How to Become a World Class Sourcer or Recruiter

So, you want to know how to become a world class sourcer or recruiter?

You’re in luck, because in this article, I explain precisely how to become one.

The good news is that all it takes is practice, and it doesn’t take 10,000 hours of practice either.

No one is born with a sourcing or recruiting gene, so no one is predispositioned for sourcing/recruiting greatness – it’s pretty much a level playing field without any significant barriers to entry.

The bad news (for some) is that it takes “deliberate practice,” which by design isn’t fun, is hard work, mentally challenging, and improves performance by design.

Read on, if you dare, to unlock the secret 8-factor deliberate practice formula for becoming a world class sourcer or recruiter.

The Talent Excuse

First things first – there is no such thing as having a “talent” for sourcing or recruiting.

I’ve worked with and trained many recruiters over the span of my career, and I’ve often had people “explain away” my sourcing ability with the excuse that I have a “talent” for it.

In my first few years in recruiting, it was nice to get the compliment, and I accepted that at face value.

I never really wondered where my ability came from – I assumed I actually did have a “talent” for talent mining. Over time, however, it started to bother me because it was obvious that some people felt they might not be able to do the things that I have been able to do because they didn’t have the “talent” for it like I have.

I’m happy to tell the world I don’t have a “talent” for sourcing or recruiting.

If I have any talents, they would be problem solving and figuring things out. Certainly not unique aptitudes, nor are they sourcing/recruiting specific.

So, if people who are great sourcers and recruiters don’t have a talent for it, how did they become so good?

Could it be training?

Training is Great, but not the Key to Greatness

When I train people or present at conferences, I often get asked, “How did you learn all this stuff?”

I honestly think most people are looking for some source of information or training that they can take to learn all of the things I have learned to do.

Most people are clearly disappointed to hear that I am self-taught.

That’s right – I learned pretty much everything I know now through trial and error, which is layman’s terminology for the scientific method.

I know – some of you have to be thinking it’s odd for me to bring the scientific method into how I’ve learned what I have about sourcing and recruiting. Trust me, it’s not odd at all – structured, disciplined trial and error is one of the most effective methods of learning, and it is also a solid foundation for discovery and innovation.

The fact that I am self-taught often leads people circularly back to the talent excuse: if I am self-taught, I must have some kind of talent for sourcing and recruiting, and other people can’t hope to learn what I know and do what I can do because they can’t go through the same training I did or read the same information I have, because it simply doesn’t exist.

This is similar to asking someone where they bought an object in the hopes of being able to buy it, only to learn the person custom made it and doesn’t sell them, and thus no one else can acquire the same object.

However, I think the proper perspective is that people should be encouraged that you can gain significant expertise without having to take a single training class!

Perhaps one of the most significant takeaways from this article is the very fact that formal sourcing and recruiting training – at least the kind that is available from most people and companies today – isn’t a prerequisite for mastery.

Committing to self-study is critical because I’d argue strongly that it is more likely to produce discovery and innovation in any field or profession.

Have you heard about the 17 year old who recently received Intel’s Young Scientist Award for his work on micro search (think Twitter and Facebook status updates)? He won the award for his research into the field of computer science known as information retrieval, by identifying  statistical relationships between words to get better search results from tweets and Facebook status updates.

When a Wall Street Journal reporter asked him what was it that helped him crack the code of getting better search results, he responded by saying he leveraged a Markov chain in developing his algorithm.

Then the reporter asked him, “How does a 17 year old know about Markov chains?” The boy responded with, “Uh, I did a lot of self-study,” and “…mostly just a lot of reading.”


On his own.

Where does “Talent” Come From?

So, I hope I have made it abundantly clear that no one has an innate “talent” for sourcing and recruiting, although that certainly won’t stop people from using the term to describe why people are good at what they do.

What I have in lieu of “talent,” and I am sure this is true for many others, is 2 factors that I believe have contributed significantly to developing my skills and ability.

#1 A combination of personality traits: I’m competitive (I hate to lose), analytical, solution oriented, tenacious, and I really enjoy figuring things out. Nothing really special there – certainly not a rare combination of traits, and I’m sure many people share them.

#2 Lots of “deliberate practice.” This is something anyone can consciously choose to do, and it’s what really separates world-class performers of all kinds from everyone else.

You may be wondering what “deliberate practice” is, and how it’s different from plain old regular practice.

Well, let me tell you.

Practice isn’t “Just Practice

Back in October 2008, I read an article in Fortune magazine titled “Why Talent is Overrated,” by Geoff Colvin. It completely changed my understanding of my own so-called “talents” and how I came to achieve them.

If you haven’t read the article or the book that Geoff wrote (Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else) – I strongly urge you to do so. They are fascinating reads that will give you significant insight as to exactly why some people are so much better than others at what they do. 

In both the article and the book, Geoff Colvin articulates the concept of “deliberate practice” very well – it is a unique kind of activity, characterized by several elements that when combined, form a powerful whole greater than the sum of their parts.

As I read Geoff’s content, I realized that I owe a great deal of my sourcing and recruiting skills and ability to “deliberate practice” and I firmly believe anyone for the most part can replicate the conditions under which I learned the art and science of sourcing and recruiting.

I will only briefly summarize the 8 critical elements that define and differentiate “deliberate practice” from what most people think of when it comes to practice, because Colvin does such a fantastic job of going into significant detail when explaining the concept.

Trust me – at least read the article, if not the book.

#1 Deliberate Practice Improves Performance by Design

Do you practice your sourcing and recruiting techniques, strategies and methodologies daily at work?

While most people wouldn’t characterize what they do each day as “practice,” everyone should, or at least those who are committed to excellence and being the best they can be.

However, Deliberate practice is specifically designed to improve performance by continually stretching you just beyond your current ability.

Unfortunately, when most people “practice” at work, they are just doing what they’ve always done – which does nothing to improve performance.

Unlike many professional athletes, most business professionals (including sourcers and recruiters) do not go to work every day specifically trying to get better at what they do.

It’s something many people may talk about, but very few people actually do.

Geoff Colvin cuts to the root of the matter, pointing out that “Most fundamentally, what we generally do at work is directly opposed to the first principle: It isn’t designed by anyone to make us better at anything. Usually it isn’t designed at all: We are just given an objective that’s necessary to meeting the employer’s goals and then expected to get on with it.”

If you are looking to master sourcing and recruiting, you must specifically design your approach at work to improve your performance – not simply meet goals and objectives, or worse yet, simply get your job done so you can go home every day and do what you really want to do.

You will need to specifically practice what you are not currently good at, always seeking that which is just beyond your ability. In athletics, this is similar to the idea of playing people or teams who are slightly better than you.

Do you passionately attack positions that you’ve never worked before, that you don’t have a pipeline for, that are difficult for you to understand, or that require a rare combination of skills that is difficult to find? Or do you post the job, hope for the right people to respond, and move on to something you’re more comfortable with?

Even as early as my first 6 months as a recruiter, I specifically sought out the toughest positions my company had and I quickly became the “go to” recruiter for any opening that no one else could fill. When I would tackle each one of those “purple squirrel” positions, I accelerated my learning and I am certain I increased by abilities far beyond what they would have been had I “played it safe” and focused only on the easy to fill positions.

When you finally do find a candidate, are you relieved at your success and achievement, or do you ask yourself whether or not this is the BEST candidate you could find?

I can recall many times when I would find 2-3 very well matched candidates for a particular position, and I would ask my account manager if they were pleased with the current slate of candidates, and if they would like to see if I could find an even better match, or perhaps someone more closed, or someone who was just as qualified as all of the previous candidates but happy to accept 5-10K less in compensation. Sometimes I would do this without asking – just to see if I could.

After every message you leave for a potential candidate, do you ask yourself what you could have done better? Or do you send pretty much the same messages to and leave the same voice mails for everyone? Do you strive for a perfect 100% response rate (yes, even from people who aren’t looking for jobs), or are you happy with a 50% response rate? Do you even know what your response rate is?

You might find it interesting to know that in my first year in recruiting, I challenged myself to never leave the same voicemail or send the same email/message twice.

Why do you think I did that to myself?

#2 Deliberate Practice Requires High Repetition

Properly conducted, deliberate practice involves a high amount of repetition, and it is critical to choose an activity that is just beyond your current ability.

When it comes to deliberate practice, Colvin points out that volume matters, explaining that “Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.”

If you seek to become a world class sourcer or recruiter, you will need to deliberately practice each and every step of the sourcing and recruiting life cycle A LOT, with a specific intent on improving your performance at every step.

For sourcing, this would include the entire process of analyzing and interpreting job requirements, translating the requirements into queries that are highly likely to find the right/best people, analyzing the results for relevance, and incrementally and iteratively refining the search strings based on the observed relevance, intel gained, and patterns recognized from the results of each successive search.

When it comes to deliberate practice, volume of repetition is key.

Aside from candidate search, one obvious area where you have significant control over the volume of repetition is the amount of calls you make daily to new candidates.

For example, some recruiters make 20 or fewer calls to new potential candidates each day. Some double, triple, and even quadruple that volume.

“So what?,” you ask?

Well, with all things being equal, a person making twice as many calls to new candidates every day can learn and improve twice as fast.

That’s what.

“Big deal. What can you learn from making more phone calls?,” you say?

How about learning and discovering more effective methods of:

  • Starting conversations with passive candidates
  • Handling objections (e.g., “I’m not looking,” “What’s it pay?,” etc.)
  • Eliciting referrals
  • Closing and controlling active candidates
  • Candidate evaluation
  • Selling your opportunity
  • Matching
  • Gaining competitive and organizational intel

That’s just to name a few – do any of them ring a bell?

Yeah – a good portion of the “meat” of what’s important in recruiting.

#3 Deliberate Practice Involves Continuous Feedback

When performing deliberate practice, feedback on results is ideally continuously available.

Without continuous feedback, you don’t have any real way of knowing how well you’re actually doing.

When applying this concept to sourcing, the continuous feedback should be painfully obvious – with every search you run, you are either finding a large volume of highly relevant results (well matched/qualified candidates), or not (lots of results, but many false positives, and few highly relevant results).

As Colvin points out, the aspect of continuous feedback may seem obvious, but not necessarily so when results require interpretation. In many cases, continuous feedback from a coach, teacher, or mentor is a critical factor in providing feedback.

The problem with sourcing is that all searches “work.” However, just because you get results doesn’t mean you’re finding all of the best people to be found.

You may be pleased with the quantity of your results, or you may think your search results are highly relevant, or perhaps represent the best candidates a particular source you are searching can offer – but until a highly proficient mentor reviews and assesses the results objectively, you may actually be in a dangerous state of ignorant bliss.

Without feedback from a knowledgeable peer, coach, or mentor, you literally don’t know what you don’t know, and you may not be able to get a sense of what your Boolean queries are excluding and incapable of returning.

For other ideas regarding continuous feedback – when it comes to recruiting and submitting candidates to your manager or client,  do you proactively ask for feedback and for what you could do better on the next candidate submittal?

When interacting with the people you’re trying to recruit – have you ever bothered to ask how well you’re doing compared to all of the other recruiters they’ve worked with?

Does your recruiting organization offer candidate experience surveys, even to people that you weren’t able to recruit and submit for an opportunity?

Interesting idea, yes?

#4 Deliberate Practice is Mentally Challenging!

This one might seem a bit obvious, but Colvin claims that deliberate practice requires a high degree of mental focus and concentration, differentiating it from simple and mindless repetition.

When you’re sourcing, your brain should definitely be “on,” and you should not just be quickly coming up with a single search and reviewing your results for people to contact.

You should be specifically focusing on the analysis of the relevance of your search results, seeking to identify patterns of false positives and seeking ways to safely eliminate them, discovering additional related and relevant terms that you did not originally search for, questioning whether or not you in fact found all of the best candidates that a particular source has to offer, and continually seeking ways to not only improve the relevance of the results, but also to increase the quantity of high quality results requires significant focus and concentration.

World class sourcing is 95% thought process and strategy, 5% Boolean operators and syntax!

#5 Deliberate Practice is Hard Work

As Colvin so aptly points out, “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”

Deliberate practice requires you to specifically target what you’re not good at, which can be an uncomfortable and perhaps painful, if not enlightening, process – which explains why most people actually shy away from deliberate practice.

If it were easy and fun to become truly great at something, everyone would be great – that explains why there are so few true top performers/masters in every endeavor.

It’s pretty easy to post a job, wait for people to apply, contact and screen the applicants.

How about calling and recruiting passive candidates as well as people who aren’t looking to make a change?

Yeah – not so easy.

Which is exactly why you should purposefully target and reach out to passive and non-job seekers daily, because in order to get better at recruiting, you can’t always stick to the easy stuff. Plus, with every outreach effort to and connection with a passive or non-job seeker, you will learn

Think of passive and non-job seeker recruiting as the backhand to your forehand, which would be recruiting active candidates.

When it comes to sourcing – most sourcers and recruiters can run Boolean search strings to find candidates in their ATS/CRM applications, on the Internet, social media sites, and job board resume databases – so it seems easy.

But just because you can do something, it doesn’t actually mean you’re actually any good at it. Anyone can type in some keywords and hit the “search” button, but not everyone can find all of the best potential candidates every source has to offer.

This goes back to point #3 – many people are not capable of objectively judging the quantity and quality of their search results and also rarely have access to a basis of comparison. If you are not even aware that you could be getting more and better results more quickly, talent mining seems simple and the idea that you need perform hard work to practice to improve your skills and abilities may seem preposterous.

Beware if you are ever finding yourself getting satisfied with your current level of ability, because it may be a sure sign that either:

  1. You’re actually not as good as you think you are, or
  2. You don’t prioritize or commit to improving your skills – or perhaps both!

If you ever find your daily work to be getting too easy – it’s time to purposefully find something to challenge yourself with, because if you’re comfortable, you’re most assuredly not growing.

#6 Deliberate Practice Focuses on the Process, Not the End Result

To become a top performer, you need to set goals that specifically focus on improving your skills and ability.

Colvin explains that “…the poorest performers don’t set goals at all; they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome – win the order; get the new project proposal done. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

When I read that, especially that last sentence, I literally had an epiphany because it explains so much about my performance and achievements.

Looking back at my career in recruiting, I was never really focused making hires, which is of course the obvious goal of recruiting.

I also never set a goal for any specific number of hires or even interviews per month (other than having the most, of course).

Instead, I was always specifically focused on finding the highest quantity of the best possible candidates for the positions I focused in the least amount of time.

By focusing on having the highest number of well-matched and closed candidates on my team every day, I typically had the highest number of monthly candidate submittals as well.

At any given submittal to interview and submittal to hire ratio, with quality a constant – more submittals will equal more interviews and hires.

Funny how that works.

I was able to achieve record hiring volumes, not by setting a goal of a specific number or hires, but instead by focusing on the “top of the funnel” sourcing and recruiting activities.

It is a deceptively simple difference – focusing on the process of achieving the outcome rather than achieving the outcome itself – but it is a significant difference that separates top performers from everyone else.

#7 Deliberate Practice Requires Metacognition

Research has shown that top performers monitor what is happening in their own minds and ask questions of themselves. This process is known as metacognition.

John H. Flavell, an American developmental psychologist, explains that metacognition “refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data.”

Colvin points out that top performers perform metacognition “much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.”

In the effort to become a world class sourcer or recruiter, metacognition plays a critical role in every step of the life cycle.

In sourcing, metacognition plays a critical role in the process of analyzing and interpreting job requirements and determining what terms to include in your Boolean search string as well as which ones to specifically exclude.

This involves challenging your assumptions as well as the information in the job description and requirements, and pausing to reflect and observe your own thought processes:

  • Do I really understand this position?
  • How many different titles could candidates performing this role have?
  • How many different ways can this type of experience be described in a resume, and how can I effectively search for all of them?
  • Would ALL candidates with this type of experience ALWAYS explicitly mention the required technology and/or skills in their resume?
  • What can I learn from this search result?

I recall constantly being aware of what was happening in my own mind and asking questions of myself as I was refining my candidate search strategies, leaving voice mails for potential candidates, having conversations with people who just wanted to get me off the phone, eliciting referrals, and practically every activity I performed and every interaction I had with people each day.

If you’re not constantly monitoring what you’re doing and asking yourself how you could be doing it better, you might be in danger of just “going through the motions.”

I firmly believe that metacognition is a key differentiator between mindless repetition or “going through the motions” and true deliberate practice.

#8 Deliberate Practice Involves Continuous Improvement

Feedback on your sourcing and recruiting efforts can come in many forms – from your phone screen and/or interview with the candidates you found through your searches (were they well qualified and interested in potential opportunities?), to the client’s/manager’s/team’s interview with the candidates you’ve sourced and screened (did both the candidate AND the hiring authorities feel it was a great match?), all the way to a successful hire that “sticks” (the ultimate feedback loop).

According to Colvin, the final key to deliberate practice is how you respond after you’ve completed your work and evaluated the result.

Average performers shy away from asking themselves the difficult questions.

If some of the candidates you’ve sourced with your Boolean queries ended up not being interested in your opportunity (regardless of whether or not they were actually available) – you should try and figure out how you can be more accurate with your searches the next time around.

Yes, really.

Don’t assume that it’s “normal” for some candidates to not be interested in your opportunity – if they’re not, your searches weren’t accurate and you’re calling the wrong people.

Even if your sourcing efforts have resulted in a hire – instead of congratulating yourself on a job well done, ask if you could have found an even better candidate more quickly.

Top performers strive to figure out how to perform better the next time, regardless of the result, as they judge themselves differently than most people do – to a higher standard.

Final Thoughts

I have never received any formal (or informal, for that matter) training in sourcing or recruiting, nor do I spend a lot of time in any LinkedIn sourcing/recruiting group or reading any sourcing/recruiting blogs.

To those of you with great blogs, I’m sorry – unless someone else recommends a particular post or I catch it in one of my Twitter streams, I just don’t have the time, and the time I do have I like to spend hacking and figuring things out  on my own.

While training, content and materials can certainly help get you going in the right direction, if you want to be world-class at sourcing and recruiting, quite simply, and more importantly, it takes a lot of “deliberate practice.”

You must realize that you can’t pick and choose from the list of the core principles of deliberate practice detailed above – it requires all of them combined to realize the maximum benefit.

Many people say they want to be the best at what they do and to achieve great results, but most aren’t willing to commit to the time, effort, and deliberate practice it requires.

Being world-class at anything is not only hard work, it also takes the specific disciplined approach I detailed above.

There is no substitute, and there is no “easy button.”

And that’s precisely why there are so few top performers in every field.