Last year, I turned 50. The number meant very little to me; to my 80+ year old something parents it was a sign that either they lived too long or God had larger plans for them (like being around to torment their kids for a few more years – just kidding peeps, I love the old folks).
My Jewish mother still reads the obituaries on Sunday just to gasp at the ones who died of an obscure disease so she can tell my Dad, “See Chaw-lee? You make fun ah me but people doy of those things.” This of course, from the same woman who once told me that her grandchildren were her reward for not killing her own children.
On on-going question posed to recruiters is about how they started in the business. For me, it was nearly 25 years ago and looking back, I can unequivocally assert that while I thought I was really intuitive and knowledgeable about people back then, in comparison I am a far better recruiter today at 50 – and I’ve noticed how I’m continuing to improve as the years pile on (better understanding of local, regional, global business, and functional trends). To know this is to first know how I moved from being an engineer to being a member of the people lover’s profession.
I was approached by two female co-op students – at the time about six years younger than me – who were complaining that they were uncomfortable reporting to the person who ran the co-op program; although he truly was brilliant, he had the unfortunate habit of staring at women’s chests when he was speaking to them (the women not the breasts). While I always considered myself to be a sensitive person, being a people person was counterintuitive to my years of engineering study and practice. But as everyone in an HR related field knows (except for compensation – these folks take data wonk to a entirely new level), we exude some type of pheromone that says, Speak to me, I’ll listen, I’ll care. This is a very important quality to have at 25 – like child bearing hips and a good credit score. At 50, you may still listen and care but your attention span is far shorter. This probably explains why the so-called GenWhiners blame their parents – people like me – for all their ills.
Yet with the puppy dog looks of these two young ladies staring back at me to go along with them saying, “We don’t like it when he stares are our tits; can we report to you?” I had no option. I found out if the change was possible, fixed the problem, and the journey began. Of course it helped that one of the co-op students who already reported to me had a father who was a well-respected if not overly verbose OD consultant with the company. At the same time, one of the ASIC managers had an issue with one of his co-op students – lack of engagement brought on by the manager’s dubious relationship building skills. I was asked to investigate and discovered that it wasn’t lack of engagement but the belief by the manager that all engineers were wind-up automatons and when presented with technical work would 3CPO to life and dive on in. A short United Nations meeting later, both sides had their first happy talk ever; all I did was to have a pow-wow with the manager on how young engineers (which I was) like to be engaged – which really was nothing more than how I liked to be managed – and with the co-op on not being a whiny know-everything (snicker if you must).
So my first foray into marriage counseling produced happy co-op students and a happy manager. I remember thinking this was far easier than coding and performing complex multivariate statistical analyses; maybe this HR thing is something I should look into. Decades later…
Truthfully it wasn’t easy; when youthful enthusiasm meets youthful pretension, youthful ugliness often rears up on its hind quarters and makes a scene. I was thrust into co-op and entry-level recruiting – all technical stuff which made perfect sense – with absolutely no recruiting training. My solution was to look at recruiting as an engineering design problem – not just in 2D but from three dimensions (read Edwin Abbott’s Flatland): No design of any consequence would ever be built without the incorporation of “safety factors” and I figured that if I was going to assess someone’s skills and abilities, it was going to be from multiple angles (I certainly wasn’t as glib as I am now). As any good scientist would do, I experimented with different questions, varying the intonations of how I asked these questions, all the while thinking like an engineer: Technical and scientific people create things and how they created these things is more important than anything else. That was before I was introduced to hiring managers with differing opinions on things like GPAs, where one went to school, piercings…
There were certainly times I overstepped by bounds and was thankfully brought back in by people who either saw something called potential or didn’t like the sight of blood (which would have been my blood).
At the heart of the problem was that I still thought like an engineer (and still do) – which on one hand was very helpful but on the other hand was the beginning of decades of torment – but had yet to learn how to articulate issues I saw in the processes that were inefficient, ineffective or both. Funny how the elements of recruiting that irked me back then are still practiced by the bulk of the profession (such as recruiting for buzzwords, not knowing the real job, inarticulate questioning, sensing over digging). Being a Deming wonk helped immensely (measure, measure, measure) but since so few in HR and recruiting really understood the playground of numbers, my validity and reliability mantras often fell on deaf and dumb ears.
Despite it all, I found myself at Cornell, RPI, MIT, the HBCUs several times each year. Cornell and some of the HBCUs really hold fond memories…
One co-op recruiting session at Cornell, I found my schedule booked solid; my company had a reputation for offering real-world work and the waiting list was nearly as long. Whereas some recruiters – perhaps many – would have given some song and dance to those waiting (“Send me your resume and I’ll take a look at it”), the parental lessons of work ethics kicked in and I stayed to interview everyone interested. A short break for dinner and I was back at a bar that evening where I finished meeting those I couldn’t meet earlier – everyone received an opportunity to sell. I didn’t know this but I had created a reputation at that school that paid dividends every recruiting season. My job was to recruit and not to offer excuses.
My unusual lesson about co-op and entry-level recruiting (it may be different nowadays but remember, I’m talking about the 1980’s here) was when in the middle of an interview at Cornell, I stopped in my tracks and stared at the sleeve of the suit jacket of one candidates. He was mortified and not knowing what the heck caught my eye. Finally, I blurted out, “You paid how much for that suit?” Apparently poor college students back then would buy an interview suit then return it after the interviews were completed. I never knew that but it opened my eyes that people will do anything to make an impression and look good at an interview; nothing is ever as it seems. This is why we have to ask questions and not assume.
Recruiting at the HBCUs – really provoked deep thinking about recruiting, lessons that stay with me today, in particular, my visits to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and Howard University in DC.
At the time FAMU’s engineering program was a 3/2 collaboration with the University of Florida. While the interviews were held in Gator country, I spent time walking around the FAMU campus. While there weren’t any fancy structures – if I recall, most of the buildings were brick – I knew it was interview season because so many of the kids were in their best business suits. I wish I could remember the name of the head of Career Services because what she did to prepare the students should be copied by all Career Services departments today. Not only did everyone I interview know about my company but they knew about the entire sector – all students not just the technical ones; what cemented home my awe was that at the end of each interview, every person handed me a business card and asked for mine. The standard by which I measure the preparedness of everyone I interview today are the students from FAMU.
It was my time at Howard University that taught me how important relationship building was to the recruiting process – how once a sense of ease and confidence is established, the richer is the information gleaned. Can’t remember the guy’s name but he was a EE major and clearly on the football team – when he came into the room he eclipsed all the light coming through the doorway. As soon as I saw him, he was oddly familiar. Get this – my brother was an O-lineman at URI and this fellow was a DT for Howard and I remember them shaking hands after a recent game. Go figure. So we talked football and engineering and it was clear that his mind was at ease. And as we both talked instead of playing the standard interviewing games, the richness of the experience led to us really getting to know each other. He was offered a job – I believe he turned it down – but in the end we stayed in touch. Again, a lesson that still plays today – for every person you touch, you will help each other learn about others. There are no expendable people in recruiting.
Those who entered recruiting back when didn’t have the crutch of job boards to help them when the pipelines were thinning. Job boards, while exceptionally useful, have done more harm than good in their ability to foster within the people who download and present a sense of what encompasses recruiting. A little bit of success constituting a few fees and pretty soon the neophyte thinks they can intuitively sense a good resume from a bad one, a high potential from a dud. Fifteen minutes of relationship building later and one’s an expert.
Mind you, they’re a great resource if you’re willing to reach out and develop a relationship with people even when you’re without an opening but how many recruiters do this? Job boards today are more like whorehouses in Nevada (I’m speaking metaphorically here you mind-in-the-gutter reader): You pretty much stop by only when you’re horny and need something quickly. Compassion and caring – the elements of a great recruiting relationship – aren’t on the menu.
I’ve used them but for all the talk about passive versus active, the fact remains that those on the boards are saying, Hello world, I’m here if you’re ready; they’ve been practicing the answers to the questions. I don’t hunt but I’ve heard that some hunters, perhaps from New Jersey, will drive their vehicles onto a lea at dawn, the car’s bright lights blinding the deer. All these brave hunters need is to walk a few paces and Bambi winds up as stew and sausage. I’d be a bow and arrow kind of hunter if I was a hunter at all.
Then there are the interview questions that everyone seems to know…for me, I have always tried to interview people, oddly enough, outside-the-box, eschewing the standard questions for lines of questioning that lead down the road to the soul. It’s the scientific method of working to prove or disprove the null hypothesis. What is the point of asking questions for which people have practiced giving the answers? I wrote this two plus years ago on my buddy Jason Alba’s blog and it summarizes how engineering interacts with human resources to produce more effective recruiting:
As a recruiter it is relatively easy for me to discern what is truth and what is rubbish when hearing someone talk about their personal qualities. Resumes are propaganda constructed to put one’s best foot forward. Yet resumes pale in comparison to personal statements that include things that, while they may make some uncomfortable, speak to the individual.
When did you fail? How did you feel? What did you do to pull yourself up from the floor? Who helped you? Who did you ask to help you and why did they decline?
Even back then, I never cared for the color of one’s parachute; I was more concerned with how the parachute was packed, who taught you to pack the chute, what training did you receive for times when the chute failed and how did you practice. Yet today, far too many people without any training in psychotherapy make a subjective assessment about someone’s personality after a 30 minute interview. I know they believe they have ESP; I know I don’t because I’ve been divorced. That’s why interviews have to be challenging.
So with hardly any training in recruiting – I recall one sheet on Do’s and Don’ts – I went to my strengths…the scientific method; it wasn’t that I was any smarter or prescient, it was simply all I knew. Add this to a few tremendous mentors and people who were willing to listen to my ramblings, and here I am 25 years later, still recruiting…but still experimenting.
Looks as if I’ll never be satisfied and I’ll always be looking into the nooks and crannies of work and life for insights that will enable me to be just a little bit better than the day before.
At 50, perfectionism is still slow death.