How to identify and train top performers
By Rob Romaine
This is not a job for the faint of heart. Anyone who’s been in recruiting would most likely agree with that sentiment. It takes a certain personality and skill set to succeed in this field, especially during the last three years. The recession has hit our industry hard. Like virtually every firm in the executive and recruitment business, we’ve lost recruiters — and offices — but the ones who are around and still making a good living can offer valuable insights into what makes a successful practitioner.
We set out to learn from these professionals who love what they do. We began by gathering some of our top performers and developed a profile for identifying, attracting and onboarding new top producers. The results involved some interesting findings.
No Single Path
One notable finding — though perhaps not particularly surprising — is that there is no single path to becoming a recruiter. There are no dedicated college programs or courses to train and educate recruiters, and no one we talked with set out to pursue a career in recruitment. My own path to the job as president of the one of the world’s largest search and recruitment organizations illustrates this.
I was working for a technology consulting company on assignment to a major telecommunications company as a quality assurance consultant and business systems liaison. A few months into this one-year assignment, the budget was rescinded. At that time, in the early 1990s, it was common for consulting companies to “bench” employees and continue to pay them until they found their next assignment. While on the bench, I was given an internal project to identify available and interested mainframe talent for a key project the company was staffing. Working from a keyword search printout, manila fi le folders and a script, I began to call potential mainframe candidates. This was my entry into recruiting and I never looked back.
Despite the dissimilar career paths, our study did uncover definite similarities among our top producers’ past experience. More than 70 percent, for example, had sales or business development experience. In particular, prior work experience in outside sales had a greater impact on top producers than inside sales or retail sales, especially if that outside sales experience was in the consumer products and services industry. Further, many of top recruiters had played team sports, and most had held at least three other positions and averaged seven years of experience before coming to recruiting. Often, they end up recruiting for the industry in which they once worked.
Other background factors varied greatly. Top-producing recruiters had held positions with both small and large companies; their education ranged from high school to the post-graduate level; and those who held degrees had majored in a variety of subjects.
Most of our more than 2,000 recruiters were introduced to the field by friends or family — people who already had some experience with the profession themselves or knew someone who had. Although others uncovered opportunities through websites or job postings, I think this finding supports the idea that most people don’t set out to become recruiters — and I admit that I’m not sure why that is true.
What is true is that they were motivated — like most job seekers — by factors such as the desire to make a career change, to accelerate career growth, to escape from the corporate scene or to achieve a better income.
Our focus group respondents illuminated these motivations for us and revealed something about the independent nature of the successful recruiter. “I like to make stuff happen, control my own destiny,” said one. “That’s what swayed me from corporate.”
Others liked the idea of being their own boss.
One recruiter was attracted to being able to work “our desk as our own business (to some degree) and have the freedom to determine what we work on and with whom we work. I like the idea of the independence and that there was no micro management.” And one person expressed a feeling shared by many recruiters: “I love competition and making money.”
Online Training and Culture
While past experience and certain soft skills certainly affect a recruiter’s success, training cannot be overlooked as a critical factor. Our recruiters participate in a formal onboarding process through which they are assigned a mentor — sometimes the manager of the office, but often a tenured colleague. The recruiters we spoke with credited the initial three-week training period for their success. The training relies heavily on our Web-based program, which has been developed over the course of more than 40 years in the business. Our ongoing advanced training, which is continually available online and at regional meetings also contributed to their success, they noted.
We also found that organizing producers into teams has a major effect on individual performance, especially for new recruiters. With the exception of the very top-performing producers, who tend to be successful either alone or on a team, almost across the board recruiters who work with at least one other person out-produce solo practitioners. There are exceptions, of course, especially with long-tenured recruiters, but I believe that making a new recruiter part of an existing team both speeds up the learning curve and results in higher production in the long term. It is important, of course, to consider personalities and backgrounds before assigning individuals to teams.
Meanwhile, office culture plays a huge part in both attracting and developing top producers, according to our focus group. Among the dominant cultural characteristics, producers identified the relationships within their offices as close and collaborative, and activities as positive and energetic. The overall culture can differ significantly from office to office and still be successful, as long as it is characterized by these qualities. “Personal connections within our office have been the strongest motivation, inspiration and training tool for me,” said one recruiter.
Others agreed. As a tenured recruiter expressed it, “My office keeps me where I am. They are a great group of individuals. The lure of going somewhere else is gone when I think about leaving this group.”
Many search and recruitment practitioners have left the field since 2008. Some because their area of specialization simply dried up, others because their firms went out of business, and still more because the dismal employment situation virtually eliminated the need for their services. This year, however, may well demand that we be ready to rebuild the ranks of our recruiters.
While growth has slowed somewhat in China, Australia and Southeast Asia, we will continue to see dramatic demand for skilled talent in key regions and industries. In the U.S. and Europe, for example, demand is greater than ever in industries where skill shortages have been an issue for years; high tech and medical technologies will see a significant escalation in competition for top talent. These are areas where recruiters have continued to provide valued assistance to the clients and enjoy great success despite the dismal economy of the past few years.
Retention issues are also on the rise. Surveys and studies across the board indicate that a majority of employees are willing to quit their current jobs as soon as a better opportunity comes along. Because most corporate retention programs have been severely downgraded or even eliminated during the recession, turnover and retention may well be among the highest economic-impact factors in the employment arena.
These very real factors mean that the recruitment firms, like their clients, will be seeking candidates to fill the positions that will enable them to gain market share. We will have to step up our efforts to attract, train and retain the recruiters who will bring in new clients, make placements and develop the client and candidate relationships that lead to repeat business.
Rob Romaine is president of Management Recruiters International Inc. (MRI), a subsidiary of CDI Corp. He has more than 20 years of experience in sales, recruiting and operations management for information technology and engineering staffing and solutions companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Traits Top Recruiters Share
In addition to the insights we’ve gleaned from our recruiter’s focus group, we found that successful recruiters tend to share certain characteristics.
- Self-starters. Recruiters have a fair degree of autonomy. They manage their own client and candidate relationships, and their success is directly proportionate to their efforts.
- Relationship builders. Recruiters make a big impact through the candidates they place. They help companies grow and thrive, and they help build careers. They have to care about people to do that.
- Handle Rejection. Recruiters know what it’s like to get negative responses, especially while they’re building their credibility, but that doesn’t stop them from developing a steady client base and a stable of qualified candidates.
- Industry expertise. Companies rely on their recruiters for much more than finding a candidate to fill an open job. As a result, recruiters have to keep up with the industry they are recruiting for. They have to read the literature, know the competition, and seek out the trade associations. The truth is that recruiters often know more about the big industry trends than their clients.
Despite the economy, employers report that they are having increasing difficulty filling jobs due to lack of available talent. The message is consistent: turnover and growth at international companies still provide a great market for excellent recruiters. So here’s my advice for finding and keeping these valuable people:
- Seek out individuals with outside sales experience.
- Emphasize the benefits of independence, career change and unlimited compensation to potential candidates.
- Showcase your organization’s positive culture, which may be in great contrast to the candidate’s previous corporate position.
- Develop a dedicated onboarding process with a mentor who is incentivized.
- Encourage working on teams.
And as you execute all these practical details, keep in mind the words of one of our top producers: “This is a people business and we’re changing peoples’ lives. You have to have a gut for it and a strong work ethic.”