Steve used to work for Amazon (he is at Google now), and has blogged before about Google’s recruiting strategy. He wrote about the importance of mouth-to-mouth advertising (”you can’t fake being cool”) and how Google has turned the whole recruitment process around:
The term “recruiting” implies that you’re going out and looking for people, and trying to convince them to come work for you. Google has managed to turn the process around. Smart people now make the pilgrimage to Google, and Google spends the bulk of their time turning great people away.
There have been many stories on Google’s unique mix between the atmosphere of graduate school and a startup, although there was also a more neutral testimony from a former employee who now works at Microsoft.
In summary, it seems that one of the most important factors in being able to hire smart people is “excellence”: being able to work in a stimulating environment with smart people who are good at what they do. In my opinion this is true for research and academia as well. I guess most researchers wouldn’t turn down offers from the major labs that publish at the main conferences in their field year after year. Well, at least if it’s feasible to work there, e.g. moving to another country might be a problem
As an example from the academic world, have a look at this promotional video for Microsoft Research:
At about 2 minutes and 30 seconds, Bill Buxton mentions that at MSR Cambridge he got to have lunch with his “hero”, Turing-award winner Tony Hoare (the inventor of QuickSort), and goes on to say that “the history of Computer science is walking down the corridors”. The movie ends with a listing of all awards and honors MSR’s employees have received.