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Recruiting = Sales

by Isaac Palka

Dec 21, 2021 • 8 min read

Recruiting has been a hot topic ever since the Covid pandemic hit. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard a lot of the following lately:

  • The market is so crazy right now.
  • It's so hard to hire good candidates.
  • Something something about "The Great Resignation".

While Covid has certainly shifted the dynamics of the job market, the fundamentals of the game haven't changed. I don't believe we're facing "unprecedented times" in recruiting. In fact, companies that have understood the universal laws behind recruiting have been very successful during these times. I've found it not only unhelpful, but also inaccurate, to use Covid or "the market" as scapegoats.

Recruiting is a game of supply and demand, and the advent of remote work has actually increased the supply. Great candidates are out there, and they are hireable. They might be more expensive than ever, but hey - so is real estate and gas. You either pay what the market demands, or you lower your standards. There's no silver bullet.

And yes, it is highly competitive to attract top talent. But it always has been. Great candidates have always had tons of great options, and they always will. They will continue to get courted by top companies, and for top dollar. Maybe people just have short memories, but these challenges are not unique to today's times.

The term "The Great Resignation" is also misleading. Sure, many people have resigned during the pandemic. But they haven't vanished into a black hole - they just resigned from YOUR COMPANY, and joined another. It is a zero-sum game (with some exceptions), and in such a game, there are winners and losers.

The good news is that you don't have to be a FAANG company in order to hire top talent. I've successfully hired great people who even had competing offers from FAANG companies. And my secret weapon was treating recruiting like sales.

This post is for hiring managers who want to improve their recruiting success and compete for top talent, regardless of market conditions or pandemics. Naturally, my experience is biased towards engineering, but the principles can apply to any field.

Mindset of Selling

Get Involved

Great candidates want to join great managers. Therefore, you, the hiring manager, must be proactive and engaged in the recruiting process. I’ve seen hiring managers sit on the sidelines and wait for candidates to magically get hired, and then wonder why they get no results. Great recruiters are critical, and they’re not easy to find either. But you shouldn’t expect them to do everything, especially not the selling. It is ultimately your responsibility to assemble the team you need.

Hiring Manager = Salesperson

When you're wearing your hiring manager hat, your main job is to sell! This is not a metaphor. Although the candidate is the one receiving compensation, you are the one selling the candidate on your offer, and they are the ones buying (or accepting).

Start treating recruiting like a sales process. It is quite different from a mindset of "trying to fill a position", and it will lead to different behaviors and tactics.

Like any other skill, sales must be learned. Pick up some books, courses, or videos, and start learning the basics. If nothing else, it will help you in many other areas in life.

I've increased my hiring success tremendously by learning basic sales concepts and applying them to recruiting. I'm by no means a professional salesperson, so I won't attempt to teach it. But here are a few concepts that I've found relevant to recruiting:

  • Qualifying - uncover the candidate's interests through open-ended questions. Assess whether they are a potential fit, and therefore worth the time to continue interviewing. You can later highlight aspects of the job that match their stated interests.
  • Qualifying out - if it's not a fit, it's mutually beneficial to end the interview process early (but don't abruptly hang up on a candidate mid-interview). There's nothing impressive about spending hours on a candidate that you already know isn't a fit. You need to be efficient with your time and focus on the right candidates to get results.
  • Decision Criteria - ask which criteria are important to the candidate in making a decision. If you don't know, you'll try to sell them on points that aren't relevant to them. You can also use this information to lay traps against your competitors (you'd be surprised at how often candidates have told me where else they're interviewing, simply because I asked). But be genuine, not conniving. If I know I'm competing with a FAANG company, for example, I'll mention that while this is a great company, you may have less autonomy there, and to weigh how important that is to them.
  • Addressing objections - you will get all kinds of objections, especially in the offer stage. It can be anything from compensation to concerns about GlassDoor reviews. Prepare your responses. For example, if it's about the salary, know in advance whether you have wiggle room or whether you want to highlight other aspects of the job to compensate for it. But don't enter a discussion unprepared.

Sell Yourself, Not Your Company

Although candidates are applying to work for your company, 90% of what they'll experience will come from you. You can work at a great company, but for a poor leader, and you'll have a poor experience, and vice versa. Your direct manager will have the most impact on your day to day - e.g. what you work on, how you advance, and even your general level of happiness in life.

The company umbrella has an impact of course, but in my experience, it's shadowed by what the manager does. If I had a dollar for every person I know at a FAANG company who was miserable because of a horrible boss… I'd have about $10.

When you sell, you should be selling yourself much more than you're selling your company (unless you are a horrible boss, in which case I don't have good advice for you). I like to share the following, so candidates get a true sense of what I'm about:

  • General background and prior work experience
  • Why I took my current job, and why I'm still there
  • What excites me and frustrates me about my job
  • Who's on my team(s), and how they operate
  • What challenges we're having
  • What my team(s) work on, and what's my vision for them
  • Personal hobbies and interests (I cannot emphasize enough the importance of being a relatable human)

I talk about general company culture as well, but I make it clear that there's the company culture, and there's my team's culture. I usually recite my Pulp Fiction / Samuel L. Jackson-esque paragraph to make that point explicit (although it's not nearly as dramatic as Ezekiel 25:17):

"Although you are applying to work at <Company Name>, you'll 10% be working for the company, and 90% working on my team. You can be at a great company but with a poor manager, and you'll have a poor experience. You can work at a poor company, but with a great manager, and you will have a great time and learn a lot. So I recommend that you place a lot of emphasis on who the hiring manager is, and whether they're a fit for you. And you will know my name is the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon thee."

I think junior candidates need to hear this, as they tend to focus more on the company brand and perks, rather than the hiring manager. I often get the response that they hadn't thought about it like that before, and that this gave them food for thought.

How to Sell

Competition is for Losers

As Peter Thiel notes in his book Zero to One - competition is for losers! Don't try to compete with the FAANG companies of the world on their terms. You will not beat them at their own game. But you can create your own category where they won't be able to compete with you.

Many aspects of a job offer are out of your control, but some things are. Things such as compensation ranges, benefits, company culture, or office location, are typically out of your control. The key is to identify the things that are in your control and to double down on them.

Sell things that are unique to you, your team, and your company. I can’t tell you how to be unique, but here are some things I’ve highlighted to candidates:

  • Company mission - for example, in my current role, how to address people's health and healthcare costs. What could be more important?
  • The autonomy they'll have on the job, and examples of technologies that people on the team got to learn or experiment with.
  • How engineers on my team get to interact with end users, and contribute to product ideas.
  • Mine and my team’s skill sets and experiences, and how they’ll have the opportunity to learn those things from us.
  • Educational opportunities at my company. My teams also do weekly tech talks, and before Covid, we had occasional outings to seminars and conferences.
  • Fun team culture and camaraderie - for that, I have them meet my team, usually without me present.

If you don't have unique selling points or a mission, start working on those. Otherwise, ask yourself objectively, why would a candidate with options choose you?

Speak to the Candidate's Self-Interest

This is the most important sales concept. Candidates care about their own needs, not yours. So sell them on the things that are important to them. It's like when you ask a waiter what dish they recommend and they respond "Well, MY favorite is the pasta bolognese". I don't care what YOU like, I want to know what I'LL like!

You should have already uncovered the decision criteria earlier in the interview process. Now is the time to sell on aspects of the job that match their criteria. If flexible work policy is important to them, don't focus on how good the cold brew is at the office.

Offer More Than a Position

You should discuss what you can offer the candidate beyond just a position on your team. Address why you think they'd be a great addition to the team. Therefore, you need to put thought into this before you even post the position opening. When there is a clear need that this candidate fulfills (something more than "we have the budget for more resources"), you'll fill the role more easily.

Lastly, great candidates are continuous learners, and want to know that there's room to keep growing. I try to get specific about what they'll do on the job (in the first 3, 6, and 12 months), which technologies they'll work with, and how that fits into their experience. I also review areas where I think they'll need to learn or improve over time.

Sell the Bad Parts Too

Be honest about issues and challenges you're facing. You don't need to air your dirty laundry, but you should mention the non-exciting parts of the job. Every job has them. By sharing them, you're demonstrating to the candidate that you're honest and trustworthy. I assure you that 95% of hiring managers are hiding the bad parts and exaggerating the good parts, and candidates can sense it.


Recruiting Never Ends

The key principles of recruiting candidates are the same as for retaining employees. Employees are constantly reevaluating if they want to continue working for you, so you have to constantly be adding value for your team members, and constantly be selling. The effort you put into crafting your sales pitch, vision, and team culture, will pay off well beyond the recruiting process.

Expect Rejection

Recruiting is still a numbers game. Despite your best efforts and tactics, you will continue to face rejection as a hiring manager. Don't get discouraged - it's natural and expected. But know that without a strong strategy and sales pitch, you have a slim chance at beating the house. Keep focusing on the fundamentals, keep selling, and you'll see improved results.