Heidegger? Are you kidding me? Recruiting as narrative and the power of our words.

In college I read my first Heidegger and my first Foucault and my first Audre Lorde. It was the first time I had heard of any of them. This was in the mid 80's and yes I know I am old, but you kids can stay on my lawn - I mostly like you.

Heidegger, Foucault and Lorde would be a lot for any young mind to chew on, swallow and digest, but it about put me under. College was especially bumpy for me because it wasn't just classes for me - I was learning how to be. Eventually, I found myself smack dab in the middle of an academic turf war between philosophy, religion, feminist theory, and Midwestern closed-mindedness. It didn't help that during this tempestuous time I fell in love with a woman. My "Coming Out Experience" included a very special meeting with the dean, where he wanted to confirm rumors that I was a lesbian. He didn't appreciate my theories on sexual identity as construction and it was neither a helpful, nor particularly civil, conversation. A state school in MO was not very welcoming to a queer kid that was admittedly a bit strange. I lost my mind for awhile, spectacularly failed many classes, and eventually left the school. A waste. I had a full-ride scholarship, and then I had nothing.

Not really nothing, though. I had my love for theory, my understanding of self as construction, an awareness of life and self being something we undergo and shape, and a certainty that we are always becoming. I had my books. I still have them. I realize now I'd never have made it as an academic, and have no regrets.

I needed a job fast, and I did some time as a bill collector. Hot tip for those who want to hire good phone sales people - there is very little phone fear in bill collectors, and a lot of persuasion. Good pickings!

After bill collecting I did a tech startup before I knew what a startup was. I bootstrapped before the term existed, and I failed very fast before that was a badge of honor.

I eventually got a job as a recruiter. I was pretty good, too. Good enough to pay back the money I had borrowed as a tech entrepreneur. Haha. Paying back the money I borrowed? What a square! Clearly I wasn't good at startups. But still, no regrets.

I worked for a couple companies before going out on my own and I am fast approaching the milestone of working for myself longer than I ever did anyone else. That shocks me a little, and also makes me a bit proud.

It wasn't until recently that I realized my approach to recruiting might be a little different than many folks. I suppose it took a while for me to see how my love of philosophy and theory, which I thought was forced into dormancy while I figured out how to survive, has been with me all along.

I had a quick refresher training by Scott Love this week. Don't worry, this isn't a commercial, but I will say he has been an influence on my desk for many years. His framing of, "Recruiting is a Personal Development Opportunity Disguised as a Business" is one of the best I've ever seen, and I carry it with me always. If you don't know him you should and, as usual I re-learned three very important things from his call this week.

1. We are serving people. This is valuable and important work. Most of us must believe this to do it well. Take a minute and remind yourself of how good what we do can be.

2. We have to tap into and understand emotions and motivations to be successful in this business, and the language we use is one of the most important tools of our trade. The words we use are everything.

3. Our success happens in the fringes. By that I mean we do a lot of work to get to one placement. In a way, we live in edge cases.

Now this is where I am probably going to either lose or bore most of you. I know I'm always going on about words being important, but if you think closely they are all we have when we are trying for particular reactions from people. Also, in the time of "big data," "aggregate trends" and "predictive analytics" it is easy to forget that we make a living in the particular. It is important to understand trends, sure. But it is arguably more important to understand how to represent opportunity effectively to the person to whom we are pitching a dream job. To do that well, we have to ponder dreams and desires and needs.

I've forgotten a lot of my college philosophy, but a few things remain. One phrase from Heidegger stays with me: "the force of the most elemental words" through which we undergo life. Words are how we undergo life. Words are what we use to tell stories about who we are, and how we move through the world. Narratives make the world go around. Oh, by the way, that phrase is from Being and Time, if you are interested. Section 44.

Too many recruiters don't bother to construct narratives about the roles they represent - let alone pondering what is going on inside the minds of those people who might respond to those narratives. We've forgotten how to use the force of the most elemental words, or we never learned to do it in the first place. Do you ask yourself what a particular opportunity offers? Or are you just pushing another job?  People read and listen to our recruiting messages and don't feel moved to respond.  That is all on us.  Our job is to move people, to touch them at a deep level. To evoke emotion. To connect.

Instead of being powerful storytellers who trade in human dreams and potential, we've bastardized ourselves into purveyors of buzzword bingo and automated mass emails that do more harm than good. We've turned our beautiful and essential function into a commodity and drained it of most of its magic. We live in the convergence of automated systems and bad recruiter behavior. It is a perfect storm of awful and we need to do better. 

Every email, text or phone call we put out in the world should be constructed to tap into the powerful human themes that are the reasons people go through the trauma of a job change. Know what you offer. Know how to position it. Know who would want to hear about it. Use words to connect on a human level with the people we serve - both hiring managers and prospective candidates. Ask yourself what you have to offer that is worth a busy person taking the time to respond. Interact with people in the particular, not in the aggregate.

Trends and big data do not accept job offers. People do.

Views: 820

Comment by Tim Spagnola on August 11, 2014 at 7:01pm

Trends and big data do not accept job offers. People do. < - another for the T-Shirt thread!!! You so rock Lisa! Thanks for sharing. 

Comment by Nicholas Meyler on August 11, 2014 at 7:25pm

Excellent!  I always consider that my Philosophy degree from Princeton enabled me to be especially skilled at selling the intangible aspects of career opportunities, wherein it seems their greatest appeal exists.  I'd much rather sell learning and discovery opportunities than sell money$$.

Comment by Anna Brekka on August 12, 2014 at 9:51am

Very powerful and thank you for sharing your insight. 

Comment by Adam Fitzer on August 12, 2014 at 1:02pm

Thanks for this Lisa!  I have been up on my storytelling soapbox now for weeks, and I will need to order one of those t-shirts Tim is printing as well.  Whether it be internal or external, the ability to create appeal and truly create a story about the firm, the role, and the potential for a candidate seems to be a lost art.  Your article should be required reading for all those rookies, as well as a refresher for some who might have lost that vision.  Kudos again.  

Comment by Nicholas Meyler on August 13, 2014 at 1:07am

"We'll never be Royals!" -- Lorde

Comment by Jody Dugan on August 19, 2014 at 9:41am

Excellent article, Lisa!  Thanks for sharing.  

Comment by Recruiting Animal on August 19, 2014 at 10:18am

Call me square but this should be divided into two separate postings.

Comment by Robert Stevenson on August 20, 2014 at 1:18pm

Love this post, Lisa. Equal parts personal and insightful. The human connection and deep rhetorical nature of recruitment fascinates me, and it's a side I think unfortunately gets swept under the rug as often as not.

Comment by Kelly Blokdijk on August 22, 2014 at 5:48pm

Great post, Lisa. Also, quite timely as I just recently had a conversation about this exact "problem" 

Too many recruiters don't bother to construct narratives about the roles they represent - let alone pondering what is going on inside the minds of those people who might respond to those narratives.

Here's the gist of the situation: A recruiter pursued and eventually scheduled a call to "discuss an opportunity" with a prospect. Rather than doing anything resembling the above, the recruiter presumptuously launched right into interview-mode as if mutual interest had already been established. (hint: it hadn't). There was no selling of the position, no concept of why that prospect might want to consider it (nothing stated to make is sound appealing, attractive, interesting) and definitely no effort to understand what that prospect might be motivated by, career-wise. The prospect was expecting to "discuss the opportunity" not get grilled and drilled by some fool too foolish to know the difference. Huge fail. 


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