Recruiting someone not looking

Someone responds to your cold recruiting email saying they are not looking but are “happy to have an intro chat”. Or your recruiting team brings you a fantastic lead of someone who is happy in their current role, but they are the top 1% of profiles you have seen. What do you do? Is it worth taking that intro? How should you approach the conversation?

Let’s start off with what not to do.



Whoa there, Umang. That is against everything in my recruiting playbook”. Yes, that’s a fair statement. I would have told myself that a few years ago. Let’s back up and start from the beginning.

1/ The fallacy with “most great candidates are not looking”

There is much unhelpful advice in the world, and one of it is that most great candidates are not looking, so you must try and find people who are not looking and get them interested. There are two things wrong with this statement:


As any marketer worth their salt will tell you, it is far, far harder to generate intent than it is to qualify and convert intent. It will be more productive to sift through a pool of actively looking candidates and finding a suitable one, than to sift through a pool of candidates not looking, find a suitable one and convince them to (a) leave their current role where they are likely satisfied, and (b) join your company and not a third one.


Most people are not looking at any given point in time, so it must follow that most great people are also not looking. While there is some adverse selection in the pool of candidates open to exploring opportunities, it is easy to filter out the really unqualified ones. Also, “great” is subjective — someone performing at a mediocre level in one role might excel in another. Daniel Gross, author of the best book written about identifying talent, often says that the most likely mistake we are making is misallocating talent, i.e. hiring smart people but putting them in the wrong jobs.

The rate of job seeking in tech is relatively high and should not be a counter signal.

So if you are racing to build your team and get people on board as quickly as possible, politely refuse the “intro chat” with people who are not looking, unless you want to spear-fish (I’ll get to that in a minute).

2/ Think like a Product Manager: what does the ‘customer’ need

What is a candidate who is not looking to change roles looking for on the call?

The trivial case is if they are actually exploring opportunities, but are being reticent about saying so (and there can be good reason for this). This is possible to guess from factors like how long they’ve been in the role (too long or not long enough, both are correlated indicators) but also by straight up asking: if the right role came along, would you be ready to switch in 3 months? The time frame is important; it is the shorter end of the timeline for any search, especially for senior candidates, so if they would be ready to switch in 3 months, they are probably actively researching the state of the market right now.

The candidate who is really not looking to change roles any time in the near future is trying to identify companies and spaces they can follow, and people they can reach out to when they start looking. They are looking to spot trends and vibes. Change your conversation accordingly.

3/ Spear-fishing

Spear-fishing is a comical metaphor, but it is in the parlance and an obvious reference, so I’ll stick with it. You don’t need everyone on your team to be truly exceptional, but you do need a few. The only way I know to hire truly exceptional people is to build a relationship with them when you do find them, and then when they are ready, try to find or create a role for them (common sense caveats apply; don’t make the wrong tradeoffs in creating a role for one person).

You are more likely to come across people that might be the aforementioned exceptional talent while you are actively hiring to fill immediate roles. Your future self is going to hate you for passing on an opportunity to establish a connection with such people, in spite of the present hiring crunch. So, the the only exception to point #1 above is to make the time for intro chats with people who might possibly be exceptional talent you would like on the team next year.

In Headcount cannot ship products I wrote this, which is relevant here:

Sourcing is a poor word to describe what you need to do as a hiring manager. Sourcing is better suited to an industrial age manufacturing process where you knew exactly what raw materials were required and you went out to find the cheapest, most reliable, highest quality supplier you could. A better term for what we do is scouting — identifying talent.

Scouting is a mindset, not a process. You are constantly looking for talent, even if you don’t have a current opening, building connections, understanding their spikes and career aspirations, and being opportunistic in getting exceptional talent on board.

This brings me to the ‘Do’ from above: if this profile exudes exceptionalism to you, form a hypothesis and try to validate that in the first intro call. Is this someone you want to ‘spear-fish’ over time? If by the end of the call the answer seems ‘yes’, set up a follow up meeting right there, before you hang up and go your separate ways.

The first conversation

With all of that context, let’s get back into the tactics. Your foremost goal must be to assess whether to ask for that follow up meeting or not. To do this, you need the candidate to talk about themselves for a lot of the time. Fortunately, most people enjoy this. All it takes from you is being genuinely curious about learning what makes them tick.

Secondly, you want to let the other person get a feel for what it would be like working with you and why this is a space they can bet their career on for the next 5+ years. Allow them to lead this part of the conversation, instead of going into a sales pitch. Great talent is also great at reverse interviewing. A deep conversation that incites curiosity and projects authenticity is the best way to approach this, on both sides.

Having made this work a few times (including once going out on a limb by creating a role, making an offer and reserving it for them for 6 months in the most heated hiring environment in a decade!), I can confirm that getting said exceptional talent to join you, and seeing how they level up everyone around them is truly magical.