Much Ado About Nothing

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Almost 10 years ago, when I took my first job in recruiting (third-party search), I read on my new employer’s website: “The difference is in the way we manage relationships.”

At the time, I suppose I thought it was a nice marketing line or one of those great company mission statements that companies use but never live. Sure, we manage relationships. I guess I hadn’t been in the business long enough then to fully comprehend how that might be possible because I was only thinking in terms of filling job orders.

I used to watch as the owner of the company spent endless hours on the phone with executives from all sorts of different companies, and talking about the most random things. He talked with one candidate about how she enjoyed Qi Jong, with another about the joys of piloting small planes, and listened intently as another candidate complained about how frustrated he was with his career at a Fortune 100 company.

All the while I was plugging away, sourcing for my open reqs and wondering how he could afford to spend so much time talking about nothing with so many people.

“Don’t think about the money,” he used to say. Easy for him, I thought. He’s the owner of the company, and I’m still making sure the rent is paid.

Sometimes he’d go for months without placing a single candidate and then suddenly he’d get a huge search worth six figures, and as if by magic he already knew exactly who he should be talking to in order to fill the role. Because he had spent the time building relationships, he had a huge network of contacts he could draw from when the time came. He was sourcing before he ever received a job order, and clients always returned to him because they could count on the fact that his database was filled with all the right names.

And each of his contacts was someone with whom he had already established trust, the kind of thing transactional recruiters struggle with constantly. Back then, I just didn’t get it. If you wait until you have a job order to source, you’re already too late.

Now that I’ve moved into college recruiting, I realize how similar it is to executive search, and I find myself coming back to that phrase time and again: “The difference is in the way we manage relationships.”

So many companies go to campus as a transaction: attend career fairs, post the job, hire the best of the bunch. Even best-in-class companies go only a step or two beyond this, but the end goal is always a short-term requirement to get Y number of hires. And the benefits of relationship-building quickly go out the window when candidates and contacts see this as your only focus.

Truth is, there are two kinds of recruiters: transactional recruiters and relationship recruiters. Early in my career, I spoke the words but didn’t fully understand what it meant and what it took to successfully manage relationships in recruiting.

It’s easy to just source, fill a job, and move on; for some types of recruiting, I’m sure this model works. I’m sure lots of college recruiters across the country find the transactional model useful, as you only place an entry-level candidate once. But when you can step back from viewing candidates as placements, the benefits of the relationship-building model are clear.

As a college recruiter, too much focus on filling specific requisitions often results in missing a great candidate pool.  For example, many hiring managers indicate a preference for Business or Finance majors, when in fact someone with a Liberal Arts degree would also do well in the role.

Don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions about what is required to be successful in a given position, and encourage your managers to be open to all majors. But when you do reach out to this group, be ready for a different kind of conversation.

Maybe it’s the fact that everything has gone online and students are moving away from actually walking into their Career Services office. Or maybe it’s the failed promise made to Gen X and Y that we could do anything we set our minds to. A lot of college candidates are very lost when it comes to what they want to do when they graduate, and despite the abundance of helpful information at their fingertips, it’s not getting any better.

Some have taken a job in their majors only to find that they hated it; others have no idea what options are open to them given their course of study.

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The good news is that today’s graduates are exploring, looking at a very wide variety of career opportunities across many fields. The bad news is, you may have to be their tour guide.

Transactional recruiters tend to pass through the sea of lost students rather quickly, saying, “If they don’t know what they want, I can’t help them.”

And it’s hard when you’re busy trying to fill reqs to see the logic in spending time talking with a large number of candidates who may not meet your requirements. In these circumstances, the best companies will hold Information Sessions or Open Houses to speak to larger groups of candidates and address general questions about the company or job opportunities.

Regardless of where you engage with a candidate, talk more generally about their passions, motivations, and career aspirations rather than immediately focusing on filling a specific job requirement. Sometimes it turns out that you’ll have a position of interest to them, and other times they do some soul-searching and realize they’re looking for something completely different. ‘

The candidate might be able to be successful in sales, but if she is truly excited by forestry or law enforcement, she’s probably not going to stay in the role very long once another opportunity presents itself. Of course, not everyone gets to work in their chosen field, and sometimes our college hires need a little time out in “the real world” before they can settle into a career that wasn’t exactly what they were planning.

Either way, spending a little extra time with the candidate on the front end can help better inform your hiring decisions and improve your company’s retention. Worst-case scenario, you’ll have a nice chat and the candidate walks away with a good feeling about your company, whether or not they ever work for you.

Too often, campus recruiters who focus too much on marketing specific job opportunities miss the opportunity to ask for referrals, delve deeper into student organizations, and learn more about people of influence on campus.

Once I spoke with a journalism major who was passionate about reporting on the inequities in public education and immigration issues. She absolutely lit up when she was talking about the things she had been uncovering through her reporting. While she wouldn’t have been interested in any of my open positions, I learned that she was heavily involved in several major student organizations on campus.

In the 10 minutes I spent talking with this candidate, I got quite a few tips on how best to engage with those student groups. At the end of our conversation, she even offered to introduce me to other key group leaders to kick-start my efforts.

As it turns out, building relationships and maintaining a strong pipeline of candidates involves a lot of talking about nothing.

Editor’s note: Check out part 2 tomorrow, which will explore specifics to become more successful at building relationships in the college space.

La Donna Lokey has more than 15 years of experience in talent acquisition working for Fortune 500 companies including Charles Schwab, Countrywide, and Microsoft. Most recently, she served as vice president/strategist for Citigroup, helping to lead social recruiting, innovation, and sourcing strategy on a national level. She attended the George Washington University and currently resides in Phoenix.

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