Sun Tzu on Sourcing

Sep 10, 2010

Is there nothing new under the sun?

Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese general. His Art of War is the oldest military treatise in the world.

He thought spies were an essential part of war — and where is Sourcecon being held in 2010?

At the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. (on September 28 and 29).

When I saw that, it made me want to go back to Sun Tzu and see if there is anything he can tell us about intelligence gathering today.

Here’s what I found: economics.

This is the first thing Sun Tzu says about spies. (Chapter 13:1)

Raising 100,000 men and marching them a long distance will bring heavy losses and drain the resources of the state.

Men will drop exhausted on the highways.

It will cost 1,000 ounces of silver a day.

There will be problems at home and abroad.

Up to 700,000 families will be negatively affected.

Waging war costs money. It uses up your resources. It takes people away from their regular jobs.

So, one of Sun Tzu’s major goals was to avoid war altogether or reduce the cost and an essential part of his strategy was the use of spies.

He said that a wise general will use “the highest intelligence of the army for spying.” (13:27).

Here’s the reason. If a spy can identify the most important targets and tell you how to get to them, it spares you the cost of throwing a big army into the fray without knowing exactly where you’re going.

So, in effect the spy leads the army. She tells the generals where to go.

Spies are a most important element in war, because on them depends an army’s ability to move. (13:27)

How does this relate to recruiting? Well, what are the options? If you put an ad on a job board, you’ll get a ton of resumes. Most of them are going to be irrelevant, but your recruiters will have to spend time sorting them out.

The person you’re after, however, might not even be looking for a job. She might not be searching the job boards and it’s likely that no one is telling her about the ad either. So, all of your time is wasted, the job remains unfilled, and the required work remains undone.

On the other hand, you can hire a sourcer who will go out and identify good people and then the recruiter can call them.

Which path is most likely to reach the right targets faster? And which is going to be cheaper in the end?

Sun Tzu says that:

Hostile armies can face each other for years, striving for the victory which is decided in a single day. This being so, to remain in ignorance of the enemy’s condition simply because one grudges the outlay of 100 ounces of silver in honors and payments, is the height of inhumanity. (13:2)

And what is the most important kind of intelligence? According to Sun Tzu, names.

Whether the object be to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, it is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, the aides-de-camp, and door-keepers and sentries of the general in command. Our spies must be commissioned to ascertain these. (13:20)

Cheaping out on the cost of a sourcer is only going to postpone, sometimes at great cost, your opportunity to meet the people you’re pursuing.

Types of Spies

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that reliable information has to come from the horse’s mouth.

Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men. (13:6)

In recruiting, this is a vote for telephone sourcing. The Internet isn’t necessarily going to give you up-to-date information. Calling a company will. Instead of finding the footprints of people who were once with a firm, you’ll speak to someone who will tell you who is there today.

This doesn’t mean that Sun Tzu would refuse to use the Internet. In fact, he simply distinguished between different types of spies. Some were simply closer to the action.

Hence the use of spies, of whom there are five classes: (1) Local spies; (2) inward spies; (3) converted spies; (4) doomed spies; (5) surviving spies. (13:7)

The local spy would be the person who was simply in the neighborhood of the enemy.

In our case, that could be a supplier who sells to your target firm or a customer who knows a few sales reps and customer service people. Or a sales rep who knows a few people in his customer’s company.

An inward spy is someone inside the belly of the beast. Imagine someone working with the competition who knows people who are going to lose their jobs in the near future. He might tell you who they are in order to help them.

Sun Tzu might add that a nice referral fee could help loosen tongues.

Converted spies are spooks who become double agents on your behalf. Sun Tzu considered them to be the most important sources of information:

The enemy’s spies who have come to spy on us must be sought out, tempted with bribes, led away, and comfortably housed. Thus they will become converted spies and available for our service.

It is through the information brought by the converted spy that we are able to acquire and employ local and inward spies.

It is owing to his information, again, that we can cause the doomed spy to carry false tidings to the enemy.

Lastly, it is by his information that the surviving spy can be used on appointed occasions.

The end and aim of spying in all its five varieties is knowledge of the enemy; and this knowledge can only be derived, in the first instance, from the converted spy. Hence it is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality. (13:21-25)

In our context, however, this doesn’t seem too relevant. So, we might want to think of them as any kind of turncoat, for instance, someone who joins your company and gives you the names of the best people at his old firm. This is not much different from the inward spy.

Doomed spies are people you know are going to get caught. You might even expose them yourself so you feed them phony information which they then divulge to your opponents.

The closest we come to this is the plausible deniability external recruiters and sourcers provide to the company that wants to hire people from its direct competition without giving the other side a reason to counterattack.

Oh, we didn’t recruit him,” the CEO says to his angry opposite number. “He came to us.”

Of course, it was through a 3rd party recruiter who was never actually told to go after people in the most relevant firms.

A surviving spy is someone who manages to go into enemy territory and come back with the info. In other words, anyone who does what they’re paid for. If you don’t deliver the goods, you’re not going to survive very long.

Sun Tzu says that the combination of the information from the different sources of information is the secret sauce of intelligence gathering.

When these five kinds of spy are all at work, none can discover the secret system. This is called divine manipulation of the threads. It is the sovereign’s most precious Faculty. (13:8)

The various spies are ignorant of each other and the general is the only one who has the big picture created by all of the information from the individual channels combined.

Only he has the power to guide one spy with information gathered from another.

One can imagine a recruiting manager who has Sun Tzu’s dedication to the use of spies hiring both an Internet sourcer and a telephone sourcer to work on the same jobs.

If he’s really wily and he finds some good sourcers, he might want to keep those sources of information for himself alone. He wouldn’t even tell them about each other and if he thought that news from one would help the other, he would make himself the middle-man and carry suggestions to each of them himself, thereby becoming the “divine manipulator of the threads.”

Treat Me Nice

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says:

In the whole army, the most intimate relations are maintained with the spies. (13:14)

The spy is to have direct access to the general. This can be a problem in recruiting because the sourcer often has to work through a recruiter who has no detailed understanding of the job or the client’s industry but wants to maintain direct access to the hiring manager himself.

He doesn’t let the sourcer ask any relevant questions and is too concerned about looking dumb to go back when necessary and ask them himself.

This can be a costly mistake. If you introduce a trusted sourcer as a member of your team the questions she asks will impress the hiring manager. He will know that you are serious about the search.

And, providing the sourcer with helpful information will boost her enthusiasm and her desire to help you.

Sun Tzu points out that only a leader with people-sense knows how to deal with a spy properly.

Spies cannot be usefully employed without a certain intuitive sagacity. They cannot be properly managed without benevolence and straightforwardness. (13:15-16)

And Chung Yu, a commentator, adds:

When you have attracted them by substantial offers, you must treat them with absolute sincerity; then they will work for you with all of their might.

The same problem occurs when the recruiter and sourcer have to work through HR. The HR person can be very bright but she’s not a specialist in the field she’s recruiting for. She doesn’t necessarily know the best companies to recruit from or the conventions the candidates would go to or the best directories for their profession.

But her job might be to keep you away from the person who does.

What kind of person is the spy, herself? Tu Mu, a commentator, says that the surviving spy must appear to be an unimpressive fool. In reality, however, she must be a person of keen intellect with a will of iron. She must be used to doing dirty work and able to put up with being treated badly.

Sourcing on the phone or Internet can be tedious work. When you call a company you are not always welcomed with open arms. You often have to go back again and again to get the information you need. And, you have to have some moxy.

Tu Mu tells the story of three men who went to spy on the enemy camp. They posed as night watchmen and didn’t hesitate to correct soldiers who were in breach of discipline.

As a telephone sourcer, I would add that you have to know how to elicit information. Let me give you an example.

I used to sell small businesses. I would approach an owner and ask him if he wanted to sell his business.

He would ask me how much it was worth, and that’s what I wanted him to do, but not so I could answer his question. First, I wanted him to answer mine and this set-up question opened the door to a slew of questions from me about his finances.

Should We Be Doing This?

The goal of all war is not destruction but gain and Sun Tzu warns leaders not to fight just because they are angry.

No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique. (12:18)

Likewise, the goal of sourcing is not breaking up teams. We help to build companies that need talent and expertise. To do that we connect people with companies that are willing and able to offer them the most money for their work and the best professional opportunities.

Managers who can’t keep their staff don’t like losing people so they say that what we do is wrong.

That’s just sour grapes.

I don’t think we’re always right, though. Sun Tzu says:

In no other business should greater secrecy be preserved. (13:14)

We love to talk about our processes — publicly. We’re about to go to Washington to do just that.

Why? Because we like rubbing shoulders with each other? Because we want to learn?

Or, because the presenters are blowhards who like to put our trade secrets on parade so they can show everybody how much they know?

Real spies don’t go to spy conventions. And if you tell everyone how to do what you do, won’t you end up with more competition? Or, at least, more pretenders who can talk enough of a game to sell their services even if they can’t, in the end, deliver quality goods — which gives all of us a bad reputation.

If public teaching is wrong, then I’m the greatest offender. So, welcome to my world.

I’ll see you at Sourcecon in DC in September.

Re-posted with permission from

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