Hiring is never easy. Hiring for a key executive position is one of the most difficult things you'll ever do as a leader. "Most decisions a business makes are small.," says David E. Perry, co-author of Hiring Greatness: How to Recruit Your Dream Team and Crush the Competition and an expert with more than 30 years of experience who's been dubbed "The Rogue Recruiter" in the press. "A single sale or interaction doesn't add that much value to a small business, or damage it much if it goes wrong," he says. "Hiring an executive is different. That can make or break an organization."

A star employee can catapult your company to new heights by increasing sales, boosting productivity, finding new markets or directions, or creating new innovations, he adds. On the other hand, "a bad hire may mortally wound a small business."

As if that weren't challenging enough, in today's tight labor market, competition for key talent is fierce. This is why large companies with deep pockets pay hefty sums to executive search firms in the hopes of bringing in the kind of talent that can help the company grow. What if you don't have the cash it takes to hire a great search firm? You can do a lot of the things a search firm would do for you, Perry says. Follow these steps, and you'll dramatically increase your chances of hiring a winner every single time.

1. Create a position profile.

Hiring a key executive is an investment, Perry explains. "Every investment must be measured by the return produced," he says. "Too often, business owners view the acquisition of staff as a simple process of expansion." Instead, he recommends treating an executive hire like any other type of investment and measuring the returns you get from it.

With that in mind, you should create a "position profile" or "success profile" that clearly defines the executive role and exactly what business benefit the person in that role should create -- what Perry describes as a job description on steroids.

"Executive level roles should always be tied to strategy," he adds. "Being clear on how the executive will contribute to the bottom line is critical to understanding who to hire." With that in mind, the position profile should describe exactly what benefits you're hoping the new hire will create for the business. Following that document should give you a checklist that will help you decide to whom to hire. "Hiring decisions are then tied to the business' needs, not candidate availability," Perry says.

2. Learn to find people who aren't looking for jobs.

It's a seller market for great talent. "The best executives aren't looking for you. They already have jobs -- almost certainly good jobs -- and they're not surfing for jobs online." In fact, he says, the very best candidates are rarely if ever actively looking for work.

"As a small business owner, you want to find the best talent available, not just the best talent looking for work," he explains. With that in mind, learn to skillfully target employees who work for your competitors, he advises. "Establish a dedicated team of your best people to court them."

3. Do a reality check.

"Your challenge is to give top executives a compelling reason to join your company and a compelling reason to stay," Perry says. So before you start recruiting, ask yourself a few key questions: Does your company have a compelling story that will appeal to the best executives? Will your seasoned executive team inspire a prospective hire's confidence? And ask yourself honestly, if it were you, would you take this job? If the answer to any of these is no, make some adjustments before you start recruiting.

4. Don't depend on job ads or personal connections.

If someone isn't actively seeking a new job, you won't know they are available, Perry points out. And they're not likely to see your recruiting ad either. So, he says, "it's all about branding."

How do you raise the profile of your brand to prospective home buyers? "Spend your money on well-written articles for trade magazines," Perry advises. "If you position your company as a leader, they'll find you. Make it easy for them by creating a company page on LinkedIn that showcases what you have to offer in terms of opportunity, and alludes to the type of people who are the best fit for your business." Whether someone is a good cultural fit for your organization is as important as what's on the candidate's resume, he notes.

5. Widen your network.

Networking is the best way to find top candidates who may not yet be job-hunting, and your professional network may be larger than you realize, Perry says. "You personally, and your company, already have a huge network of contacts with a vested interest in your success," he says. This includes attorneys, bankers, accountants, VCs or other investors, suppliers, loyal customers, and your industry trade associations.

If you're looking for a great hire, reach out to all of these and more, he advises. "When approached correctly, they are usually more than happy to respond. Often, they also know who not to approach, based on fit and other factors." Use your extended network to gather all of this valuable info.

6. Be prepared to court top candidates at the right time.

"Executive search firms work with an industry's most talented executives day in and day out," Perry says. "We know who they are, where they are, and what turns their crank. When the time is right for them and you we help you connect so you can hire them and execute."

If you want to be your own search firm, take a similar approach, he says. "Dedicate one senior person to actively talent scout the best people in your industry. Know when your competitors' best people are ripe for a change, such as when stock options vest, when new products are late to market, or when there's been a recent change in senior management. Recent or upcoming acquisitions are also prime opportunities."

An even better strategy is to watch for layoff announcements, he says. A few days after your competitor announces a layoff, call the people who are still employed and offer them the opportunity to work with you. "No question, the best time to tempt people is when they're pondering their future."

7. Raise your personal profile.

Building your company's brand is great, but you should also raise your own personal visibility because it's a powerful recruiting tool. "Go out of your way to speak at trade shows or local business groups and to write opinion pieces for trade publications," Perry advises. "It's a well known fact that the most admired business owners get a steady stream of unsolicited resumes," he notes. "Everyone wants to play on Peyton Manning's team!" The fastest way to build your business is to have top executives believing that your grass is greener and that you'll be able to get them to the next level.

8. Keep a list of potential hires.

"Small business owners should always be assessing and balancing the strengths and weaknesses of their teams," Perry says. Long before you need to hire for a key position, you should be "building your bench strength," Perry says. "It's easy when you make a concerted effort at every industry function to meet half a dozen new people. Challenge your Human Resources person to scout them out ahead of time."

Once you've met potential candidates, make sure to keep tracking the best of them. "A great way to do that is by connecting with these people on LinkedIn," he says. "You should also save the attendee rosters from conferences and trade shows, and keep in touch with any candidates who applied for positions when there weren't any, but showed great promise."

9. Sell first, buy later.

Before you evaluate whether or not you want to hire someone, you first have to get that person to want to work for you. "Very few business owners do an adequate job selling prospective candidates on their companies -- they just naturally assume everyone's as enthralled with the place as they are," Perry says.

Don't make that mistake. Take the time to sell your company and explain why it's wonderful, just as you would to an investor. If you think about it, a talented executive who chooses your company over a larger employer really is making a bet on you, much as an investor would.

"Because people rarely move for strictly monetary reasons, the lure of money that most companies use to attract people doesn't work with executives," Perry says. "They move for greater challenges and the opportunity to play on a winning team, so package accordingly. Insist that everyone in the hiring process understands and can articulate the company's vision as well as its strengths and weaknesses."

10. Plan on a cooling off period.

Recruiting star talent takes a lot of effort and patience, Perry notes. So much so that when you get a nibble from a hot prospect it can be so intoxicating that you feel compelled to make a hire whether or not it makes good business sense at that moment. "Give yourself enough time," Perry says. "This will help you maintain control of the process if a candidate's expectations exceed your budget."

Don't be afraid to walk away from the negotiations if the hire or the compensation isn't right for you, he says. "That will increase your business' value in the prospective candidate's mind, allowing you to temper his or her demands and restart the process on your schedule."

11. Don't forget to offer 'psychic cash.'

According to Perry, "psychic cash" are the many intangibles beyond compensation that attract an executive to your company. "The person we want to hire wants to be the best, be perceived as the best, and leave an impression on the world," he says. "Not only what they do but where they do it will define a lot of this."

So understand the intangibles your company offers, which might include access to state-of-the-art technology, industry leadership, fast growth, stability, challenge, or the chance to be in at the early stages of a hot startup. Once you understand the importance of items like these, "you are prepared to rise above money," Perry says.

Do this right, and money will no longer be the primary issue in your candidate's mind, he adds. "Make your (truly) best offer first and stick with it -- because it's never about the money."

Published on: May 1, 2016