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How to Lure Great Employees Away From the Competition

Posted by Bob Corlett on January 29, 2015

I run an executive search firm, so you might assume that I often recommend recruiting top employees from your direct competitors. But trying to solve a business problem by hiring your competitor's "rock star" can be an astonishingly risky strategy.

It's tempting to "poach" key players from your competition in the hope that they can solve a troublesome business problem. You hear this when people in small companies say things like, "If we could just hire a key designer or engineer from a prestigious firm like Apple, it would transform our product line."

The decision to hire a rock star is often motivated by the desire to turn over all the hard thinking to someone who has solved the same problems before. But it won't work. One single new hire could not possibly hope to solve every issue that has thwarted your success thus far.

The underlying hope is that hiring someone "proven" will ensure your success. It doesn't.

And the underlying assumption is that someone who has made it to the top of another firm will be willing to leave that prestige behind, for the challenge of climbing up that mountain one more time. But they usually won't.

Importance of context

Job descriptions often look for the "proven ability" to do something, but the reality is that nobody outside your organization has ever proven their ability to succeed at doing anything inside your organization.

In hiring, the context of someone's success is critically important, but often overlooked.

Every employer is different, and success is rarely an individual effort. People rarely understand all the environmental factors that lead to success. That rock star you admire from afar might simply be your competitor's Ringo Starr — competent, but also lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

When you are interviewing some other firm's top person, will you be able to evaluate the effect of their skills versus their environment? And further, will you be able to calculate the effect of your environment on their ability to perform?

Consider the motivation

Another problem with hiring your competitor's top performer is motivation. Top performers have a very clear sense of the kinds of business problems they like to solve (which usually isn't the same problem over and over again). If you do find top performers who will consider taking your "do-over" jobs, they will probably command exorbitant salaries. In their minds, they are "proven" and you are not.

But research shows that paying someone a salary premium does not guarantee more motivation. It can actually have the opposite effect, reducing their intrinsic satisfaction of the work. When you blow your salary budget on a rock star, you limit your budget for everything else on the project.

So when your new rock star encounters unexpected obstacles, it might be hard to find the resources to solve the problem, leading to more even frustration and disenchantment. And beware, prima donnas tend to blame everyone else on the team for any setbacks. You might find that your expensive new hire works harder on maintaining a reputation than on achieving results.

Creating a realistic lure

So how can you lure the best employees from your competition without breaking the bank? Be a talent scout instead of a groupie. Look for the up-and-comers instead of the veteran rock stars. Lure great people to your organization with the opportunity to become a rock star.

Find people with the skills, talent and passion to do the work, and create a work environment where they can do the best work of their lives. Instead of spending your time and energy being held hostage to the demands of a prima donna ego, invest in giving the entire team the tools and resources they need to be successful.

The money you would have wasted on a rock star can instead be used to create a work environment that yields an enduring advantage. If you want to hire your competitor's best people, nothing is more alluring than the opportunity to do great work with a great team.

This article originally appeared in The Business Journal

Topics: Hiring Process