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Recruiting in a Candidate's market - Insights from Executive Recruiting veteran Caroline Ceniza-Levine

Baron Leacock

Caroline Ceniza-Levine, experienced independent executive recruiter, career coach, published author, senior Forbes contributor, media personality, real estate investor, film producer (is there anything she can't do?) recently spent some time with Rocket to discuss the real impact of the great changes in recruiting and retention we've seen over the last few years. From her early days as a Management Consultant at Oliver Wyman, to leading recruiting teams at Time Warner and then launching her own recruiting and coaching practice, she's seen it all and done it all. The value of her perspective, on topics such as onboarding in a virtual environment and recruiting in a candidate's market, really shined through in our chat.

What follows is an abridged version of that conversation.

Was recruiting your first love?

I have been in the HR space since 1997, when I joined an executive search firm that focused on the management consulting industry.  I had been a management consultant, that was my first job. I was in strategy consulting for Oliver Wyman for their investment banking/risk management practice, so a very different job than recruiting.  But then a former consultant started a search firm focused on the consulting industry that hired consultants to be the search people.  We knew the job.  She had a McKinsey person, a Booz Allen person, an Oliver Wyman person, so we would place partners and principals, your traditional search model.  But it was tightly focused on strategy consulting.  

I did that for a few years, that’s what got me into recruiting, which I LOVE.  Then I went in-house to a global media company, Time Inc., the magazine publishing company owned by Time Warner.  I ran several recruiting areas such as diversity, all the entry-level recruiting, the free-lance recruiting for Time Inc.  So I’ve always been a recruiter within HR and part of being a recruiter is you learn all about your candidates, their motivations, and their career journey.  You become an advisor to them.  Always of course my client was the employer, but you get into situations where you have long term relationships with your candidates. And I loved that aspect of it, of advising clients.  So I switched over: I started a company in 2008 that focused on career coaching from the recruiter’s point of view.  I would share with individuals how the hiring process works: what HAPPENS when you submit a resume? What does that look like? What are retained recruiters looking for when they hire for a C-level role or a head of a business unit?

Nowadays I do some searches and some coaching, so I have a company that splits its time between those two things. I work to live at this point.  I’ve put my two kids through school.  I spend half my time traveling and then the rest of the time coaching and recruiting.  So this environment is a very interesting environment.

You’re an industry veteran, how would you define recruiting before Covid and how did it change?

I actually don’t see that much of a change.  Honestly, the things that have changed were already starting pre-pandemic, in terms of, there was a force: a lot more was done digitally and virtually.  Who does paper resumes anymore?  The notion of the one or two page resume debate doesn’t really mean anything in the era of looking at everything on a device that might be a phone or a tablet or a desktop.  Those changes were definitely pre-pandemic, they were just accelerated because now everybody is working virtually.   

Even pre-pandemic I was meeting candidates on video calls, or doing phone screens as the first thing, other recruiters were absolutely doing the same thing.  Heavy use of social platforms, so your LinkedIn profile is probably more important than your resume, things like that.  And word of mouth, backdoor references and all of that.  Especially at the experience levels, the senior levels.  It was important then and it’s important today.  So some of the foundation of recruiting really hasn’t changed.  

I think what is different now is that companies are more open to fully remote arrangements or mostly remote arrangements, and so your candidate pool arguably expands.  Most of my recruiting experience is at very senior levels where it’s typically a national search anyway, but there was very much this notion of “and they have to move.”  And there was always that relocation issue, I call it “the organ transplant that doesn’t take.”  Sometimes that happens, you recruit someone, even between the coastal cities, you get someone from California to New York or vice versa and still culturally it's different and personally they’re just not happy or whatever, so there’s always that risk. One could argue that companies are more flexible about this sort of thing.  

But I honestly have not seen that much that’s different.  I think at the junior levels, definitely for technical jobs, it’s such a candidate’s market, it’s arguably very hard to recruit now, but it’s been a candidate's market before.  I don’t think it's like a post-Covid candidate’s market, I think it just happened to coincide with Covid.  Recruiting is up and down.  Sometimes it’s an employer’s market, sometimes it's a candidate’s market, and then it’ll shift yet again. 

I think you have to be proactive about recruiting in a candidate’s market, because hiring is so competitive.  You cannot assume that candidates will return your LinkedIn invite or message or will respond to just one thing, that if you had not taken the time previously to build a strong employer brand, to have a strong referral pipeline, to have your recruiting process buttoned up so that when someone does come into your funnel, you can get them through the process very quickly. 

Again, those foundational recruiting things, it’s so important because it’s too competitive now.  You will lose people because you're slow.   Or you’ll lose people because by the time you’ve found them, they already have a job.

What I will say is different is onboarding people, or retaining people in a remote environment. It is much more challenging because the things that people relied on, management by walking around, culture by walking around, doesn’t exist anymore. So you can imagine a new person, how are they supposed to develop relationships and meet people, without the benefit of structured networking? Structured could be virtual or in person, but you have to build a team, you have to build that dynamic.  You can't assume people are just going to somehow find each other. 

And the folks that are dealing with that well, what does that look like?

They’re thinking through what their onboarding looks like so they don’t just start someone and make it about, “this is what you do, two plus two equals four and that’s how you do that report.”  They think through: who do they need to know? How am I going to broker these introductions?  How are they going to develop these relationships?  How are they going to find out who does what?

If you just leave that to an individual manager, some will be better at that than others and it creates a very lopsided onboarding experience.  Someone I hired earlier this year as a COO for a biotech company, I was checking in with this person, every week, then every other week, then every month, so I probably had over a dozen touch points over the six months since he agreed to come on board.  Some social, just checking in, “how’re you doing?” and some strictly professional, where it’s, “have you met so and so?” because I am not just assuming that my client will handle all of this perfectly, even though they also have their own onboarding process. I’m making sure that someone is talking to this person, because it’s a virtual environment, and it's just going to be that much more difficult.  Everybody has to do their part, we cannot assume that someone is going to do it.  So even as the recruiter, even though at this point it's not my hire, the person is onboarded, I’m still in it to make sure that they’re successful because it's harder when you don’t see people all the time.

What is your take on the “Great Resignation?”

I honestly am not seeing it.  I’m not seeing people just quitting en masse on a whim.  And again I’m seeing employers who are still able to hire.  So in competitive markets, it's always still a tale of two markets, where good candidates will always find a place to land, and good employers will always be able to hire.  But the people who struggle will struggle even more.  The candidates who really don’t know which way is up, they’re not going to find the right job anyway.  Employers who leave recruiting to the last minute are sunk, when it’s a competitive market.  So it just exacerbates the issues that already existed.  

I do find people are very thoughtful.  I see it more as a coach, that people are very thoughtful about “what's next for me?” that the pandemic has absolutely caused an inflection point, caused people to be very reflective around, is this all there is? And some people had to deal with sickness and death, or huge disruptions, or anxiety or emotional things.  

People are thinking about, like, do I want to be doing this, like working for this particular company, or this particular role. So in that way, it’s that that’s different now for sure, just by virtue of it being such a life kind of event.  But people aren't quitting.  The people that I work with, they’re experienced professionals, who are in big jobs, and they are embedded in their careers and they have family and financial obligations and they have a work ethic, that’s what got them where they are.  

So they are reflecting, but they’re not just throwing their hands up in there and just leaving.  I think there is still opportunity for employers if they are worried about retaining people. If the person hasn’t quit, you still have a chance.  Get on it, with “stay” interviews, caring about people’s mental health and burn out and all of that kind of stuff, and get on it with your employer brand on the recruiting side, so you can be proactive about recruiting.  People aren’t just quitting that quickly, they're still looking for the best opportunity for them. 

I will say that the best opportunity…maybe they’ve changed their mind about what that is.  Maybe they’re more holistic thinking about it, it’s not just the money or the title.

So you’re seeing a lot of reflecting?

For sure. Also on questions like: is this a company that is going to weather a financial crisis or a difficult market?  But I would have seen that before.  I recruited during Y2K, 9/11, the dotcom boom and bust.  There were these shocks to the market, and so the difficulty for recruiting and the candidate disruption, that’s all similar.  I think 9/11 is probably the most similar to what I'm seeing now, that same kind of coming to Jesus, holy cow, do I want to be doing this?  Whereas the dotcom boom and bust was more like an economic phenomenon.  And of course it was disruptive to people’s lives, but just in terms of the emotion of it, it was more about the market run up and run down versus something like 9/11 or something like Covid where I’ve had people having to deal with family members gone too early, stuff like that, big things.

Essentially we are where we might have been five years, ten years down the road, and now we’re here and we’ve done it very quickly.  What does that mean for recruiting and retaining in your view?

Well I just assume that companies are going to be smarter about how they recruit.   You saw it after the dotcom boom and bust that companies were not so quick to all of a sudden hire and staff up.  They were just more thoughtful about hiring. I just hope that’s going to continue here, that companies realize they have to be more nimble, they might have to go virtual at the drop of a hat, they might have this huge disruption, or a supply chain disruption, or whatever, so they have to be nimble.  Maybe they will invest in their recruiting, and get buttoned up about their process and their branding and all that kind of stuff so that they can be more competitive.  

I think virtual is here to stay.  I don't think it’s all of a sudden going to go away.  Some companies will decide that that is actually the best way to do things and so you have to manage people differently and you have to build the different onboarding processes and the different promotion and review processes, and so all of that, culture, what does it mean by employee engagement, that stuff is going to be around, so hopefully companies will be the better for it, that they will pay attention to these things. They’re forced to do it, but over time they can take a step back, and take the time to put in good standards and processes.

Until complacency sets in again and then comes the next disruption.

Right so it's up and down, like I said, I‘ve seen it before.

People do ask, what’s best practices in terms of retention, recruiting, onboarding, this that and the other thing, and once again the verdict is still out.  I like to see that companies are paying more attention to employee engagement, stay interviews as opposed to exit interviews, but it's a chance for companies to get more thoughtful about how they review and evaluate people.  And you have to be proactive on management and not just rely on bumping into people and management by walking around.  But the reality is some companies are going to be better at it than others and some individuals are going to be more proactive about managing their careers through this.  Some will thrive and some will just get by, and some will have a really hard time, but that’s what makes the labor market so interesting.

Many thanks to Caroline for providing some much needed perspective!

About Rocket

Rocket pairs talented recruiters with advanced AI to help companies hit their hiring goals. Rocket is headquartered in the heart of Silicon Valley but has recruiters all over the US & Canada serving the needs of our growing client base across engineering, product management, data science and more.

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