So You Want to Be the Head of Talent Acquisition?

Apr 15, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 9.14.15 AMOver 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.

  • You have to learn to delegate, but most importantly you have to empower the people who work for with you. Trust that they want and will do their best and in return you need to be there to support and guide them, not micro manage them.
  •  You must try and create a personal development plan for each of your direct reports, be it formal or informal. You must learn to post-mortem dialog with your direct reports on the behaviors/ competencies they are trying to develop on the job. How did they try and use that new competency in that last meeting? How did they try and use that developing behavior in that broad distribution email or presentation? Make time for the conversation and hopefully if it becomes part of the cultural DNA you’re trying to create, your managers will do the same, and so on and so forth.
  • Don’t be afraid to give tough feedback. I am surprised how many people don’t want to give feedback to people as to where they might be challenged or even deficient in their roles. As a leader your role is to get the best out of people, not to win a personality contest. Yes, these types of conversations can be difficult and uncomfortable, but if you are really going to help people to be the best that they can be, you must give people the honest and sometimes critical feedback they deserve. They might not always like it, but delivered the right way, most will thank you for it.
  • Don’t be afraid to push people out of their comfort zone. Not everyone will like it, but if you are doing it to help people develop (and remind them of that), they will thank you later. Note: Feedback on me as a leader from my direct reports and team in the past is: “He sets the bar very high and expects a lot, maybe too much at times … ” He can be a pain in the ass to work for, but in hindsight, pushing me out of my comfort zone helped me grow.”
  • Create an environment where your team knows it’s OK to try new or different things and most importantly it’s OK to fail. This one is the toughest things I have found as a new leader because early on they are checking you out to see what type of leader you are. Just because you say it does not mean they will believe you. They need to see the behavior in action. They need a few examples to play out where you said it’s OK to try something new and potentially fail, and you then don’t turn around and yell at them.

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.

  • Sub point: One of the constant complaints I hear from recruiting leaders, HR leaders, business leaders, and also candidates is the lack of follow though. Never ever say you are going to do something or commit to something but never do so. If you promise a candidate that you will get back to them, then for goodness sake get back to them. If you take the time to survey your hiring managers on their levels of satisfaction, for goodness sake take the time to at least tell them that you heard their feedback and what you plan on doing with it.
  • Sub point two: While I’m on the topic, another sub point occurred to me called SERS — Selective Email Response Syndrome. Sorry readers, but this is one of my pet peeves in life. If you send me an email and I am really busy, worst case, I can at least acknowledge your request and explain that given what is on currently on my plate, it might take a little longer to respond. I worked with one business leader who intentionally ignored emails that required something from him. I called it on him once and his response shocked me. He said: No response means no decision. No decision means that if it was that important you will ask again or the problem might just take care of itself and go away. WTF — really man! Sorry, but to me if someone has taken the time to ask you something, it is professional courtesy to acknowledge it regardless who is sending or how trivial it might seem to you. It might not be trivial to them. Alright, off my soap box, let’s move on.

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.

  • Sub Point: People get busy and memories get short. From time to time you are going to have to remind people about how the tactical to-dos map to the bigger longer-term strategy. Don’t presume people will remember that strategy deck from six months ago. You might, they don’t.

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.

  • Sub point: I have been constantly amazed that showing an HR or business leader a new idea or approach even if that idea does not produce the perfect outcome you were hoping for, inspires a lot of confidence in their eyes that you are will to push the envelope to try and find a better outcome. But if you are concerned with taking too many risks vs. the rewards, then one way I have found helps is …

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.

  • Sub Point on Transparency. I hate (strong word, so maybe loathe) seeing reports or recruiting scorecards where every item is green (above goal/plan). You’re probably thinking I am crazy at this point of the article; is that not the whole point of a good leader to get everything above plan and firing on all cylinders, Rob? Well yes and no. Of course that is the ultimate end game, but what I have learned is that the game never ends. You will never fix everything. You will never make all of the people happy all of the time. The expectation is continuous improvement. I actually will and have gone out of my way to find things and include them as red (not working) or yellow (off track) on a scorecard that I share with my team and leadership. Send the right message with the team and leadership that a) you’re OK shining a light on something that is not working; and b) you send a clear message that you are in a constant state of continuous improvement. Executives raise an eyebrow when everything is being presented as “green” and hunky-dory. They don’t believe it. I won’t got into the philosophical side of this point, but I will leave you with this to ponder on this point. Way back, even before I fell into recruiting, I learned a valuable sales lesson. I was proudly knocking my sales targets out of the water to have a senior executive (way above my boss) burst my balloon by one simple statement. “Of course you’re knocking in out of the water” she said, “your goals are too low and easy.” Ouch! That comment has stuck with me for years.

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.

  • Sub Point: This helps ensure that the message and story you want your boss to tell is not lost in translation. The better job I can do in arming my boss to tell the right story consistently, given that I don’t get to sit in all those meetings when talent acquisition topics come up, the better off we all are. Less time gets spent on trying to educate up and down the chain of command when you have your boss helping drive the correct approach on the agenda and everyone is clear on why.

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.

“Well, looking at all the data for the last year, the recruiting function submitted X candidates (sorry I can’t recall the exact number all these years later, but you will get the point), but your businesses rejected more than 80 percent of those candidates. I believe I know why, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on why for all these years you wanted candidates from these companies but your businesses rejects or hires so few?”

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. 🙂

  • A critical sub point: You must, I stress must take the time to tell your team what the importance is of them entering information into the ATS/CRM/etc. You must explain that for you (and them) to be able to better influence the business/HR, this can only be achieved by ensuring that the data you need to share must be as accurate as possible to tell the important stories. Each one of us has been in that meeting where you’re presenting the data and some smarty pants starts to poke holes and dispute the information. The more you can stand behind the information with conviction and courage, the quicker that after a couple of attempts by the naysayers trying to turn my presentation into swiss-cheese, they start to realize I have done my homework and focus on the opportunity at hand vs. challenging the data.
  • Very important note: If you don’t trust the data, don’t share it. Say you don’t trust it, why, and what you plan on doing about it. If you do share bad data, your credibility will be in the toilet in no time and once people doubt the data, they doubt you.

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.


Some of the Related Conference Sessions at the ERE Recruiting Conference in San Diego:

  • Build a Sensational Talent Acquisition Operations Team, April 29, 11 a.m.
  • Increasing Your Talent GPA, April 29, 3:15 p.m.
  • Agile Talent Acquisition – Innovating the Delivery of Talent, April 29, 3:15 p.m.
  • Hiring, Training and Managing Recruiters — April 28, 1:30 p.m. (think tank)
  • Build a Sensational Talent Acquisition Operations Team — April 29, 11 a.m.
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