Stop Making Bad Tacos — or How to Establish an Internal Executive Search Function

As the hiring recovery gains momentum, some older recruiting strategies are coming back in vogue. One that seems to be high on many HR executives’ action plans is the need to develop an internal executive search capability within the corporate recruiting department. While the idea offers great merit, the approach many companies take is hiring recruiters or researchers who have worked in retained executive search and have them implement their personal “best practices.”

In my opinion, the likelihood this approach will work is problematic at best, idiotic at worst.

It’s like hiring accountants to do debits and credits any way they want, or letting engineers design products any way they want, or letting salespeople sell your products any way they want, or letting taco cooks make tacos anyway they want. I selected taco cooks only to mention that at Taco Bell they use an extremely detailed checklist on how to make tacos, so they taste exactly the same everywhere. However, most companies seem okay with letting recruiters make tacos any way they want. This, by the way, is my definition of idiotic.

The lack of standardized corporate recruiting processes and practices is why hiring good recruiters is not the first thing to do when building an internal executive search team. In fact, it’s the last thing one should do. The first thing is to recognize that the primary objective for this group to even exist is to fill critical staff, manager, and executive positions with A-level talent. The secondary goal is to reduce the amount of fees paid to external search firms for filling these same positions with equally qualified people. The quality of hire objective should be more important than the cost savings one, since the first is strategic, the second tactical. If you don’t get this order right first, what you do next really won’t matter.

With quality of hire as a primary goal, you next need to consider the A-level candidates you want to hire. Most likely they’re passive, or at least not actively looking. Since they’re looking for career moves rather than lateral transfers, traditional job descriptions shouldn’t be used for messaging or screening. These people might also be outside of the typical comp range, so this needs to be addressed, too. Then consider the fact that they rarely want to work for managers who aren’t leaders or for companies that lack vision, seem unprofessional, or have superficial recruiting and interviewing processes in place. And then to top it off, they won’t talk with recruiters they don’t trust. All of this should be resolved before you begin to hire recruiters.

Now let’s get into the weeds. Part of this is designing your recruiting and assessment processes based on how A-level people who aren’t looking, or are very selective, find and accept new opportunities, rather than how people you don’t want to hire do it. Most companies get this part backwards. They build their processes around a high-volume model designed by some ATS vendor on top of a bunch of legal and comp restraints. This is not how external executive search firms find A-level candidates, so companies shouldn’t either.

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It also takes strong recruiters and researchers who are subject matter experts with respect to the job, the company, and the industry. Part of this is having the complete trust of the hiring manager. Most A-level people, who don’t have a short-term economic need to pursue another job, want to engage in a brief exploratory conversation with a hiring manager before getting too serious. Recruiters need to convince managers to agree to do this based just on their recommendation, often without a resume, and the manager must be open and eager to do this. Quite frankly, if the hiring manager isn’t 100% committed to hiring A-level talent, don’t even bother trying. Hiring A-level talent, especially without a well-known employer brand, requires fully committed managers who will put in a 110% effort.

Process consistency — doing the right stuff every time — is also an essential part of the puzzle. While there are many successful approaches, here are the common basic steps that must be followed on each search assignment if you want to hire an A-level person on each assignment:

  1. First, turn the job into a career move, describing the short-term objectives and long-term opportunities, including the employee value proposition. This gets the recruiter and hiring manager aligned with the A-level person they want to hire.
  2. Next, develop the candidate profile, describing demographics, supply/demand constraints, connections, intrinsic motivators, and likely sourcing opportunities. This way you can customize how, what, and where you describe the career move defined in Step 1.
  3. Then create a compelling career-oriented message that can be “pushed” to likely prospects either directly or through referral networks and social media sites.
  4. As part of Step 3, prepare a time-phased sourcing plan that tracks and optimizes quality of hire. This is the most detailed of the steps and needs to be customized to meet the specific needs of the job and the likely candidate demographics. This includes the selection of niche job boards, the development of proactive employee referral networks, using social media, name generation, email campaigns, cold calling, and networking.
  5. As you begin implementing the sourcing program, make sure your recruiters can recruit. This means engaging candidates who might not want to be engaged. As part of this, track email and cold call success rates, candidate quality, and number of high quality referrals per call.
  6. Don’t forget the hiring managers. They have to “own” Step 1 and be willing to talk with everyone the recruiter recommends, even those prospects who want to have a preliminary discussion before getting too interested.
  7. Use an assessment process that works. For a variety of reasons I don’t like traditional behavioral interviewing (e.g., answers can be faked, A-level candidates find it superficial), but I do like an intense performance-based interview that lets candidates know you have high standards.
  8. Use a solution-selling based closing process that creates an irresistible win-win. Recruiting is sales, and all salespeople go through extensive training. Solution or SPIN selling is a process used to craft a custom solution for a buyer with complex needs that needs to be part of a recruiter’s skill set. In the case of A-level talent, it needs to be a formal decision-tree like process that compares your opportunity against all others from a best-career-move perspective.

If you want to develop an effective internal executive search team that can compete with the best outside search firms, start by creating the right culture and redesigning the underlying process as the first step. Then hire the best recruiters you can who can implement this process. Otherwise, you might just wind up with a bunch of tacos not worth the three-for-a-dollar price you paid.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


41 Comments on “Stop Making Bad Tacos — or How to Establish an Internal Executive Search Function

  1. Great article Lou. I appreciate the steps highlighted in an ‘easy to implement’ fashion.

    I think we are still in our pre-planning stages of this idea and I’m looking for good business case data. Our leadership may be under the belief that executive level talent would not respond to a job post, let alone our internal staff when approached. We have been using the same, tired, Executive agency who is now driving a brand new flashy car (you are very welcome)for years.

    How do we drive home the fact that times have changed and the only thing I find unique to a search firm is…time.

  2. I am usually averse to using these forums for naked selling of PCRecruiter for any number of reasons (and by god, you don’t want to see me selling naked), but this one hits the mitt so hard and so dead center that I think I actually can sell AND offer some good information at the same time.

    Lou, when you write “They build their processes around a high-volume model designed by some ATS vendor on top of bunch of legal and comp restraints. This is not how external executive search firms find A-level candidates, so companies shouldn’t either” I think you have to be very, very careful to understand that you just cannot waive legal and compliance responsibilities by fiat. The hiring entity, whether they do it internally or use third-party recruiters, remains fully responsible for those aspects of their hiring process. You are absolutely correct that most applicant tracking systems are utterly hopeless for active recruiting.

    One of the biggest misconceptions in our industry is the misuse of the term “Applicant Tracking Systems”. “Applicants” are a late stage a recruiting product. Candidates are a medium stage recruiting product. Contacts are earlier in the process, and even before you have resolved individual target names, you may be working with entities such as competitive employers, colleges and universities, trade schools, the military, and other sources of talent. Recruiting software, as opposed to Applicant Tracking Systems, use data models that respect the wide variability in relationships between name and entity records, and provide tools and processes that respect the entire continuinum between target entity and an applicant. It’s entirely possible to track applicants with recruiting software, but it’s mighty difficult to recruit with applicant tracking software. Recruiting software is very much like salesforce automation software- as you noted, active recruiting is basically a sales discipline. Applicant tracking systems have more in common with accounting software than with salesforce automation.

    Nearly every successful third-party recruiting firm operates a recruiting software system. There are precious few successful third-party recruiting firms that operate applicant tracking systems. In United States, the recruiting software market has evolved into four principal players; PCRecruiter, Bullhorn, Sendouts, and Maxhire. There are dozens of others (some very fine systems) but none have the share of those four. Of those four, PCRecruiter probably has a slight edge in overall customer/user count. All four have their fans and their respective strengths and weaknesses. What little market research exists in the space always tends to confirm this pattern.

    Of those four, there is exactly one that is also used by a sizable number of corporations for applicant tracking purposes. Can you guess which one that is?

    One of the key organizational/cultural values of the third-party search industry is discretion. It’s incredibly important that these firms conduct their business quietly, that they don’t blather and blab about who their customers are, and what they’re doing for them. We have absorbed that value at Main Sequence. Even though it would be to our great selling advantage to disclose who are customers are, we just don’t do it unless subject to an NDA in the narrow instance of a highly qualified prospect asking for the information. We don’t do press releases when we achieve a customer win, and we don’t tout some of the very interesting innovations our corporate customers have helped develop.

    But I can say in this thread that hundreds and hundreds of name brand, world-famous corporations use PCRecruiter for various aspects of recruitment and applicant-tracking. We believe we are the only major recruitment software with these capabilities (and sizable book of corporate business).

    Legal compliance can be complex, especially and including OFCCP search, applicant flow logs, and reporting, as well as web-design options and various aspects of document management, workflow, and publishing that cumulatively emulate pertinent enterprise content management practices (ECM).

    Our solutions are quite often used in addition to a major applicant tracking vendor- which is the often system used to transact applicants- which happens toward the end of the recruiting cycle. Both systems often feed the HRIS or ERP- whichever system the corporation uses for master record management. In recruiting firms, in most cases, our software is the master record management system.

    So Lou, you are 100% correct that successful active recruiting requires some emulation of third-party practices, but that strict third-party recruiters practices cannot work in a corporate environment.

    It’s pretty obvious from our standpoint that if you want to recruit like the pros, you may want to consider using what the pros use in terms of recruitment database technology. There is one, and only one, excellent choice in that specialized category as of 2011.

    Last, I know a little something about Taco Bell; all of their shells (and cheese etc.) are centrally manufactured and distributed- those tacos taste the same because they are the same, regardless of any final assembly procedure.

    Nothing makes me happier than the growth of this meme- thanks very much for writing this article.

  3. Lou – one of the best articles I’ve read in quite a while. Only problem I see is that it speaks truth to power, know what I’m saying?

    Let me re-read it a couple times and I am sure I will find something not to like.

    Martin- I didn’t read Lou as saying we need to waive legal/compliance, but rather that they simply should not be the tail wagging the dog. Build the business function to serve the needs of your business, and get legal and compliance built in as a neutral element (if not an enabler), rather then as a barrier.

  4. Not listening to your corporate legal is in no way suggesting that you violate any EEO, OFCCP, AA or Fed, State laws. It’s only to suggest that you need to understand what’s actually permissible and what’s not. In fact, we’re web-hosting the worlds’s #1 legal authority on the OFCCP on Feb 24 – Alissa will be answering all of your legal questions. However, one point she’ll make is that the OFCCP doesn’t say you have to be boring.

  5. Lou, kudos on an outstanding article. The only thing I might add is that I personally believe it takes a great “Business Person first, Recruiter second” to motivate and persuade Hiring Managers of the merits of passive, “exploratory” contact.

    Even the best laid-plans and bulletproof “processes” have a difficult time overcoming the liability of the wrong Recruiter steering them. You know this as well as I do – the only way a Hiring Manager begins to engage in collaborative recruiting efforts that are truly aimed at improving performance in the market is through significant mutual-trust with the Recruiter. This means we must speak their language first, Recruiting second, and not only that, but be able to motivate a Hiring Manager to take the actions that will ultimately benefit them.

    To Ginger, can you please help me understand your comment? Sincerely, I’m interested because I don’t understand. Can you let us know why the Executive Search Firm you utilize is “tired”? In other words, are they “tired” because you’re not happy with the quality of their Candidates? I’ve only heard the term “tired” to describe times when we’re looking for new blood, not necessarily anything that is performance or QOH-based. Also, is there a reason you personally don’t like the fact that your Executive Recruiter of choice is driving a new, “flashy” car? Depending on where we are in our lives, many can afford one, but some choose to spend money on other things, such as education or our homes, etc. Others like Sportscars – I’ll admit I used to love them before I turned 30 and “slowed down” a little bit 🙂 The nature of my question is the fact that I’ve seen many Internal Recruiters over the years not like the cars that Executive Recruiters drive, or the watches they wear on their hands, etc. Ultimately, I think it simply comes down to a difference in personality, that’s all – most Executive Recruiters are true “hunters”, so with that comes a more aggressive and flashy personality. Would you agree?

  6. Sorry Lou, did not mean to imply that you are saying the legal issues should be ignored; only that you don’t mention any alternative to using the ATS, and it would be very costly/time-consuming to comply using only manual processes, esp. because active recruiting requires a lot of touches in a lot of different ways to make things happen. The top ATS and Recruiting Systems build compliance right into the flow- its an axiom that if extra-steps need to be taken to comply, they won’t be…..

  7. Martin – re: the tacos, one of my biggest clients made all of the sauces for Taco Bell and do you know how the taste changes if you add too much of one and less of the other, or put too much meat (?) in the pre-fab’d shell, or not enough cheese or lettuce. There is more to the assembly than meets the eye. Worse, you have to do it exactly right from the beginning of the shift to the end, and you have to do it just as quickly.

    With that said, your comment about recruiting software is right one, but you’re still not getting hired for any fast-fast hourly positions.

  8. No worries Lou- based on any hiring methods (valdiated or not), I’m not likely to catch an offer. I used to think in my next life I would be a recruiter (since they all seem to make more money than me) but now I think I would open a pet hotel. THOSE people know how to make money !

    I do think I have encountered most Taco Bell assembly flaws. One of our sales reps got a disorderly conduct charge in college- late, late one night after the bars closed, he waited an hour for tacos. They looked at him and said they had no record of his order. He snapped, went over the counter, and the rest was police blotter history……

  9. Joshua (one of my favorite names)

    Absolutely. When I refer to our ‘agency’ of choice as tired, its probably more about his style of recruitment or what I perceive to be his style. Extremely old school by way of assessments, networking, and the candidate slates I’m seeing are ‘more of the same’. The flashy car is just symbolic of the ridiculous amount of money provided to this agency that might be better spent on a dedicated Recruiter *in house*. Not a slam on the car, I’m in the car biz 😉

    But that is a side note to my point, we are ready to build this, I want to build this internally and I feel that the talent pool is ready for a more direct approach at the upper levels. The talent out there preparing for VP positions are much more connectable and networked than in the past. I think we have the potential to save this company a fortune, I just need to get the case in front of the right people.

  10. Hmmm. I am neither a corporate nor a TP executive recruiter, so I may be going off on tangent here:

    ISTM that the point of developing an internal ER function is to duplicate the quality of the the elite 3PER at a fraction of the cost. If a corporate ER were as good as a 30-35% retained-fee 3P ER, why would they settle for *making a fraction of what they could as a 3P ER (unless the incomes don’t differ that much in actual practice)?

    Also, what do successful ERs do/possess that equally successful recruiters of other types of people don’t?
    Do successful ERs need/appear to be attractive-looking upper/upper middle class WASP-types possessing a certain “air” or “gravitas” that says “s/he’s one of us”?



    *I don’t think the case is the same as with other types of
    recruiters. ISTM that while the most successful TPRs make more than the average contract or corporate recruiter, the average corporate recruiter (at least the typical contract recruiter) makes more than the average TPR, or at least more than the taverage agency TPR. Could be wrong, though….

  11. Keith – it’s a totally different job. External search is as much about getting the assignment as it is filling it. Internally, this 50% is eliminated. That’s the key savings, plus the associated overhead.

    While credibility is important (you need to cover points 1-7), it’s essential that the recruiter be a career counselor to the candidate, and this becomes more challenging for the more senior level spots. So there is some need for a fit along the recruiter-hiring manager- candidate continuum. (PS – where did you come up with the corny ISTM bit?)

  12. I think Keith has brought up an interesting point. While i agree with Lou that internal recruiting, if it is to be effective on several different levels, would require an executive recruiter who has the ability to engage and sell hiring managers. How does a company entice a good executive recruiter to come in house when we make more, in many cases, than their SVP’s or sometimes the president of the company?

    It would seem that they would have to compensated on the same basis as the sales reps with a base plus bonus or some kind of comish plan. From what i have seen or heard that would drive the rest of HR right off the wall as well as a lot of the executive management group.

    Recruiting would have to be a stand alone group , report to the CFO instead of HR and would still probably cause a nosebleed or fit throwing of sunami size.

    Is compensation of an internal executive recruiter the catch 22 in this whole solution?

  13. I certainly don’t want to minimize the salary, but a corporate recruiter who has the key advantage of tapping into the employee referral network and doesn’t have to do business development, shouldn’t necessarily be paid on a comparable basis to an external search person. While the compensation would need to be substantive, the two jobs are fundamentally different. This goes back to the initial premise of the article – hiring an external search person is NOT how you build an internal search team. It’s a different process, a different type of person and a different type of comp structure.

  14. And Lou, along those lines, to amplify my earlier rant about ATS v. Recruiting Software, it will mean different web interfaces and different documents/processes for recruitment of various roles. Senior and C-Levels are not going to be filling out Job Apps and uploading resumes, and recruiters meeting busy first-time contacts are going to be teasing out whatever data they can get into their own forms (e.g. doing their own data entry). As any TPR will tell you, one of the most valuable outputs of conversations with contacts are other names, which mean creation of new database records by the recruiter right in the flow of the discussion.

    With our large-firm clients who do TPR business across segments, we may have a half dozen or more full implementations of our solutions in different arrays. It aint as simple as it sounds !

  15. A couple of comments from someone who actually established a highly successful in-house executive search function where no in-house capability existed before:

    @Keith – the argument that the best executive search folks only work on the agency side of the house is tired, overplayed, and insulting. To make such a statement implies that those you describe as “the best” are only motivated by money – simply soulless automatons chasing dollar bills who wouldn’t possibly work anywhere they couldn’t maximize their earning potential. I don’t believe that’s the case. There’s a tremendous body of research that squarely disputes the incentive model by which most search firms operate. For a quick primer, check out the work of Daniel Pink.

    It may open your eyes.

    @Ginger – if you ever want to talk about how the model can work, let me know. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve been through the process and I might be able to provide some perspective. Happy to share.

    @Lou – as always, a great, insightful article. I will say that the first 5 steps are an integral part of any successful search, not just related to in-house programs. The last 3 begin to address some of the challenges of the in-house model, but not all. There are quite a few intangible obstacles that surface along the way that have more to do with organizational structure, dynamics, and management philosophy. While the tactical aspects of implementation are relatively easy to describe, it’s these more hidden challenges that can be problematic. It’s definitely do-able though and can add tremendous organizational value. That’s for surfacing the topic.

  16. Brenden – great @Keith point. I’ve met dozens and dozens of great Corp recruiters who could easily become major impact players in an internal exec search function. In fact, they could be superstars with better processes, better technology, and the 110% support of their hiring manager clients.

    I suspect most of them fall short only because they’re fighting the search battle with inadequate tools, too much bureaucracy and an inability to fully engage their hiring managers. Retained external search recruiters don’t face as many of these hurdles and the contingency market is a different business model entirely.

  17. This discussion is getting more interesting.

    Yes, the tools are often terrible, and the bureaucracy can be soul-destroying, but the hiring manager/recruiter relationship is not an automatic gap, and good recruiters overcome bad tools and supervision every day.

    It’s more of a basic cultural problem: HR often just does not “get” what it means to be a salesperson.

    HR has a qualification view of talent, while sales has a market view. HR has a process view of what they do, while sales has an outcome view. HR hates failure, while sales fails three to ten times as often as it suceeds. HR seeks to pound down the tall nail, while sales gravitates toward the squeaky wheel. HR sees compensation in terms of fairness and visibility, sales sees it as keeping score and breaking away. HR seeks to control, pace, and understand change, sales changes strategy mid-sentence.

    HR seeks the sure thing, sales invests on limited information. HR is part of a team with the occasional star, sales are hunter/killers who sometimes tolerate each other’s company.

    Changing the culture is a lot harder than buying the right tools and deciding to pay fewer search fee contracts. Getting recruiting out of HR and into operations or sales/marketing (where it likely best belongs) is probably more healthy for both, but that is a huge, years long undertaking that can only come from the efforts and understanding of senior execs, business schools, and influencers in both HR and sales, notwithstanding that the entire TPR industry most certainly would not want to see it happen.

    It will be challenging and the outcomes unknown as the world of work and employment keeps changing- 2010 was the year of the greatest ever % of temp, interim, contracted, and other forms of non-W2 full-time work, and there is little doubt that 2011 will pass that record.

    When I first started in this business in the mid 90’s these were the facts that I observed (because I did not know any better), and we have been doing our part ever since to get across the idea that recruitment is a basic economic process- the only real differences of where/who/how its practiced come down to who knows what and when, who gets paid and how, and who the customers are and what they want. Its a lot easier to model those things in data (hence our relative success) than it is to change the associated cultures.

    Again, thats why I love this meme !

    There is a cultural gap, but Lou, its more than just hurdles

  18. @Martin – all great and valid points! I always enjoy your writing. There are definite differences between the traditional HR mentality and the sales mentality, no question about it. I sometimes find myself at odds with my HR colleagues (and vice versa) over your points above. But I’ve learned that their perspective is extremely valuable, not wrong. Nor is it something that should be changed. It’s the yin and yang of things. Together, working in concert and respecting the viewpoints of both, we are better than either of us would be on our own. It’s a partnership, not a win/lose situation.

  19. Thanks for the good word Brenden, IMHO, your writing is tighter than mine 😉

    I most certainly did not mean to run down HR in any way- you could not be more right about the yin and yang, and those values that I associated with HR are essential for any kind of civilized life.

    There is always (and always will be) tension between building and fighting (e.g. the war for talent in this case) that expresses in all kinds of ways….startups moving into a more mature stages, winning elections v. governing, wooing v. marrying, pioneering v. settling…

    The greatest heroes (in my mind anyway) are those rare individuals who fully encompass both sides of life- Washington, Lincoln, Marcus Aurelius, Sun Tzu, Pericles, George C. Marshall…..

  20. Assuming the process is in place as you have indicated, Lou, and the final step is to hire the person to head it. What background would you look for and what kind of comp package would you suggest to a client who was ready to implement?

    I understand a completely different business model with many advantages for an internal executive recruiter. I work with many good internal recruiters, the biggest complaint they have is their comp package particularly when they are filling a lot of executive level positions. What should be recommended to management in terms of comp for internals if they are sourcing and closing difficult, hard to find professionals such as doctors, petroleum engineers for example?

    It’s those intangible hurdles that Brenden alluded to that seem to cause the biggest problems. How do you overcome those so internal executive search becomes more than a cost center that needs to be cut when hiring is down?

  21. Sandra – fair question re: comp. Again, I believe you’re starting from the wrong premise, though. I’d suggest you first define the sourcing and recruiting process you’d use to hire the target group of doctors, engineers, etc.. Much of this has to do with sourcing strategy, comp strategy, supply vs. demand, etc., basically the points mentioned in the article. From this you’d develop a hunter (passive) vs. farmer (less passive and active) mix, and the higher on the hunter side, the more you’d need to pay.

    What I’ve seen is that companies just yield the whole process to a recruiter with external search credentials and expect the person to succeed. This approach then becomes comp driven and raises questions like you’re asking. This is what I call backwards thinking. Instead build the process, make sure it works and then hire recruiters or sales people or librarians or whatever, who are fully capable of implementing the process.

  22. That seems a bit of a circular answer so perhaps i need to clarify my question.

    If the process is built and we are sure that it works, we are now ready to hire recruiters, sales people or librarians who are fully capable of implementing the process (haven’t seen many librarians who have hunter/farmer abilities but i get your drift)how would you structure a comp package? Flat salary, base plus bonus based on number of hires + retention, base plus comish? What range of base would you think it would take to attract and retain internal recruiters (or librarians) who could, implement, engage, etc. etc. to make this work?

    Or are you saying that if the process ie; sourcing strategy,comp for hires, supply/demand is laid out, the process works, then anyone can do it so compensation for the internal recruiter is not a factor?

    I am totally leaving recruiters who have external search creds out of the picture. I agree that it becomes comp driven by trying to bring in exe search people to do internal exe. search. I know there are good ones who do not like the business development side so are happy to take less money etc.etc. but for the sake of discussion and information let’s leave them out.

    While i realize that this is subjective depending on size of company, needs, level of needs etc. Let’s take a medium size life science company with 1000 employees who estimate adding 300 employees this year. They have their process as you have outlined in place. They ask you to give them an idea of a comp package and develop a profile for a Sr. recruiter that can drive the process. What would you suggest to them?

  23. This model poses an interesting conundrum. Many recruitment leaders posture and pontificate about recruitment not reporting to HR because recruiters are just “different” from other HR peeps, further narrowing the function and specialization of in-house recruitment teams. This is great in boom times when the organization is growing or undergoing change and there’s plenty of important recruitment to be done. But let’s face reality – ALL businesses go through cycles of growth and contraction. As the wonderful folks at Disney put it, it is the Circle of Life.

    In a model where recruiters are separated from HR and highly specialized with an extremely narrow focus, it just makes good business sense to cut back this function when hiring slows down. To Sandra’s point about the “cost center” – there’s no way around scaling it back.

    In those organizations where recruitment is PART of HR and where they are required to do more than just recruit, there can be “other HR stuff” things for those recruiters to do when hiring slows. True, the possibility of scope creep (or slip) exists, but it sure beats laying off highly talented recruiters. Are they going to be distracted by “other HR stuff” even during busy recruitment time? Sure, but you deal with this so that they have something to do when things slow down.

    @Lou, this is another intangible that must be faced when designing the in-house model. The “what happens when hiring slows down?” question should be answered up front in the planning phases because it will inevitably occur at some point or another. Assuming that demand will exist indefinitely is a bit foolish. Sandra, this goes to your question about the profile of the person to lead the establishment of the in-house function. It is somewhat dependent on your hiring cycles which, I imagine, are fairly unique to each industry – if not each business.

  24. The devil is always in the details. In most situations recruiting will report to HR so Brenden seems to be addressing the catch 22 of hiring or truing internal recruiters with strong selling and closing skills who will be happy doing other Hr stuff. Sure may be doable. There are accountants who are willing to debt and credit as well as recruiters with strong sales skills happy to do other stuff but it would seem a challenge to keep them if hiring remains slow for a period of time.

    Lou, would your suggested process and the skills required to turn internal into an executive search function be workable in only the larger organizations with consistent ongoing executive level hiring?

    @Brenden. You have implemented this process. Want type of comp model do you use? could you give a range of annual comp that your people fall into.?

  25. I’m sorry to say, but these seem like minor points – comp, hiring slowdown, who should dept report to. It’s like waiting to start on a long road until all of the lights turn green. None of these points are deal-breakers and can be easily addressed in a multitude of ways when they occur. If you said, what if the person had to handle 10 or more reqs per month, you’d have a legitimate roadblock that needs to be addressed before plowing ahead, but the other so called “critical issues” are all solvable. Pay people whatever it takes to get the job done, reduce the staff if needed in tough times, and have them work for a business leader who “gets it.”

    The major point of the article was to suggest that a company could create an internal executive search team that could compete head-to-head with external search firms by developing the process first before hiring recruiters with external experience. And this could be done at dramatically less cost. Challenging this point is certainly appropriate and justified.

    So if you said that you would have to pay recruiters the same as the best external recruiters, I would counter by saying that the best external recruiters who get paid the most do the best job at securing business. Everyone else gets a smaller cut of the whole fee. Since this critical biz dev aspect of the job is off the table the two models aren’t comparable from a compensation standpoint.

    FYI – my best researcher of all times was a woman who was librarian and did phenomenal research, cold calling, recruiting and qualifying.)

  26. It has never been my experience that comp, reporting structure and business slowdown are minor when creating anew process. It would also be great if there were buy in from management to pay what it takes then cut them loose when business slows but that does not seem like a longterm solution to establishing an internal executive search function.

    Great thoughts Lou and I can see it working in a few situations but it looks as if I will have to look for practical answers to practical questions if this is to workable for most companies as most will not build the cart before they are sure they find and afford the horse to pull it as well as be able to feed and maintain the horse for a consistent period of time. Otherwise they have to park the cart,sell the horse then go look for another one when it,s time move the cart again. That would seem to be backward thinging to me.

  27. FWIW, this is hardly unheard of. We have at least a two-dozen corporate customers running executive search teams, titled as such.

    How widely applicable the notion may be, and how it may spread in the era of “post and pray” remains an open question.

  28. You are correct Marty, it’s not new at all, i helped build an interal executive search team for a software company in 1998. We had two problems with it, albeit the recruiters hit the numbers (200 hires in 6 months) department managers found out what the recruiters were being paid and resented it. Two of the recruiters were offered better comp packages to move to another firm, one went out on his own after being trained to do executive search internally. One stayed, hired a couple of recruiting assistants then became the HR director when the HR director left because he felt recruiting had become more important than his function. It was deemed a success by management. We used most of the things Lou has mentioned here before we hired the recruiters. It did not evolve as i had envisoned but the client was happy so success is in the eyes of the guy who signs the front of the check.

    If i had to do that one over again i would bring in a team of executive recruiter types on contract to avoid the fallout and the resentment but each situation is different thus my questions.

  29. Sandra you are probably spot-on with the idea that when this is exectued, it will be often done on a contract basis. I suspect that a decade or so from now, W2 employment may be the less usual way to make money working for others…..

  30. Perhaps it’s just me, but are we once again becoming slaves to “process”? My challenge with this industry has always been that we focus so much on idolizing Toyota’s manufacturing system (and/or TQM, Lean, etc.) and played-out concepts like process-improvement that we have lost our ability to innovate. Stated differently, reactive metrics like TTF and CPH have led us to focus more on output than outcome. The result? Mediocre talent lining the ranks of the org.

    If I may, let me toss out a military analogy for you real quick. (Before I begin, note that I don’t use the term “Commander”, but rather “Team Leader” because military operations have changed and are now extremely decentralized where the “Leader” is likely a junior team-member and not someone wearing brass on their collar. I believe this distinction is critical to our conversation here, but for the sake of time, I’ll try to keep the below short).

    Anyone who has spent time in the Infantry knows that, “No battle plan survives first contact with the Enemy.” So let’s exchange “recruiting process” for “battle plan”. How many times have we lost Candidates, had fallouts, or hired the #2 Candidate when we could have had the #1 because of “process”? Most would agree that process often stands in the way of excellence.

    From an Infantry perspective, all Team Leaders are given the same training, rules of engagement, equipment, etc. However, in a highly stressful situation, some perform better than others. Why is this so? I believe it’s because some have the ability to make split-second decisions as to when they need to deviate from “process” and when they need to innovate to get the job done. The truth is that there are circumstances where the “processes” laid out in the pretty manuals laying around the air-controlled, command-and-control tents can cost lives and compromise mission accomplishment.

    In the Marines, “Commander’s Intent” is a key leadership philosophy. It means you keep the big-picture in mind while having the ability to deviate from process where we need to. What I am suggesting here is that the best Internal Executive Recruiters are not going to be automatons — for them to be successful, you have to be willing to let them respect the process, but have the authority to make decisions and take action on their own. I know of very few Exec Recruiters who are process-abiding, “Yes-Men” (or Women), and this is one of the fundamental reasons they hold out from going internal unless it’s with the right company (money aside, to Brenden’s point regarding Daniel Pink’s research).

    P.S. For a quick closing thought, are we actually discounting the importance of our Internal Executive Recruiters’ level of “talent” in lieu of the processes we expect them to abide to? If so, it’s quite an irony!

  31. Joshua, you always have thoughtful frames for these matters.

    No question that tactical rigidity is a weakness, and tactical flex is a known strength. Yet big problems can arise from tactical decisions that make good sense on a tactical basis, but harm the overall strategy- strategy that goes beyond individual battles and the intent of individual commanders.

    In HR terms, if you’re able to hire some stars quickly by skipping process steps, that’s great; now you have some stars. But when the OFCCP pulls your contract or fines you heavily, the strategic price is paid.

    When you get some quality tactical information by hacking a competitor’s phone system (or freezing and sleep-depriving some prisioners), that’s wonderful, right up to the moment that you are sued or made to look terrible on an international stage.

    A good chunk of process exists for a reason. Third-party recruiters simply have more flexibility than corporate recruiters to bend the rules. This is not found in the laws and regulations (they demand the same treatment), but in the practical realities of the battlefield situation.

    The essence of this discussion is to find processes, tools, (and yes Sandra, compensation arrangements) and tactical/strategic frames to allow corporations to enjoy some of the tactical flexibility of third party recruiting, but within the establishment of HR and the necessary command and control of corporate management.

    This tension is an old one, and it’s really played out in many aspects of our lives…..

  32. @Michael – hilarious 🙂

    @Brenden – Daniel Pink is an interesting writer and a super marketer because he stands against the status quo. If I may, however, please let me warn against accepting all of Daniel Pink’s work as concrete truth. There are differing opinions to form a more comprehensive view. For example, consider Paul Hebert’s review of “Drive”:

    @Martin – Agreed. I’m not suggesting that an Executive Recruiter should deviate from process to the degree that the company winds up being sued and/or taken to task by the OFCCP. That’s extreme. What I am suggesting is that a Steve Jobs personality would work much better than a Glengarry Glen Ross. My point is that some know when to break the rules at the right times. It’s the difference between a marginal automaton and a critical-thinker who keeps the big picture in mind.

    P.S. The interesting thing about this discussion is the range of backgrounds and frames of reference.

  33. A couple of points –
    1) Steve Jobs is the most process-driven CEO on the planet, that’s why Apple is what it is. He’s also the most creative person on the planet- so emulating him is as good as it gets. We also wish him well.
    2) the marines are all trained to do what they do, they then put a plan in place to do it, and then they adjust the plan for reality. Consider: without the underlying process and training they wouldn’t be called marines, they’d be called history. They use their training and process to handle real situations.
    3) All sales people go through some type of training and they adjust their techniques based on the circumstances. Solution selling is the equivalent type of training needed for recruiters. It’s a multi-dimensional process to handle real life complex business situations with multiple buyers and multiple variables that have to handled as they arise
    4) recruiting top talent is comparable to solution selling – putting together a custom offering – the job in this case – with a buyer (the hiring manager) and a seller (the candidate). Although the reality of all this is that a well-trained recruiter knows how to switch these roles. And without training and process it can’t be done efficiently or effectively time after time.

  34. @Joshua – Fair point. Nothing, particlarly when it relates to what motivates us, is concrete. Still, Pink is a provocateur who, as you said, challenges the status quo and gets us thinking. In a way, many of our ERE friends act in the same capacity. And anything that gets us thinking is good. Semper Fi.

  35. @Lou, well stated. Regarding the USMC, however, I might add that Marines are more about the “Warrior Mindset” than the process and training you mention. I’m speaking from experience on this one.

    Process & training all come secondary to this mindset and frame of reference. Will-to-fight always has, and always will, trump process, training, and technology. Consider how we won our independence from the British, the lesson we were taught about this in Vietnam, and the lessons we are learning once again in Afghanistan as we follow in the footsteps of the Soviets.

    The only exception would be that of nuclear weapons, but a zero-sum game is not a viable option.

    To be clear on my point, I believe process should come second to raw material and talent. Take a Warrior Recruiter and give him/her the tools, training, and processes to be successful, and they’ll outperform anyone without the same will-to-fight. These “soft-skills” and personality orientation should always come before tools, training, and processes. In fact, it is exactly this philosophy that explains why the Marines are not “history”.

    P.S. My statement here is, by no means, to challenge your consulting solutions whatsoever. However, I am stating that we shouldn’t be so naive to downplay the needed “talent” level (and will-to-fight) of the Recruiters a company should hire if they want to build out a successful Internal Exec Search capacity. I’d rather have an A-team with B-level tools and processes than a B-team with A-level tools and processes . . .

  36. Josh – it’s almost incomprehensible that you could have X number of warriors charging into a rebel camp all doing their Rambo-like thing without killing each other.

    However, it does make sense that having this “warrior mindset” as a core talent is essential. Then when combined with training and planning and practice, the charge into the camp is likely to achieve the plan objectives.

    This is just like any team sport. Things change on the playing field and you have to adapt in real time to win, but if you haven’t practiced and planned ahead of time, you’ll lose. That’s why coaching is so important even with those with raw talent.

    In sales it’s exactly the same. A person must have the core talents of selling, persuading, influencing, etc. When combined with training, coaching and solid process the person can be successful. The problem I have is that hiring a bunch of “warrior-like” external recruiters who battle their own way using their own techniques is not an efficient nor effective way to build an internal executive search team. I’d rather just emulate the best of what these people do and have everyone else do the same thing.

  37. @ Everybody,
    Looks like I missed quite a bit over the weekend.

    @ Lou: ISTM is pretty old now. Do 3P ERs typically get their own JOs?

    @ Brendan: As the saying goes: “It’s not that money makes everything good, it’s that no money makes everything bad.”
    While there may be many reasons why someone would rather work inhouse for substantially less money (less stress, more work-life balance, better benefits, etc.) I really don’t think that an intrinsic love of ER would motivate many to do it inhouse as opposed to doing it for twice as much in a 3P ER firm. BTW, how much DO inhouse corporate ERs make?

    As far as doing it for the “love of the game”, there’s an interesting fairly recent article ( about how baseball players were able to radically increase their incomes.

    My point is this: I freely admit not to knowing what “special sauce” an excellent $400k/yr 3P ER has that allows him/her to make this kind of money, but I suspect it may be something that even excellent $80-$120k corporate/contract recruiters don’t have. If a company can get the same level of quality and service from an internal or contract recruiter for a fraction of the cost, why do so many companies with excellent recruiting staffs pay 30-35% retained fees? In other words, if we CAN do as well, why don’t they use us more (we’d save them lots of money), and if we CAN’T do as well, we shouldn’t pretend we can.
    It annoys me when I see people looking for superior qulity and service “on the cheap”.


    Keith “No Cornhusker” Halperin

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