I used to be an agency recruiter. I met my budgets and enjoyed the odd bonus as well as the big nights out. I truly enjoyed the feeling that we were all in a trench together. I remember silly hat sales days, the compulsory ‘take a buddy’ client visits and of course, the dress code. I’ve learned to spot an agent at a glance as well; black A4 folder (the juniors usually carry these versions), suit, haunted gaze, ridiculously well-polished shoes. The odd thing is that I’ve seen this multiple times no matter which country I’m in. It may be a blazing 40 degree day in Singapore, but you’ll still see them emerge from buildings and walk in sync to a waiting taxi.
I didn’t plan to take this route in my career. I’d read about headhunters in fortune magazine during my years at university and the thought of being the silent guide in people’s careers appealed. I imagined a phone that would ring from a global CEO asking my opinion on talent in the market, whereupon I would dispense my knowledge and expertise leaving him enraptured by my contacts and insight into human beings. The transaction would be swift and efficient. A call here and there; a handshake; a contract. I would then send off a ridiculously high priced invoice personally signed with a witty and personal note appealing to their interests. Something like ‘Talent is fleeting, so keep cycling – Sincerely, your talent partner’.
Reality was a bit of a slap to the face, particularly in the industrial sector. In my first week at a global branded consultancy, I was verbally abused and had a wrench thrown at me across a workshop floor. I reacted like a cat and rolled to my right. Had the IPhone been invented it would have likely hit 100,000 views on youtube. The sector is also usually also a family affair so you’re never just dealing with the candidate. I learned to ignore the derisive looks I’d get from the banking and financial consultants when I arrived in reception to find polished candidates having to patiently wait standing because every seat was taken by the family of a tradesman. If you can survive in the industrial space, you’ll do well anywhere.
You learned to think fast, field weekend calls from a range of people in tears because they don’t have money and need an extra shift. You learned to carry around files to dinner parties with lists of available candidates because laptops and database access were a new concept. It was also unforgiving when you made a mistake. Workshop floor managers are no strangers to a ‘tough’ conversation, so your skin quickly grew thick enough to take the blows.
The professional space presented its own challenges. Things such ‘your word’ and a handshake mattered in the industrial sector, but to a wily financial controller you needed more. They knew the game and knew precisely how to play you to get what they wanted. I’ve spent many countless hours negotiating with candidates and once even drove through a rush-hour in London to meet a candidate in pouring rain to convince them that this life choice was the best thing for them, only to have the client pull the job the next day as they’d filled it internally. Oh, the heartache.
I truly despised the sales calls. I now know what I would have sounded like and it makes me cringe but also respect those rare, wonderful human beings that can get it right. Currently, as the go-to person for recruitment across our region in a global corporate, I am used to receiving at least 4 agency sales calls a day and through silence have managed to reduce that to around 1 per fortnight. Having known what it feels like on the ‘other side’, I am polite but firm. Recently, consultant X presented his case, side-stepped my initial rejection with ease and thrust his sales pitch at me. I paused and realised that I was enjoying the call. We were fundamentally both recruiters and for the first time in a while a sense of camaraderie emerged. It dawned on me afterwards that this feeling was all-to- often fleeting and weighed down by terms and conditions, ill-perceived intentions and the battle for recognition from the hiring manager.
The golden ticket
The golden ticket in agency recruitment is access to the decision maker. If you can build their trust quickly, you’ve set the groundwork for what can often be multi-year lucrative relationship. Not that its all about money. It’s the fulfilling sense of a job well done. Or is it? Regardless, the reason relationships likely fail in this space is simply due to unnecessary and often overlapping priorities. On one hand, the passionate corporate recruiter wants to see a role filled by the right person with the right skill set within a defined period of time that meets his or her service level agreements and if at all possible, a well done from the hiring manager. On the other side, the typical permanent and temporary contingency agency recruiter is faced with a budget to achieve to sustain their salary, a directive and sometimes will to work long hours, impossible roles to fill in short timeframes and competing priorities from the range of other customers they dare not let down. All of this (and much more) leads us merrily back to where I hung up the phone with a defined meeting time set aside with consultant X.
He appeared on time in reception. A great start. I received the call from our receptionist who is adept at picking odd visitors and mentioned that there were three well presented individuals in reception. “Three?”, I asked. “Yes three”, she replied. This was irritating because I knew precisely where this was headed. I would talk with Consultant X, be interrupted by Consultant Y who would work with Consultant Z to head off any progress outside of Consultant X’s scope, which is what happened. Consultant X’s handshake lingered a touch longer than it should have and I sensed from his apologetic smile that he had very little input into who joined him.
The conversation went predictably bad. They spoke over each other and I offered a wan smile watching the branches of a large tree through the window move with the wind. I briefly pictured myself leaping through the window swinging gracefully through the branches and landing on the street below. What a story for the office it would have been for them. I outsourced the single role my budget could handle this quarter and reiterated the importance of it. Was I certain that there was nothing in the admin space for Consultant Y? Yes. What about Engineering for Consultant Z? No, nothing; lovely to meet you. Watch yourself crossing the road; the end.
To describe at length the angst that followed would be waste of your time, so I’ll skip to the juicy parts. Consultant X worked hard. Profiles were provided within 3 days meeting his own defined timeline. I reviewed and passed them on to the hiring manager. In the meantime, I beavered away at my own portfolio. Sarah, the hiring manager went on leave. Consultant X called me requesting feedback. Sarah returned from leave and realised that she may actually be able to develop someone in her team for the role. I of course, calmly reminded her that the role was open for 6 weeks before we engaged an agency. Sarah said she understood and promised to review the candidates.
Consultant X called and emailed, and called again reminding me of the criticality of securing the candidates. Sarah eventually obliged after all candidates were printed out and taped to her computer monitor. It’s worth noting at this juncture that having achieved managerial status at the organisation, Sarah was supposedly a ‘professional’. This again should have implied competence, however we all know that this is rare. Consultant X started calling me after hours. He had lost one of the candidates. There was an edge to his voice that I couldn’t mistake. He wished me all the best (dead) with my meeting with Sarah tomorrow to lock in times. Sarah finally confirmed interview times, missed the first interview and arrived late for the second. Her performance was noted and passed on to her leader who shrugged and asked me why we haven’t hired that person in her team yet? No wonder she was stressed.
A small part of my brain had collapsed by this point, and I thanked him for the feedback followed by a suggestion that she should make more of an effort. The moment however, had passed. The relationship between Consultant X and I was doomed from the start and not because of what you may think was just another ‘agency’ issue. It was ours. Without control and trust from the hiring manager, talent acquisition was disregarded and not given priority. Without an internal champion, Consultant X was never going to have his case pushed to the point of a hire opening the door to the decision maker. Truth be told, for this to have worked I needed to get out of the way and merely facilitate the meeting with the hiring manager and not attempt to take on the role of ‘hiring manager’.
Yet despite all these lessons, corporate recruiters repeatedly make the same errors. Despite claims that agencies were going to collapse a decade ago from the growth of internal recruitment functions and increase in sourcing competencies, they are still going strong, which is evidence enough that they still have value. All good recruitment strategies incorporate suppliers. Portion off the work you know your team will struggle with delivering on, and ensure that relationships are in place with hiring managers prior to them needing to be engaged. Ultimately, your business will win from the arrangement. Ideally a partnership will form within that pseudo no-man’s land between external and internal recruiters.
Author: The ‘Acquirer’ – No small dose of healthy HR skepticism. A career in Talent Acquisition leadership in global companies from the heat of the Asia Pacific to the crisp air of Europe. Pragmatic, strategic, and every now and again… serious.