Five Steps to Transforming a Recruiting Function

We don’t usually think of anyone in our profession as heroic, yet there are recruiting leaders who have achieved amazing results.

HC is one of those whose modesty means he remains anonymous. He took over a recruiting function that was stumbling along, filling positions only after lengthy delays. Job requirements were not communicated clearly to candidates, hiring managers assumed the poor performance they got was normal, and senior leaders put all their positions out to search.

The career site was hidden, not engaging, and listed positions as “open” long after they had been filled. There was no sourcing function and no applicant tracking system.

Warning bells were ringing throughout the company, but no one heard them: engineers, the key to this organization’s success, were getting old.  The average age was close to 50 and there was no college hiring program.  Many critical positions were going unfilled for over 90 days and then were often filled with people who left within a year.

Everything in the recruiting function was reactive.  There was no talent community, no proactive sourcing strategy, and not much awareness of their own weaknesses.

While this sort of recruiting function is not all that unusual, this one was part of a well-known organization that has a high public profile and is considered a leader in its products and services.

Although no one knew it when he was hired, HC was going to turn this situation around. And he did it without firing any recruiters and without a lot of fanfare.

Defining Leadership

One might say, “I know it when I see it, but I can’t tell you exactly what it is.” We have all probably worked for good leaders, people who inspired us, excited us, or challenged us. And we have also all worked for good managers, people who carefully directed us, followed the process, met the numbers, and always followed through. Both are good. Both are necessary. And rarely do they come combined in a single package.

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Recruiting is full of managers. These are the people who run their recruiting organizations efficiently and effectively. They implement processes, cautiously install technology, focus on customer satisfaction, and stay within their budgets. As long as the world doesn’t change too much, they thrive.

But HC was no manager. He was a true leader and almost from day one began to steer his function in a different direction.

It didn’t take super-human effort or superior intelligence, but it did take a thoughtful approach. Once HC came on board, he did several things that began the transformation of the recruiting function.

  • Step #1: He listened and learned and he was realistic. During his first month on the job, HC went to every hiring manager he could reach and spent an hour asking them what they thought about the recruiting function. He probed both their level of satisfaction and their level of awareness of the talent issues they faced. He also met with senior management and asked them similar questions. He learned that they did not really believe that talent shortages existed nor were they as aware as they should have been about their own aging workforce. He knew it would be a challenge to convince them.
  • Step #2: He got his team engaged, focused, and involved. Using what he heard and what he had observed, he began meeting with his team every week for half-days to listen to them and begin educating them on talent issues and possibilities. He assigned recruiters to various taskforces to work on executive communication, to start identifying the most useful sources of engineers, to analyze the career site and suggest improvements, and to suggest ways to shorten time to fill. He encouraged them to include hiring managers on their teams and to bring in anyone who could add support or ideas. The teams were asked to spend a half-day a week on these task forces, and he added a few contract recruiters to help make up for the time lost. Fortunately, the recruiting budget for search was large enough that he could divert some to pay for contract recruiting.
  • Step #3: He vastly increased communication. One of the task forces he set up decided to begin sending a weekly briefing to senior management on staffing changes, improvements, and successes. Whenever a position was filled, they made sure everyone in management knew how quickly it had been filled and which hiring managers had filled it.  This set up a gentle competition between hiring managers to improve their time to fill and got them more committed to interviewing candidates in a timely way and in making decisions. He always included some information about talent shortages, trends, demographics and other related data that helped reinforce the need for urgency and change. In fact, management began looking forward to his weekly updates and items in them began appearing as discussion topics in executive committee meetings.
  • Step #4: HC began lobbying for a college recruiting program. Within his first 60 days, HC realized that in order to have any lasting impact on the aging workforce, he would need a vigorous college recruiting program. One of the task forces he had set up laid out the basic requirements for a program which HC took to his management. The fact that the suggestion came from a team of recruiters and hiring managers carried a lot of weight. One of the hiring managers actually presented the recommendation to the VP of HR and agreed to help promote the idea with technical leaders. This approach was very influential in getting final approval for a small pilot program.
  • Step #5: He focused on leadership issues, not tactics. What really separates HC from so many others who take over a function like this is that he focused on longer-term strategic issues and not on day-to-day activities. He did not start questioning recruiters about their number of requisition, their skills, or their sourcing techniques. Each recruiter sat down with him and set personal goals which he held them accountable for. He assumed they would figure out how to meet those goals and amazingly, every one of them did.

By setting up task forces and by focusing on a few critical areas, he improved the overall credibility of the recruiting function and energized the recruiters. He got them involved and made them an integral part of his success. He shared the glory, so to speak, and was respected by both management and his team.

This is what leadership is all about: educating and setting expectations, engaging people to achieve goals, and then getting out of the way. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


3 Comments on “Five Steps to Transforming a Recruiting Function

  1. Maybe I am naive but are these actions by “HC” new or heroic?

    This is just the stuff the majority of intelligent Recruiting Directors do whenever they join a new company. It is no different than any executive role;
    1. Analyze the department and key stakeholder relationships
    2. Conduct gap analysis to identify areas of improvement
    3. Make a clear statement of intent to enhance the function in the interests of the business overall.
    4. Find some low hanging fruit to gain credibility (in my experience Management Reporting is one that often provides easy “wins”).
    5. Engage the current team with the new vision.
    6. Declare a bold new initiative to transform a weak element of the business and excite the team.

    In my leadership experience I have met many Recruiting Directors who do all these things on a regular basis.

    Is the fact that this article is written as if “HC” is an herioc innovator more a reflection of the ongoing inferiority complex that seems to pervade the corporate recruiting industry than a reality? Do you expect such an article would be noteworthy if written about an executive overseeing a supply chain or business development department?

    If we do not take ourselves seriously as executives who will?

  2. Simon,

    I think it is the stuff that intelligent Recruiting Directors aspire to do when they enter a new role.

    Part of me wonders if the article itself is a reflection of aspiration for many in Recruiting. I say that only because, all too often, Recruiting is not given the same consideration as Supply Chain or Business Development. That is not an inferiority complex, rather, it is a statement of fact. Otherwise, why would non-recruiting professionals be put into roles of leadership within Recruiting? You don’t see that happen in Finance, IT, Supply Chain, Sales, R&D or other critical business functions – why is it done in Recruiting?

    I very much believe that the end game is heavily influenced by whether or not the new Recruiting Director is from a Recruiting background or from some other AOE/COE.

    I am in the midst of a significant transformational effort of the Recruiting function with my new employer. I consider myself intelligent, and certainly aspirational. I took this role very specifically because of the transformation work.

    Let’s hope I am viewed as an effective, strong leader and that the team becomes viewed as a critical driver and core component of the firm’s execution against their strategic plan. Whether that makes our recruiting function either new or heroic is immaterial to me.

  3. I think that the article is still valid and worthwhile, as at a minimum it reminds us that we need to be always being on our game and having a more strategic approach to hiring. Too often we fall back into old habits so articles like this may bring us back on course.

    Also for all the HR Leaders and Recruitment Directors who cover off these steps, there are many who don’t and may need a little wake up call.

    I take your point about other industries that may not have the same approach and write an article about such a subject, however no doubt they also have their own challenges and are trying to lift their game and recognition in other areas.

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