How to Hire Rock Stars

I’m sure you want them. Rock stars, I mean. Whether you’re a start-up or a large corporation, you need the cream of the crop on your team. So how to you find & hire these elusive stars?

I don’t mean to brag, but…

While I was an engineering manager at Yahoo! (YHOO), I was constantly involved in recruiting activities. I did it before I was formally a manager, I did it as a hiring manager, and I did it to help other teams. I quickly realized that I had a strong fascination for the art of recruiting. Who knows, maybe I was a recruiter in a previous life.

During that time, the developers I hired won Superstar awards (an internal award given to only a select few every year) and became managers, directors, & architects. Some even went on to form start-ups.

I devoted a lot of time studying the process, and art, of recruiting. So I think I have a fair bit of knowledge about how to hire rock stars. Looks at fingernails, rubs them on shirt. Ahem.

UPDATED 5/5/2010: I’ve turned this entry into the first part of a series.

The Rock Star Series:

So how does one find and recruit rock stars? Here’s how.

Rock stars usually hang out with other rock stars
This is no secret. Like-minded people tend to associate with each other. That’s why employee referrals are so powerful. But when referrals aren’t bringing in enough candidates, look at where your rock stars spend their time. If you’re hiring software developers, do your rock stars frequent particular forums, mailing lists or open source projects? Check them out for more potential rock stars.
Rock stars aren’t always the best judge of rock star quality
In direct contradiction to the previous tip, sometimes rock stars aren’t able to reliably tell you if other developers are true rock stars too. This isn’t always the case, but on occasion, likability usurps actual abilities. I’ve known a few stars who’ve highly recommended their friends, only to find that their friends aren’t that great.
Rock stars may have particular personality patterns
Get into the heads of your current rock stars. Interview them to understand their temperaments, core values, points of view, motivations, backgrounds, etc. Look for broad patterns. These findings can be a template from which to do your candidate evaluations. But be careful not to follow such patterns strictly. For instance, the rock star developers I hired tended to have strong analytical dispositions, yet have artistic hobbies. Many were also introverts, though I didn’t make that a pattern to follow, because I’ve hired extrovert rock stars as well.
Rock stars already have jobs
You’ll rarely find a rock star posting a resume on Craigslist or some job board. Rock stars are almost constantly employed. So you’ll have to find a way to woo them from their jobs, which isn’t easy – especially if the rock star is loyal and excited about the current position.
Rock stars need to be wooed by other rock stars
If you are a recruiter or middle manager, you’ll have a hard time attracting rock stars from their current jobs. What you need is a rock star from your team who can speak the same language as the candidate. Rock stars need to be impressed by someone they respect. Exceptions exist, of course. Well-known industry visionaries can have a lot of clout over candidates of any background.
Rock stars can be expensive
This isn’t always the case, but the law of supply and demand, coupled with small social networks within industries, means rock stars may constantly be getting offers. Be prepared to pay them well enough so competing offers don’t lure them away. Money isn’t and shouldn’t be the main reason they are coming to work with you, but you’ll need to compensate them competitively.
Rock stars need to feel passionate about their work
Some of the best rock stars I know really care about their discipline. That’s why they are rock stars. More than money or stock options is the promise your company offers. It has to match their passions on some level. Learn about the candidates, read their blogs, and find out what motivates them. If you’re trying to attract a social media rock star to your internal banking product, for instance, then you may want to spend your resources elsewhere.
Rock stars are the sum of their talents & their environments
It’s true. Rock stars are so good at their jobs not just because they are talented, but because they’ve optimized their workflows for their current work environments. If you’re lucky enough to attract a rock star, don’t expect them to hit the ground running. You’ll need to work hard to set up a similar environment and be patient while they learn about your company, your people, and your processes. Do this while you’re waiting for the paperwork and background checks to be completed.
Rock stars need to be hired right away
So you’ve found a rock star who’s willing to come work with you. What are you waiting for? Cut through whatever red tape is in your way and get the star into your office now! Start-ups will have an advantage over large corporations here, though if you know the right people, it’s possible to get the star into your corporation quickly.

What have you done to hire rock stars?

The Rock Star Series:

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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