive is the only or best option.  Replacing an executive will always change the productivity level and chemistry of your team, and not always for the better.  Can your important tasks and initiatives be spread out among existing team members, or can someone on the internal team be promoted to a higher level of leadership? There are often tangible benefits to hiring “new blood” from outside the organization (or even from outside the industry), but the pain can be significant if you make a hiring mistake.

3) Develop a detailed picture of what constitutes a great fit.  If you do need to hire an executive, thoroughly quantify/qualify the ABCs below.  (Also refer to the 2nd bullet point under #11.)

 3-5 major things the new hire needs to Accomplish

  • The Background needed for success (functional roles, industry knowledge, proven talent, etc)
  • What he needs to Be (personality, management style, drive, attitude, etc)
  • Nuances of your Culture that will contribute to the hire’s success or failure (values, politics, collaborative versus autocratic, resource constraints, etc)

Based on what needs to be done, determine the profile of who you need to hire.  Strive for enough detail to make the picture of your ideal hire come into sharp focus.  An otherwise good executive that is not matched to these areas will quickly become a disappointing hire.

4) Check your ability and willingness to attract the level of talent you want.  Though you may want to hire an “A-Player,” your desire does not automatically make it practical.  It is rare to find a true “Cadillac for a Volkswagen price,” and there may be aspects of your industry or company that turn off the very executives you are targeting.  Confirm that the “laws” of supply & demand tilt in your favor and that your search is not a needle in a haystack.  Specific tactics to implement include:

  • Find out where potential ideal hires are working now…and validate that you have the ability to entice them to return your call and engage them in productive dialog
  • Verify that there are enough executives in the potential candidate pool (dozens if not hundreds) and that at least 1 in 10 will be interested in the job for the right reasons
  • Use several methods to identify 3 or more different pools of prospects (see #8 regarding why you should pursue several strategies simultaneously)
  • Estimate how many total prospects you will need to speak to in order to attract 2-3 candidates you are excited about
  • Call enough executives to see the bell-shaped curve of candidate quality come into focus
  • Quantify what you stand to lose if you do not hire the right caliber executive

If a preliminary sampling of the marketplace reveals a lack of alignment with who you WANT to hire versus who you CAN or are WILLING to hire, you must either find aspects of the role you can improve…or lower your expectations.  Before you lower expectations, however, you should consider that the ROI of a great hire is often many times that of a hire that is merely “good.”

5) Know which methods will maximize your chances of hiring the best executive.  Assuming you have already decided on the do-it-yourself method, you can skip this step.  Other options to consider for the future include hiring an hourly contract recruiter, a contingency recruiter, or a retained executive recruiter.  Each will have distinct advantages and disadvantages and could be appropriate options depending on your needs.

6) Estimate how long it will take to find the right executive…and plan accordingly.  If “good is good enough,” you can hire an executive quickly.  When you need a high-impact player, however, the list of variables to match up to candidates can seem daunting.  The list can include:

functional and industry knowledge, prior span of control (revenue and/or people), a track record of accomplishment, past and future career path, cash and equity compensation, cultural and chemistry alignment, passion and interest in your industry, communication and interpersonal skills, behavioral profile, educational degrees and professional certifications, willingness to travel, stable job history, a clean background check, stellar references, etc.

Being in a rush to make the hire can tempt you to compromise on quality…so plan ahead.

Allow enough time to find the “BEST available” executive so you aren’t drawn to settle for the FIRST available.  Have a back-up plan with trigger dates in case the first hiring method you chose is not successful.

 7) Structure a “compelling story” that will resonate with the best executives.

What can you share that will cause an executive who is happy and successful with his current employer to consider joining your company?  Before you attempt to contact potential candidates, spell out what is unique about your team…your vision & mission…your company’s competitive advantage or market position…the industry…the challenge and rewards of the role itself…what valuable skill he/she will learn on the job…what resources will be at his disposal…future compensation, etc.

8 ) Simultaneously pursue more than one search strategy.  Though all positions have elements in common, each recruiting assignment is necessarily different.  Every company is unique; no two jobs are alike; and every team has a distinct culture.  As a result, a brilliant strategy that produces a great executive hire for one position may become a dead-end strategy for the next search.

Minimize the all-or-nothing risk of implementing only one strategy by simultaneously pursuing 2 or 3 different game plans.  Prioritize action steps and monitor progress for each plan of action so you can quickly shift resources to what is producing the best results.

9) Maximize responses to your voice and email messages.  It is important to remember that the best executives almost always have or can quickly create other job opportunities.  They are busy, focused, and regularly pursued by recruiters.  As a result, you must choose your words strategically to distinguish yourself and the job opportunity, and to grab the attention of executives.

  • Be prepared with a technique or two to get past the “gate-keeper.” Know how to leave an effective message with the executive assistant when this is not possible.  It is important to protect the executive in his/her current role by not making it look like he is secretly trying to leave his current company.
  • Use words, pace and tone of voice to come across like a peer capable of giving sound career advice…not a fast-talking salesperson with a quota to fill
  •  Your goal is to have a live conversation during which you can develop rapport and exchange beneficial information.  As long as you cannot have a live dialog, your recruiting efforts are at a dead-end.  Therefore, reveal just enough information in your message to arouse curiosity and tempt a call-back.
  • Don’t share information in a voice mail that could be perceived as negative.  Save it for the live conversation so you can put it in the proper context.  Example: if the role you are filling has a director level title, describe it more generally as a “senior level position” when contacting an executive with a VP title.
  • If there is no response to your voicemail, provide another way to reach you that may be preferable to the executive.  In subsequent messages, reveal progressively more information that you suspect could capture their interest.  Divulging who the role reports to or a brief description of a major company initiative could be an effective “teaser.”  Also, attempt to re-contact executives using optimal intervals between messages – more than a day between the 1st and 2nd message will signal that this is not an important matter to you, while leaving 4 messages in 7 days may brand you as a pest.
  • Except for unusual circumstances, never leave more than 3 voice mail messages without a response.  When leaving the 3rd message, let them know it will be your last attempt to reach them and that you will remove them from your contacts.  Being pleasant but direct without appearing to be offended by their delayed response will communicate confidence in the strength of the opportunity you want to discuss.  You will be amazed at the number of apologetic call-backs that occur within an hour of leaving this “final” message.

10) Optimize communication to spark interest and develop a meaningful dialog.  Too many recruiters come across like telemarketers trying to force round pegs into square holes.  Differentiate yourself by creating a more appealing impression…more like that of a career coach that holds the key to a unique opportunity for a special person.  This differentiation is important throughout the process, however it is even more essential during the first few seconds of the first live conversation.

  • Before you launch into your opening “pitch,” confirm that you are catching the executive in a suitable environment to speak openly, and that he has enough time to talk for a few minutes.  It is much better to re-schedule than to risk a hurried conversation that lacks depth and transparency.
  • Let them know you are looking for a mutually beneficial situation, and that you will be the first to speak up if this opportunity does not seem right for them.  By doing this, you will show yourself to be trustworthy and the type of person they would enjoy helping.
  • Balance being warm and conversational while being respectful of their time and to-the-point.  Find a way to make a more personal connection during the first 60 seconds.  This could involve commenting on their accent, a topical news story relating to their company or industry, etc.
  • Don’t fire all your “bullets” at once.  Share just enough information to secure their interest in learning more.  Then get the executive to reciprocate by sharing a few details about his/her background.  If you don’t employ this give-and-take technique – especially during the first 10 minutes of the conversation – you will squander an opportunity to build trust and rapport.  As a result, the executive will usually want to end the call before you have been able to learn what YOU need to know about them…and before you’re able to obtain valuable referrals.
  • STOP TALKING and listen.  Re-direct as necessary to keep the conversation moving in the right direction.  Listen for clues by what is SAID…as well as what is NOT said.
  • Make sure to secure sincere interest before asking the more difficult screening questions.  Like the sport of fishing, if they have not yet bitten down on the hook and you prematurely try to reel them in, or even inspect too closely, you risk letting “the big one” get away.  If the executive is not showing enough interest at this or any latter stage of the process, it may become best to utilize the “take-away” technique and note their reaction as a measurement of their true interest.
  • Anticipate the most common questions and objections – and how to address them.  Be prepared to answer the single most common question: “how did you get my name?”  Answer honestly, but in a way that endears the executive to your process.
  • The person contacting potential hires should be able to clearly articulate the strategic importance of the position and the nuances of the role.  If you want to have credibility with executives when you ask them to invest more time in the recruiting process, then you must have answers when they ask about the strengths of your management team, what your company’s biggest strategic advantages are over your major competitor, and other similar questions that gainfully employed, top-performers will pose before taking you seriously.

11) Assess the match between what you need and what the candidate is drawn to.  After it is determined that there is sincere interest, begin the critical role of assessing fit.  Even at non-executive levels, estimates of the cost of a bad hire range from 1.5 to 5 times the employee’s salary.  (See ADP’s bad hire calculator:

  • Probe to understand what, if anything, might motivate the executive to change roles/companies…and why.  Questions could include: what do you like most about your current situation?  Like least?  Do you see yourself staying with your current employer for many years to come?  Why/why not?  How are you developing as a professional in your current role?  What legacy do you want to leave in the business world?
  • In addition to questions from step #3 above that correlate to what you are looking for, inquire about traits from the list some call the “decisive dozen” – adaptability, competence, relevant experience, manageability, interpersonal skills, attitude, initiative, professional maturity, values, integrity, emotional control, and stability.  Incorporate behavioral interviewing techniques using S.O.A.R. as your guide: the Situation the candidate was in; what the Objective was; the Action taken; and the Results of that action.
  • To maximize the depth and accuracy of information obtained, balance the use of the 7 basic styles of questions: open-ended, closed-ended, negative inquiry, positive inquiry, hypothetical, confirming, and situational.  It is not possible to verify every answer from every prospect in the early stage of recruiting.  T.O.C. questions (Threat of Checking), however, are effective at encouraging honesty.  (Example: “if we were to check with your last boss, what would he say was the biggest improvement you needed to make as a manager?”)  Progress from probing about deal-killer issues to secondary areas where the answers will show the strength of the fit.
  • If evidence of a good fit comes to light, discern the executive’s willingness to explore the opportunity and stay committed to the recruiting process.  If the fit is not strong enough to proceed, communicate this in an honest but tactful way that preserves the relationship and earns the right to ask the executive for referrals to other executives in their rolodex.  Note that each person you contact represents dozens of potential new contacts.  Securing referrals is a vital part of completing most searches and must be done skillfully.  The key is to impress them enough with your knowledge, approach, and unselfish attitude to overcome the perceived risk of sharing a personal referral with you.  You know your approach is being well-received when most people you speak to will trust you with confidential referrals.
  • Stay “compliant.”  Depending on the size of your company, make sure you are aware of the most current EEOC definition of what constitutes an “applicant” so you can record and track data accordingly.  Also, know what questions you can and cannot ask about marital status, national origin, and other protected classes of people.

12) Develop an interview funnel that pinpoints and advances the best candidates.  Hiring a new key executive is a big decision for you…as well as for the executive who is leaving a secure job where they are highly valued.  Though you may want to complete the hiring process quickly, it should not be rushed.  If you are overly anxious, you risk scaring the best executives away.  Allow enough time for a reasonable “incubation” period so both you and the candidates can avoid making a bad decision.

  • When you connect with a candidate who initially seems strong, guard against allowing the “halo effect” to improperly bias you in their favor.  If your first impressions are less than glowing, this MAY be an important indicator.  That said, the executive rated as a superstar in three years may have had his worst moments during the interview process.  To guard against either extreme, orchestrate multiple communications in a “courtship” over a period of weeks.
  • Maintain the interest and motivation of candidates.  Prepare candidates for what the next steps entail, and communicate feedback and details in a timely manner.  Have robust materials that can be provided to interested prospects in a staged manner.  A compelling job description, articles, press releases, and portions of your marketing plan can help a candidate maintain enthusiasm throughout the recruiting process.
  • If more than a few days pass without communication with an executive whose candidacy is of interest to you, start the conversation by asking “what has changed since the last time we spoke?”  Listen to see if their interest has increased or declined.  Make sure you know what they need to learn to stay or become enthusiastic about the role and the rest of the recruiting process.
  • To help discern if a “tire-kicker” is masquerading as a candidate, ask them to complete an “assignment” that requires an investment of time with a near-term deadline.  You should also test their comfort discussing a specific start-date.  The quality and quantity of their questions (and even their objections) is often a highly accurate barometer of true interest.
  • Carefully pick the interview team and determine the weighted impact each will have.  Because most people readily admit to being poor interviewers but still feel they are a great judge of people, it is important to create a mechanism for the team to capture objective information about candidates.  Stage interviews over a period of several days and create a variety of “touch points” that are consistent between candidates.  Make sure the key decision maker meets serious candidates on the front end of the process.
  • Determine the best format for the interviews, including the number of interviews, the time-frame for individual interviews and the length of the entire interview process.  Invite a team member who developed strong rapport with the candidate (not the final decision-maker) to debrief the candidate since they will be in a better position to get objective feedback.
  • If you suspect that you are willing to hire the runner-up candidate, advance them in the process in the same way you advance the leader.  If only the first choice is acceptable, don’t let the first choice executive know that the competition has faded.
  • Interviews are helpful and necessary, however they can also be very artificial.  Guard against letting strong positive or negative impressions during interviews make it easy to over-generalize about future job performance.  Though you should help prepare candidates for interviews, you must avoid “coaching” them into making statements or being someone they are not.
  • Perform background checks, reference checks, and assessments (DISC, MBTI, RightPath, etc) in stages as your interest in the candidate increases.  Before an offer is extended, have a brief conversation with the executive’s spouse to help determine the degree of family buy-in.  No selection process is perfect, however scrutinizing from multiple vantage points helps ensure that the executive is “Mr. Right” and not merely “Mr. Image.”
  • Lay the foundation for negotiating the offer early in the recruiting process.  Understand the nuances of the executive’s current compensation, benefits, perks…and how much importance the candidate assigns to each.  Work out all of the non-cash aspects of the offer first by asking at appropriate intervals, “if the base and bonus end up where they need to be, what else will you need to know in order to accept an offer?”  When possible, use a 3rd party as a buffer during negotiations (someone other than their boss-to-be).
  • Gauge how susceptible the finalist candidate is to a “counter offer” from his current employer, and what preparation is needed to insulate him from changing his mind.  Leaving a company to join another can be a difficult emotional experience.  Prepare the executive to resign by letting her know what she can expect from her boss as well as from her own emotions.  Follow-up before and after the resignation to make sure the event went as planned.  Then find reasons to stay in regular contact until they start working at your company.
  • Design a 6-12 month on-boarding and assimilation plan and a 3-5 year retention plan to ensure the hire stays with your company long enough to deliver a substantial ROI.


 Average candidates are plentiful and quite easy to hire…while great ones can be hard to find and harder to reel in.  That said, the tangible rewards of making a great hire will almost always dwarf whatever time and money you invest in the effort.  If you accurately determine all that you need in an executive…identify and make contact with enough execs of the right caliber…and communicate with them in a confident and professional manner, you can achieve success without a recruiter.

5 Mistakes to Avoid

1) Not talking to enough people to allow the bell-shaped curve of candidate quality come into focus…thereby making it more difficult for you to find, recognize and hire the “best available” candidate

2) Hiring the best performer in the interview…versus the executive who will be the best performer on-the-job

3) Inadvertently coming across as someone that cares more about filling an immediate need for the company than the long-term career fit for the executive

4) Losing credibility with candidates by doing too much “telling & selling,” not engaging in enough active listening, and not being informed about areas that matter most to the best prospects

5) Not properly managing the interview process with candidates.  This includes giving the interview team too much latitude and not enough direction, allowing momentum to fade at the wrong times, not leveraging your chance to subtly “sell” the candidate’s mentors, etc.

About the author

Scott Kaufman is the founder of Convergence Recruiting, a firm that helps organizations hire and retain peak performers. 

He has successfully placed executives in large and small companies, non-profits, most industries, and for all functional areas of leadership (including general management, operations, finance, HR, IT, marketing, and sales).

Typical clients have revenues of $15MM to $500MM with 50 to 1,000 team members.

More information is available at, or Scott can be reached at 678-879-7980. 

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