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How to pivot as a specialist recruiter and see massive rewards

Kimberly Groat
31 Jul
Reading time: 10 minutes
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For some recruiters, the thrill of the job lies in sourcing and placing the best candidates with the best companies. For others, like Debi Easterday, not having direct involvement with the candidate once they’ve been placed meant never seeing how it all worked out. 

“Is there great chemistry? Is the manager treating his staff well? Is the candidate fully supported in their new role?

“I felt sometimes in contract recruitment, I would make a placement and hear nothing. Then, a year down the road, I’d get blindsided with the announcement that it wasn’t working out and the contractor had been given their last day. There would be no warning signs or phone calls around performance issues,” she explained. 

Debi has worked in recruitment for 20 years, primarily focussed on IT and speciality tech roles from C-suite to admin level. Having worked in-house as an employee for 17 years, the company retained her services for the last two years before Debi chose to work independently. 

It was during her in-house period that Debi moved into a project role where she assumed the title of practise manager for a new client, building an entire team from zero to 20 people. “I realised that being the intermediary, really facilitating communication between hiring managers on that team and the folks hired to do the work, having all parties calling me with concerns and issues and being treated as a valued partner…I wanted to be involved in these projects,” she said. 

One of the best aspects of project work, she added, was the ability to build a team that she could then nurture and develop. There were others of course:

  • Investment in training not only to nurture their professional and personal development but increase loyalty and excitement in working for the company
  • The variety that contract work provides that offers growth and stimulation 
  • Bringing people in and growing them as a team where they feel like they have their work colleagues
  • Knowing they have someone they can call when they aren’t getting the tools they need to be successful 

What’s needed to succeed in this role

What inspired Debi the most when considering this pivot was her network. 

“I have a wonderful network of people who I have developed over 20 years. Now, if I’m able to build a project team with these incredible people, where they’ll be managed and the project delivered successfully via a virtual environment…that won’t appeal to all clients. 

Yet, as a consequence of the current Covid crisis, remote work has become the norm. “I think a lot more managers are seeing that it can work. They’re seeing that the projects aren’t being impacted, we’re still delivering.”

Debi also admits that this isn’t the sort of work someone new to the industry could offer, because it is borne of having a very well established network of resources. “I know at any given point I have probably 50-100 amazing project managers I could call at any point who I would trust to take on a new project for a client and guide it through.”

As for personal qualities, for Debi, focussed communication is crucial. “You have to be able to make sure you are very specific about your expectations and have an awareness of project management. What is your project team specifically responsible for? Ensure you have very clear-cut contracts around deliverables.”

She also pointed out the need for very precise conversations with hiring managers and procurement around what your team’s requirements were going to be. “Are they going to be providing all the laptops? It not only comes down to logistics, but if you’ve got five people on a team and they’re all working as Quality Analysts (QA) there would be specific project deliverables that had to be itemised.”

Be very careful how you enumerate what you’re promising, because as Debi suggests, “you have to understand change management because each little change may have project dependencies. 

And now, all of a sudden, we’ve been hired for a three-month project that’s going to take six months. Otherwise what’s going to happen is you’re going to learn the hard way that you’ve underestimated. If there’s a huge variance, you’re going to have to eat it and that’s the risk. 

“So don’t go into this blindly and don’t go into this without a network that you know can deliver on what you’re promising.”

How would this differ to using contractors or freelancers?

There’s a very fine line between the work Debi is doing and that of a contractor. 

For a contractor, they would be embedded in the team working 40 hours a week for all intents and purposes. They would be reporting to the client’s hiring manager and their day-to-day would comprise of working only with those people on the client’s project team. 

 

“Instead, if what the client needs is some QA (Quality Assurance) work done and they’ve set a budget to get that done, how many resources does that get them? Does that get you two people full time? Probably not. It then becomes a service-based project, with deliverables rather than an employee. 

They are not managing this person but rather, handing-off a set of expectations and we are managing the resources that get the work done. Then we are handing you deliverables and a work product,” she explains. 

As for freelancers, Debi notes that it comes down to building specialised teams where she would allocate work to her project team and then manage the communications between the project resource and the client-side teams. 

“These are trusted professional resources that have worked together in the past; we’re not going to the job boards and posting positions and hoping that these people work out,” she adds.

Taking the relationship beyond a transactional one

It’s new territory. And it’s a lot more work but as Debi says, “I’m choosing this because I’m most fulfilled by staying engaged. If you’re after the money, this is not going to be a wonderful business model for you because it does not scale.”

But the upside is this: “I will always be working with the clients I want to be working with and that know me and value me as a partner and not another vendor,” says Debi. 

As she points out, “we’re all stumbling across the same candidates, but basically all you’re doing is trying to drive down the bill rate with the competition. And what you really do is you ultimately drive down the pay rate to some of the best candidates. But how happy are they, six months down the road?”

Determining what success looks like 

While Debi admits she doesn’t yet know what her success looks like right now, she feels that ultimately, while profitability will be a part of it, a bigger part is going to be client retention. “My goal is client retention and to establish a client base where they don’t even consider calling anyone else.”

As for scaling the business, Debi feels that the only potential avenue would be a partnership with someone “who I know held the exact same values and standards that I do.” 

Yet that’s also where the challenge lies. Her business is built around her personal views. “It’s always a joke that Debi gets so attached to her candidates,” she says laughingly. “Well, I do absolutely. They’re humans and I develop relationships with them. So I do feel close to them,” she says, adding that the difficulty in scaling comes from needing to be involved in every project. 

“If I can build project teams where people know they’re valued and I know they’re being treated well…how much more empowered are you as an employee when you know people see what you’re doing as a contribution? 

She adds that some might see that as a noble idea. “That’s ok. I don’t want to be the next Accenture or KPMG. There are a ton of people that do and they’re doing their work. I want to be working with the companies who value the work that I’m doing.”

The first steps you should take

Debi suggests the first steps for any recruiter looking to make the same career move is to reach out to your network and find out where your strengths lie. Where are your networks? What’s your core area of expertise? 

She recommends reaching out to your network and making sure that once you have these projects, you have a network that wants to be involved in the work that you’re going to be doing. 

“The biggest part is to get out a spreadsheet and make a list of everybody you know and call them up. Ask them if they’re open to being a part of this project team. If they are, how much time can they allocate, can they only work off-hours and weekends or do they have the bandwidth to commit to a percentage of their time during the week?”

This must be mapped out so you’re not over-promising and under-delivering because you’ll never have a second chance. “If you go in and you tell them with every confidence that you will deliver this project and then you fail, they have no incentive to hire you again. So if you underbid the project, you eat it and you chalk it up to a lesson learned,” says Debi. 

It’s not about the paycheck 

Debi admits the naysayers always talk about profitability but says that’s not what she’s chasing. “Of course I want to make a paycheck for what I’m doing, but I love this and it’s not about money for me. The benefit of having my own company is that I can love it more. 

“I can make sure that the limited amount of time I have in a week to spend working and still have some life has to be the most fulfilling work that I can do. And for me, that’s building teams where people are happy, where my clients are happy. They call you first. They don’t call you and then ten other vendors because that guy seems to be a little cheaper,” she adds.

Happiness is the ultimate goal

There’s been a great deal of questioning recently about the purpose of work and finding fulfilment in what you do. And as Debi points out, almost everyone she knows has felt stuck in some way. Her hope is that the possibility of remote working caused by a shift in the way companies operate post-Covid will open up a wealth of opportunities.

“When people are happy, they work well. When they feel valued, they do their best work and as an employer, you benefit from that. That’s what I want for people,” she says, adding that anything she can do from a business or personal perspective to bring a little light into the world, she feels obligated to do. 

“I’ve got a business now, a channel whereas before I didn’t necessarily feel empowered. My message and my motivation didn’t necessarily align with my employer’s. But that’s my mission.”

If you’re a specialist recruiter who is curious to learn more about this business model, reach out to Debi Easterday on LinkedIn

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