Everyone wants to hire top performers, but how do you know one when you see one?

It’s not an easy question. Unless you are constantly hiring for the exact same position, you cannot possibly know who the current top performers are in your job market, what skills actually drive their results, or what their compensation should be. You certainly won’t know whether any of them would consider working for you.

At the beginning of a search, hiring managers can put themselves in a position to learn from the job market, but cannot presume to already understand the job market. Yet, most recruiting processes are based on the assumption that the hiring manager is a job market expert. The manager will say, “I have this mental picture of my ideal candidate; now go recruit them.” And, of course, that ideal candidate may or may not actually exist. Two of the most common definitions of  “top performer”  both suffer from the same kind of faulty logic:

  1. Some hiring managers define top performers by their resumes (e.g., “Candidates will have a successful background in …”). Unfortunately, most managers can only conceive of a few paths to job competency; we’re all prisoners of our own experience. Yet, economic forces constantly reshape career options, creating career paths that these managers could not begin to conceive of. Managers who rely on a “career path like mine” approach unwittingly rule out large numbers of qualified people based on outdated assumptions.
  2. Some hiring managers define top performers as the most successful people working for their most successful competitors. But there’s no guarantee that these people will perform equally well in your work environment. “Top performer” is not a hard skill people bring with them to a new job, like being bilingual or knowing how to program software. Managers who rely on the “proven ability” approach forget that individual performance always depends on the work environment.

Job markets are in constant flux. Unemployment rates rise and fall. Organizations prosper for a while, but eventually lose their luster when new competitors burst on the scene and become the hot place to work. Employers are always locked in competition with each other for the best people. Job descriptions evolve to fit business needs, and job skills can go from unknown to red-hot to passé in just a few years’ time. 

Top performers constantly rearrange themselves within job markets. They do not share a uniform set of attributes, want the same things, thrive in the same work environments, or read the same job postings. Just because you hired someone great 5 years ago does not mean you will attract someone equally successful now. The skills that led to success in a job 5 years ago may be completely irrelevant today. As Heraclitus said 2,500 years ago, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

To thrive, your organization must select the best available people from within your job market, so in hiring, you are always “grading on a curve.” Someone can only be a top performer in relation to their current peer group–the other people who currently work on similar issues, at a similar scale, and in a similar work environment.

Here’s the good news. Consistent hiring of top performers is absolutely possible, even with the inherent unpredictability of both people and job markets. Because the problems of hiring are found in the hiring process itself, not with candidates or the job market.

If you want to improve your hiring results, organize your recruiting efforts around this definition of top performer:

A top performer is someone who is demonstrably better than their peers at achieving the kinds of business results you require, while working in an environment similar to your own.