The Two Ponds (How Companies Can Identify and Recruit the Best)

By Alan Darling
– originally published in the MIT Enterprise Forum.

Jack Mullen, the Vice President for Human Resources for a major Route 128 manufacturer, decided to hire his company’s first senior training person (this is a true story, but the name has been changed). After some exploration, he determined that there was one person he wanted to hire the most – the senior training manager at IBM. After having his secretary confirm that this man would be in his office at IBM that day, Mullen flew to New York, and somehow wrangled his way right into his prospect’s office at IBM headquarters. At first, his prospect squawked, “How the heck did you get in here?”, and threatened to call security. But Mullen persisted, and explained that he wanted him, and only him, to come to work for him at his company. And, after several meetings, he did.

In today’s free-for-all, full employment job marketplace, what appear to be unreasonable recruitment tactics like Mullen used are necessary if a company truly wants to fill itself with gamebreakers. There are two ponds that companies can fish from to find candidates. The first is easy to reach, but has few fish, small fish, and many fishermen. The second pond has many fish, bigger fish, and few fishermen, but is hard to reach.

The FIRST POND is the one where most companies concentrate their recruiting time – it’s the one that contains the people who are looking for jobs. Research indicates that these people make up 8% of the employed executives (plus the unemployed), turn over at high rates, and generally aren’t of the same quality and caliber as those who are not looking for jobs. These people are reached through advertising, the internet, employment agencies, and other traditional methods.

The SECOND POND contains the 92% of employed executives who are not looking for jobs. These are generally the best people out there, and they’re the ones you need to go after if you’re going to build a highly-effective organization. They also cannot be reached with even the best print and internet advertising campaign, because they’re not even thinking about changing jobs. There are a variety of techniques any manager can use to go after these people – the ones who aren’t in the job market. A few basic techniques follow:

1) Develop An Organization That Constantly Thinks Recruiting: The best recruiting starts years before the position is filled. Whenever you meet a good, interesting person who could some day help your organization, grab his or her card, and get it into a file with some notes. If you’re not bashful, and are active in your industry, you will regularly be meeting these people at industry conferences, trade shows, and trade organizations. Keep in contact with the people in these files at least annually (plus a Christmas card, of course), and when you have a need, go to this file first. You shouldn’t have to beat around the bush with them by this time – you know them well enough by now – so ask them straight out if they’re interested in discussing coming to work for you, and if they’re not, ask them who they know who is a rising star.

2) Internal Referrals: Work with the people working at your company to see who they can identify from their past lives, and ask them to contact them directly. In and around Route 128, employee referrals are driving the recruiting. The best people come this way, because no one will refer a bozo if they know they’ll have to work with that person later. Referral bonuses of $500 to $2,000 are typical, and $5,000 (or more) bonuses for hard-to-find people like software engineers are not unusual.

3) Contact Candidates Cold: Many companies are bashful about doing this, but this is the heart of a good search process. In a typical executive search, a retained search consultant will contact over 200 employed executives, cold, at their offices. This is more contacts than most executives should handle on their own, but you can do a miniature version of this. If you are looking for, for example, a VP of Research and Development, you could start by making a short list of companies who would employ the kind of person you’re interested in, and then identify the people at those companies who are doing that job. This can often be done by using directories, or by calling the target company receptionist up, and asking who is in charge of R&D. Then, you can make a series of quick phone calls, and you may be surprised at what develops. At the lower levels, you can get your own technical people involved. If, for example, you’re looking for an additional chemist with a particular specialty, after you’ve identified a key prospect, have one of your chemists call up the person, and have him start by asking a technical question or by congratulating him on his latest article. Then work the conversation around to whether he or she knows someone who would like to come to work for them (and, of course, if that person is interested, he or she will suggest himself). Microsoft, by the way, has a department filled with people making cold calls to competitors all day long, and that’s how they get their superstars.

4) Recruit the Star Candidate Like Notre Dame Recruits A Quarterback: Other than those people who have been recruited by college coaches, very few people have ever truly been recruited. If the candidate has even a germ of interest, go after him or her with wild abandon. Just after the first contact, send a Priority Mail package (the cost is only $3.20, and the impact is huge) filled with information on the company and the area.

At the interview, impress the candidate. You can do this at the same time you’re gathering information about the candidate and determining whether he or she will fit in your organization. The key is to make every candidate leave wanting the job. You can decide whether to offer it to him or her later.

After an interview, leave a message on the candidate’s home voice mail about how impressed you were with him or her (if you truly were). Send the area newspaper to his or her home for a month or two. Keep the dialog going, even if there are other candidates you’re considering. The worst thing you can do is leave the candidate in the dark for weeks. Ultimately, you want to choose the best candidate, rather than hire the only person who’ll take the job, and this is the best way for you to be able to have that choice.


These are a handful of basic techniques. The recruiting marketplace is wild and complex, and needs extensive attention these days. Both traditional and non-traditional approaches are necessary if you truly want to develop into an organization that operates at the highest levels.

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