The Language of Success

There is a common language used by top-level managers in every company. It is a language centered on business concepts and understanding a handful of concepts.

For example, CEOs instinctively move toward the action that will maximize profits and minimize costs or expenses. Investment is the first concept, and cost savings is second. To them this is as basic as breathing, and they often don’t consciously realize that they have moved in that direction. However, many HR professionals focus on costs or on how a candidate feels about a given action, and they emphasize these over the investment side or over the impact on profits in presentations and conversations.

I might hear a recruiter say, “I felt that the extra time spent with that candidate was worth it because they will now say nicer things about us to other potential candidates.” A CEO might, instead, phrase it this way, “Spending a few extra minutes with the candidate could result in our firm making two or three additional hires because of the positive comments we’ll get. That would mean we’d be able to spend less on advertising and make faster hires.”

They are really saying the same thing, but the focus and language are different.

Here are four other things an executive assumes you know and practice:

Assumption #1: Knowing and Responding to Business Priorities

A business priority is defined by Ram Charan, Harvard business professor and author of an outstandingly valuable book called “What the CEO Wants You To Know,” as “the most important action that needs to be taken at a certain point in time.”

Priorities can change quickly and CEOs expect that you understand that and are prepared to react accordingly. Positive response to change and understanding that there are no absolutes are key attributes of a business-focused manager.

Assumption #2: Having an Investor Mentality

Do you think like an investor in your company would think? Your CEO has to think like an investor and make choices — even unpopular ones that give investors confidence. They focus on improving business processes, and finding ways to cut costs. HR is often perceived as acting the opposite. They request expensive tools (e.g. ATS and HRIS systems) without showing how they will add to the profits or improve the investor perception.

This is the hardest of all the assumptions for us in recruiting and HR to deal with. We seem to be predisposed to focus on process improvements over cost savings or other metrics that CEOs understand. You have to understand what your CEO is thinking in order to have any chance of creating a successful way of influencing her.

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Assumption #3: Quality Counts More Than Ever

Yes, every CEO I know believes in and supports total quality. It has become a mantra in the best firms, and most large (and many smaller) companies have instituted Six Sigma programs and black belt training. HR has to emphasize quality and establish its own “black belts.” What would an absolutely first-rate, 100% “defect-free” recruiting process look like? What would it “buy” your organization? Have any of us used this slower time to think about this and begin to set up a Six Sigma recruiting process in our firms?

Your CEO assumes that you are doing this (or maybe not, as you are just recruiters, after all).

Assumption #4: Knowing How You Fit into the Strategy

The CEOs I work with assume that all departments, except usually HR and staffing, know how they contribute to the big picture. They are expected to present what they will do to help the firm achieve its strategic goals, imperatives, or whatever you call them. Talent strategies are critical to every organization. If the CEO cannot get the talent she needs to execute strategy, the strategy will fail and along with it the organization. That is why I see some firms turning away from recruiters and HR when it comes to formulating and carrying out a talent strategy. They are instead asking a line manager, a project manager, or some other business-focused person to lead the effort. Numerous firms are replacing the vice president of HR with a non-HR professional for the same reason.

You must know how you fit into the overall vision of the firm and you must show how you can contribute to achieving business success. That means showing how what you do will increase the profits of your organization.

This is the language that your CEO knows and what he wants you to know as well.

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


10 Comments on “The Language of Success

  1. Thank you, Kevin.
    IMHO, if you have to prove Recruiting’s value to a CEO, you should run (not walk) to the nearest exit, because that’s one messed-up CEO in one very-dysfunctional company.



  2. I think Keith makes a good point, but this is a good article and everyone who is not a CEO needs to refresh on such language. Thanks Kevin.

  3. Speaking of language… The day that the majority of C-level executives begin discussing Human Resources as an EXPENSE rather than a COST is the day that HR attitudes may begin to change.

    The “cost” misconception is most likely potentiated by the fact that HR is a non revenue-generating department. Hence, no need to “invest” where you don’t make any money.

  4. Thanks Kevin.

    What would an absolutely first-rate, 100% “defect-free” recruiting process look like?

    The six sigma standard is 3.4 defects per million opportunities. If we take Peter Drucker’s observation that: ” … by and large, executives make poor promotion and staffing decisions. By all accounts, their batting average is no better than .333: at most one-third of such decisions turn out right; one-third are minimally effective; and one-third are outright failures”, then the selection performance norm is 200,000 times worse than the six sigma standard.

    Drucker went on to say: “In no other area of management would we put up with such miserable performance.”

    As long as we start the process with a resume (sales document, at best; pack of lies, at worst) and conclude with a “group grope” based on participant perceptions from unstructured interviews, the miserable performance will continue.

    Recruiters and hiring managers have the tools available to make dramatic and continuous improvements. They mostly choose not to. They don’t care much about compliance, either. I would love to see a validity study which sustains the “resume screen through group grope” selection process.

    What percentage of the time does the selection process begin with a thorough, up-to-date job analysis, as both compliance and best practices would dictate?

    Richard Melrose

  5. What would it (i.e. a high quality hiring process) “buy” your organization?

    There are two very large buckets of opportunity to work with: (i)reduce deleterious employee-related expenses and (ii) improve operational and financial performance. Converting both opportunity sets depends, fundamentally, on people decisions … poor choices yield poor results.

    Consider the cost of turnover, employee theft (money, property, data, time) and workplace accidents. Consider the value of productivity gains, breakthrough ideas or leaps in customer loyalty. Even rather well run companies can reasonably expect to double their bottom line through consistently better people decisions.

    What if we were only 100,000 times worse than the six sigma standard? What might that buy?

    Richard Melrose

  6. Keith, you’re kidding right?

    It is our obligation to show, prove, and convince business leaders everyday of our lives on what we do adds direct value back to the core business objectives. The real issue here is as Kevin points out is not that recruiting does not add value, it’s that the majority of people in our profession don’t frame conversation in a way the clearly resonates with a business leader or ties the strategy and investments back to the business objectives.

    Everyone in recruiting from recruiting coordinator up to the recruiting leader needs to read not only articles like this, but actually should spend some time understanding the business strategy and reading annual reports, CEO or Board updates and also spend time understanding Finance reports. The more effectively we can match our terminology with the business…..

    Recruiting Speak: Optimizes the CPH/CPJ = Business Speak: Reduce the Cost to Serve
    Recruiting Speak: Optimizes the Time to Fill = Business Speak: Mitigate lost opportunity cost/revenue
    Recruiting Speak: Improve the Quality of Hire = Business Speak: Increase Company Performance and shareholder value

    ………the quicker you gain credibility with executive leadership on them seeing you understand how recruiting value is intertwined with the success of the business. This then makes it a lot easier when you want to make the necessary “investments” vs. trying to defend a discussions of “your just a cost center”.

    Maybe it’s not a dysfunctional CEO or Company that we need to worry about!

  7. @Rob:
    I absolutely am not kidding. Would you ask a doctor or teacher or CPA to justify their value to you? Then why would you expect a salaried or contract recruiter to do so? You might want to do so if you’re working contingency, but I don’t do that. When I meet with a prospective client, I often try to determine what type of recruiter is optimum for them, and sometimes a contract recruiter like me isn’t the best choice. I’m happy to lay out options (and sometimes executives are quite green at hiring), but having to justify my value to someone who is too stupid and/or arrogant to understand it from the get-go is something I don’t need. I’ve also found that if they’re a pain to deal with up front, they’re almost always a pain to deal with all the way down the line.

    Sometimes you can’t pick and choose who you work for (at least I can’t), and you need to pay your mortgage. In such cases, I hold my nose (and tongue) and do what I have to do.
    Most of the time though, I’ve learned through experience to leave the Type-A jerks and their dysfunctional companies to the masochists and those recruiters who view working in environments like that as challenges.


    Keith “Life is Too Short to Prove Yourself to Jerks” Halperin

  8. Would I ask my Doctor or CPA to justify their value………absolutely, because if I do not think I am getting sound advice or a service then I go elsewhere. If I run into too many bad Doctors or CPA’s I start to lose trust and become jaded by the profession!
    I can see that you are primarily a contract/agency recruiter so maybe the optics you are viewing this is limited to that perspective. That is fine, nothing wrong with that. What I think you seem to be missing is that this subject/article is not about walking away from the jerks of the world, but rather getting more on the same page with business leaders in how they view the world to run companies successfully.
    By dismissing the importance of the way we (yes, agency and contract recruiters as well) are perceived by the companies/leaders we support, through the most fundamental thing as tying recruiting value back to business objectives, is just dumb and dangerous path to travel in my humble experience if you do not keep this in mind.
    Again, the majority of the time it’s not that the value is not there, it is just poorly communicated or incorrectly framed and presented to a business leader.


    p.s – I have met many jerks during my career, and I never walked away thinking that they will never change and damn them to their own plight. To me it became about, I need to do a better job as putting it in terms that they get and understand to see the value. Corny as it might sound but the phrase “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is better than putting the person in the too hard basket IMHO. Maybe that is the problem with the world today with too many people taking the easy and safe way out, but heck that is another topic for another day.

  9. Before the people responding to this article reduce their comments to a nasty exchange of disagreeing commentary, why not return to the article itself and judge the author’s posting on the very critical assumptions he has shared.

    As a business owner and staffing professional I have dealt with recruiters for over 30 years…those working for private and public companies and those who have been employed as agency and third party recruiters.

    As a rule they flunk Assumption #1, #2 and #4. They all claim to adhere to Assumption #3, but candidaly it has been my experience that all too often they ignore any thought or plan for a “defect-free” recruiting process.

    I think any person in a recruiting position ought to first understand how to read a financial statement and a balance sheet before approaching the task of recruitment.

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