Guerilla Recruiting: Combating the Counteroffer

Scott Weiss

One of the most frustrating things I’ve experienced as a leader is putting months into recruiting an amazing VP or engineer, only to have them change their mind at the 11th hour because of a ridiculous counteroffer. This is the big risk you face when aiming for the best people on the planet (see: “Hiring Rockstars”) as they are the “beating heart” of their existing employer, and the incumbent company will often go beyond great lengths to keep them. They may be prized recruits for you, but they are absolutely the most critical people at their current employer. For instance, Google has been rumored to be especially aggressive at countering with restricted stock grants in the millions of dollars for their top people. But they aren’t alone. Any employer will do whatever he or she can to keep key talent.

We found out the hard way at IronPort by being overconfident and sloppy at the offer stage. In reality, once an offer is accepted and before the start date, candidates can still be lost—and won—in this no-man’s land. The work of getting a top recruit in the door can’t stop until they started working for us (and, even then, keeping employees excited to come to work every day never really stops). To mitigate the risk of getting left at the altar, we took a sledgehammer to this egg of a problem and came up with a systematic approach that gave us the best opportunity to close on our most prized recruits (and make them feel good about joining our organization):

Have an outstanding recruiting process. Candidates would go through 2-3 rounds of interviews at 2-4 people per round, which usually resulted in 8-12 total interviews. The interview team would meet beforehand to discuss the job description, learn about the hiring manager’s hot buttons and assign interview roles (so everyone doesn’t ask the same bullshit resume questions). After each round, the hiring manager would lead a live input discussion and decide whether to pass the candidate to the next phase. We were prompt, organized, responsive as hell and would over-communicate with the candidate. (For more insight into improving your hiring process, see Peter Levine’s blog post on hiring.) In addition to making damn good and sure that we hired the best people, the process was a reflection of a well-run company, allowed the candidate to meet and connect with a critical mass of our great people and, lastly, it made them feel like they successfully ran a gantlet to get an offer. It made the offer feel hard earned and special.

The hiring manager must control the offer process. Many companies use a recruiter or HR for managing a candidate pipeline, but when you get close to making an offer, the hiring manager needs to take the wheel completely. People leave and join companies primarily on the connection they have with their boss and negotiating the offer is the crucial start of building this relationship. There’s also a lot of critical information that can be gleaned: When will they give notice? What’s the candidate’s psyche? Who did they connect with during the interviews? I’d always want to get a handshake and an eye contact “yes” to the “Are we done-done?”  question. This commitment mattered a lot during the notice process.

The Welcome Basket. We would put together an awesome basket of IronPort swag: t-shirts, coffee mugs, hats, Nerf guns, fruit, wine, chocolate and a handwritten note to let them know how excited we were to have them join. We’d deliver it to their home a few days after acceptance and we’d always get a shockingly enthusiastic email or phone response: “Wow—totally unexpected!” I always thought it was much harder to consider a counteroffer when our swag was strewn all over the house and their daughter was walking around in our hat and a baby-sized logo T-shirt.

Enlist the interview team. Once I knew when the candidate was planning to give notice, I would schedule a team dinner or drinks within 24 hours to help diffuse the pressure and reinforce the decision. It’s also important to keep in constant contact with the candidate during the notice period and the team would help there as well. It’s a little weird for the hiring manager to be calling every day, but a coordinated effort among the 8-12 interviewers was not only appreciated but unexpected.

Pay attention to onboarding. The first day, week and month of an employee’s experience carries a lasting impression. Everything needs to scream: “We’ve been expecting you!” Business cards printed, desk with supplies, lunch buddy schedule, basic orientation meeting and a thoughtful plan for training and beginning real, useful work. As CEO, I had a standing 30-minute meeting every Monday to greet and connect with new hires. We also had a daylong new hire orientation scheduled every quarter where I would go over the founding history, values, goals and the most recent board presentation. The product managers would go through every product and an available VP would go through the organizational structure.

Changing jobs is a scary, precarious proposition and the very best people have lots of options. It’s the hiring manager’s job to connect with the candidate, quarterback the process and get the candidate emotionally comfortable with the new job situation. All of this requires a ton of work AFTER the offer is presented. At the end of the day, I knew we were hiring a real rock star when we would get a “cease and desist” letter from a big public company—a last resort to prevent a beating heart from leaving their organization.

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