How I Learned What I Know About Candidate Sourcing

How_did_Glen_Cathey_learn_how_to_source_candidatesWhen it comes to my theories and best practices for leveraging information systems for quickly finding highly qualified candidates, I am often asked, “So, how did you figure all of this stuff out?”

It’s a fantastic question, and I am happy to be asked it, but my answer doesn’t seem to satisfy anyone. 

The short answer is literally that “I just figured it out.”

The long answer provides some insight into how I figured some of this candidate search stuff out, but I think the real value and message of my personal story is that anyone can become quite proficient at electronic talent discovery – and it’s less dependent on any training you receive and more on how you approach your job.

When people ask me how I’ve managed to “figure out” all of this candidate search stuff, it seems they want to hear that I went through some specific training program, that I read a certain book, that I worked under some sourcing guru or something similar.

The reality is I’ve never worked under any sourcing guru, I’ve never attended any sourcing training classes, and I didn’t read any books on candidate sourcing. FAR from it.

In fact, when I started in the recruiting industry at a small, privately held staffing agency in Northern Virginia in January 1997, I received very little recruiting training, let alone any specialized training on how to find candidates.  I was shown a Lotus Notes-based C-PAS resume database and told “this is where you find candidates.”

It is important to know that I did not enter the staffing industry with any prior experience or advantages that would help me in leveraging information systems to identify talent. When I started in recruiting, I did not own a computer. I graduated college with a B.A. in Psychology, not “even” a B.S., let alone a technical degree like Computer Science or Information Systems. Although I was told that the company’s C-PAS database supported Boolean search, I did not know what Boolean search was. 

Not only did I not know what Boolean search was – I did not know you could find resumes on the Internet. I did not know about AltaVista, and Google did not exist yet.

In 1997, my company did not use any job boards – I did not know Monster existed (or OCC, for that matter – for those who recall where Monster got their search interface from).

My company’s main source of candidates came from people responding to newspaper classified ads who faxed their resumes in, which were subsequently scanned into the C-PAS database, and from resumes collected from job fairs which were also scanned in. I believe that the resume database had about 70,000 records or so when I started with the company.

My Training

My “training” (picture me using air quotes for emphasis) consisted of someone showing me how to navigate C-PAS, telling me about the AND and OR Boolean operators (nothing about NOT), and being told that you could find candidates in C-PAS by entering in keywords from job descriptions. There certainly wasn’t any “formal” training – I think this was all explained to me in about 20 minutes.

Yes, I am serious.

I was never trained on cold calling/phone sourcing – it never even occurred to me to try to call into a company to find people. Our database was how we found candidates, and how any recruiter at any other company found their candidates, for all I knew.

How I Learned Boolean Search

Absent of any real training and lacking a mentor, I essentially learned the art and science of leveraging Boolean search strings to find candidates the hard way – through trial and error.

“Trial and error” is really common language for the scientific method– investigating, acquiring new knowledge, and correcting and integrating previous knowledge. According to Wikipedia, “To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”

Although I did not know it at the time, and I certainly wouldn’t have told anyone that I was learning my job through the scientific method, this is pretty much what I was actually doing. If something I was trying to do didn’t work – I didn’t have anyone else to go to for answers – so I had to get creative, experiment, and keeping hacking at it until I finally found a way that worked and got me the results I needed. This is a horribly painful and frustrating process, but I have since learned that it’s actually a very effective method of learning. 

For example, if I needed a QA Test Engineer with experience testing applications developed in VB, I’d throw all of the search terms from the job description and required skills in and run with it. Once I exhausted those results, if I didn’t have the candidates I needed, failing to cover the position I was assigned was not an option – I had to find another way. So I’d try something else (i.e., experiment and test a hypothesis) – like wonder if every QA Test Engineer who has experience testing applications written in VB would actually mention VB in their resume…and I would then use AND NOT (VB or “Visual Basic”) to target those people and start calling QA Test Engineers who didn’t mention VB in their resume and simply ask them what languages the applications they have experience testing had been developed in.

After 5 calls to people who did not mention VB in their resume, I found a woman who had in fact tested applications written in VB (and I subsequently placed her). Thus I learned part 1 of what I now call the “Cardinal Rule of E-Sourcing,” which states that for every search term you are thinking of using in your Boolean string, first ask yourself if everyone with that skill, experience, or title would mention it in their resume. Because I discovered that many don’t.

I learned part 2 of the Cardinal Rule of E-Sourcing(which states that for every search term you are thinking of using in your Boolean string, consider every possible way that it can be mentioned)  through simple observation. As I reviewed my search results, I would notice terms in resumes that I did not specifically search for that seemed to mean the same thing as my search terms. I would make note of these alternate terms and incorporate them back into my search, continuously refining and improving the searches. 

My Performance

Although I am pretty good at what I do now, my career in recruiting didn’t start with any indication that I would be any better than average at finding and placing candidates. In fact, the owner of the company told me later that he was almost sure I would fail.

I started in recruiting on January 13th, 1997, and I did not make my first placement until March – it was a financial analyst at AOL (everyone remembers their first hire, right?).  

However, from April to December 1997, I placed 71 more candidates, which is an average of just about 8 hires per month, leading me to be recognized as the Recruiter of the Year, outperforming more experienced and tenured recruiters by a wide margin (the next closest recruiter had 30 fewer placements for the year). And this was accomplished in an environment without any candidate “ownership,” for those who are familiar with the agency vernacular.

I can tell you precisely how I achieved those numbers. While I had pretty good candidate relationship development skills, good candidate closing and control, good voicemail techniques, and good matching skills (as good as any recruiter with 3-12 months of experience), I had developed the ability to use Boolean searches to quickly find large quantities of precisely matched and highly qualified candidates in direct response to client/manager needs – faster and better than most. And, I planned every single day, without fail.

Interestingly, to this day, I find that most sourcers and recruiters do not come in each day with a call plan. Having a daily call plan to execute first thing in the A.M. that I developed the previous afternoon from my searches was definitely one of the keys to my productivity and my success. I eventually got to the point that if I searched for and built a call list of 20 potential candidates for a given position, I would have 2 A+ candidates submitted on the position within 24-48 hours, and typically have 1-2 backups. 

For those who are interested, in my first year as an agency recruiter, I averaged over 3 external candidate submittals (candidates presented to client hiring managers) per day – my record was 14 in a single day. Most months I would have 65-70 external submittals and over 20 interviews (some call them send outs). As most recruiting managers/directors can attest to – it’s difficult to NOT get 6-10 hires per month from those numbers.

Based on my early performance, I was promoted to recruiting manager and then later to director of recruiting, where I focused most of my time on training and developing my recruiting staff. Interestingly, after the privately held company I worked for was acquired by a large publicly traded staffing firm, I took a position as a “market manager” of recruiting where I was responsible for personal production as a recruiter as well as for managing a team of recruiters. After 7 years of not “working a desk,” I was able to quickly ramp up and achieve “Platinum Performer” status (top 5% firm-wide) in less than 12 months.

When I hit the phones in 2005, I did not have a network of people/candidates – I started quite literally from scratch. I was able to quickly achieve high levels of performance based primarily on two things: #1 My ability to quickly find the right people, and #2 My daily planning. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

Lessons Learned

I think it’s been a huge benefit to be self taught. By no means is the way I came to know what I know about candidate sourcing ideal, nor is it practical or scalable. However, by having to figure everything out on my own I had no preconceived notions about sourcing, recruiting, the “right way” to do anything, or what was possible/not possible. There was no proverbial “box.”

For example:

  • Candidate Pipelines: I’ve literally never had to focus on pipelining candidates, because I’ve always been able to pretty much find whatever I needed within 24-48 hours. Many years into my career, I would read articles about the importance of developing talent pipelines, and my response was incredulity. I honestly could not figure out why anyone would have to identify candidates prior to having a confirmed need. It seemed like such a waste of time and effort based on my personal experience – what happens if the needs never come? What happens if the positions do finally come, but all of your pipelined candidates don’t match the requirements (they’re rarely exactly as forecasted), or are they are no longer available or entertaining making a change? Later I would learn that my instincts were surprisingly accurate, at least according to the Toyota Way/Lean philosophy. Why bother building inventories of candidates based on forecasts when you can achieve Just-In-Time recruiting?
  • Active/Passive Candidates: I was never told that some candidates were “active” and that others were “passive,” nor was I brainwashed into thinking that “passive” candidates were always better than “active” candidates. If anything, I learned that everyone is a candidate. I never thought twice about calling a resume that was 1, 2, 3, or 4+ years old – in fact, some of my easiest, most frictionless placements came from people whose resume had not been updated in 4 years. It’s a funny thing – if you find the right people and present them with the right opportunity – you can turn a non-job seeker into one. Imagine that. :-)
  • Phone Sourcing: I’ve never had to make a truly “cold” call because I’ve always been able to quickly find the candidates I need, or find the people who know the candidates I need…and to be honest, after I learned that some people rely heavily on cold-call phone sourcing to identify candidates – it never really made sense to me, because it has many intrinsic limitations when compared to searching information systems, including low control over critical candidate variables, and a low ROI.

There is No Sourcing Gene

It always bothers me when people say I have a “talent” for candidate sourcing – that all too easily “explains away” everything I have worked so very hard to figure out. 

There is no gene for sourcing and recruiting. Besides, Talent is Overrateddeliberate practice is where it’s at. I literally come into work every day to get better at what I do. Most people don’t – they just come into work and do what they’ve always done. It seems like such a subtle difference, but I can assure you, it’s not.

I honestly don’t think there is anything unique about me – I am simply a product of my environment. If I had not started in the recruiting industry in a sink-or-swim environment, or if I had more in depth training (and learned the “right” way to source/recruit) or if I had been taught that the only way to find high quality candidates was through phone sourcing and cold calling, I know for a fact that I would not have the skills or ability I have today, and you would not be reading this blog! Looking back, I am thankful for my lack of training and for the unique opportunity that I was given – it played a big part in making me who I am today.

While there is definitely no sourcing/recruiting gene – I do have to give some credit to my personality traits (there’s that B.A. in Psychology rearing its head again). I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I am very competitive (I hate to lose at anything), I don’t enjoy doing things unless I do them well, I really enjoy figuring things out/solving problems, and I don’t give up – I will find a way. 

If I were to self-diagnose, I’d say I have an obsessive personality. The more “PC” way to describe an obsessive personality includes “focused,” “driven,” “goal oriented,” “never gives up,” “has to be the best,” etc. I have a theory that most top performers in business or sports (or anything, for that matter) have obsessive personalities. But that’s another post entirely.

The moral of this story is that you don’t need any special training or any particular background to become exceptional at sourcing candidates or any step in the recruiting life cycle  – in fact, I’d argue that all you really need is the desire to become very good at it, and the focus and drive to put in the deliberate practice necessary to achieve your goal. If you’re truly committed and dedicated to mastering a thing, you will, or you’ll come close trying.