The End of a Decade, the Good Recruiter, and Technology

Picture 2The first decade of the 21st century is ending in a few days, and what a ride it has been! It opened with the gloom of the dot-com bust and Y2K and ended with the gloom of a banking system bust and a major recession. It was not a good decade, as decades go.

How did recruiting fare over the decade? Did things get better for recruiters and candidates?

The decade began with the hope, maybe even the expectation among most recruiters, that the Internet would change things profoundly. Many of the writers and experts on recruiting predicted that candidates would be better served, that workloads would be more manageable, and that costs would go down.

As it turned out, neither the average cost per hire nor the average time to present a qualified candidate has changed much despite the introduction of all the tools that the Internet made possible. Applicant tracking systems were supposed to make it easier to keep track of candidates, present better candidates, as well as for a recruiter to qualify them. Yet, good candidates are rare and hiring managers complain regularly about seeing candidates who do not measure up to their expectations. Recruiters still can’t find good candidates, even when they have stored resumes or contact data in the multitude of systems that have been created to make this easy. Communication — now so easy with email and CRM — is as bad as always. Candidates are complaining more than ever of being neglected, and most remain in the dark about their status.

Toward the end of the decade social networking appeared and became the new buzz. Recruiters had tools that would give them unprecedented access to candidates and make it much easier to create talent pools and stay in touch with candidates. Recruiters eagerly adopted Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other tools as the new panacea, feeling perhaps that if the Internet couldn’t fix their problems, then social media would.

They too have been disappointed, because the Internet, applicant tracking systems, CRM, and social media are tools that enable knowledgeable, skilled recruiters to do a better job. They are not, in themselves, solutions to anything and will not magically make anyone a good recruiter.

So What Makes a Good Recruiter?

The best performing recruiters are those who have three characteristics: (1) they have a deep knowledge of the industry they are recruiting for; (2) they have built relationships with the right people; and (3) they have learned and practice the skills of good salesmanship.

Deep Industry Knowledge

There is a myth that anyone can recruit for any industry because the Internet and social networking tools make access to people and information ubiquitous and easy to get. There is some truth in this. Certainly having access to resources such as Hoover’s and Wikipedia helps. The ability to scan hundreds of newspapers and news sources can generate leads and provide insight into what is happening in an industry. It is possible, with lots of time and energy expended, to put together a list of people to contact and screen. But how to screen and what to ask then becomes a bigger challenge, one not easily bridged with technology.

Investing in learning about and digging deeply into an industry makes all the difference. Nothing replaces years of interaction with a spectrum of people in an industry. I spent almost 20 years in the high-tech, semiconductor industry, and through those years built technical, cultural, and personal knowledge and contacts that made it much easier for me to find people, get referrals, assess referral quality, interview candidates, ask the “right” questions, and provide hiring manages with much better potential hires than someone whose only knowledge of the industry is the Internet and few phone calls.

Never underestimate industry knowledge and experience as a major factor in recruiting success. The Internet and other tools make it much more convenient to stay in touch and maintain relationships, but they do not by themselves make anyone a good recruiter.

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Most successful headhunters and executive recruiters will tell you that their success comes from who they know. When an opening comes across their desk or computer screen, they can reach out to someone for a referral or as a potential candidate. Rarely do these people have to use exotic Internet search techniques. They have spent time getting to know well-positioned people who can provide information and give them leads. These leads, combined with industry knowledge, make decisions faster and easier.

I believe that it is here where recruiters can use the Internet to their advantage. Recruiters who build talent pools or communities put in place good rules for who gets invited into the community, and using the communication tools that now exist (IM, email, CRM, etc.), can build good, virtual relationships with many people. Unfortunately, few recruiters take the time to invest in learning about the people in these communities. They tap into them only once in awhile and spend more time adding people to the community than they need to.

Practice Good Salesmanship

Recruiting is sales. It’s that simple and anyone who expects to succeed in any decade has to understand this. Good salesmanship is made up of industry and position knowledge, a belief that what you are selling is valuable and exciting, an ability to understand the candidate and what his or her needs and interests are, and the skill of closing: overcoming objections and coming to agreement.

These are tough skills to develop. They take years of practice. Good recruiters are coaches, consultants, and psychologists. They need to not only sell candidates, but also hiring managers and only a small number of recruiters are good at this. Lack of salesmanship is the greatest weakness in our profession.

I cannot build a house no matter what tools you give me because I lack basic knowledge of carpentry. I cannot operate on your body, fly an airplane, or build an integrated circuit because I have no basic knowledge and no skills in these areas.

Technology is wonderful and I am an advocate of using every tool there is. I think the Internet, social networking, and all the other pieces of technology are game-changing for our profession. But, only if they are applied by people who have the basic skills of recruiting. My hope is that in this dawning decade experienced and skilled recruiters start to leverage these tools wisely and that we begin to improve the basic measures of time, cost, and quality that have eluded us this decade.

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


12 Comments on “The End of a Decade, the Good Recruiter, and Technology

  1. Preach it Kevin….. you have successfully placed your message on the bottom shelf so that everyone can grasp it.

    Let’s hope that employers especially, apply your message and spend less time/dollars on technology vendors that are only interested in making a quick buck.

    Not all vendors, only the ones that use the slogans: “find better resumes faster and cheaper” “it can pay for itself with only one placement” “look at how much money this will save you on agency fees” “it’s fast and easy to use” “why pay an outside agency when you can get the same candidate internally, for free” “it will drive all the passive candidates directly to your career site or dump all the resumes on the Internet into your ATS for pipelining”

  2. Hallelujah! Kevin you are spot on. I have been a retained executive search consultant focusing in the insurance industry for over twelve years. People often tell me that technology is going to kill our business. I always smile because they don’t get it! Technology will never replace the human aspect of what we do. Sure, Monster can source a resume but thats the easy part! As I tell my clients anyone can spot technical skills on a resume but it is the “recruitment, assessment and relationship development” that makes for a successful placement! In order to successfully “recruit” an executive you have to understand them, their career goals and personal dynamics/relationships. Then and only then can you begin to create a strategy to land that candidate. As we have learned over the past decade technology will NEVER replace the human component.

  3. “I cannot build a house no matter what tools you give me because I lack basic knowledge of carpentry. I cannot operate on your body, fly an airplane, or build an integrated circuit because I have no basic knowledge and no skills in these areas.”

    There is no substitute for knowledge of and experience in mastering the fundamentals. Difficult to leverage Calculus until addition/subtraction/division/multiplication are mastered.

    Was reminded of this over the holidays in watching some videos on exercise where they continuously emphasized the repetition to “own” each component of a new movement even to the point of sub routines designed to help one master one component of a particular exercise.

    I couldn’t help but feel better about my own personal decision to retool myself from the ground up to revisit how to sell better, to relearn the basic syntax at a deeper level, to learn how the tools overlap and when to use each one appropriately.

    There is no silver bullet, we all want it because it is easier, but there is no substitute for being fundamentally sound. It takes practice and work to apply those techniques and skills whether it be in recruiting, athletics, mathematics…take your pick.

    The stronger the mastery of fundamental skills….the ones no one wants to spend the time on, the higher the building you can then build upon the foundation and the more you can subsequently open yourself up to be creative.

  4. Kevin,

    I always appreciate your articles due to the focus on fundamentals. This one did not disappoint. And, it is a timely reminder for us Staffing leaders as we enter 2010, and a new decade, as to what we and our recruiting teams need to continue to improve upon.

    Talking about knowing the business you recruit for, building the right relationships, and being an effective sales consultant is nice. But, we have to get better at actually doing it on a day to day basis. Starting with myself!

    What a great opportunity we have in 2010.

  5. Kevin- Great article.. Humbly, I “earn” more than most executives in corporate America (We never have, nor will participate in a recession) because of the three components you discuss in this article, “niche” Industry knowledge, “focused” relationships, and Sales (Yes recruiting is sales)

    This year has been a exceptional year for my firm…

    Our society is full of “entitlement junkies” unwilling to work, and very quick to complain about the circumstances in there lives…

    Trusting the very best to ALL in 2010!


  6. Hi Kevin – Excellent piece! It really does go back to the fundamentals, but there is an elephant in the room here. The two people who matter most, the person hiring and the person who is the best possible fit for the job, are beyond upset and neglected.

    While I appreciate the traditional recruiter who can leverage his depth of experience and contacts to make a good living, what do we say to the 94% of the people who apply to a job and never hear anything back from anyone? What do we say to the hiring managers who spends enormous sums of money only to be disappointed?

    We have to treat each other better, and finding comfort in the recruiting model from the 1960’s is a dangerous conclusion. While I completely agree that there have been a multitude of technology charlatans in the recruiting space who have only sought the quick buck, the world is changing.

    The person hiring and the person who is the best possible fit for the job are actively looking for a way to connect around the traditional recruiting industry. They are now finding this possible today with a variety of technologies that are not recruiting centric.

    This is a cautionary tale. Will the recruiting industry end up like the railroad industry?

  7. Kevin, great article but you forgot one important point. You have to have a passion for recruiting to be good and successful long term. You have to be passionate about the industry you serve and continue to learn all you can about it. You have to be passionate about developing your connections and be truely interested in solving their problem(s). And you have to be passionate about doing the hard things – the sales things – the time consuming things that have a tendency to wear you down. And you have to do all this with a smile!

    Fundamentally recruiting has not changed in the last 30 years that I have been working in the field. What has changed are the tools that are used to do the basics of the job. But no one was ever hired from a resume, or from their LinkedIn profile, or from their email to the hiring manager – not until an individual is engaged in conversation is a hiring decision ever made. This, in my opinion, is the one thing that will never change.

  8. Reading this article with an emphasis on “selling” reminded me that in my earliest days of recruiting, it was reading Tom Hopkins and Zig Ziglar that propelled my success more than anything I learned about recruiting (although the latter was an important part of the equation) — so yes, I agree, the ability to sell — and I would add — to influence — are key to success as a recruiter. However, I would also point out that good sales technique is dependent upon the ability to truly listen and offer relevant response — which is a key aspect of good recruiting.

    What most tempted me to respond to this post was the comment by Jim Sullivan about passion. This is by and far the most sustaining aspect of longevity and excellence in recruiting. I think that the fact that we love it has kept so many of us in the business through the ups and downs and motivates us to continually hone our craft.

    Another element is the belief that what we are doing is truly of value to the marketplace and to society.

    However, I will say that I do believe that an excellent recruiter can recruit in practically any field or industry — especially if this is backed by an overall understanding of business and organizations. Certainly, those long-term industry relationships help, but good relational skills and resourcefulness can produce results even in new territory. I’ve proven this time and time again.

    On the other hand, I will say that deep industry knowledge and long-term relationships can be a definite advantage on the business development side, especially in a struggling economy.

  9. Well done Kevin, and John S., that was a GREAT additional note to supplement this article. Passion. Recruiting is nothing but widget building without passion.

    Cheers, and here’s to a better decade ahead.

  10. Kevin is right, recruiting hasn’t changed in 30 to 40 years. It’s all about finding people. What if you never had to go looking for people? What if they had an easy way to find you? Stay tuned….

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