A Roguish Culture: Keeping It Real In Recruiting.

han soloWhen we played Star Wars back when I was a kid, I always pretended to be Han Solo. I mean, Han was the ultimate badass, after all – a hero, sure, but a flawed one (and, for a kid who played Star Wars, the fact that he got the girl at the end didn’t hurt, either).

Fast forward a few more years than I’d care to admit, and after working my way through the Harry Potter series, I’d found another favorite character: Sirius Black, who despite his lineage from a long line of Slytherins, fought the good fight against the Dark Arts as the sorting hat sent him to Gryffindor instead.

I’ve got a roll call of fantasy role models, from Tangled’s Flynn Rider to Sawyer in Lost, the Man With No Name of X-Files fame, not to mention Indiana Jones (let’s just go ahead and admit that until he added that earring and Calista Flockhart as accessories, he was pretty much the most awesome man alive). I know what you’re thinking, and yeah – I’m not afraid to let my geek flag fly.

In fact, if you bust out your 12 sided die and are down for some D&D, my alignment will always be with Chaotic Good (if you don’t know what that means, you probably had a much more pleasant high school experience than I did). But here’s the thing about Chaotic Good, or any of the characters who I’ve identified with over the years, this recurring theme of constant contrarianism.

Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels.

plus-escroc-des-deux-1988-01-gMy heroes don’t necessarily always follow the rules, but ultimately, they still tend to end up doing good and casting light in an otherwise dark and nihilistic world. In their code, there’s a reason they don’t always follow the rules – it’s because the rules aren’t fair, and the whole damn system is broken.

Which is why it should come as no surprise to you that this whole concept of Chaotic Good is kind of an extended metaphor for the way I feel about recruiting and talent acquisition in general.

Very early on in my career, back before video conferencing moved from the margins to the mainstream, before the concept of “video interviewing” had even emerged, much less become commoditized, one of Wall Street’s most venerable firms tasked my contingency firm with somewhat of a Quixotic search.

This blue chip brand wanted an expert with extensive video conferencing experience, someone who had mastered the handful of tools and platforms available back then. The job order also called for someone who not only knew how to implement live streaming and had extensive expertise in deploying these tools, but also a technologist who understood the back end infrastructure of video conferencing and could code his way around the limitations of the plug-and-play options then available on the market.

Sounds pretty simple and straightforward today, but the thing is, there was only one catch: it was 1998, and no one – I mean no one – had the requisite professional experience the client was looking for.

Well, almost no one. But I was able to come up with one candidate to present to the client. He fit the bill: he had a great background, although this was not someone who would stand out in a crowd. He looked like any other gentleman in their mid 40s in a shirt and tie, a little bit bland, for lack of a better term, but then again, that’s par for the course when conducting searches for the financial services sector. Snooze alert, but he fit the bill, his references were excellent, and best of all, his requested salary was actually under what the firm was willing to pay.

I was already cashing in my commission check in my head until I got a call informing me that this WASPy, well dressed guy who looked like the average Dad, frankly, the kind of minivan driving, golf playing corporate drone who are the cogs more or less turning the wheels of corporate America was not what he seemed. He was, in fact…SHOCKER…a pornographer.

Check that. He was someone who worked in the pornography industry, and I’m not talking about in front of the camera, which, in fact, is kind of cliche – that whole reformed porn star thing that’s the staple of most Lifetime Original movies and forgettable paperback memoirs with suggestive names you find in airports. Nope. He just happened to have picked up his live streaming experience in a very particular niche.

Obviously, if he had worked for, say, Vivid or Larry Flynt Enterprises, I’d have red flagged him immediately, but the name of the company he worked for, his title and his responsibilities listed on his resume were as bland as he was. But after the company poked around (pun intended), plowing deep into his background (pun intended, again) and found out what was really happening, they decided that while everything about him fit (pun), they were going to pull out of considering his candidacy (and I’m spent).

What did this guy do wrong? He wasn’t a gold chain wearing, Bob Guccione type. He wasn’t delivering profanity laced, misogynistic tirades like Al Goldstein, and he certainly didn’t have the on screen, uh, credentials of a Ron Jeremy or Peter North.

Don’t Google those references if you’re at work, but the point is this: he was just some schlub who happened to spend 2 years of his career as a videographer focused primarily on live streaming naked women for a living. I mean, he had the skills, he had the personality, he had everything – but he didn’t get the job.

Postcards From the Edge.

628x471That was only the first in a long series of candidates I’ve worked with where I like to look for something a bit, well, roguish about them; when I interview, I don’t want another cookie cutter candidate. I’m probing around for someone who, like Han Solo or Sirius Black, has a bit of a dark side underneath that polished facade.

For example, a few months back, I spoke to a guy living in Thailand who had spent two years creating some of the most innovative mobile apps out there – and was making a killing since, again, they were focused on the cash cow that is the adult entertainment industry. Sex sells, but not to mainstream tech companies, apparently – they say they want top talent, but if that talent has even tangentially gone topless, then they’re screwed.

It’s not that I actively seek out people with a little blue period in their professional background, it’s just that I’m looking for people who aren’t, you know, boring.

I always give extra props to the UI/UX expert who’s tatted up with some badass sleeves, or the engineer with the mohawk and facial piercings – they’re not traditional, sure, but I’ll take memorable over mundane any day of the week. And a lot of the time, my hiring managers, do, too.

Now, when I’m interviewing and looking for that little bit of an edge, I know that conventional wisdom holds that you’re not supposed to talk shit on previous employers or managers, but I actively encourage it if their shitting on their ex-boss or former company is for the RIGHT reasons.

“She micromanages me to the point where I can’t actually do my job, because I’m too busy taking care of hers,” or “the company’s so profit driven and money hungry, they cut all our benefits and perks to free up enough cash to give investors a dividend.” 

These are not only reasonable reasons for wanting to leave a job or company, but familiar ones, if we’re being honest with ourselves here. Hell, I’m a bit of a rogue, too – but contrarianism is sometimes preferable to convention.

Business As Unusual.

horriblebosses-9to5-590x350In my last post, I wrote about my most recent job search for a recruiting position, which consisted mostly of wasting hundreds hours of my life filling out elaborate applications for hundreds of posted positions.

A recurring theme of these recruiting-related JDs was something to the effect of, “Do you go beyond LinkedIn to find those purple squirrels?” or “Are you the kind of recruiter who takes an innovative approach to talent acquisition?”

And the other kind of trite crap that’s generally in those job ads that are way less cool than they think they sound – and trust me, there are a shit ton of those out there.

Sadly for our profession’s professed preference for forward thinkers and alternative mindsets, while these might be a mainstay of job ads, turns out almost no one really wants recruiters who are willing to challenge the status quo or do anything other than, well, post really trite job ads and review resumes or LinkedIn profiles all day.

When something actually is unusual in recruiting, it’s usually dismissed or derided. For example, one of my favorite sourcing techniques is the targeted e-mail. Since you’re likely like most recruiters and don’t know what ‘targeted’ means (judging from my InMails and inbox), let me walk you through a sample campaign:

  • Step 1: Use an X-Ray Search to target a person. Here’s one I have been using for GitHub. site:github.com (“front end” | Javascript) “joined on” “public activity” “San Francisco” -tab.activity
  • Step 2: Check out the links. From there, maybe you’ll be lucky and there will be a blog link, or twitter making your search easier… If not, look them up on LinkedIn (do that anyway, it makes a cold contact a wee bit warmer).
  • Step 3: Comment on their blog. Tweet at them, Facebook friend them, find them on Quora, About.me, or wherever there might be some information about the person, not just the professional.
  • Step 4: Send them an e-mail that’s personal, funny, attention getting and ORIGINAL.

I know this is anathema to most of you – dare I even say roguish. But you know that’s how I roll.

Call and Response.

mediumleapoffaithHere’s an example of my approach – and yes, this is actually an e-mail I sent, only the names and companies have been changed to protect the innocent.

The profile I’m referencing I found on LinkedIn; his e-mail address I found through Prophet, which makes avoiding InMails awesomely easy – hint, hint. It went a little something like this:

Subject: “Question on this line from your profile: “big focus on design, I implement everything I design..”

Body:

How do you find the time to do both ends of it? Many people struggle with the UI end, or they struggle with the code.

Your background looked fantastic and if you don’t mind the solicitation from an in-house recruiter I’d be excited to speak. I am not your typical recruiter, much like you’re not the typical UI Architect. Let’s bring the 2 together and blow minds. (note: in this case, I actually wasn’t making a porn pun, for once).

Or we can talk about how awesome XXXX is and how we NEED UI people…

Or, if both of those bore you I am always open to discussing Star Wars, if you’re into that.

Look forward to connecting.

Jeff

Sure, the e-mail might not exactly be the most corporate sounding, company line toeing message out there. It might even be considered low brow, overly cavalier or just unprofessional by many “professionals” whose profession consists of spamming everyone in their database with the same generic, shitty message.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that someone reading this right now, probably working at some white shoe Wall Street firm or stuffy consulting company is huffing and puffing and saying, “That’s not what recruiting’s about,” or “I’d never hire that Jeff Newman fellow in a million years.” 

The thing is, though, this approach gets results. There’s a reason that those cookie cutter templated send outs and boring LinkedIn messages have such a low response rate – that’s because doing the same thing as everyone else means that you’re inevitably going to be lost in the noise of a million recruiters all doing the same thing. These recruiters are out there in packs – and they breed. Which is why so many candidates, you know, hate us.

But if you want someone who asks inane questions like, “If you won a million dollars in the lottery tomorrow, would you come to work the next day?” or “If you were a type of car, what would you be and why?,” good news is recruiters like that are a dime a dozen.

I was actually asked both of these questions when I was interviewing, and the only thing worse than the script they came from was that a recruiter actually expected to gain any meaningful information to such meaningless questions.

Culture and the Rogue.

18305514-18305517-largeWhich brings us to the concept of Culture and the Rogue. My friend Steve Levy wrote an article, “Trees, Culture and Recruiting” where he states:

“Almost everyone speaks of their culture in terms of its uniqueness, how special it is, how different it is from all others – using the same words as everyone else.”

And that’s exactly what I’m talking about: if you want someone unique, well, why do we keep using the same tired cliches and well worn words as everyone else out there?

What if you actually are looking for the outlier? What if your culture supports the rogue, the contrarian, the rule breaker? What if you hire people who don’t fit into a tightly defined box or aren’t afraid to flaunt convention in order to produce results? Crazy talk, I know.

Let’s take an example of the litany of articles out there propagated throughout our space: the concept that Millennials are somehow different and should be treated as such. I think that’s a steaming load of batshit (not bullshit, because everyone says that, and I’m trying to prove a point). I think that no matter what year you were born, when you’re in your twenties or thirties, you’re going to have some sort of self-righteous streak and sense of entitlement or inflated self-worth.

There’s nothing unique about Gen Y in particular; it’s the human experience, and like everything else in history, has a weird way of repeating itself. When you’re 25, this stuff is just part of the deal, and ultimately, you grow old, cynical and boring like the rest of us. That is, the one thing I don’t think Millennials are likely to age out of is their willingness to be open minded, inclusive or open to alternative viewpoints, lifestyles or ideas.

Whether it’s issues like gay equality, the right to smoke weed, wondering why you can’t bring a dog into the office or whatever else we might smack with the “liberal” label liberally, the fact is that Gen Y realizes that everyone can play the game – and win – with a set of rules that works best for them. The wisdom of youth, as they say.

I’m encouraged that being a rogue – or this whole concept of “authenticity” and “transparency” that seems so novel in the recruiting industry – is one trend that’s not going anywhere, and that as these twentysomethings start entering the ranks of our hiring managers, they’re going to be open to rogues, and eventually, being roguish won’t even be roguish anymore. It will just be the way people are – however they are.

What Keeping It Real Really Means.

b0754e320f2a4cd1141ccb475a38784bWhich brings me back to my main point: be yourself. Be honest. And most of all, be unique. Not everyone will like you. Not everyone will agree with your approach.

Let’s face the fact that most people who say they’re looking for someone ‘outside the box’ are lying – and if they find someone who’s outside the truck carrying the boxes, they’re going to turn and run the other direction.

But if you’re lucky enough to find that place where thinking different is actually encouraged, where you can be yourself and do your job your own way, as long as the job gets done, then things will come together, and you’ll find out that the key to professional satisfaction is when you get to do your own job your own way, because when we do what comes to us naturally, we excel.

It’s rare that people wear suits or neckties to work – not so a few years ago. Similarly, the thought of working anywhere but an office was ridiculous in the not too distant past. The carefully maintained facade is starting to chip away, and it won’t be long before the walls come crashing down.

For now, though, I’ll do my thing and deal with all the candidates sending my outside the box e-mails to my manager, asking something to the effect of, “Why is this Jeff Newman fellow so damned unprofessional?”

Well, as Han Solo said, “You like me, because I’m a scoundrel.”

unnamed (5)About the Author: Jeff Newman has been a full life cycle recruiter for over 17 years. He has never limited myself to one industry or one skill set. His staffing philosophy is simple: Interview to hire as opposed to looking for reasons not to hire and to speak with each person instead of simply pushing paper.
He prides himself on always making sure that what he is offering a candidate is an opportunity and not just another job. He is always honest about the pluses and minuses and tries to not just be a recruiter but a career adviser. He is currently using his own advice as Recruiting Manager at Tripping.com.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @Apikoros18 or connect with him on LinkedIn.
Jeffrey Newman


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