Over the last 20 years I have mentored and developed a lot of people both formally and informally. At some point the same question comes up around how do I become the head of talent acquisition?
So with an article like this, I have to write a disclaimer up front:
It’s perfectly fine if you don’t want to climb the corporate ladder in a talent leadership role.
You are not less of an asset to a company if you are perfectly content being a specialized individual contributor.
Being an agency recruiter, consultant, or contractor can be just as rewarding (maybe even more so) versus running a recruitment department.
It’s OK to use a recruiting role as a stepping stone to something else in HR, the business, or a totally different line of work.
And finally, my journey is mine alone, so what you might read not everything might resonate with you, but I am hoping that if you just pull one helpful nugget out of this article, then that is the reward I was personally after.
Ok, now that we have that out of the way let’s get started. This might be one of those long articles, but heck, this is nearly 20 years of experience below.
I have not prioritized these into a stack ranked order of importance, but rather let’s call this a list of things that in my opinion have come up as foundational common themes over my career:
People have to be your number No. 1 priority — your success is dependent of their success. You can’t do it alone.
Leaders inspire — the more your team is bought into and understands the vision, the journey, and the outcomes, the greater likelihood of you and the team being successful. If you are spending your time constantly trying to drag people along, then you are not spending the time executing against the strategy. You need to connect with what not only motivates them individually, but what motivates them as a group. It’s hard running up that hill by yourself.
IMHO one of the quickest way to achieve this is to keep in mind that a leader casts a shadow, as they say. People watch you very carefully so you better do what you say and say what you mean. You want to be sure that you are the role model of the behaviors that you are trying to teach.
Leaders have conviction and courage — Similar to the above, you have to elude self-confidence with executive leadership and your team when it comes to making difficult decisions or pushing back on what they think is right. This means you also have to provide the necessary air cover for your team and have their backs as well.
Now, there is a fine art to this one. If you have passion and conviction for everything, then when you really need to fight that big fight you will find that they might lessen the importance of the situation and say, “Arr, Rob’s always like that.” You have to strike that right balance when it comes to picking your battles and knowing when you need to bend your thinking and position. I have intentionally given up the fight on something in the past because in the grand scheme of things it would not win me the war. The older I got, the more I found I generally stood my ground on things that have the biggest impact and let the smaller stuff go.
Think like a business leader — Learn how to read and understand the company financials. Understand how and why your company is structured the way it is. Intimately understand the company’s annual and three-year business plans, and most importantly tie your goals/plans to those. The more you can talk the language of your executives, the more credibility you will gain.
Go on a listening tour — The first few months in your new role, take the time and go speak to everyone … your team, your HR partners, your direct reports, your business leaders, and even your candidates. Don’t be judgmental early on, but offer your opinion if you are asked. Listen, learn, and observe. Once you have done your listening tour, then take the time to …
Follow up and Follow through — Circle back around with people and summarize what you have heard, what you have learned, and most importantly thank them for the input and tell them what you now are going to do with that input.
Don’t fly under the radar — Step up and volunteer for things others shy away from. Trust me, leaders notice people who are willing to try tackling a tough task vs sitting back and not taking the risk. There were a number of times early in my career where peers said, “you know, that could be a career-limiting move taking on X or dealing with manager Y.” Guess what, that is the biggest wive’s tale I have ever heard. What I have learned is that leaders crave people to step up and take on BHAG goals (you can look that up in Google if you want. ). They want people in their business like that. They want lots of them, actually.
Go find problems/opportunities — don’t wait for your leadership to come to you with a problem or opportunity. Be constantly curious and inspect your own business on a regular basis. The more often you can bubble up opportunities both within your own organization in addition to the business, your leadership will have great confidence that you are “minding the store” around continuous improvement, so to speak.
Be Clear on Priorities — to be fair, this is one of my Achilles heels. I have so much stuff floating around in my head, and I do move and think fast, that in the past I have not been clear with my team on the prioritization of tactics on the to-do-list. As with the phrase, “the best laid plans of mice and men,” with great intent what you might start off with at the beginning of a fiscal year will change. It always does. You have to be super clear with people as to what remains on the to-do list vs. what comes off vs re-prioritization of the list. I have gotten better, but to this day this one constantly stays front of mind.
Under promise, over deliver — Yeah, I know it sounds like a cliché, but you would be surprised how many people don’t think this way. I learned years ago not to commit to a deliverable date before you have taken the time to know what is involved to deliver it. I had my backside handed to me once years ago by the chief HR officer on this very topic. Even for the most simplistic requests I will go through a quick mental math exercise in my head about what I am working on, what I have to deliver, and by when. I have a more formal list I reference regularly. Once I feel comfortable knowing what is on my plate I will commit to a timeframe, and most importantly, the timeframe is longer than I think I need.
Example: My boss might ask me for a report. My first response, is when you do need it by? If given everything on my plate means I cannot meet that timeframe, I tell them “hey boss, this is what I have on my plate currently, is the new request more important than some of these, and if yes, let’s talk about the impact of this new request against the timing of deliverables of the existing list.” Or, if it is a real simple request, and I know I can get that report done by the deadline (or re-negotiated deadline) of Friday of next week as an example, you bet I will try and get it to them by Wednesday or Thursday. The confidence you can inspire in leaders’ minds is very powerful when you continually overdeliver on expected timeframes.
Have a desire to continually learn — given my new role, I sort of get to do this more than I could in my previous corporate leadership roles, but make the time to learn. Block time in your calendar to keep up on what is going on in the profession. I actually use to block time every second Friday in my calendar to force myself to do this on a regular basis. Be open to ideas from new people who are getting into the profession and your company. I can’t count the amount of times where I asked someone with very few years of experience their opinion on something, and what I got in return was a fresh perspective that I could use and build upon.
Take the time out of your business schedule to network with peers and ask them for input and advice on challenges. Learn what others are doing in best practices with certain challenges you might be facing. Bottom line: make the time to pull your head up from your busy desk and explore what others are doing and thinking.
Be humble — you don’t have all the answers, so don’t be afraid to ask for input or say you “I don’t know, but I will find out.” Just because you might be seen as a subject matter expert, don’t let it go to your head. Learn to fall on your sword and eat crow, as they say, when you get it wrong. You’re human, and you will make mistakes along the way. Own those mistakes. You will be better for it and people will respect that.
Don’t take credit for others’ work — If someone on your team came up with the idea, then make sure when and where appropriate your team, your boss, and executive leadership know it. The biggest way to lose trust with your team is by taking the credit for the ideas and hard work they put in. Learn to publicly acknowledge and praise people for the contribution they made regardless how small you might think it is. Remember point one above … your success is dependent on your team’s success.
Innovation and creativity — we sometime get stuck in our ways and don’t like change right. You have to constantly think about how can I improve and optimize what I/we are doing. Most business executives I have met won’t tell me, “Hey Rob we want you to keep everything as is. Don’t do anything different.” They want to innovate, they want to improve their own business, so it’s expected that you as the head of talent acquisition must do the same. Once again, your success is built on your team’s success. If you can get them all into a mindset of thinking outside of the box, willing to try something new to solve an old problem, then if your whole organization can think and operate this way, the chances of you making that breakthrough increases tenfold. Remember the points early I made about allowing people to try different things — at the same time you are encouraging people to try new things, you must also create that safe environment where it is OK to try and fail.
Pilot everything — In corporations, at least larger ones anyway, most business and HR leaders will not want to commit large amount of resources of financials to try something new unless they feel that it will produce the necessary ROI. So I learned long ago to make sure nearly every new investment (people, processes, or technology) was a pilot first. I ensured I communicated to all that we were “testing a theory” or “building a straw man” or “piloting an idea,” and based off lessons learned we would continue to invest, expand, or refine, improve, or just kill it. Most people seem to have more of an appetite to get behind a pilot by dipping their toe in the water vs. just jumping in the deep end of the pool.
Learn to love “No” — I remember years ago reading that the primary responsibility of a Project Manager is to tell people No! No in the sense that if they said yes to every small refinement, request, feature addition, etc., etc., then the project would never make its deadlines or end up being a potential disaster when delivered or over engineered as some like to say. To give you the recruiting-related context here, I think we all know some HR and business executives have very strong opinions about what they think recruiting can and should do. In some cases (maybe a few), they really don’t know what the heck they are talking about, so you have to bring them back to reality to some degree. If you don’t, you might find that the journey they are asking you to take is going off a cliff at some point. I have told the head of HR “no” and a business executive “no.” I am not just talking about just saying “no” to something and leaving it at that. I am referring to saying “no, but, here is why I am thinking this way, and I think there could be a better way to help reach the outcome you/we are looking for. I would be interested in your thoughts.”
This also falls back to courage and conviction. You have to feel very comfortable in your skin to tell an executive leader multiple pay grades higher “no.” Surprisingly, a lot of leaders actually crave more people to push back and disagree if you are the expert, because that’s what they are paying you for right? It’s all about how you deliver the “no” with professional courtesy and respect.
Fail fast — To my points earlier around piloting, being creative, and innovative, make sure that if you are going to try something new, the quicker you can learn that what you are trying does not work, identify that as soon as humanly possible. No one likes a project that drags on forever only to find out a year later that oops, that was a bust. Executives will circle back around at some point on a broken project and ask, “so why did you not identify that problem earlier?” One way to mitigate this problem I have found is to …
Be Transparent — Don’t be afraid to tell your boss and your direct reports that something is off track or is not working out the way you thought it would. Don’t BS people about why it did not work. Hust come out as early as you can and state that things are not going to plan, and here is what you plan on doing to fix them or get it back on track. Trust me, you will get way more respect with that approach vs. trying to sweep things under the carpet.
Learn to Manage Up — Try to avoid spending enormous amounts of time trying to continually educate your boss or leadership. To be clear, while we have to do it in some way, shape, or form, and this is an important part of educating leadership, if you’re spending too much time on this you have a problem somewhere with the message not resonating. Ensure your goals tie to your boss’s goals that tie to their boss’s goals. It makes life a lot easier when your boss sees you have clear alignment with the bigger strategy and picture. Also, where possible and when the opportunity arises, take the extra time to summarize information for your boss in a way that they can repurpose and use it in their own updates to executive leadership. Given them the talking points in very simple terms: This is why we are doing X; this is the value we get out of doing Y; this is how it makes/saves the company money.
Become Data Centric — I left this point intentionally for last. Not because it is the least important, but rather I thought most of you might click away, as history has shown me that most people in recruiting don’t like data. They think of it as busy work. It takes time away from recruiting, etc., etc. So let me tell you a real story that was one of the biggest ahas in my early management career. I hope it changes your mind about the importance and power of data.
Many years ago in a large, well-known, branded company, within the first few weeks in my new role I was sent a meeting request to meet with executive leadership. The invite was pretty vague but I did some calling around to find out that they wanted to meet with me to discuss how we could hire more people from competitors in the market. I was also told that this has been a burning topic for them for some time and they think recruiting sort of sucks when it comes to effectively hiring more people from our competitors. My first reaction was, “shit, what have I gotten myself into?”
Off I went prior to the meeting to do as much homework as possible on the situation so I did not come across like the newbie idiot in my first big meeting. Here is how the meeting played out:
The first 10 minutes was about many executives waving their hands in the air and gesturing in my direction. I sat there quietly listening and taking the barrage of “recruiting is this and your people are this and you need to do more of that.” Once I felt they had the time to let off the necessary steam I asked my first question.
“Thank you for taking the time to explain your thoughts and concerns. Do you mind if I ask a couple of questions?”
I got some intense stares, but they let me proceed. “Since I am new, I could definitely use your advice on something. I spent the last week looking at the data in our ATS specifically around all the candidates over the last year who came from our competitors. One thing I found troubled me greatly.” At this point I shut up as I wanted them to urge me on further.
This is where I got a little freaked out. No one said a word for what felt like an eternity, and they were all looking around at each other, when one of the senior executives spoke up. “No, no, no that can’t be right. I don’t believe that information.” I spoke up again and said “do you mind if I share something with each of you?”
I pulled out a simple, two-page printed PowerPoint and handed them each a version. On it had an executive summary of all the ways I could cut the data to tell the story I wanted to tell.
Another long silence as they reviewed what I handed them. Then finally another leader spoke up. “Why have I not seen this before?”
My response was, “I am sorry, I do not know, but would you be interested in my thoughts about what this all really means and what we should discuss going forward on this matter?”
The answers in the room came back as yes. By the end of that hour-long meeting the leadership team was now asking me for my input and commentary on related historical recruiting and talent topics beyond just the initial meeting agenda.
So let me fast forward to the end of that evening when I was replaying what happened in that meeting in my head. I felt something big happened that I had not really seen or felt before. After thinking long and hard it dawned on me it was the data. The data focused the problem where it needed to be. The data took the emotion out of the room. The data made me credible. The data gained me some trust.
Ever since that meeting I have personally found time and time again that if the conversation stays anecdotal and opinion based, the chances of changing someone’s mind on something diminishes quickly. The moment you introduce data and facts into the conversation and you trust the data is directionally accurate (Note: I’ve found that it’s impossible to have 100 percent clean data when people are involved) then tone changes. Have you ever wondered why some of the most impactful and powerful departments in companies are Finance and Sales? Ever sat through a company’s quarterly review?
Data-centric and data-driven thinking haves become one of the cornerstones of my career and has helped me achieved what I have professionally. After my wife, data is my best friend.
Finally you must learn to make yourself redundant — The quicker you have people who can replace you and in turn can replace them, then that to me is ultimate success as a head of talent Acquisition.
In closing, I’m not perfect. Far from it. I continually have to work on all of these items and at times I forget my own advice. I hope this was of some help to those of you thinking about that journey you maybe on to talent acquisition leadership. On a personal note I found even taking the time to write this piece, it has re-grounded me in some things I continually need to focus on myself.
I have had the fortune of working 2 levels down from Rob at 2 different companies. For those of you who don't know him, he is legitimately how he self-describes. I hope many readers absorb his lessons so we foster a new generation of similarly enlightened leaders.
Brilliant and spot on with every point, especially about listening, delegating, following-up, prioritizing, being innovative and data-centric. As others have said here, this should be a primer for all TA Leaders.
Great points as always Rob, and in my opinion your article gives sound advice to recruiters at any stage of their career. I'd love to have read this when I was just starting out in my recruiting career. Thanks for sharing.
What a great read. This is like a learning checklist and a How to guide all wrapped into one. I have been very fortunate to "apprentice" under Rob for well over a decade and I have seen the "Master in Action" living and doing exactly what he has outlined in this article consistently. I continue to practice these lessons today and I strongly believe that both my career, my projects and my direct reports are all better for the advice I learned from Rob.
Rob, you are dead on! This should serve as a primer for TA leadership.
I appreciate when successful people such as yourself are still as down to earth as you appear to be and still remember when they were beginning. It resonates more than you may be aware of when someone a few pay grades above you acknowledges their past and current flaws and remains humble and open to humility. Even more so, it is refreshing to see someone take the time to mentor and offer support for someone lower on the totem pole. Sadly, I have found many people see others lower on the totem pole at their company as a threat to their position and someone to keep down. It is rare that I comment on web articles, but I feel your contribution is worth the time and I thank you for a well-written commentary. I hope those you've mentored appreciate you.