Skip to main content

The bold rhetoric about talent wars in recruiting and retention has faded with time, satisfying as it was for our combative instincts. The real war companies face has actually always been against the inadequacies of our recruiting systems and judgmental blind spots, which prevent us from finding the best people, not poachers or other workplaces.

Let’s look at some new ideas that might spruce up those recruiting processes. I’ll start with John Sullivan, a professor and consultant who has been called “the Michael Jordan of hiring.” He says the five most effective recruiting tools are simple, logical, and intuitive. They also require no cash outlay, take little time, and work at a range of firms from large to small. Sounds irresistible, right?

He opens with boomerangs – previous employees who were top performers and might return to your grasp. They are not unfamiliar strangers, hard to evaluate; you understand their value. The key is to identify the best ones – those who have continued to excel since leaving your employ – and assign one of your top employees in their field to rebuild the relationship and capture the boomerang return.

Employee referrals are increasingly common but he goes a step further: Hire a recruiter to interview your own top employees in the target job field, and rather than just asking “do you know anyone we might hire?” pose a series of questions that might prompt deeper recall. For example: Please name the most innovative idea-person that you know in this job area; name the best team player; name the best at working under pressure?

Try calling executives with sound judgment who were references in the past for candidates you hired. Thank them for the past reference and ask, “Who else do you know that is equally as good?”

Another helpful technique often overlooked is to revisit past finalists for jobs who may now be more qualified. And his fifth simple, low-cost technique: When onboarding new hires, ask who else at their previous firm in the industry is worth hiring.

“The secret to successfully finding top candidates is not to use the most common tools like job boards, internet searches, and career fairs. These sources can be expensive. And in addition, they also often result in weak hires because the applicants from these sources are almost always complete strangers to you (who might easily fool you). If you can’t afford a single mis-hire, the key to assuring quality hires is to first rely primarily on referrals from people who have a track record of identifying top talent that fit your firm. And then revisit former top employees and top candidates who you already know a great deal about,” he concludes.

Goldman Sachs used to have its pick of the student intern crop, the most successful of whom became full-time employees. But after the 2008 financial crisis, investment banking was no longer as hot, and the recruits it prized switched to Silicon Valley, private equity, or start-ups. So Goldman re-evaluated its recruiting methods, Dane Holmes, global head of human capital management, reported in Harvard Business Review.

One twist was at the very start of the intern interviewing process. Traditionally, like many top companies, Goldman had flown recruiters and business professionals to universities for first-round interviews. But even though they hit a surprising number of campuses, essentially it was a limited search in terms of universities and number of students who could be seen in a visit. That has now been replaced with asynchronous video interviews: Recruiters record standardized questions and send them to interested students at any university, who have three days to return videos with their answers. To ensure a level playing field, the company created tip sheets and instructions on preparing for a video interview. Then top applicants are invited to a Goldman Sachs office for structured, final-round, in-person interviews.

“This approach has had a meaningful impact in two ways. First, with limited effort, we can now spend more time getting to know the people who apply for jobs at Goldman Sachs. In 2015, the year before we rolled out this platform, we interviewed fewer than 20 per cent of all our campus applicants; in 2018 almost 40 per cent of the students who applied to the firm participated in a first-round interview. Second, we now encounter talent from places we previously didn’t get to. In 2015 we interviewed students from 798 schools around the world, compared with 1,268 for our most recent incoming class,” he writes.

So review your processes, looking for new methods that can make your own recruiting more effective.


  • Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s retreats on policies over his first year offer lessons to other leaders. Don’t delude yourself into thinking being bold, brash, and different means you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Double-check your ideas before launch, to make sure they will fly. But when you have a clunker, retreat.
  • INSEAD Professor Michael Witt says we are likely entering a new Cold War between China and the United States. Managers have two choices for their companies: Withdraw to one sphere of influence or develop high levels of decentralization so as to operate in both spheres.
  • As we near midyear performance reviews, consultants Karin Hurt and David Dye say these meetings should summarize, celebrate, challenge and inspire.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.