Reimagine Hiring – Aqui-Hiring, Lift-Outs and Purple Squirrels

May 16, 2013 Michael George

hiring purple squirrelsI’ll bet many of you reading this have a vision of companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple and Twitter – just to name a few – as talent magnets. Organizations, unlike yours, that don’t have to fight very hard to attract their industry’s top talent. With brands so synonymous with innovation and “cool,” the best and brightest naturally flock there, right? Well, maybe to some degree, but even those organization are in a war for talent so intense they are doing some interesting things in hiring that you are probably not (but may want to consider).

One of the things many of these companies to do is called acqui-hiring. This shouldn’t be confused with aqua-hiring, which is the practice of letting the new hires sink or swim. Acqui-hiring involves established organizations acquiring startups, not for their products, but to bring on entire teams of talented workers all at once. Most companies aren’t open about the practice, but Facebook and Yahoo! are less secretive about their acqui-hiring strategies.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer doesn’t try to hide the fact that she believes in using an aqcui-hiring strategy. In fact, her first acquisition after becoming CEO was of a company called Stamped, where the entire nine-person team (5 of which were ex-Google employees) were snatched up and incorporated into Yahoo’s New York mobile product team.

And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying, “Facebook has not once bought a company for the company itself. We buy companies to get excellent people.”

Why do these companies move away from traditional hiring strategies when looking to bring on innovators? The out-of-the-box thinkers these big companies need are often only found in small packs known as startups. It isn’t likely given the choice between the freedom of a startup and the constraints of a large company that innovators would chose the latter. And the irony is in some of these large organizations up to 90% of those who apply will be rejected because they are found not to be a “corporate fit.”

And while it is true that this kind of hiring strategy originated with large, financially advantaged tech firms looking to skirt the restrictions of “non-poach” agreements, with today’s cloud technologies, accessing global talent is within the reach of nearly every organization. In fact, many startups are themselves virtual teams who have thrown off the brick-and-mortar shackles in favor of working in the cloud, eliminating the need to invest in things like relocating employees or technology infrastructure to tap into a global community of skills.

This kind of hiring strategy is not for faint of heart, but if you’ve developed a solid strategic talent acquisition strategy, your organization could see a number of advantages, including:

  • You get an intact, functioning team with a proven track record of successfully working together, reducing the need to invest in developing team collaboration and cooperation. Your job is simply to keep the team humming.
  • You get innovators and outside-the-box thinkers who not only understand today’s new ideas, but also bring their abilities to continually generate new ones.
  • You get the CEO who is most likely behind many of the startup’s entrepreneurial thinking and innovations.

The Role for Talent Acquisition Leaders

Because the acqui-hire strategy involves buying companies, business leaders must be sold on the ROI of such an approach. If you are unable to demonstrate that you have a solid talent acquisition strategy based on the long-term talent supply and demand of the business, you’re unlikely to sway executive leadership on investing in talent this way.

Often painting a picture of lost opportunity due to your firm’s inability to attract talent critical to executing the corporate business plan may help demonstrate how acqui-hiring is more effective and less expensive than the traditional approach of simply hiring individuals one by one. The catch is, you must understand your company’s business plan and the talent needed to execute it.

Slightly less aggressive than acqui-hiring is the practice of “lift outs.” Rather than acquiring the whole organization, a lift-out strategy seeks to recruit an intact team. This strategy has the potential to deliver all of the benefits of an acqui-hire without the expense and intensity of an acquisition.

Won’t poaching get me in hot water?

Dr. John Sullivan, author and internationally known HR thought-leader who specializes in providing bold and high business impact strategic solutions had this to say about lift-outs on

“If your initial thought is that this is large-scale “stealing,” you are simply out of touch. In recruiting, it is not illegal or even unethical to offer individuals new and more exciting employment opportunities. In fact, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission recently ruled that companies like Google and Apple that put together secret agreements restricting the free movement of employees between companies were unfairly restricting worker freedom. Since employees are not owned, you are free to make them offers and they are free to accept or reject them. It is also true that in a global marketplace, many countries (for example India) have no restrictions on the practice.”

Once again the idea that access to global talent means rethinking many of the traditional talent acquisition and talent management practices.

Purple Squirrels

On the other end of the spectrum from acqui-hiring or lift-outs is the idea of going after “Purple Squirrels.” These are the game-changers, the outside-the-box thinkers, the 24×7 innovators that come up with the next big ideas and have the potential to change the course of the organization.

There are a number of reasons why companies target Purple Squirrels including:

Financial impact – Apple has calculated their performance at 25 times and Google 300 times the performance level of an average hire.

Innovation impact – Today, increasing innovation is having a greater impact on the business than upping worker productivity in many organizations.

Technology superiority is becoming essential in almost every industry – No longer just an advantage for tech companies, technology superiority is proving to deliver competitive advantages in nearly every industry, and many Purple Squirrels are technologists.

Impact on employment brand – Purple Squirrels can dramatically improve your employer brand image and hiring clout, adding to your ability to attract other top talent.

Drivers of culture — Just a few Purple Squirrels can shift your culture to where things like serial innovation becomes commonplace.

How to Bag a Purple Squirrel

Using traditional recruiting tactics won’t net you a Purple Squirrels because they are different from your average employee. Not only are they “super passive,” meaning they will most likely never apply for an open position, you have almost no chance of contacting them through traditional methods, and they are probably sitting on a dozen “anytime you’re ready to jump” offers right now.

This is what makes the Purple Squirrel so hard to attract. The good news is they are easy to find (even though they make up less than 1% of the workforce). You’ve seen them receiving awards, leading seminars, giving the keynote at industry conferences, leading online forums and social community discussions, and being quoted in trade magazines.

You aren’t likely to lure them with money or perks because they aren’t motivated by such trappings; they are only motivated by the work they do – the more challenging, the more attractive. If you’re offering mundane or average work, what makes you think you’ll attract exceptional workers?

What Does the Squirrel Want?

As a recruiter, your job is to offer the most compelling, life changing, one-of-a-kind dream job specifically tailored to the Squirrel’s career interest. You’ll need to be uber-flexible, possibly allowing them to work when and where they like, often on just the projects they like.

Tips to Bag a Purple Squirrel:

Get your CEO involved – The CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Starbucks, and Google all get directly involved in recruiting.

Challenge their work on their social media – Not public humiliation, but thoughtful counterpoints and arguments to their positions.

Monitor their social sites and blow their mind – Follow your Squirrel on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn to uncover something they are passionate about (favorite sports team, wine, local restaurant, rock climbing) and send them tickets to root for their favorite team, or the best vintage of their favorite cabernet out of the blue.

Get them involved in what you’re working on right now – Use social media to ask for their advice, input, and criticism of what your company is working on.

Prove your hiring process is different – Tools like HireVue, InterviewStream, and Hyier offer online video interviewing, and newcomer claims to have decoded the science behind happy workplaces and can show your Squirrel how their unique strenghts fit with your culture.

Acqui-hiring, lift-outs, and stalking Purple Squirrels may seem like recruiting strategies that are out of reach for your organization. However, as cloud, mobile and social technologies continue to level the playing field by reducing costs and providing access to a global talent pool, those winning the war for talent aren’t doing so by outspending their competitors, they are outwitting them.

Taking the Next Step Toward Strategic Talent Acquisition

Appirio has partnered with the Human Capital Institute ( and Cornerstone OnDemand to deliver a free webcast called Reimagine Talent Acquisition: 6 Essential Building Blocks to Make the Move from Order Taking to Strategic Sourcing.

We invite you to join Mike Brennan, Appirio’s Cornerstone OnDemand Deployment Practice Lead and Jason Corsello, Vice President of Corporate Development & Strategy at Cornerstone OnDemand, as they share how leading organizations are assessing and continually improving their talent sourcing models

The live webcast will be presented on Tuesday, Jun 18 2013 12:00pm EDT, with replays available through HCI. Register here. Hope to see you on the webcast.

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