July 10, 2011

Recruiting a Star: Leave Nothing to Chance

Mr. Hieu wants YOU to join our team!

Last week learned again that I am not yet a recruiting Jedi.

I’ll tell you the story.

But first, a few thoughts about why recruiting is such a big deal.

Your team (and mine) is only as good as the people that work in it.  And, since it’s your team that generates results (not you),  your ability to recruit great people and match the job to their strength zones will determine a HUGE part of your success as a leader.  Get the recruiting thing right and you can afford to make a lot of other mistakes that might otherwise sink the team.

“Yeah yeah,” you’re thinking, “I know that Chris.”  But I want you not just to know it, but to FEEL it.

Try this.  Imagine the most kick-ass person on your team.  You know the one — the person bristling with ideas, great attitude, energy and who never gives up until the job’s done?  Yeah, that one.

Ok, now imagine if your entire team, your entire organization, were composed of people like that.  Got it?  See the amazing power in it?  Good.  That’s the power of good recruiting.  It’s hard, which is why most organizations are just ok and not great.

Back to my story.

We’re in the process of building up our Finance & Accounting (FA) team.  We have the “A” part covered, but it’s a bit under-powered on the “F.”  The FA, leader, Hanh, is quite talented and capable of conducting financial analyses, but it takes too much of her time.  I want her focused on other, higher level issues instead of plowing through the nuts and bolts of variance reports, AR analyses, cost analyses etc.

To help Hanh out, she’s hiring a Financial Analyst.  There is opportunity for incredible value creation if we get the right person.

We had an EXCELLENT candidate, Phuong (not her real name), whom I met at an AmCham event.  She was perfect.  Great attitude, good soft skills, perfect level of technical skills, desire to learn and would fit into our culture like hand in glove.  But there was one problem — Phuong seemed quite happy in her current job.

So we pulled out all the stops.  We invited her in for an “informational chat.”  We wooed her without shame.  We invited Phuong to our “Olympics Day” where Hanh made sure to introduce her to everyone as “Our next Financial Analyst!”  Team leaders were all briefed beforehand to tell Phuong how they had heard about her already and how excited they were about her joining the team.  Hanh and I tag-teamed to envelop Phuong in a warm embrace from which there would be no escape.

Three weeks ago our efforts paid off.  Phuong accepted and signed the offer letter.  A sigh of relief and high-fives all around.

Labor law in Vietnam specifies that an employee must give 45 days notice before leaving.  We knew this was a dangerous period and wanted to keep Phuong in our bear hug.  Hanh brought her in for a victory lap with the team.  I stopped in to lay on the praise and tell her how excited I was.  Hanh copied Phuong on team emails and called her from time to time.

Then last week Hanh and I received an email from Phuong.  She was “so sorry,” but could not leave because she “should not cause difficulty to my company where I have been trained and well treated since the day I left my Uni.”  She wished Hanh and I a “successful and glorious life.”

“Awww, that’s so sweet,” I thought through my clenched teeth.

I met with Phuong the next day but failed to save her.  She explained that the CEO of her company had met personally with her several times and leaned on her heavily to stay.  It sounded like in addition to bumping her salary and increasing her responsibilities, he had laid a good dose of guilt on her.  And it had worked.  She felt bad about flaking on her commitment to us, but her mind was made up.  I let it go.

So what was the learning?  It was this: “Prepare stars for the counter-offer!”

Losing a great person sometimes blows a hole in the organization.  Phuong was a star, and her CEO knew it.  We should have anticipated that he would try to save her and counter-offer.

We should have inoculated ourselves against this problem by briefing Phuong about what to expect and helping her to steel her nerve.  We should have encouraged her to call us if there were any pressure.  We should have reinforced her explicit promise that she was committed to us even if her employer countered.  We should have followed the advice in this excellent post on our own Navigos Search website.  Kudos to Van Anh on our Navigos Search team for educating me.

The Vietnamese have an expression, “Kinh nghiệm xương máu.”  Literally, it means “Experience from bone and blood.”  It’s experience of the best kind.

Lesson learned.  Forward!


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  • So sorry to hear you lost out on that one! As executives become more experienced, they learn they should never take the counter-offer and turn down the position they’ve already accepted (if it is, in fact, a position and not a project / life-change / drop-out). Our job as leaders is to walk them through those consequences and prepare them.

    I know I’ve learned this one the hard way as well – thanks for sharing the experience! It’s a great leadership / teaching moment.

  • Chris

    Thanks Marc!

    I feel certain that we could have hung onto Phuong if we had prepared her properly for the counter. She is young and impressionable and needed guidance during her first post-university job switch.

    It’s one of those lessons that is so painfully, blindingly obvious in hindsight.

  • vananh

    Very well-written, Chris.

    The candidate also learnt from this too. In fact, senior executives will not accept counter-offer of this type. She will understand this when she gets more mature in her career.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Van Anh

    • Chris

      Thanks for sharing, Van Anh. I learned a lot from you in this case.

  • Mai Nguyen

    This is not rare in recruiting. I just do not know why you take this so seriously. Maybe because you really like the candidate and want to have her in your company anyhow. Therefore it leads to this painful disappointment. However like someone already stated, senior candidates will not make up and change their mind easily like this one. For about me, if the future employer is too warm and too friendly, this could make me question myself. Am I really that good or is there any unreal thing in this case. Eventually I will stay with my current company even when I already signed a offer letter. In your case, I think you and your company gave her too much to handle. It’s not about the counter-off. This is normal in recruiting, not a serious lesson which needed to be learned. And one more thing, sometimes recruiting the most talented candidate is not the best choice. In order for the machine to run smoothly, we should provide the most suitable one.


    • Chris

      Hi Mai,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I take recruiting very seriously. One of the most important things I do is find passionate, talented and ambitious people so we can be great.

      I really wanted this candidate — she was an excellent fit and would have added a lot of value to the team. When she accepted and signed the offer letter, we told other candidates that we had found someone and we stopped looking. When she decided not to come, it cost us about 2 months in lost time as well as a lot of emotional energy. So yes, I take it very seriously. It is a problem I will do my best to prevent in the future.

      I realized that it’s 100% MY responsibility to coach the candidate through the resignation process. She should know what to expect and be mentally prepared for pressure from her current employer. I feel strongly that if we had done this with Phuong she would have carried through on her commitment to join our team and we would have avoided a lot of costly trouble. I may not be able to prevent this problem 100% of the time, but that won’t stop me from trying.

      You raise a good point about were we “too warm and friendly?” Some people are uncomfortable with a lot of attention and praise. Maybe Phuong was, although my feeling is that wasn’t the deciding factor.

      I like your comment “In order for the machine to run smoothly, we should provide the most suitable [candidate].” I agree completely. We may have different points of view on meaning, though. My definition of “most suitable” is “the absolute most talented candidate.” After all, the better your people are, the better are your results. Of course, you have to make sure the job is big enough for someone with big talent.

  • Phuong le

    Hi Chris,

    I saw you on a TV show for the first time it was about 20 minutes ago ( I just accidentally turned on the TV and you were there). I got your blog from that show and read your all of your posts 5 minutes ago. You amaze me with your thoughts and the way of speaking so much that i decided to write to you right away.

    I find a lot of myself in ” leave nothing to chance”. It is not because her “fake” name is like mine, but just the situation that I am in . I have learned a lot.

    I LOVE your blog! I will be definitely reading it and hopefully I would have a chance to share my thoughts with you.

    Now I got to run to work!

    All the best to you, Chris!

    • Chris

      Wow Phuong, thanks for your kind words! I’m glad you liked the show and my blog.


  • Mai Nguyen

    Your view: “most suitable is the absolute most talented candidate”
    My view: “the most suitable can be the most talented candidate, the most talented candidate however is not always the most suitable one”.
    I’d rather choose the second-best but most suitable candidate for my company, not the most talented one who I am not so sure about his/her interest in my company and I have to count down to the day he/she shows off with my finger crossed. For the smooth operation, I also require stability. The most talented is someone who can impress me but the mots suitable one is someone I can count on. Besides, the interest must come from both sides also. If the most talented candidate does not choose my company for his/her career, then he/she is not suitable for my company or the feeling that he/she is the perfect fit for my company is only from my side. In your case, do not put everything on your shoulder. Take it easy and spend more time thinking about those who are working at your company now, not someone who refused to join the team. Be friends with her, no hard feelings, only time will tell if she decides to join the team later on or not. Recruiting after all is dealing with human. And human beings are unpredictable. If these words are not pleased to your ears then I’m sorry. Just want to have a frank conversation here.

    • Chris

      Hi Mai,

      Thanks again for your thoughtful reply. I think our positions and views are really not so different.

      I was hasty saying that only talent is important. You are right that it’s important to recruit people are are not only talented, but the best “fit.” By “fit” I mean culture, suitability for the position, likelihood the person will stay for a few years, etc. And you are right that the most talented are not always the most suitable.

      I’ve seen situations where someone had a lot of talent, but they could not cooperate well with colleagues. Those people are never a good choice for your team no matter how “talented” they are.

      However, I think that a person being “over-talented” for a position is a great problem to have if you are a manager. There are often ways to expand the job role to take advantage of an unusually talented person and achieve more than you thought possible.

      You obviously have a lot of experience with hiring and leadership and have a lot to share. Please do return and comment more as I post more topics.

  • Mai Nguyen

    Thanks for your compliment. However what I wrote here is just some normal living experience. I do not need to be an HR Consultant to understand that. It’s confusing to you maybe because your culture is different from ours. But after all, difference makes our life less ordinary, doesnt it?

    Actually I knew your old blog long time ago. I read it sometimes for some different views in life but hardly leave comment. Personally I think your thoughts are interesting. Thanks for sharing. Keep on writing.


    • Interesting debate you guys have with recruiting for this particular topic. I’m not sure how these types of things play out in Vietnam, but if it was in the states, I would agree with you, Chris, that preparing a counter offer would have definitely put you and your company back in the game of trying to corral Phuong to work for you guys.

      And Mai, you’re right that it’s probably a culture thing. Guilt is a card played more often than not by the Viet culture. From Chris’s story, I don’t necessarily feel like the offer that Phuong’s employer gave her was anything spectacular..I mean, she already liked working there, so she was just getting more pay and more work. But I think the deciding factor was the guilt trip that was placed on her. Maybe making her feel shameful if she didn’t stick with the company was what did it. And shame is not something to be messed with in Vietnam. It’s a really big deal.

      And yes, I can see how this is a big and serious issue for Chris. The fact that it took a lot of time, resources, and emotional efforts by more than one person to find someone to fit with the team on a cultural and technical level is hard. That’s something you can’t really have back. And if the attempt fails, you have to start the process all over again, which means more time and resources. I feel if the position that you’re trying to fill is an important one, and one that will help the company prosper, it’s better to find someone who will fit the role perfectly, than to find someone who might fit okay.

      I think finding the most suitable candidate only works for some positions. Others, however, would need to be both talented and suitable. And in this case, Chris saw Phuong as that type of candidate, and losing her was a hard blow.