Stranger in a Strange Land: Agency Skills in a Corporate World

Nov 9, 2011
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Despite a slow economy, recruiting has picked up over the past year. Talent is hard to find in some segments, and corporate leaders talk about bringing “agency skills” to their recruiting teams. What they mean is they’d like to add the executive recruiting skill set to their existing staff. So, they hire a recruiter with an agency background.

On its face, this would seem to make sense. But it rarely works. After a while, it becomes clear that things aren’t working out as planned. The new hire either does what the other staff are doing (abandoning their agency skill set), or they quietly leave.

It’s an old story: the agency recruiter comes into an established department overseen by HR, replete with processes, advertising budgets, and clear lines of authority. Internal company recruiters, especially those working for larger employers, are adept at marketing jobs designed around the company’s brand and managed through an ATS. There are teams, matrixed relationships, and lots of processes governing recruiters. The goal here is to create reliable, repeatable service levels.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Agency recruiters find themselves wedged into an environment which is the exact opposite of the agency model — it relies on advertising, has much higher req loads, and is a place where process trumps results. They quickly realize they have to get with the program to fill so many requisitions. This is a situation where the agency skills are not much use. The agency recruiter who wants to stay in a corporate role learns they cannot afford to use agency skills unless they have a shorter requisition list, so they can work them intensely.

Recruiters who learned their trade at a company with a strong brand never really learned to recruit. The brand does the heavy lifting. The corporate recruiter runs a different game, emphasizing ads, job distribution, and SEO, instead of digging for candidates, because its the most efficient way to meet their needs. Anyone wanting to stay will do the same. So the agency skill set falls by the wayside.

Others take a different path.

Many agency recruiters hired into corporate roles know they are talented, and that their agency skills are valuable. For them, it’s not about fitting in, but using these talents. These people are often more innovative, and more resourceful. They are results-oriented, and approach recruiting as a business function (instead of an HR function). Those invited to join a corporate recruiting team may see a great opportunity to make a difference by adding their skills to the mix.

When their approach to recruiting butts up against layers of bureaucracy, they realize they’re in a land where process and predictability are prized over results. It’s more important to ensure that the process shows that every candidate was treated equally than to get a hire. Mediocrity is acceptable, and they are handcuffed with no way to use their skills. In short, their creative, aggressive strengths are at odds with an HR culture. The bottom line realization is that if you’re really talented, you’ll leave.

Corporate recruiting runs on programs and processes. Agencies succeed because they put on a pirate hat and exploit opportunities. Pirates aren’t in for the 9-5 grind, an annual performance review, and 3% pay increase. They want to make something happen. They are resourcefulness and occasionally bold. This isn’t very HR.

We owe much credit to “skills-based” hiring, where the personality and cultural characteristics are secondary to a skill set. Most companies say they look at skills first, then fit. But if true, they probably wouldn’t hire an agency recruiter into a corporate role. The talents that drive success in an agency clash with most corporate cultures. Agency work is best done by putting on a pirate hat and making something happen. Too many rules stifle creativity, and the orderliness of corporate recruiting programs are not conducive to such behavior. Indeed, companies hire executive search firms for this very reason: they need a pirate but can’t afford to have one associated with their brand. So they contract an outside vendor and gain the skills while sparing the brand.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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