Stranger in a Strange Land: Agency Skills in a Corporate World

Despite a slow economy, recruiting has picked up over the past year. Talent is hard to find in some segments, and corporate leaders talk about bringing “agency skills” to their recruiting teams. What they mean is they’d like to add the executive recruiting skill set to their existing staff. So, they hire a recruiter with an agency background.

On its face, this would seem to make sense. But it rarely works. After a while, it becomes clear that things aren’t working out as planned. The new hire either does what the other staff are doing (abandoning their agency skill set), or they quietly leave.

It’s an old story: the agency recruiter comes into an established department overseen by HR, replete with processes, advertising budgets, and clear lines of authority. Internal company recruiters, especially those working for larger employers, are adept at marketing jobs designed around the company’s brand and managed through an ATS. There are teams, matrixed relationships, and lots of processes governing recruiters. The goal here is to create reliable, repeatable service levels.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Agency recruiters find themselves wedged into an environment which is the exact opposite of the agency model — it relies on advertising, has much higher req loads, and is a place where process trumps results. They quickly realize they have to get with the program to fill so many requisitions. This is a situation where the agency skills are not much use. The agency recruiter who wants to stay in a corporate role learns they cannot afford to use agency skills unless they have a shorter requisition list, so they can work them intensely.

Recruiters who learned their trade at a company with a strong brand never really learned to recruit. The brand does the heavy lifting. The corporate recruiter runs a different game, emphasizing ads, job distribution, and SEO, instead of digging for candidates, because its the most efficient way to meet their needs. Anyone wanting to stay will do the same. So the agency skill set falls by the wayside.

Others take a different path.

Article Continues Below

Many agency recruiters hired into corporate roles know they are talented, and that their agency skills are valuable. For them, it’s not about fitting in, but using these talents. These people are often more innovative, and more resourceful. They are results-oriented, and approach recruiting as a business function (instead of an HR function). Those invited to join a corporate recruiting team may see a great opportunity to make a difference by adding their skills to the mix.

When their approach to recruiting butts up against layers of bureaucracy, they realize they’re in a land where process and predictability are prized over results. It’s more important to ensure that the process shows that every candidate was treated equally than to get a hire. Mediocrity is acceptable, and they are handcuffed with no way to use their skills. In short, their creative, aggressive strengths are at odds with an HR culture. The bottom line realization is that if you’re really talented, you’ll leave.

Corporate recruiting runs on programs and processes. Agencies succeed because they put on a pirate hat and exploit opportunities. Pirates aren’t in for the 9-5 grind, an annual performance review, and 3% pay increase. They want to make something happen. They are resourcefulness and occasionally bold. This isn’t very HR.

We owe much credit to “skills-based” hiring, where the personality and cultural characteristics are secondary to a skill set. Most companies say they look at skills first, then fit. But if true, they probably wouldn’t hire an agency recruiter into a corporate role. The talents that drive success in an agency clash with most corporate cultures. Agency work is best done by putting on a pirate hat and making something happen. Too many rules stifle creativity, and the orderliness of corporate recruiting programs are not conducive to such behavior. Indeed, companies hire executive search firms for this very reason: they need a pirate but can’t afford to have one associated with their brand. So they contract an outside vendor and gain the skills while sparing the brand.

J.P. Winker is a partner at The A-List, which specializes in sourcing talent for organizations around the world. A former recruiting director at a Fortune 500 company, and executive in the electronic recruiting space, his focus is on developing companies by helping them get the right talent in the right frame of mind.


36 Comments on “Stranger in a Strange Land: Agency Skills in a Corporate World

  1. “When their approach to recruiting butts up against layers of bureaucracy, they realize they’re in a land where process and predictability are prized over results.”

    Simply brilliant.

    Go to the corporate world with solid agency skills and see yourself hammered for the way you work.

    Results? Few care about them in a world where the means is more important than the ends!

    This is a GREAT article. I love this guy.

  2. It’s been my experience that many corporate recruiters originally come from the agency world…

    So, short of firing high-level paper pushers who don’t whole-heartedly agree that the goal of recruiting is affordably getting quality butts in chairs STAT!, what do you suggest we do here in the real world? Recruiting decision-making is controlled by the GAFI Principles of Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance/Incompetence.



  3. I spent a year on a contract project in the Middle East with a very large organisation working effectively as a Corporate Recruiter and have to say that it was one of the most enjoyable, career developing, challenging and thoroughly rewarding pieces of work I have ever done. Okay, it was totally different to being an agency recruiter, but what a truly exceptional and exciting role.

    My role entailed developing an entire internal recruitment system, it required me to reduce almost all external staffing resource. I had to travel constantly and work on the more as I gradually convinced the adversarial elements, project directors, country managers, divisional heads and so forth across the entire region that “Yes, I am taking some ownership and some control from you, but the benefits will be incredible” once you can demonstrate the cost savings, the flexibility, the speed of adaptation (in a project / technology implementation environment) suddenly the penny drops. When they realise that no longer do they have to be at the mercy of external recruiters for pricing, talent resource, project phasing the penny drops. Suddenly when you work with them to be pro-active as opposed to re-active they all want to work with you.

    I found the braod ranging involvement, the challenge of creating buy-in, the face to face meetings with clients, bid teams, project directors and so forth very rewarding. It is far deeper in terms of strategic perspective than being external. You are only limited by either your commercial capability / desire and your ability to influence your level of involvement.

    Yes, it is totally different. But I would recommend any agency recruiter to do it once. It will change the way you recruit forever in a very positive way.

    Although I have to confess, I went back to the agency side. I simply missed the game to be honest. I like the sales, I like the variety and the challenge. Would I do it again? Yes, if the right opportunity came up.

  4. To Keith’s point, I did move into corporate after about 10 years in agency. Personally, I found it to be an easy transition.

    I would also like to say that I love ERE and am a fan.

    However, I find myself getting slightly irritated at the frequency of posts lately that have been arguing the sides of agency vs. corporate. It seems almost as if they are attempting to create an us vs. them mentality.

    As someone that has been on both sides, I can tell you that my experience has been that if both sides are good at what they do and are focused on finding top talent for their open reqs, while creating and maintaining productive and valuable relationships and partnerships with their counterparts, the result can be a best-in-class recruiting team.

    Yes, I said Team. Not Competitors.

  5. @Shannon,

    Well said, I agree entirely with your sentiment. As I suggested those who work on the inside have a whole raft of challenges, opportunities and daily strategic insight. I personally think every agency recruiter should at least spend 12mths or so to get a true understanding of what it is actually like. One of 2 things will happen, either they will absolutely love it and stay internal or they will go back to agency side but have more in-depth understanding and be able to empathise.

  6. I agree completely. The cultures (agency vs. corporate) are entirely different. It’s like trying to mix oil, and water.

    Group dynamics, and pressure to conform, also set agency recruiters up for failure in the corporate environment. As you said, they’re expected to fill far more positions, and rely on entirely different methods including advertising, in-person interviewing, etc.

  7. Having worked both sides, a lot of the above rings true. Great article.

    I believe a lot of what the author writes regarding corporate in-house teams is true. But corporates only account for a very small percentage of the in-house recruitment landscape.
    There are plenty of small to medium sized companies that value what I would call ‘proper’ recrutiers – people who proactively source and entice top talent rather that simply push resumes through an ATS. It’s not about agency skills versus in-house skills. There should just be recruitment skills. Both require sales, both require industry knowledge, both require an element of customer service.
    The corporate ‘recruiters’ you talk about aren’t really recruiters at all. They are administrators. Isn’t that the real difference?

  8. JP very insightful comments.

    Corporate recruiters have so many political obstacles especially on the the referral side. For example a “C” level referring a “bad” fit friend or relative that needs to move through process. Or the hiring manager that is getting entertained by the third-party recruiter and leans to the outside rather than working inside first. Let alone all the generalist activity they get pulled into that hampers a Corporate recruiters ability to hunt and follow up effectively. If these day-to-day challenges are not handled properly it could be career threatening for a Corporate recruiter. The agency recruiters are unencumbered and are heads down externally focused. In summary, I don’t think a Corporate recruiter is a lesser recruiter than an Agency; however compensation often dictates some behaviors…

    What I see as the biggest weakness on the Corporate side is there inability to address the 80-20 rule on open positions. Corporations rock on their ability to effectively fill 80 percent of their positions and do not always properly manage the 20 percent that are tough to fill. Those tough tech, bi-lingual, or specialty positions.

    Shannon, I agree the “Us vs. Them” posts are very frequent and why can’t we all get along! While I have spent most of my years in HR Technology; the strain in Agency relationships is based on Corporations overall disdain to go outside. It is admitting defeat when in reality we need each other.

  9. What a great article!! I have been on both sides and this post couldn’t be more spot on. I lasted just a little over a year in corporate…not only are you hand cuffed by policies/proceedures, but also the comp plans are NOT favorable for an agency recruiter. If corporate wants a good agency recruiter…then they need to pay us like an agency recruiter – headhunters pride themselves on FINDING the talent and getting them hired, in turn getting PAID/REWARDED for that hire.

  10. Well, yes, the style-of-work is different; but if the VP/HR understands that, and accepts it, then the VP/HR can capitalize on it, too. IOW, play the strengths with assignment differences.

  11. @Shannon – Amen!

    I am truly starting to dislike this website with all of the us vs. them mentality.

    I came from agency, and I now work in corporate. And while I do agree that I do things different than my team (I am much more a sourcer/hunter)… I love that I can teach them new tricks of the trade. They are just as successful as I am – so I do not believe one way is better than the other.

    How about some articles teaching us new tricks and fostering collaboration instead of pitting all of us against each other. It’s getting old ERE

  12. I disagree with the notion that corporate recruiters all have huge req loads and process trumps results. Process does NOT trump results in my organization, allowing for the fact that we are a government contractor and therefore need to watch compliance. I also make sure my incentive comp plan is good and that my team is rewarded for being innovative. Maybe I’m the exception, but I’ve always worked Corporate and I’ve never seen what you mention here. I do feel bad if that is the case for some – come work for me! I also will say that I have been apprehensive in the past about hiring recruiters with pure agency experience – and lets be clear…executive recruiting and agency recruiting are very different animals. If I want a head hunter, that’s one thing. But I’m talking about hiring a recruiter out of a KForce or the like. I worry that they don’t have the ability to work outside of that machine. So, I guess the prejudice does go both ways.

    Bottom line from this line of thought – I truly believe a great recruiter will be a great recruiter anywhere, given the room to do so. Its those that get stuck in ANY organization without the room to function that are going to leave.

  13. I started as an agency recruiter and transitioned to corporate nearly a decade ago. Since that time I have enjoyed enormous success in my career. If I were to self-evaluate and identify the supposed reasons for my success I would attribute it to several things: I work collaboratively with my hiring managers – I treat them like a client, I have a sense of urgency, I use job boards and ATS’s as little as possible, and I follow HR mandated process (when I need to). The rest of the time I act first and apologize later. From my lens, the equation is actually quite simple. Keep your hiring managers and executive leadership happy, and do your best to keep HR happy. If you can’t to the latter, so be it. You are virtually untouchable if you have done the former. Just my two cents.

  14. @Shannon – I also agree with your points. Like so many Corp recruiters, I too came from the agency side and I’m also growing tired of these silly articles written by people who seem to have an agenda…it’s as if they are trying waay too hard (Mr. Winkler) to justify their own existence. Everything in this article can easily be turned back around to point out the many skills deficiencies that agency recruiters have as well as the many ways in which their jobs are far simpler, thus easier…but what’s the point?? Whichever side you like, stay on it, don’t knock others for their choice, don’t try to sell me on the idea that agency recruiters are better, and I hope you do well.

  15. I would expect that with the title “Agency vs Corporate” this article would focus on comparing the good and bad in each environment and how we could benefit by understanding each. Instead it reads as a slaughter of corporate recruiting — pitting all the best possible parts of agency against the worst possible parts of corporate.

    Can we take our egos (and personal preferences) out of the equation for a moment and agree that there are some good parts in both? Maybe we could RESPECTFULLY agree that our agency buddies inspire us with new strategies/techniques- our corporate counterparts help us streamline processes and understand underlying politics within the organization???

  16. As expected, there are various exceptions where cultures have blended to offer effective services. I could cite such arrangements but expect it would be of little use to the corporate recruiting manager who is thinking about hiring agency skills for the first time. The cautionary tale is more useful.

    Personally, I have experienced both success and failure here. The conceit that one’s singular experience somehow represents the norm enables an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. And I must admit, having tasted only success in a corporate role I once felt qualified to render an opinion from that vantage. But then I grew up. Those who have been burned carry the experience more deeply. Failure is painful, yet more instructive. As Mr. Bialk aptly notes in his 80-20 example, there are pros and cons in each environment. Knowing which skills to use in various situations should encourage cooperation. Sometimes it does.

    The tension between process and results-orientations is well documented, and worth the struggle. In our field, good relationships trump the issue with internal and external clients (as many point out). This drives mutual profitability and should be the goal with each assignment. Still, corporate employees rarely believe process trumps results. These are hardworking, committed people who care about both – to a degree. There are some recruiters for whom not getting a hire means not eating. Its an extreme comparison, but I stand on the point. Those of us in corporate roles can afford to care about process far, far more than some agency recruiters.

    My guess is, if you recognize the fault lines in this culture clash, you’ve navigated these seas firsthand and are aware of the dangers that lurk below. But, if you see the article as an attempt to stir the ‘us vs. them’ pot, you’ve missed the point (hint: blending cultures can be a tricky business). My guess is you’ve never hit the rocks, which could be a tribute to your navigational skill (kudos!), or blissful ignorance in sailing through them. Reducing it to an ‘us vs. them’ issue here is like getting marital advice from a confirmed bachelor. You can talk about it, study it, and prepare for it all you want. But if you haven’t experienced it, you don’t get it.

    And though I can’t speak for other authors’ intentions, I have simply outlined scenarios that are common when corporations hire agency skills. The observed culture clash can be viewed from the corporate or agency side. There is no sales pitch. A smart hiring manager can review the dynamic and control for it.

  17. I think that a way of resolving this would be to concentrate on getting the work done rather than how it’s or who does it: “Solution Recruiting”. Carefully consider what can be no-sourced (eliminated), through-sourced (automated), or out-sourced (sent away) for $6.25/hr or less. The work that remains should be high-touch and high-value add: closing, advising, mentoring, streamlining/improving recruiting processes, building long-term relationships, acting as an onsite project manager/liaison between the internal clients and remote resources. If the existing resources can’t source what you need, pay $40+/name for a list of potential candidates, and if the existing resources can’t recruit the people you need, you should engage external recruiters at 30-35%. (If your positions are realistic and not needed in a panic, you shouldn’t have to do either of these last two very often.)

    Any questions?


  18. @Sarah Interesting perception. I didn’t get that when I first read the article. I really thought the author was simply trying to say that it’s often difficult for an agency recruiter to go to work in the corporate environment, and often just as difficult for the corporate recruiter to move into an agency setting.

    It can be done, but the cultures are different. The people who make these changes have to adapt to their new surroundings to survive, and that’s not always easy.

    There are lots of corporate recruiters who work just as hard if not harder than many agency recruiters. Their job responsibilities, however, are different, and even more difficult in some respects.

  19. My old boss just made the leap from from agency to corporate. I asked how thing were going after his first week and he said, “Things move at a different pace here…” He had been there a week and already earned the reputation of being headstrong and ‘a little intense.’

    I think internal recruiting organizations could benefit from an infusion of quality recruiters raised in an agency environment. Take the marketing expertise of the internal team and toss in the search capabilities of an agency recruiter and you might end up with recruitment gold.

  20. As a contract recruiter/consultant I typically straddle both sides (and I have 11 years of successful technical contingent recruitment).

    There are some companies that talk more about the expensive systems they purchase and less about relationship building recruiting. It is easy to see who values systems – look at their online recruiting process.

    My feeling is that it really isn’t about who does what better, it is about whether the results satisfy the hiring managers. If the results are positive, corporate recruiters must be doing their jobs successfully (no matter their relationship building/systems inclinations).

    It would be nice if once in awhile they reviewed their systems from a candidate perspective. Remember, candidates may be a potential client or customer. How do they feel about their treatment?

    Can agency recruiters be happy in a corporate environment? It appears that some obviously are. I was a recruiting manager (employee) in a start-up. In some ways I truly enjoyed myself, especially when it came to some of the impacts we made. In other ways the corporate world drove me crazy as a manager/recruiter, i.e. seemingly pointless meetings where no progress was made.

    The nice thing about my current role is that I am able to make impacts for my clients – legally and effectively. Then move to my next assignment when I’ve helped my client succeed.

  21. great post and thread. agency v. corporate is interesting, but what’s important that recruiting is a sales dicipline- people who take orders (process applications) are not really salespeople in the same sense, just too bad we dont have a single word for that.

    Same way we dont have one for “adult children”

  22. Brilliant article.As someone with 30 years experience of the professional recruitment sector,my only concern is the way that ‘agency’ recruiters are all lumped into the same box.In my book there are ‘agencies’ (usually, but not always, handling lower level positions), and ‘recruitment consultancies'(handling management level positions).The methods used by whatI would call an ‘agency’ is just as ‘process/transaction driven’ and ‘skills matching’ focussed as their corporate counterpart.For this reason ‘agencies’are seeing huge chunks of their business disappearing as the corporates can do much that for themselves.Why would they need an ‘agency’?
    On the other hand,true ‘recruitment consultancies’ are service/expertise/knowledge/relationship driven, and they offer something which the corporates cannot replicate so easlily.These firms, which are the type I work with, are much less vulnerable to the direct recruitment model.
    Recruiters brought up in an ‘agency’environment should be able to adapt to corporate recruitment methods much more successfully, as that is more or less all they know.True recruitment ‘consultants’ are more likely to get bored on the corporate side once the initial novelty has worn off.
    By the way, there are a lot of big recruitment firms out there who like to think of themselves as ‘consultancies’ but having worked with many of their ex-employees and seen how basic their knowledge is, they are nothing of the sort.

  23. It would be interesting to see data on what percentage of agencis are “placers” versus what percentage fill most of their positions using direct recruiting methods.

    I agree with the premise that the “placers” often go away in down economies, and there will always be a need for “recruiters.”

  24. @Dean, @John: Well said. The outfits that hire loads of young eager-beavers at $30,000+ draw against commission and have them dial for dollars for new business and fill positions at 20% using the boards are right in the cross-hairs of the $6.25/hr folks. The 30-35% consultative recruiters and agencies who provide high-touch, high-value add services that can’t be done well by clients have nothing to fear.



    1. No client in their right mind will pay 30-35% fees when another agency will do the job for 20% (or less) nowadays….

  25. Thanks for a great article and to those who made insightful comments. The point that resonated with me is that recruiters in an agency environment “are results-oriented, and approach recruiting as a business function (instead of an HR function).” I find this mentality holds true when the HR/recruiting department is looking at ATS or other technology. If the focus is on “process” (and CYA) rather than “result” that speaks volumes about the organization.

  26. @ Sylvia: I agree. We should have a convention that instead of being focused on sourcing or social media, is specifically devoted to using proven, fact-based methods to streamline and improve recruiting methods and processes in corporate settings. Anyone can attend, but you can’t be a presenter/panelist if your recruiting process “sucks” for an ordinary, “non-Fabulous 5%” applicant. We could call it: “Ain’t Gonna HappenCON”.


  27. J.P. – nice post and interesting take on this topic. I guess what I have been seeing is similar yet a bit different. As you said, there is no doubt that transitioning from an agency based role into a corporate role is tough. Agencies have lots of freedoms that aren’t available in the corporate world.

    But it has been my experience that most of the recruiters who leave agency for corporate did so because the life of an agency recruiter (Always Be Closing) was not for them.

    What I see a good number of companies doing, is hiring an agency recruiter and putting him/her into a leadership role. I could not have survived the day to day grind as a corporate recruiter, however a leadership position where one has an opportunity to make a true impact and really change or establish agency like processes and procedures is what really makes sense.

    Once that is accomplished, then there is room to bring on more corporate recruiters who understand the processes and procedures and then can thrive and bring a recruiting department to a new level.

  28. @ Morgan: ISTM that many of the skills(closing, advising, building long-term relationships) that would be needed by high-value add recruiters could come from agency backgrounds, but then again many of them (mentoring hiring managers, streamlining/improving recruiting processes,acting as an onsite project manager/liaison between the internal clients) probably couldn’t.



  29. “Most companies say they look at skills first, then fit.”

    This is true with the institution that I am in. When they hired us, they had to see if we can extract blood, do CPR correctly, and so on and so forth. When we got hired, the institution had “personality” problems with their staff.

  30. @ Iris: “extract blood, do CPR correctly, and so on and so forth”.
    You definitely sound like you’re a corporate recruiter….

    Happy Friday,


  31. Hi Iris,

    You and I have a little bit in common. I totally understand what you’re saying. What specifically is your job in the healthcare industry?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *