What’s A Recruiter, Anyway? Five Critical Skills for Success

As I wrote last week, recruiters are suffering from an identity crisis. The skills that once defined a corporate recruiter are not sufficient. Indeed, those skills are actually detrimental to success today. A corporate recruiter has always had a different skill set than a recruiter working in an agency or as an independent. While agency recruiters have focused on building relationships, on tapping into new sources of candidates and on assessing candidates against a variety of criteria, the corporate recruiter has evolved three very different set of competencies over the years. The first is the ability to deal with the corporate bureaucracy, hiring managers, and legal issues. Many recruiters have focused on these areas and are formidable navigators of the corporate landscape. They know every hill and valley; every bomb and sinkhole, and they can make hiring happen because of these skills. These skills are unique to a particular company, however, and do not transfer well. Recruiters with these competencies are most likely to be the “lifers” who have worked for the same firm for many years. Every bureaucracy has created people with these types of skills and would not function without them. The internal knowledge they have, and their ability to get things done in systems resistant to getting things done, makes them valuable only in that system. They are not adding anything to profit nor are they helping find or hire scarce talent. The second common skill is that of resume scanner. Some recruiters can consume piles of resumes in no time at all, scanning and sorting them into piles according to hiring manager, position, or past experience. They then forward them on to the hiring manager for a secondary screen and, perhaps, for eventual interviews. They act as human applicant tracking systems and offer the advantage or being much less expensive to buy and maintain. However, they are human and have limited memories, often have faulty scanning systems, and don’t always make good judgments. The third skill is that of receptionist, light screener, and tour guide. They may take a resume and call a candidate to ask a few questions. Their focus is to be “nice” and make a good impression while determining, based on some predetermined ideas of fit or suitability, who should be invited in for interviews with the hiring manager. Those so chosen are met by the recruiter, given a tour of the building or facility, and perhaps even taken for a coffee or lunch. They become of the liaison or interface between the company, the hiring manager and the candidate. None of these three roles are value adding. These recruiters do not actively look for good candidates or even know where to look for good candidates. Sourcing to them equals posting jobs on a job board, which is why job boards are so popular yet return so little in quality. They do not aggressively ferret out what competencies and skills the best performers have — indeed they don’t even know who the best performers are. They rarely interview candidates in depth or probe into the actual accomplishments or skills that a candidate might have. They do not offer alternative screening or assessment for a hiring manager, nor are they very helpful in closing. They put together standard offers based on what they have offered other people with similar backgrounds and experience. Even a computer can do all of this stuff. So what does a modern recruiter need to have for skills? Today’s recruiter is a different breed. He or she needs to have mastered five distinct areas: 1. The ability to build relationships. Most important and on top of the pyramid of skills is the ability to find great people and build relationships with them. This is what all great recruiters do. EVERY executive search guru is really a guru at building and maintaining relationships. Recruiters within organizations need to get out of the organization and get to know people at all levels and professions who might be useful to their firm. They need to utilize technology to help create the initial relationship, and then they need to leverage that by talking on the phone, sending frequent emails, having breakfast or lunch with possible candidates, and by always asking one candidate to recommend a few more. Those who possess this skill set are good at knowing who the best performers are because they also have good relationships with the hiring managers and other workers who can tell them. They assess why those people are the best and then try to find more with the same skills. 2. Knowledge of the market. The competent recruiter is able to tell the hiring manager what the employment market looks like, what the supply of talent for a particular job is likely to be in her area, and how difficult it will be to find and close on candidates. This knowledge has to be data-driven and can only be collected by vast reading, lots of discussion, the intelligent use of surveys and other data tools, and by being aware. As a part of this, the recruiter also has to know how the market for the product or service the company they work for is moving. Are competitors laying people off, which might open a fresh source of trained candidates for their firm? Is the market they are in growing, shrinking, or flat? This kind of information, combined with the ability to build relationships, can make an ineffective recruiting function very powerful. The market knowledge allows recruiters to focus their relationship building on the candidates who are scare and valuable and to spend less time on the commonly available candidates. 3. An understanding of technology. Technology already dominates recruiting. Applicant tracking systems, HRIS systems, email, job boards, the Internet, and recruiting websites are all part of the technology equation. If the recruiter is not technically agile and informed, she cannot be successful in the long run. Every day decisions have to be made about technology or because of technology. Only those who can understand it can make it work for them or for their firm. And by wising choosing and using technology, these recruiters gain an edge over everyone who doesn’t. 4. The ability to demonstrate their own value. Competent recruiters use metrics to put together business arguments for solutions they suggest, for programs they want to initiate or for the systems they want to buy. They have a core set of metrics that show how they have added value, raised quality, improved profits, or saved money. Ideally they show where programs should be expanded and where they should be shrunk or ended. 5. The ability to sell. Recruiters also need to be good at selling candidates and hiring managers. They need to know when they hear an objection and they need to understand how to overcome it or turn it into a positive. They need to offer solutions, work out compromises, negotiate and in the end, make the hire happen. This will become an increasingly important skill as we move back into candidate shortage. When there are two jobs for every person with skill, the recruiter who can sell the best and close the fastest will be king or queen. Have a great 4th!

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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 ERE.net, 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 kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

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6 Comments on “What’s A Recruiter, Anyway? Five Critical Skills for Success

  1. Great article Kevin. Unfortunately, if a corporate recruiter possessed all the skills you mentioned, they would have realized that they are grossly under-paid and under-appreciated, and would have left for a much more lucrative career in independent executive search long ago. Happens every day!

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  2. Thanks Kevin Wheeler!

    So nice to hear another expert agreeing with what I have been saying all along in postings on ERE:

    The “search and FINDING” aspect of recruiting is, always was, and always will be the most valuable aspect of recruiting. Those that “GET IT” will go farthest in their “Recruiting” career.

    Nice to hear another expert say what I’ve been professing all along (most recently in the string regarding the use of long distance recruiters from different geographical areas).

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  3. An interesting article that I read with mixed emotions.

    The 5 skills indicated are indeed critical to any successful recruiter, corporate or individual/agency. However, I do not think they are the exclusive property of non-corporate recruiters.

    The successful corporate recruiter must poses those skills in addition to the ability to ?deal with the corporate bureaucracy, hiring managers, and legal issues?. I would also contend that any recruiter worthy of the title, at some point in the recruiting cycle, is a ?resume scanner? and ?receptionist, light screener, and tour guide?

    I have been a recruiter and career counselor for over 30 years and a Corporate Recruiter for 17 years. As a corporate recruiter I have been an individual recruiter, recruiting supervisor and manager. To generally characterize my last 17 years as simply a ?navigator of corporate bureaucracy?, ?resume scanner? and ?receptionist, light screener, and tour guide? is in very poor taste, and I believe worthy of an apology.

    As for not adding value, the corporate recruiter is saving corporations hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis compared to agency fees in the range of 20-25% of the first year salary.

    Perhaps the ?identity crises? for recruiters comes from publishing derogatory remarks verses placing the emphasis on creating the skills necessary to overcome the crises.

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  4. I did not read Mr. Wheeler?s article when it first hit my desktop. (Apparently, I was too busy conducting what was universally described in the article as executing non-value added activities since I am a CORPORATE recruiter.) I received several incensed emails asking me if I had read the article. So, I thought I would give it a read.

    My first instinct in posting a response to this article was to quote Dan Aykroyd?s famous quote in SNL?s ?Point/Counterpoint?. After reconsideration (and desiring my post to be published), I determined to avoid a personal attack in response to Mr. Wheeler?s completely uncalled for tirade against the America?s corporate recruiter.

    I am not certain as to why Mr. Wheeler has developed such a sour outlook on the corporate recruiter. Certainly it could not be from his past associations with his previous employers. If it were, then he would have no one but himself to blame for their characteristics since he was solely responsible for their activities and development. My guess is that because of his consultancy experience, he is accustomed to only seeing those environments that are ?broken?. After all, a well performing and valuing adding corporate recruiting environment would have no need for his services. Whatever the reason, I am pretty certain that his view is rather dated…at best.

    He has, for reasons unknown to us, developed a view of today?s corporate recruiter that is a negative stereotype (a conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image). Keep in mind that stereotyping tends to be the modus operandi of individuals that are not concerned with fact but rather their own narrow-minded opinions. I do not think that a person of his position could afford to be narrow-minded, so again, I am not certain as to why he would make such disparaging and insulting statements towards all corporate recruiters with complete disregard for the truth. Perhaps he will share with us why he thinks ALL corporate recruiters are worthless.

    Until he does, I I feel that it is only fair that one of us non-value adding corporate recruiters offer our “Counterpoint” to his “point” since he decided to put in print and distribute his diatribe (a.k.a. “rant”) against the corporate recruiter.

    To begin, I do not disagree that the five “Critical Skills for Success” are fundamental skills to possess. Any recruiter, be it corporate, agency or independent should possess these. Furthermore, I agree that they will aid in one’s success. I do disagree that these are new concepts, as he would have us believe, for a different breed of recruiter. They are classic skills that are transferable to almost any business endeavor. This is not original thought recently synthesized. It is just plain common business sense that any knowledgeable recruiter (corporate, agency or independent) already knows.

    The item to which I take greatest exception is his stereotypical view of today’s corporate recruiter. To describe the corporate recruiter as nothing more than bureaucratic tour-guides with faulty scanning systems and poor judgment is nothing short of malicious. For the author to speak in such absolute terms, as he has done, by lumping all corporate recruiters into one pot is ludicrous and simply not factual. I (an many others) do not at this point care what point he is trying to make. It was completely lost when based upon such a glaring untruth.

    This is not to say there are not individuals on the corporate side of the recruiting fence that do not personify the attribute described, but they most likely reside in outdated, uncompetitive business environments that are in their final days. There are scores of corporate recruiters that have learned the value proposition of their role in the organization and add tremendous value. The only people that are not satisfied with the contribution of these professionals are those agencies who have seen their fees drop as a result of their expertise (and perhaps consultancies that are not needed to fix a problem). Interestingly enough, the shareholders of these companies are quite please since the activities of these recruiters contribute directly to the bottom line of these companies.

    The second paragraph of the article would have one believe that agency recruiter?s are the only people with appropriate and developed recruiting skills. I would caution the author against throwing the proverbial stone in his own glass house. Is the only good recruiter an agency recruiter? I think not! Quite frankly, I do not have the time to go into why that statement is built on shale. Nor do I need to. It is a fairly clear wherein the argument?s faults lie.

    Suffice it to say that there are good, bad and ugly on both sides of the recruiting fence. Some people have been thrown into recruiting as a sort of corporate wasteland. Others are simply thrown into the role with no skills, training, or direction. However, there are those of us whom have chosen it as our profession. We arrived in our role by choice and from all sorts of endeavors (from internal profit centers to VERY successful careers in agency recruiting). It is something for which we have great passion. That passion drives us to constantly develop our ability to contribute positively to a company’s growth, well being, and bottom-line. We actually possess and excel in the very skills that the author ascribes to only being possessed by the agency recruiter.

    John-Mark Stephenson
    Director of Recruiting
    Reliant Resources, Inc.

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  5. I’ve read and enjoyed Mr. Wheeler’s articles in the past, so I’m certain that he is not as uninformed about the current state of corporate recruiting as this article seems to indicate. I will say I agree that the five skills he details are indeed important for success in any recruiting specialty. These traits should be part of the skill base of any recruiter, whether corporate, contract, contingency or retained.

    However, I did take exception to Mr. Wheeler’s generalized description of the core competencies of a typical Corporate Recruiter. I’m less personally offended and more concerned about this “industry expert” perpetuating an outdated stereotype of our profession. The “competencies” Mr. Wheeler assigned to the typical corporate recruiter were, in my opinion, largely inaccurate. His description detailed what I believe is a very small part of what a Corporate Recruiter does. Sure, we deal with corporate bureaucracy, but any successful professional in an organization must know how to effectively navigate through that organization. And of course we scan resumes as part of our job. But just like any successful retained recruiter, the scanning process is a very limited part of our overall investigation of a candidate’s abilities and interests. Like a headhunter, we spend much more time in conversation with our candidates delving deeply into the things listed on the resume, and discovering the many things not listed. And yes, we absolutely will greet our candidates, give them tours, and even offer them a cup of coffee. I view this as simply extending them the courtesy that I would hope any professional would extend to their guests.

    But while these three “skill” areas Mr. Wheeler details are indeed abilities we possess, they are hardly our strengths or core competencies. They are actually a very limited part of what any recruiter does as part of their job. In my view, the description Mr. Wheeler gives the Corporate Recruiter is, in general, outdated. My experience is that the corporate recruiting function has evolved from the traditional paper-shuffling clerical role into a strategic function that is recognized as critical to the success of an organization. I believe that most, certainly not all, but most Corporate Recruiters possess those five skill areas Mr. Wheeler deems critical for success. Had he simply identified these areas as key to success of all Recruiters, the article would have made good sense. But to make the generalization that Corporate Recruiters don’t typically possess these traits was simply inaccurate.

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  6. Not a bad article. I was getting a bit offended at the first half, but warmed up as I read the second half.

    I would add one more thing…

    6. The ability to develop and implement long term pipeline strategies.
    Today?s corporate recruiters are often hampered by short term thinking. To them, long term thinking is being ready to fill positions they will have a need for over the next 6 months (possibly out to a year.) Corporate recruiters should also be concerned with how to develop a pipeline that will provide easy access to applicants a company or client will need in the future. Probably with different skill sets than are needed today. This may mean implementing an appropriate college recruiting program, developing career ladders within a company, identifying and cultivating the best headhunters in a given field, cultivating the nearest high school or college, and influencing their curriculum, influencing internal training programs, etc. This will also most likely mean working closely with hiring managers, as well as the rest of the HR department to forecast needs, and how they will be met. As a recruiter is able to establish these pipelines, it should provide easier access to people, Freeing us up to tackle additional responsibilities.

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