Life On The Hamster Wheel

How many recruiters do you know who have been in the business for 10, 15, or 20+ years?

My guess is probably not many. Why does such longevity exist among lawyers and doctors but not recruiters? The journey from rookie to successful recruiter is a daunting gauntlet, and of the many that set out to make it, few do. That said – why do so many recruiters who do make it through then fade, burn out, and ultimately enter a different profession or stay in recruiting but leave the third-party side?

I think the same issue that causes slumps in the short run leads to burnout in the long run. ON THE SURFACE, it can look like a lack of motivation, a failure to stick with the fundamentals, or a reduction in work ethic. However, these are ONLY THE SYMPTOMS! If you treat only the symptoms and not the DISEASE, you might find that one day the “prescription” stops working and what you thought was a slump is so much more. This is a common time for people to quit. Some recruiters feel the symptoms and think the prescription is to “go out on their own.” Many of you may be contemplating that same prescription right now. Some-times that prescription is the answer; however, in many cases it is a temporary solution to a problem that will reappear. Consequently, that person will come to realize that they bit off too much and found themselves failing to build a business while simultaneously watching their personal practice fade. This is burnout for the opposite reason!

I submit to you that the underlying reason for the disease itself and the majority of departures from our industry is BOREDOM. That’s right. A lack of challenges causes boredom, which leads to the symptoms. As with a hamster on a wheel or a factory worker on a “placement making” conveyor belt, monotony sets in and boredom soon follows. The only way to correct this long term is to create challenge before it is too late.

The boredom is rooted in two issues. First, what attracts people to our industry is the excitement, which draws high-energy, low-patience nonconformists who get bored quicker. Second, issues stop being as challenging after making 50 to 500 placements. Most recruiters feel that they’ve “mastered” them all. While full mastery is not possible, there are only so many new ways to cover a counteroffer, make a recruiting call, or get past the “I’m happy where I am” objection. To better understand our issue, let’s compare recruiters to doctors and lawyers.

Like recruiters, doctors and lawyers have tasks that they do repeatedly. However, they don’t suffer the attrition rates that we do. How many 10-plus-year lawyers do you know who still do all their own research? When was the last time a doctor checked your blood pressure or drew blood for a test? If you’ve ever had surgery, did the surgeon spend more time with you during the surgery or in pre- and post-op care? Does a senior lawyer handle the same type of work that a two-year lawyer does? In all of these examples, don’t the successful practitioners out-source the less challenging work to junior staff who are not only capable of performing the work at a lower cost but also challenged by the work itself? Can you see where I’m going with this?

These professionals have institutionalized outsourcing as well. The nurse practitioner gives exams, the nurse checks blood pressure, and the scheduling department makes appointments. Each of those tasks is important but will neither provide doctors with the challenge they need nor the financial rewards necessary to justify their time. In the case of lawyers, they have paralegals, legal secretaries, and associate lawyers that they entrust.

The lesson we can learn from both professions is that out-sourcing certain tasks to other team members is not only more financially rewarding but also allows for greater challenges. The senior executive search world also does this, and so does the temporary/contract staffing industry. It’s no coincidence that we see HUGE revenues and LONG tenure in those worlds. Korn/Ferry produced $637 million in revenue last year, with half of that in the U.S. alone. Robert Half produced over $4 billion! MRI boasts about being the leader in the mid-level space, yet MRI produced less revenue with 1,100 offices than Korn/ Ferry produced with 70! And MRI is the biggest!

Outsourcing must start with basics like research and name gathering but can later include recruiting, prepping, and even marketing and deal running. To give you an example of what this might look like, consider a full-practice solo recruiter who hires a researcher/junior recruiter to research, name gather, and make some basic recruiting calls. This allows the recruiter to do more business development and handle more “deals,” thus creating more challenges. The researcher/junior recruiter performs so well that he or she is now allowed to begin handling all activities with one or two clients. This creates a need for junior recruiter #2, as junior recruiter #1 is starting to grow. Soon junior recruiter #1 begins to market and gets clients, as well as managing some of the existing clients, which results in less recruiting. There are now two junior recruiters plus the senior recruiter.

Flash forward five years, and the team has grown to eight people. Roles have been better defined, career paths have been built based on increasing responsibilities and financial rewards, and the practice has grown significantly. Now the senior recruiter/ team leader must play a role in the practice by working on the most challenging issues only, directing the team while managing and leading effectively, training new team members that are replaced or added, and handling more strategically related issues. How can that person be bored? Is that person a hamster on a wheel going around and around? NO! Will that person have to develop new skills and abilities to take on those additional responsibilities? YES! This is where the challenge comes from. If it grows too fast, the result is stress, which is bad. However, without growth comes boredom, and with boredom comes burnout.

The mid-level recruiting industry is not one that takes top producers and makes them branch managers, district managers, etc. It’s a rainmaker’s model that allows producers to grow by making rain. Eventually, even the most prolific rainmakers can get bored making rain. This is when they will need to acquire the ability to turn their entire practice over to the team and begin hiring and developing other rainmakers. This is when they transform from being a rainmaker to being a pure leader. Some will never make this transformation. Others will not want to. The mid-level recruiting market has been trying to develop these systems and structures for a long time. The problem, in my opinion, is that they have been far too concerned with how to “count revenue” for the purpose of comparing solos with others on the team, and not concerned enough with how to create the roles and models that will generate greater long-term tenure and challenges!

There are other reasons why a team structure is ideal. There is less reliance on one person. If you are a solo producer or an owner leading a few recruiters, watch for signs of a slump, but also look below the surface for a deeper issue. If you are looking for a “pick-me-up” or to learn some new techniques, then go to a motivational seminar, read a book, or watch some recruiting training DVDs. However, if this issue resonates with you or anyone in your office, I recommend developing an appropriate long-term system for practice and even organizational development. There are several models for structuring practices, even in the same office. Only when you develop a system (that can evolve over time) will a practice or series of practices begin to look like a business.

Clearly, we are not doctors, lawyers, or even senior executive recruiters for the most part. Nor will most in our world ever want to create the same-sized firms that exist in those professions. That does not mean, however, that we all don’t want to grow and be challenged. The SINGLE biggest difference between our worlds is NOT PEOPLE – I believe the hardest-working, most talented, and most knowledgeable recruiters are in our space!!!! I believe that the single biggest difference is having a specific and proven career path that allows for increasing levels of responsibility and challenges at the rate that people desire and can handle.

At Kaye/Bassman we have been on this journey for many years and have built an $18-million-dollar single-site search firm, yet even we are continuously enhancing and improving our systems and paths. We hope to share our successes and failures in this column and through our Next Level Recruiting Training. We even plan on having our own “Forum” focused on this issue and others at our headquarters in Dallas this fall, so be on the lookout if this interests you. While we can never stop teaching and executing the fundamentals of our recruiting business, if that is all we ever work on, then many current and future stars will find themselves like the bored hamsters on the wheel. Instead, all we needed to do was add some more tubes in the Habitrail!!!

This month’s tip from the trenches comes from a Kaye/ Bassman partner and fellow leader of Next Level Recruiting Training – Jeff Wittenberg. I’ve selected Jeff because he is the “poster child” for this article. Jeff joined Kaye/Bassman almost a decade ago. He began as a junior recruiter on a team and quickly rose to become a practice partner. He eventually took over the entire practice once his partner retired. Jeff began aggressively growing the team and teaching others to do what he had been doing. He gradually outsourced his way out of a job! The year he turned his practice over to his team, they had produced over $1.7 million! There were five others with varying levels of responsibility who only a few years before had done less than one third of that amount! He has since left his practice and is a full-time leader at Kaye/ Bassman and coach for Next Level Recruiting Training. His primary role is to help others build whatever-sized teams they want, and help those on their teams grow as well. He regularly goes on client visits with his “internal clients” and has created best practices for effective client visits. The following “tip” is what he created. Enjoy!

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Preparing for Client Meetings

You’re having a conversation with an existing or potential client and they mention that they’d like you to meet with them. You’re thrilled and tell them you’d love to. You schedule the date and time, tell them you look forward to seeing them, and hang up. You pull together the information you think you’ll need for the meeting. You show up only to realize that you’re not adequately prepared. What went wrong?

Unfortunately, this scenario happens all too often due to either sloppiness (not having an effective pre-meeting information-gathering tool or process) or laziness (having the tool or process but not using either) or fear (thinking you might jeopardize the meeting if you ask too many questions).

To avoid having this happen to you, follow these three simple steps:

1. Create a pre-meeting questionnaire:

a. What is the purpose/intent of the meeting?
b. Who is going to be in attendance (name, title, area of responsibility, background)?
c. Where will the meeting be held?
d. How long should the meeting last?
e. What are the client’s expectations of the meeting?
f. What are your expectations of the meeting?
g. What materials does the client want to see (marketing brochure, agreement, reference list, résumé of completed searches, search plan, presentation, etc.) and in what format (printed or PowerPoint)?
h. When and with whom should you follow up?
i. What is the dress code?
j. Who is paying for expenses?

2. Use it consistently on every relevant call.

3. Be fearless – effective questioning speaks volumes about your level of professionalism and minimizes the chance of you wasting your and the client’s time.

Jeff Kaye is President and CEO of Kaye/Bassman International and Next Level Recruiting Training. This former Management Recruiter National Recruiter of the year has helped build the largest single-site search firm in the country, with annual search revenue in excess of $18 million. His firm has won national awards for philanthropy and work-place flexibility and also was named the best company to work for in the state of Texas in 2006 and 2007. Kaye/Bassman has retained over 30 search professionals whose annual production exceeds $400,000. The same training that helped build this successful firm is now available through Next Level Recruiting Training. They are making a series of DVDs for training. The first series was on the candidate side, and the four hours were dedicated to marketing. The new series, on the client side, is dedicated to marketing, effective search assignments, and fee clearing. It is over seven hours in length. To learn how to take your practice and business to the NEXT LEVEL, please visit to view their product and service offerings. You can also email Jeff a thought or question at


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