The Biggest Lesson I Learned That Increased My Hiring Success 350%!

Feb 1, 2008

When I opened my firm in 1990, I was trained that you would need to hire seven people to keep one more than six months. Naively, I thought I was better than that. I discovered I was not. One of the biggest frustrations I hear about from my coaching clients and peer owners is their challenge of training, onboarding, and retaining new hires.

While this is still a challenge at our firm, there are several changes we made to this process that cut our rate from the old model of hire seven to keep one down to hire two to keep one six months or longer.

What is this lesson? Set expectations throughout the hiring process and follow through for at least 120 days! Now, most of you are probably rolling your eyes at this Management 101 technique. You may know it, but the experience with my client search firm owners is that it is rarely implemented.

My experience with most recruiting firm owners is that they sell “money” throughout the interview process. Money, money, money! That is it! They point to successful people in their office and say, “Look at Bob. He made over $200,000 last year. See Sue, $125,000!” If they are not selling money, many other owners are 180 degrees different, screening the heck out of candidates with multiple personality tests, Rorschach tests, eye retinal scans, etc. Both techniques appear to have equally weak results.

This lesson on setting expectations and holding people accountable is by far the greatest and most profitable lesson I have learned. This process begins in our first interview. We first paint the vision of a successful recruiter – a six-figure-plus income, relative freedom to manage their day, week, working with C and V level executives, etc. Then we discuss the “but.” We explain that this business is an acquired taste, like the first beer consumed as a teenager; most people do not find the ramp-up enjoyable. We explain all of the frustrations of the ramp-up: the seeming mindless nature of 80 to 100 calls a day, the unreturned calls, uncooperative candidates and clients, the occasional fall-offs and counteroffers. We tell them there are going to be days when they wish their parents had never met! But if, if, they can persevere through this relatively short period, the rewards are great!

In each stage of the interview, one needs to balance the opportunity with “the price to be paid.” A mistake I see many of my clients make is not properly explaining the ramp-up process. Sure, we tell them they have to be able to cover themselves financially for the first few months, but we don’t explain a “day in the life” of those first few months. We explain a day in the life of a successful recruiter, and when they start and measure themselves against that level of performance, their frustration and self-doubt begin to breed quickly. The new recruiters listen to successful people and remember “a day in the life” and wonder if they are cut out for this career. They wonder if they can ever sound like that recruiter!

Also, during the interview process we tell the candidate: “A new hire starts out with great enthusiasm and a clear picture of where he or she wants to go, like an explorer standing on one mountain peak looking in the distance at another they will climb. The new hire must then descend into an Amazonian-type valley with thick brush and obscured vision (tons of calls, rejection), that second mountain peak not often visible (why am I doing this?). There is a clearly marked path, however, that is always visible. Stay on this path, avoid the temptation to discover a shorter route, be persistent and more importantly resilient, and success is inevitable. If we continue to move forward in this process, I will ask you if you are ready for this journey.”

What is this “path?” The biggest gift we can give a new hire is a clearly defined road map to success vis-à-vis daily activity. Here is where I am going to lose some of you. I do not focus on connect time for new hires. I measure it; I just don’t make it our main focus. I focus on call and presentation count the first two weeks and add on job orders and/or send-outs in week three and beyond. Ask for connect time in the absence of other activity and you will probably get OK connect time. My experience shows a myopic attention to connect time alone leads to bloated calls with unqualified candidates and, often, more personal calls. Connect time is a function of quality, not quantity, and new hires don’t have much quality.

At the offer interview, I make candidates pledge – sometimes by raising their right hand – to commit to do exactly what I tell them to do for 120 days with no deviation. If they won’t make this commitment, and they all have, I would not offer the job.

The beginning of their path is the first day on the phone. When we began setting expectations for just that day, things began to change. Depending on your program, if the first day on the phone is a full day, we set a benchmark of 100 to 125 calls (including name gathering) and 15 to 17 live combined marketing and recruiting presentations. We ask the new hires to give us their understanding of these expectations verbally to ensure understanding. In what will be a “surprise” to many readers, we find that even after setting specific targets that were agreed to, committed to, as well as completely understood, 8 out of 10 will not hit the targets.

Here is where many of us as owners fall short. We fail to give aggressive, blunt feedback to these new hires that very first day on the phone. I sit down with new hires the next morning to review their first day and ask them for their results by category. If they are among the 20% who hit their target, I congratulate and reinforce their performance. If they are in the 80% who don’t hit any or all of the targets, I ask one simple question, “I wonder why you chose failure on your very first day?” I wait out the longest of silences. I watch them squirm until the confused person at the other side of the table stumbles out a barely discernable “I don’t know.” I again ask what the expectations for the day were and they again tell me. I also ask them what they committed to in the interview process and, again, they tell me. Then I proclaim that “I am confused. Based on these commitments and clearly defined expectations, why would someone so defiantly fail to execute?”

This approach may appear harsh to many. I disagree; it is harsher to allow them to believe that close is OK, that our expectations are merely suggestions. If you check your records for subsequent days of performance, without holding them accountable, I would bet, and my experience shows, that most drift lower. They generally drift lower to a point where the owner finally gets “ticked off” enough to confront the performance. The new hire has now successfully identified the owner’s “real number.” Let me assure you beyond a shred of a doubt that we are being tested. We as owners fail that test the first day we let performance below our stated minimums go by unchallenged.

If failure to hit the minimums persists for several days, we challenge the new hire’s commitment for the last time and ask, “Is this business really for you?” and most say no and actually, I have found, are put out of their misery.

For those who stay on course, be vigilant for at least the first 120 days. Have them email you their numbers every day. As a former VP of sales of mine said early in my career, “Managers get what they inspect, not what they expect!” By this 120-day point, good habits have combined with your coaching to get them into a groove of high activity that requires much less of your attention. Never stop taking numbers; simply let them become accountable to you weekly vs. daily.

My feeling is that not only new hires, but also many of us, as owners, do not see the connectedness of one simple day to a month’s or a year’s success. If we do not see it, how can we show it to them? Once we let them settle into their own self-defined comfort zone, we have often poured the foundation of failure. Later when we fire them or they quit, we shrug our shoulders and say, “They just didn’t get it!” And since history shows us that those who do get it are often the exception and not the rule, who really doesn’t get it?

Michael Gionta has over 18 years as an owner and billing manager. He has ranked in the top 2% to 3% of Management Recruiters offices for several years. As a billing manager, he has ranked as high as 2nd, with over $2.2 million in annual personal production. Michael is an emerging coach and trainer to owners who are frustrated and want to grow their business. His FREE seven-part audio series “The Deadly Sins of Search Firm Owners and How to Avoid Them” is available at He can be reached at

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