If we’ve met for longer than say, 30 seconds, you probably already know I like to talk and tell stories; after all, recruiting is all about creating the right narrative, and the gift of gab is truly one that keeps on giving in this crazy business of ours.
Now, while I tend to be a bit, well, self-deprecating, I will give myself a little credit. I’m a hell of a recruiter – and have a career’s worth of results to back me up.
And looking back at it all, I realize that when we talk about being an “experienced” recruiter, we’re really just talking about the crazy stories of dealing with insane candidates, masochistic hiring managers and crappy clients – these are the stories that aren’t only worth sharing, but the ones that really provide the opportunities for learning and developing new skills, talent acquisition approaches and staffing strategies.
That’s why I like sharing them with you – I’ve dealt with enough crazy over the course of my career (and made enough mistakes, Lord knows) to at least provide a laugh, and hopefully, a learning opportunity.
Either way, it provides me a platform to pontificate and make a point, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned you need in this industry, it’s an outlet.
Once Upon A Time…
Some of the best stories I have started back during the nascent days of my recruiting career, back when I was working the desk at a small staffing agency in Phoenix. Which, as you can imagine, provided more than its pure share of craziness.
I still had a lot to figure out, but knew just enough about recruiting to be dangerous, which led me to my second job, after a rival agency got tired of losing candidates to me and decided to make me an offer I can’t refuse.
Which was pretty flattering for a rookie recruiter, if nothing else – and I decided it might be worth checking out, even though I was perfectly happy where I was, beating the crap out of the guys currently courting me. I wasn’t really too excited about sleeping with the enemy, but if they wanted to buy me a steak dinner and some wine before I shot them down, I figured it was worth at least a first date.
It’s Not You. Actually, It Is.
Of course, when the owner and my ostensible future recruiting manager called me in for one of those infamous “opportunity” conversations, I came in cocky, overly arrogant and forgetting, for a second, that in fact I was just another green third party recruiter making it all up as I went along.
They wanted me, after all, and I went into this conversation not realizing that talking shop with a direct competitor isn’t exactly kosher in this industry.
Particularly since I had one of those pesky non-competes in place, but that dense legal language was more easily annoyed than my ego. But this, uh, “learning opportunity” is a story for another day.
I ended up having my sense of self sufficiently stoked, and their sweet talk sufficiently compelling, to end up accepting the offer – and accepting a fairly fat signing bonus, to boot – and just like that, I found myself across town on the second stop in my recruiting journey. It was more or less same shit, different desk, but this time, the desk at least had a window, so I was happy. It doesn’t take much.
I would learn a lot at this particular agency, and the experiences there, and the friends I made, continue to stay with me, even after all these years. And I realized, like a lot of rookie recruiters, that no matter how much I thought I knew, I really knew nothing – something that became readily apparent my very first ever meeting my very first ever Monday morning at my new gig.
This being a bigger agency, I hadn’t had any experience with this type of meeting, which I found out at my new firm was the way they kicked off every week: an all hands gathering for all the recruiters in the company to go over all requisitions we were working on, the relative priority of each respective search (as defined by sales) and where each of our submittals or slates stood in the process. This meeting was unusual, since the only accountability I had at the boutique firm I had come from was really to myself and my own wallet.
So, I did something I don’t usually do – being the new guy, and realizing I had only 6 months under my belt, which obviously paled in comparison to most of the recruiters in the room – I decided to just shut up and listen. Besides, I knew enough to know it wasn’t a good idea to get called out or make enemies my very first day. I laid low, and watched how everything played out. Needless to say, it was quite a scene.
At this point, I think it’s apropos to put a little disclaimer here to make sure I’m making my M.O. clear. In fact, right now I know you’re probably snickering or wondering why I’m not watching Matlock or going out to Luby’s for the early bird special, like most cranky old dudes out there. So I’m not going to go too deep into the typically dry account manager updates, or the recruiters bragging about how much bank they’d rolled up on their most recent req. If you’ve been there (and most of us have), you’ve done that. It didn’t get interesting until we started talking about candidates – and I started hearing real recruiters giving real feedback for the first time.
It was then I learned that you can never really gauge anything about a company’s talent acquisition function until you see it through the filter of how they treat candidates, first. Back in the day, that wasn’t called “candidate experience,” it was just the stuff you did to make sure you kept new business and new referrals coming in. It wasn’t a theoretical discussion, it was a business necessity.
I know, I’m old school like that.
After I had been on the job for a few weeks, I came to one of these meetings not to crow about my accomplishments, but rather, to try to get some help from my colleagues – the purported purpose of these meetings, after all, was getting help.
And even though I still thought I was a hot shot, I knew that in this case, it was desperately needed, because I had been banging my head against the wall for a few weeks on one of my open reqs and couldn’t figure out what the hell, exactly, I was doing wrong.
The role was for a developer ‘opportunity’ (used liberally) for a startup in town that wasn’t really well known enough to justify its obscene list of minimum basic requirements and annoying “preferred” experience (e.g. the type no one actually has).
It was not exactly the best developer role in the world, to be blunt – even calling it a “developer” was something of a misnomer, considering the position was mostly maintenance of shitty software and shittier systems. Now, it did have a few good things going for it – as even the worst positions do, as these are often the only salient selling points a recruiter has for positioning opportunities that are anything but.
For starters, their Class A office space occupied a prime location next to the nicest malls in town, and they were unique in offering some semblance of a 9-5 existence, meaning only a few short steps separated the office from the many happy hour choices at an office where there actually was the possibility of a happy hour. I’ll drink to that, and most candidates seemed to be OK with the possibility, too.
Take Carl. I had come across him and instantly thought he’d be a pretty great candidate for the role – as an added bonus, he was available, having just come off of his last contract. Score, right?
Carl and I already had a relationship developed as he explored opportunities, which made it easy to present him with this opportunity and overcome his objections about the position and the company. In other words, Carl was all but closed. I had done my job as a recruiter, right?
The rest was really just details, and rare is the recruiter who sweats those things.
Keeping It Real.
Carl wasn’t only sold on the company, I hadn’t sold him a bill of goods – he was fully aware of the fact that it was a six month gig cleaning up code, which is decidedly unsexy to most programmers with his background and experience. When he went in for the interview, I didn’t even think twice about it – at that point, I was on a hot streak, closing pretty much every deal I was involved in to date. Hell, my celebratory steak dinners I treated myself to when I made a placement had become a regular part of my diet.
This is why it seemed like a slap in the face when, after the interview, Carl turned down the offer outright after he nailed the interview. Didn’t even give me a chance to close him – he closed me down, first. This was my first rejection, so I wasn’t only hurt, but completely confused, too.
Now don’t get me wrong, I got shot down by candidates all day – I was an agency recruiter, after all – but when you actually get one to an offer, they become far more than a candidate. They’re a comrade in arms, someone who you’ve sunk as much time, effort and thought into their job search as they have – and here was the first one who betrayed what I had assumed, to then, was all recruiting really required.
What made this worse is that he didn’t even let me know why, exactly, he was no longer under consideration for the role, ignoring my many phone calls and increasingly desperate voicemails. Nothing. Just some generic e-mail telling me that he had “decided against taking the role.” That’s it? That’s all he had for me? How, I thought, could someone I’d put so much time into repay it like this – wasting not only my time, but my hiring managers, too.
Revenge is a dish, as they say, best served cold. And I guess whatever I’d done wrong in terms of candidate experience was catching up with me. I was a closer, and the pain of this particular rejection stung badly enough where I felt I needed to find out what the hell was wrong with me. What I learned has stayed with me to this day.
A Little Humility Goes A Long Ways.
The recruiter who had originally presented Carl had worked with him previously, too – and this agency recruiter was sharp, with that well deserved swagger that you only get when you sell. When we started deconstructing what had gone wrong in that Monday morning meeting, I decided to deflect the blame, conveniently, on the candidate instead of owning that maybe I did something wrong.
This is the natural defense mechanism for most recruiters, after all.
So after I had finished lambasting his low character and poor communication style, I was expecting a pat on the back, not a slap on the face. But this other recruiter – Jason – looked at me like I was an idiot and told me precisely why Carl had turned me down cold. It was because he told Carl to do so.
I had spent so much time communicating with the candidate I failed to communicate with the very same people I was supposed to support, and he had two roles he was coaching Carl through, too – never realizing, of course, that the other guy the candidate was talking to was actually working at the same agency. These roles were full time, long term career opportunities – not a short term contract, like my role – and was dedicated to building new things, not just maintaining what others had already built.
He knew that these were the biggest drivers for Carl, even though, as Carl told me, he truly was open to considering my role – but only because he needed a gig, not because these were things he wanted or needed. I failed to understand not just the fact he was interested and available, but that didn’t necessarily make him a fit. I had fallen into a trap that too many recruiters get snared in – the cardinal sin of talent acquisition.
I had become complacent. I had forgotten who’s really in control during the recruiting process – it’s always the candidate, no matter what the circumstances might look like on the surface. Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge a candidate by their cover letter, as it were.
Unlike my very first placement, Johnny, who I discussed in my last article, I had turned into some sort of machine, and my efficiency had become a bigger driver for me – the outcome – than the means that were the reason I had, to date, been so successful at hiring.
I had the hubris to believe I had become a good enough recruiter to stop sweating the small stuff, and that cost me big. The more experienced recruiter had been through this before, been burned, and learned the painful lesson I was just now coming to terms with: the cost of complacency.
He closed precisely because he never assumed he’d close, and this determined everything about his approach.
To his credit, the other recruiter didn’t hold my hubris against me, but he did show me that when I saw Carl as a bonus and a paycheck, the fact that he saw the candidate as more than a placement, but as a person who knew other people and could help him make other placements down the line meant that he would beat me – and most every other recruiter – every single time.
The recruiter who realizes they need the candidate worse than the candidate needs them realizes what it really takes to be a TOP RECRUITER, the kind who close, not the type who pose in front of Ferraris in Miami Beach and use #TheMovement as a hashtag instead of a silent motivation for moving the industry forward. It’s recruiters like my colleague, who thought enough of me to at least let me know why he won.
He won because he had enough experience to know enough to know contract developers were contract developers because they liked to get in and out of their projects; they went in, did the job, built the app and moved on. They were always looking for the next project, which meant they were always working with at least a couple recruiters.
They never had to look on job boards, because there were always recruiters out there who they could rely on for their next gig. So there was always going to be competition – and the other recruiter, knowing how arrogant I was, used my inexperience against me. He never forgot that he didn’t ever have a hire, and that the relationship was more important than the transaction.
Carl got the gig he wanted, and I got the lesson I deserved.
The Past is Prologue.
The funny thing about recruiting is how easy it is to learn from, and make up for, your mistakes. They really are learning opportunities, you just have to treat them as such instead of blaming everyone but yourself for a candidate or offer not working out.
Remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Approach it as such.
You see, after about a year, the other recruiter, as recruiters are wont to do, moved onto another role, this time as an internal recruiter – meaning that since Carl was under contract with us and this agency actually enforced its non-competes, he more or less had to work with me (or at least, the other recruiter wasn’t allowed to touch him).
And since, after a year, I knew Carl’s contract was winding down, I was determined to make good this time around. So, a little older and a whole lot wiser, I reached out to Carl again to see if he would mind meeting up and talking through his options for his next step. To my relief, he readily agreed.
This time, I didn’t present him with an opportunity. We talked about his needs, and his aspirations, and from there, formed a game plan. We stuck to it, and I found a formula that’s worked for me over literally thousands of subsequent searches. The candidate drives, and it’s your job to steer. No recruiter should ever forget this fact.
I got it right this time with Carl. I learned he had a baby on the way, and decided that he needed a little bit more stability than being a contract developer would afford him. He revealed he was finally ready to hang up his consulting spurs and find a role as a full time employee.
Of course, I was able to know him well enough to know when the right role came across my desk, and having listened, getting him through a process and to an offer was far easier knowing the opportunity was right, and right for him (not just for me and my placement fee). I’m not going to go into a whole lot more details than I already have, but what mattered most was, the next year, when I checked in on him after he had gotten the gig, he was happy.
He said thank you. He reinforced that he made the right decision, which is the ultimate validation that any recruiter can get, really.
I wanted to tell this true story not to be didactic, but because the only way to learn is by screwing up – and because I did, hopefully you don’t really have to.
I don’t think recruiting is actually about building that perfect Boolean string, or building a product that will somehow magically unearth that perfect JAVA developer for that role you’re so damn desperate to place. It’s about the scars you get in the battles that make all the difference when it comes to winning that whole “war for talent.”
Although I don’t really like that phrase. It’s never a war when you’re doing it for the right reasons, because you never have to fight when you’re doing recruiting right. #TrueStory
About the Author: Derek Zeller draws from over 16 years in the recruiting industry. The last 11 years he has been involved with federal government recruiting specializing within the cleared Intel space under OFCCP compliance. Currently, he is a Senior Sourcing Recruiter at Microsoft via Search Wizards.
He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines and technologies. Using out-of-the-box tactics and strategies to identify and engage talent, he has had significant experience in building referral and social media programs, the implementation of Applicant Tracking Systems, technology evaluation, and the development of sourcing, employment branding, military and college recruiting strategies.
You can read his thoughts on RecruitingDaily.com or Recruitingblogs.com or his own site Derdiver.com. Derek currently lives in the DC area.
By Derek Zeller
Derek Zeller draws from over 20 years in the recruiting industry, and he currently is the Director of Recruiting Solutions and Channels with Engage Talent. The last 16 years he has been involved with federal government recruiting specializing within the cleared IT space under OFCCP compliancy. He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines. Using out-of-the-box tactics and strategies to identify and engage talent, he has had significant experience in building referral and social media programs, the implementation of Applicant Tracking Systems, technology evaluation, and the development of sourcing, employment branding, and military and college recruiting strategies. Derek currently lives in the Portland, Oregon area. Follow Derek on Twitter @Derdiver or connect with him on LinkedIn.
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