Recruiting’s ‘Wise Old Man’ Explains His Success

Sep 24, 2015

Ralph ProtsikAt 71, Ralph Protsik is a wise old man of the recruiting business.

He is the managing director of BSG Team Ventures, a retainer-only executive search firm based in Boston. He speaks with a slow, soothing baritone — the voice of a golf or tennis analyst on TV. And as those of us who know him can attest, he is candid about his keys to success: Believing in yourself means overcoming your own doubts and those of your hiring managers; mastering soft skills can be more important than hard skills in getting a job; working smart can mean working in your bathrobe; develop personal relationships; and never, ever cut corners.

You might think Ralph got his start in the industry of the Mad Men era of the 1960’s and has half a century of experience. In fact, he started barely 20 years ago. A graduate of Yale University, Protsik worked for Xerox and in the book-publishing industry. At one point he owned his own publishing firm.

But the book business did not agree with Ralph. He worked too long for too little. In his late 40s, Ralph wanted to get out. His ticket, he thought, would be the recruiting business. Except it almost was not. The man who built a hugely successful boutique executive search firm came this close to blowing his shot.

Q. Joe Pelayo: What is your age, location, and family status?

A. Ralph Protsik: I am 71, live in San Francisco, and am married, happily I might add.

Q.  You worked in the publishing business, at Xerox, and owned your own publishing firm. What made you switch to the recruiting field in 1994?

A. It was interesting. It was a time I was not feeling satisfied at work. I was working too hard for too little. I reached out to friends and I brainstormed with them. One brought up executive search. Why don’t I give it a try? Interviewed with MRI — got the worst possible score on the Drake P3 test (a psychometric behavioral test). But my boss to be, Jack Nehiley, said, ‘Well, let’s give him a try. We have an empty desk.’ I turned out to be the rookie of the year for 1994, and the second in billing nationwide in the following year. So it went. I seem to have the right temperament and skills. So much for all those predictions about recruiting.”

Q. What has made you a success as a recruiter?

A. I don’t mean this to be flip, but number one is longevity. Either you are good at something or you quit. I’m a pretty good strategist. I keep my eye on what I’m trying to be good at. I keep the respect of those I work with. I do no cold-calling, just marketing, including a newsletter and a lot of conferences. There’s nothing like success to generate more success.

Q. Why are you a success as a recruiter?

A. It is about credibility. People have to believe you can do the job – and are the best at it. It’s about differentiation. You have to be not only good but also a bit different from the competition. It’s about personality. Develop personal relationships, they can turn into business.

Q. What can companies and the recruiting industry do to encourage recruiters to succeed?

A. [One] obvious thing is evaluating talent. Another good thing is cultural smarts, having the right soft skills. Maybe help them think outside the box. Hard skills are key, but the candidates who have soft skills, good cultural sensitivity, they get hired.

Q. Do you work smarter or work harder?

A. I have never been a believer in long hours; I have never worked 60 hours in a week in my life. I much prefer working what I can and balancing my time.

Q. What are your hours like? What is a typical day for you?

A. I get up at 6 a.m. Get to work at 7:15 or 7:30 a.m. Work for four or five hours (often out of my bathrobe). See my wife for lunch. Go back to my work until 4 p.m. or so, then take a long walk. Once I’m done, I have a drink. A couple of times a week, I go into the office to see a client.

Q. Anything else? Any advice for those in the industry?

A. If you want to stay in this business, you have to be dedicated to ‘working the process,’ as I learned at MRI. There are no short cuts. You can’t cut corners. You have to be willing to follow all of the steps.

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