Creating or Selecting Effective Sourcing Training: SourceCon NYC

Have you received any formal training on how to source candidates?

If yes – what kind of training was it? What was the format? What was the focus – syntax, techniques, sites? Who delivered it – a third party trainer or an internal resource? How was the content delivered? Was it effective? Were you tested or certified?

If you’ve never received any formal training on candidate sourcing – you’re not alone. When I asked the SourceCon attendees the aforementioned question during my presentation on the topic of creating or selecting effective sourcing training, by a show of hands, the majority had not received any formal sourcing training.

I’ve never had any formal sourcing training either – everything I know I learned the hard way, through trial and error and a simple determination to not fail and to get results.

Although certainly not ideal, figuring out how to do something by yourself isn’t actually the worst way to learn something. Aristotle (384-322 BC) once mused that “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Before I delve into the training methods that have the highest amount of knowledge transfer, it is important to take a look at why it tends to be so difficult to effectively train sourcers.

Sourcing: Art or Science?

There are many who say that sourcing candidates via the phone, Internet, databases, social networks, etc., is an art.

But what exactly is an “art?”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines art as “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.”

I believe that the people who describe sourcing as an “art” are those who have a difficult time explaining or transferring their skill (“art”) to others. In fact, I’d argue that you actually can’t teach “art.”

In the other camp, you have folks who call sourcing candidates via the phone, Internet, databases, social networks, etc., a science.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines science as “a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study,” and “something (as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge,” as well as “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method”

Do I hear scoffing at the idea that sourcing can be systematized and/or learned via the scientific method?

I hope not.

A system is simply an organized or established procedure, and the scientific method consists of “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”

No matter how complex a task or process may seem, or how much of an “art” sourcing is perceived to be, the reality is that a good percentage of sourcing approaches, techniques and strategies are comprised of simple, definable and teachable elements.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible to teach a job or function that is not standardized and does not have a defined method for performing the work.

I know for a fact that sourcing, as well as every step of the recruiting life cycle, can be broken down into simple, definable, and teachable elements with a defined method for performing the work.

When it comes to sourcing, what most people refer to as the “art” of sourcing are things they are capable of doing, but they have not broken down their sourcing techniques and strategies into standardized and defined methods, and thus they cannot easily explain or describe how or why they do exactly what they do, nor are they able to effectively teach others how to do it.

These people can show others what they do (i.e., demonstrate their “art”), but they are not able to teach others to become as competent as themselves.

Exploring Maslow’s Four Stages of Learning will shed more light on this issue.

The Four Stages of Competence

In psychology, the “conscious competence” learning model relates to the psychological states involves in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.

Conscious Competence theory is another name for the “Four Stages of Learning” posited by Abraham Maslow, who believed that people learn in stages, progressing from Stage 1.

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

I believe that people who are strong sourcers who cling to the concept of sourcing as an art are Stage 4 Sourcers – they are unconsciously competent. However, just because you are good at something, it does not automatically enable you to be able to transfer your sourcing ability to others.

Here is a simple example of the combined power and impotence of unconscious competence – the ability to tie your shoes.

You’re probably (hopefully) unconsciously competent at tying your shoes – you can do it quickly and easily without a conscious thought, even without looking. You can probably also tie other people’s shoes, even though it’s the opposite direction of how you tie your own shoes. However, have you ever tried to teach someone who does not know how to ties their shoes how to tie their shoes?

Beyond Unconscious Competence

David Baume, PhD., theorized that there may be a fifth Stage of Competence, which he called “reflective competence.”

“If unconscious competence is the top level, then how on earth can I teach things I’m unconsciously competent at? Conscious of my own unconscious competence…looking at my unconscious competence from the outside, digging to find and understand the theories and models and beliefs that clearly, based on looking at what I do, now inform what I do and how I do it. These won’t be the exact same theories and models and beliefs that I learned consciously and then became unconscious of. They’ll include new ones, the ones that comprise my particular expertise. And when I’ve surfaced them, I can talk about them and test them.” Source:   Ikujiro Nonaka “A Dynamic Theory of Organizational Knowledge Creation.” Organization Science 5: 14-37.

I do believe there is a fifth stage of learning/competence – one I would like to formally name Hypercompetence.

Stage 5 – Hypercompetence

The individual is both aware of and able to deconstruct their own unconscious competence. In doing so, he or she is able to identify the critical aspects of doing something well, can explain how and why those aspects are important to the success of the work, and can develop a standard methodology and process for others to implement as best practices.

Sourcers and recruiters who have achieved Stage 5 Hypercompetence can essentially transform their art into a science. Stage 5 individuals can systematize their job/function and can break effective sourcing down into simple, definable and teachable elements with a defined method for performing the work.

Picking up on my shoe-tying analogy, if you were Stage 5 Hypercompetent at tying shoes, you would be able to break down the process you use when tying your own shoes into the simplest, easiest to understand and follow steps and be able to effectively teach children how to tie their shoes for the first time.

Trust me – it’s not easy. :-)

What’s the point of training people anyway?

When I asked the SourceCon audience this question, most people seemed to agree that the point of training was to make people better at something.

Seems obvious, right?

Not so fast. No matter how good the content of any particular training session may be, training doesn’t automatically make people better at what they do. In fact, the most common forms of training are intrinsically limited in their ability to be effective at achieving the goal of training in the first place.

Here are some of the most common forms of sourcing training available:

  • Webinars
  • Online Video
  • DVD’s
  • Cheatsheets
  • Interactive Online
  • Live Classroom/conference
  • On-the-Job

Are all forms of training delivery created equal? The answer is a resounding NO!

Research in occupational training shows that people retain about:

  • 10% of what they read
  • 20% of what they hear
  • 30% of what they see
  • 50% of what they hear and use
  • 70% of that they say
  • 90% of what they say and do

That means that any training that only involves reading, listening, and watching has about a 30% retention rate, which is a very poor ROI in my opinion.

Even training programs that have the attendees use some of the sourcing tips, tricks, techniques and sites during the training event will only result in about 50% retention.

You can see that to get to the higher retention rates of 70% and 90%, you have to involve people in the training process.

If you’re confused by the “what they say” reference – think of this as when someone explains the “how” and the “why.” When you think about it, it’s not surprising at all that people retain a great deal of things they are being trained on if they are required to do what they’ve just been taught AND explain the “how and the why” at the same time.

Explaining the “how and the why” isn’t very easy for any task, even if you’re already good at something – tying shoe laces, double digit subtraction, or sourcing.

Retention vs. Ability

While retention of training content is important, it’s not the ultimate goal.

I’d argue that the ultimate goal of training is to have attendees gain the ability to do new things, or to do things better.

Simply being able to recall training content does not guarantee ability in practice, nor results.

No matter how knowledgeable a trainer may be, or how solid his/her content is, great training content is worthless if the attendees do not come out of the training with new abilities.

Confucius figured this out over 2,500 years ago when he said, “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

Regardless of the content and medium, the most critical component of training is involvement. The deeper the involvement, the more likely you will get closer to 70% – 90% retention rates.

Verify Ability

I think a fundamental component to any training session or program is ability verification.

It’s one thing to test trainees on their ability to recall training content and concepts, and it’s entirely another to objectively verify their ability to leverage the training content in live exercises.

There are a few certification programs available to sourcers and recruiters on the market today, but I am not aware of any that go beyond testing knowledge retention.

However, there is nothing stopping you from creating your own internal testing and certification program which verifies ability and not just whether or not someone can memorize content.

You can also have fun by creating timed sourcing challenges that are 100% voluntary – these can be an excellent way to verify interest level and verify ability.

During the SourceCon NYC session, I gave an example sourcing challenge: Find a LinkedIn profile of someone who has Ruby on Rails experience, but does not mention Ruby, Ruby on Rails, or RoR in their profile, and show with a screenshot how you know they have Ruby experience.

Jeremy Langhans was able to solve that challenge by the end of my session, using only his iPhone (props Jer!). His solution was quite clever – if he reads this post, perhaps he’ll comment with how he solved the challenge. :-)

The great thing about interactive exercises is that they don’t focus on someone’s ability to repeat something that someone else showed them – these kinds of challenges verify a person’s ability to think creatively and solve a problem and give you insight into their abilities – far beyond being able to answer a multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank question.

The Most Effective Form of Training

The most effective form of training I’ve ever performed is On-The-Job!

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which come from the embedded benefits of continuous feedback, learning and improvement, and the real-time application of techniques and strategies, as well as real-world verification via results.

The recruiters I’ve training who have the best sourcing abilities are those with whom I have had the ability to work directly with for months and years on a daily basis.

This should not be surprising, as I (and Confucius) have already determined that involvement is the most critical component to training and learning.

Here’s a good way to illustrate the effectiveness of various training formats:

  1. Non-interactive training of any kind is like trying to learn how to play golf by watching a video
  2. Classroom training is like going to a 3 day golf camp and expecting to be a great golfer
  3. On-The-Job training is like having one of the best golfers in the world coach you every time you play!


When it comes to creating or selecting effective sourcing training, I have 5 recommendations:

  1. Hire right
  2. Do not be dependent upon 3rd party training
  3. Demand more from your training
  4. Implement deliberate practice
  5. Develop a culture of learning and development

Hire Right

You may be surprised to see me writing about hiring when the article is about effective training.

However, all the best training in the world will be ineffective if you have the wrong people in the sourcing role. If you don’t hire right, it doesn’t matter how much excellent training you provide a person.

When it comes to hiring people who will be responsible for sourcing candidates, I think it is critical that you resist valuing any specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience. In my personal experience, the people who I have worked with that have developed into the best sourcers and recruiters are people who had no prior sourcing and recruiting experience.

Instead of valuing prior experience, I recommend placing a high value on creativity, critical thinking ability, and problem solving capability – because people can develop specific sourcing capabilities after they are hired.

Critical thinking is an indispensable trait that allows a person to:

  • Recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems
  • Understand the importance of prioritization and order of precedence in problem solving
  • Gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information
  • Recognize unstated assumptions and values
  • Comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discernment
  • Interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments
  • Recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions
  • Draw warranted conclusions and generalizations
  • Test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives
  • Reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience
  • Render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life

If others consider you to be a good sourcer, I’d be shocked if the list above doesn’t resonate with you.

Critical thinking is actually perhaps the single most important trait you can hire for, in any role.

In addition to solid critical thinking abilities, seek to hire people who have:

  • The capacity and the desire to learn (not everyone does!)
  • A questioning nature (the “why,” not just the “how” or “what”)
  • The right character attributes, such as persistence, work ethic, a dedication to fulfilling commitments, etc.
  • An interest in games or hobbies that require/involve analytical problem solving ability
  • Fluid reasoning

Fluid intelligence or fluid reasoning is a fascinating concept, and is “the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. It is the ability to analyze novel problems, identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and the extrapolation of these using logic.” In contrast, crystallized intelligence is the ability to use acquired skills, knowledge, and experience.”

People who will develop into the best sourcers will definitely be those with fluid reasoning capability. The ability to solve problems in novel situations – those a person has never previously been exposed to and not resembling something formerly known or used – is essential to a world-class sourcer.

Do Not be Dependent Upon 3rd Party Training

I’m not suggesting you never use independent trainers – you should always seek out new information from the “outside world” and verify your own level of knowledge and ability with others.

However, I am saying quite directly that you should not be dependent upon 3rd party trainers. If you are, you clearly don’t have your own sourcing thought leadership and ability inside your company, which should be unacceptable.

Demand More From Your Training

Whether you are assessing independent or internal trainers, it is very important that you verify the ability of trainer. Ideally, your trainer should be Stage 5 Hypercompetent.

Many trainers (and not just sourcing trainers) are Stage 3 – Consciously Competent. They know their subject matter, but it isn’t second nature to them, and while they can show you sites, tips, and tricks – they are not actually able to confer ability to others.

Sourcing is truly “second nature” to Stage 4 Unconsciously Competent trainers, and like Stage 3 trainers, are able to demonstrate sites, tips and tricks. However, their heightened level of skill does not automatically ensure they are able to teach others to the point where sourcing becomes “second nature” to the trainees. Showing is not teaching.

The most effective trainers are Stage 5 – Hypercompetent. They are able to identify and develop unconscious competence in others by breaking down their unconscious competence (their “art”) into standardized approaches, methodologies and thought processes that others can understand and apply to novel scenarios.

You should demand/implement training that:

  • Goes beyond the “how to use” and into “how to find more of the right people more quickly”
  • Goes beyond Boolean syntax, specific sites, tips and tricks and into Talent Mining – Information Retrieval best practices
  • Goes beyond the “what” and the “how,” and dives deep into the “why” – it’s the difference between being able to repeat a technique vs. being able to explain why you’re doing it and what it will accomplish, and what to do if it doesn’t work!
  • Emphasizes a standardized critical thought process – effective sourcing is 95% thought, 5% syntax
  • Involves verification of knowledge transfer and ability – if you don’t, you have no way to know if the training was effective or not, nor if you will see any benefit

Implement Deliberate Practice

Thomas Edison once said, “The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration.”

Learning and abilities gained can be significantly accelerated through what is known as “deliberate practice.”

Most people don’t come to work every day specifically to get better at what they do. To become a top performer, you need to set goals that specifically focus on improving your skills and ability.

Deliberate Practice is a system designed specifically to improve skills and ability, and it differs from what most people think of when they hear the word “practice” in that it:

  • Improves performance by design
  • Requires high repetition
  • Involves continuous feedback
  • Is mentally challenging, not mindless repetition
  • Is hard work, targeting what you’re not already good at
  • Focuses on the process, not the end result
  • Requires metacognition

If you’re interested in learning more about the concept of deliberate practice, I highly recommend you read Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin.

The bottom line is that “natural talent” (what you’re born with) accounts for perhaps 10% of your skills and abilities, and that the majority of “talent” can be developed through effective training and disciplined deliberate practice.

Develop a Culture of Learning and Development

“If you want one year of prosperity, grow seeds. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people.” – Chinese proverb

A company’s only sustainable competitive advantage is the exceptional people they hire…and develop!

I firmly believe that the most important job a manager has isn’t managing people, it’s developing people.

Effective On-the-Job training requires talented, experienced and capable managers/mentors who are Hypercompetent in their areas of expertise. Without capable mentors, training essentially becomes “I showed you how, now go do it,” which is unfortunately all too common.

Develop a culture of learning in your organization and establish your own world-class training program and curriculum. There’s nothing stopping you from creating your own sourcing center of excellence or special interest groups where like-minded and interested people can get together and push the envelope of sourcing techniques and strategies. You’ve heard of Toastmasters – why not SourceMasters?

To learn more about how teaching can and should be considered a central part of any manager’s jobs, I recommend reading Toyota Talent by Jeffrey Liker & David Meier.

In Summary

  • The art of sourcing can be systematized, and acquired skills can be transferred to others
  • Knowing how to do something well doesn’t automatically confer you the ability to teach it to others
  • People who have achieved Stage 5 Hypercompetence are best qualified to transfer ability
  • People learn most effectively by doing, ideally repeatedly with feedback – not by listening and watching
  • Effective training requires involvement in which trainees are required to explain and perform what they’ve been taught
  • Hire right: the wrong person + the right training = failure
  • Seek to identify those with strong critical thinking and fluid reasoning ability
  • Test and certify the ability of your associates – don’t settle for the ability to recall training material
  • Your managers should ideally be your best trainers – the best managers develop their associates!
  • Deliberate practice works – strive to end the day better at what you do when you started the day
  • Don’t be dependent on external training
  • Develop your own culture of learning and development to include sourcing excellence

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