The Recruiter’s Conundrum

There is an absolutely wonderful children’s book called 20 Heartbeats about a painter who paints a horse for a very wealthy man. I hate to ruin it for you, but I have to say what happens.

The rich man pays this famous painter to paint his favorite horse. But years go by and the painter won’t finish the painting. The rich man finally shows up at the painter’s house and demands the painting. The painter obligingly whips out a piece of parchment, dashes off a horse in black ink with his brush, and then hands the painting to the rich man. All this takes less than the time of 20 heartbeats.

The rich man is, of course, aghast. He storms after the painter to demand his money back. However, as he walks after the painter, he sees what has been taking so long.

All along the walls are hundreds and hundreds of painted horses. The painter wasn’t procrastinating, he was practicing. The rich man then finally takes a look at the painting that he purchased so long ago, now in his hands. It’s a perfect horse, a horse so real that he whistles to it.

As every art form takes discipline and practice to look easy, every kind of work takes years of diligence to perfect. Recruiting is no different, but few professions look so simple. It’s really hard to pass along a piece of paper, right? You can almost hear people in the business thinking to themselves, “Yeah, I’ll bet your fingers are really tired from dragging all those resumes from a folder into an email. Real hard work.” Few jobs seem so easy to duplicate.

The end product of recruiting, for one thing, is someone’s else’s work – it is someone else’s talent, ability to interview, and everything else they have that gets them hired that is the end product of the recruiter’s process. It’s hard to pinpoint the recruiter’s exact role in this pseudo-science. Did they identify the talent? Spot them? Find them? Assess them? Understand the job? The culture? Have the right database? The right connections? The right insight into the department or hiring manager psychology? Did they make a lot of calls or know some secret strings to search for in Google? It’s hard to say what it is exactly that the recruiter does and so it’s easy to discount the recruiter’s role entirely.

However, we might be looking at it wrong. A recruiter’s value can’t be found within the process of a single hire. It can’t be found in that space that sometimes spans twenty heartbeats between talking to a manager about a job to the identification of a possible talent.

You have to look at everything that comes before that identification to see the value of a good recruiter. A great recruiter creates the conditions for that magic luck to strike. They don’t talk to a lot of different people. They talk to everyone, they inspire and persuade many. They don’t want to know their clients or their company’s competitors. They want to know everything that’s happening at every company in their area. It’s a massive amount of work that requires constant analysis, rejection, failure, stress, and is compounded by the minutiae of job offers and the uncertainty of human emotion.

Yet the irony is in the nature of the job itself. The current working environment will give very few recruiters the opportunity of a long haul career in any organization. When the global economy is volatile, headcounts are more so. Obliged from temporary contract to temporary contract, many will start developing the paranoia of the jumping CV many of their clients reject and a career change becomes more than intricate… maybe because recruiters are not seen as members of an organization that interact with its external environment in the same way Marketing or Sales do (I dare say, often with more legal responsibility that these functions); Maybe the HR prejudice of an “inability to deal with data”… It is an interesting exercise to sit from time to time and realize the revenue impact a recruiter’s job has in his or her organization over a year.

I personally believe that a tenured recruiter’s skill set is much closer to that of someone in Marketing or Sales Consultancy than to that of their Human Resources counterparts.

That’s why very few succeed at recruiting. It’s not like there is anything special about that one placement. There is nothing about identifying a candidate and getting them a job offer that requires any particular kind of magic. Unlike a beautiful painting, anyone or any recruiter can luck out and make a placement or two. But the background required for long-term recruiting success is much different. It involves the deep study of companies, products, markets, assessment, and professions coupled with a kind of brute force stamina to doggedly pursue the talents of other people. This is the process that forges the recruiter’s talent. This talent, when functioning at its best, is impossible to find anywhere else in the organization.

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