Hire Superstar Talent Fast

How do companies find, recruit, and land the most gifted performers in their fields?


My most recent post, about the excesses of the new war for talent raging in Silicon Valley, generated lots of commentary — some positive, some negative, all passionate. Readers were so engaged, I’d wager, because the question is so urgent: How do companies find, recruit, and land the most gifted performers in their fields?


As I read the spirited commentary, and thought more about the question, I couldn’t help but think back to what I consider the most provocative and instructive article on the war for talent I’ve ever read — an article we published in Fast Company more than 12 years ago, at the height of the first Internet Boom. The piece was called “How to Hire the Next Michael Jordan,” and it was built around an interview with an HR guru by the name of Dr. John Sullivan, who we dubbed the “Michael Jordan of Hiring.”

Everything old really is new again! You can read in-depth accounts of today’s overheated job market in Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers, then read the John Sullivan interview from December 1998, and apply his ideas and strategies directly to what’s happening now. When it comes to the battle for talent, business generals can fight the last war and win.

Here are three of Sullivan’s key points:

1. Move from coincidence hiring to continuous hiring. “Traditionally, companies get serious about hiring when they have a specific opening: ‘Our vice president of marketing quit, so we need a new one.’ I call that approach ‘coincidence’ hiring: ‘I happen to need a basketball player today. Did Michael Jordan happen to quit his job?’ The odds that he did are not very good. So what are the odds of your landing him?

“The companies I work with don’t want to hire unemployed people or unhappy people. They want to hire people who can make a difference, the best of the best. But those people usually have a good job and are happy where they are. So recruiting them requires a different mindset.'”


2. Hiring is too important to be left to HR. “Hiring great people is not the responsibility of HR. It’s the responsibility of every single manager. There are lots of reasons for this: If you are the leader of a great marketing team or of a great product-design team, no one outside your group — no human-resources specialist — can understand the kind of superstar who will make a difference in your work.

“Every manager has to become the business equivalent of an NBA talent scout. You have to find the names of the best people in your field and then get to know those people. And you can’t rely on them to come to you. You have to create learning networks that help you meet great people — the kind of people you want working for your company — even if those people aren’t looking for a job right now.”

3. If you want to hire smart, hire fast. “Great people usually won’t leave their current job unless there is an external triggering event: Maybe they’ve turned 40; maybe they’ve gotten divorced; maybe their company has been bought. So companies that are serious about hiring will keep track of great people and will be on the lookout for such triggering events. And when such an event happens, they’ll make their move fast.

“The formal assessment-and-offer process has to be quick and easy. Assume that talented people who decide to leave their job will be on the market for one day. So you have just a day to make them a firm offer and to persuade them to join your company. If you delay — ‘Sorry, but you have to meet with two people in HR’ — you lose.”

If you don’t believe that Sullivan’s advice is as powerful today as it was a dozen years ago, then check out an amazing piece from just a few days ago by Scott Kirsner, the highly respected innovation columnist at the Boston Globe. Scott visited with Paul English, cofounder of fast-growing, and one of Boston’s most high-profile entrepreneurs.


Paul’s fast-growing company is competing against some of the biggest names in tech — Google, Apple, and the rest — to hire top talent. Even though Paul and his colleagues have never met John Sullivan, the hiring tactics they’ve devised are right out of his playbook — and they are winning on today’s talent battlefield.

For example, does not have a human-resources department. The people factor, its cofounder believes, is simply too important to be left to HR specialists. “English is like a baseball scout with an incredible network of tipsters, willing to fly anywhere at a moment’s notice to see a hot prospect,” Kirsner writes. “‘The difference between an A player and an A-plus player,” he has said, ‘is the difference between a million in revenue and a billion in revenue.'”

English and his colleagues make it a point to find great people who aren’t looking for jobs — that is, to go from coincidence hiring to continuous hiring. According to Kirsner, “English says he spends an hour or more on hiring during a typical day. He’s constantly asking Kayak employees and others in his network ‘Who is the best person you’ve ever worked with?” He’ll fire off emails or place phone calls to the candidates himself, being free with flattery, and asking for their advice on issues Kayak is grappling with.”

Finally, when it comes to smart hiring, English insists that his colleagues work fast. He calls it the seven-day rule. “When he first hears the name of a superstar working anywhere in the world — whether a designer, programmer, or software tester — he gives himself seven days to find the person, conduct interviews, make an offer (assuming the prospect lives up to advance billing), and get an acceptance”

So let’s get a new discussion started. How are you waging the battle for talent? Why do you think you’re going to win?


Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine, author of Practically Radical, and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. Follow him @PracticallyRad or at

About the author

I'm a cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company, coauthor of the 2006 book Mavericks at Work, and author of the forthcoming (January 2011) book Practically Radical.