10 Reasons Every Recruiter Must Start With an Agency

It was 1995, I had just graduated from Ole Miss, the Harvard of the South.  I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do for a career.  I was considering moving to Memphis, Tennessee, but I had no leads, so I packed my things and moved back to Austin, Texas.  After all, I was 22 and I had no money what- so- ever. 

I had met with most of my parent's friends, and considered every career path from selling cars, selling insurance, and working at Enterprise Rent- A- Car in their management program.  Nothing seemed to sound like a promising career.  I then received a phone call from my fraternity brother who worked for a company in Memphis called Aerotek.  Truth being told, I had no idea what they did.  He told me he would get me an interview with the manager in Austin and I was thrilled.  

When I interviewed for the role, I was terrified.  I was shy, unconfident and completely unexperienced.  I worked at Fuddrucker's as a bus boy in Hilton Head, South Carolina and helped my father's business in the summers, but other than that I had no real work experience.  Somehow, they decided to hire me.  My manager at the time, Matt Burke, told me the reason he hired me was because he liked my integrity.  Whatever the reason, it has shaped who I am today and am grateful that my first job was a recruiting job.

Here are 10 things I learned at Aerotek and why you MUST join an agency if you are considering a career in recruiting. Everyone I know who has worked at Aerotek, Robert Half, Kforce, or other agencies have the best work ethic I have ever seen.  Whether you stay with an agency is your choice, but you have to start here if you want to get anywhere.

1.  A Sense of Urgency-  From the minute I was hired at Aerotek, I realized that things could no longer be done on my timetable.  When you get an order from a company, you must work harder, longer and be more creative than anyone else.  The only people that are successful are the ones that have a little more skip on their jump, and can act on a dime.  Think of a medical emergency.  Seconds can make a difference in someone's health.  If you instill this attitude, you will become extremely successful; if you don't, you will fail. An agency environment will give you all the tools you need in recruiting and you can apply them to any other industry.

2.  Competitive Nature-  Let's face it, recruiting is competitive.  Agencies are competitive on so many levels.  You are competing against other companies, your peers, and the other corporate recruiters.  It is not easy, and only the strong will survive.  Good recruiters will weed out bad recruiters quickly.  This will make you better at whatever your career path becomes.  You are always trying to win.

3.  A Can-Do Attitude-  It is engrained in your head the second you walk in an agency.  You can and will do whatever it takes.  Whatever task I am given in life, I have the attitude that failure is not an option.  Sometimes things happen that are out of your control, like a requisition being cancelled or put on hold indefinatley, but you will know you will have given everything you can to get the job done.  You make the impossible, possible.

4.  Interviewing Skills You may think you know how to interview, that is until you join an agency.  You will be required to have a set number of onsite interviews a week.  This will teach you that people are people.  People lie, people extend the truth, and there are some people we just don't need to hire.  There are also gems.  You will also make a network from these interviews.  I am still in contact with some of the onsite interviews I had back in 1995, and I am able to connect them to roles when the time is right.

5.  Networking Skills-  Everyone starts in an agency, not everyone stays in an agency.  Make personal connections with everyone you work with and you may be able to help them in the future.  Aerotek is one big fraternity, as are most agencies.  I worked there and we all worked really hard, and all of us know the hours and effort we put in, so we are more than willing to lend a helping hand when needed.

6.  Dress and Appearance IS Important-  This may sound a bit ridiculous, and times have changed, but one thing remains the same.  The better you dress, the more important you feel.  The more important you feel, the more confidant you are and the more you will succeed.  Not many people wear ties in Austin anymore.  Other cities may be different.  That being said, personal hygiene and clothing make a big difference.  If you wear a tie and suit, make sure your shirt is pressed.  If you are dressing business casual, have a nice polo and khakis that aren't from the Gap. Go to Jos. A Banks and spend some money on clothes.  Remember also, stay in shape, people notice.

7.  Perception IS Everything-  In a small cubed open environment, everybody sees your every move.  If you work hard, you have nothing to hide.  If you don't, people will notice.  If you don't attend company events, aren't involved with others within the agency, they will advance far more quickly than you will.  If you choose recruiting as a field or not, this is important to know.  If you spend half the day on Facebook, people will take notice.

8.  Everyone is on a First Name Basis-  Being 22 and calling Dr, John Thomas, John is not an easy thing to do, but we are all people.  As I said in an earlier blog  we all put our pants on the same way.  We are all on this earth together and we can all help one another.

9.  A Requisition IS a Requisition-  You have to be flexible. It is great to specialize in one specific area, but times are changing.  You have to be a generalist.  In the Aerotek days, we would gather as a team and we would recruit any requisition that was "Hot".  I may have not recruited a C++ Engineer at the time, but I knew enough buzz words and was creative enough to find the individuals.  I learned more about the roles by asking the candidates specific questions, and learning about what they did.  In recruiting, nothing prepares you better for this than an agency.

10.  You Won't be Penalized for Being Overaggressive-  This goes back to the competitive point.  If you don't take risks, then you won't be successful, and you will never know what you could have achieved.  I apply this every day.  I call people who probably don't want to be bothered and are content in their current situation.  I may get chastised, but I wouldn't have any result if I didn't put myself out there.  Agencies take you out of your comfort zone.

If you are contemplating a recruiting role, please do yourself a favor and join an agency first.  If you have been an agency recruiter, and now are a corporate recruiter, you know exactly what I am talking about.  As stated earlier, you may not be an agency recruiter forever, but the foundations you learn will separate you from the pack. 

If recruiting isn't your field, you can apply these 10 lessons to anything you do, and you will be more successful than the average person.

Will Thomson lives in Austin, Texas, and works for Rosetta Stone as the global sales and marketing recruiter. He has been in recruitment and sales for 20 years. He has recruited some of the most sought-after talent around the globe, and is a regular blogger for the recruitment industry.  You can follow all of his blogs at Bulls Eye Recruiting.


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Comment by Amy Ala Miller on December 12, 2012 at 6:27pm

Sigh. Recruiting is a business of eliminating people based on criteria. Moe, I appreciate your point, but the reality is MOST jobs will require people to have some particular skill or background. I cannot, no matter how badly I want to do it, be a brain surgeon. If I decide I REALLY REALLY want to be a brain surgeon, instead of telling the hospital that they really should consider me, because I have transferable skills (like I don't faint at the sight of blood) then complain that they exclude me because I lack the necessary skills, training and background... well that says more about me than the hospital's flawed diversity perspective or inability to be inclusive.


Extreme analogy I know, but I use it to make a larger point - sometimes exclusion is a must! Will's point still stands. Can a recruiter jump straight into corporate without any previous training and be successful? Probably. But I bet you their boss and/or trainer came from agency. There is a valuable on-the-job training that happens in agency you can't get anywhere else. Brain surgeons can (and should) go to med school. I don't see anything wrong with making previous agency experience a requirement for corporate recruiters. Companies have that choice to make, but I agree with Willl. If I find myself in the future hiring a corporate recruiter, I will require agency experience.

Comment by Will Thomson on December 12, 2012 at 8:19pm

Thanks Amy.  I think you made a good point.  There are some valuable lessons to learn while an agency recruiter. Some choose to stay in the agency world while others, like myself, make the switch.  To each their own.  I write from personal experience, and I can tell you that everybody I worked with at Aerotek have either gone on to do bigger and better things and become extremely successful, or are top producers still at Aerotek. 

Comment by Amy Ala Miller on December 12, 2012 at 8:33pm

I come from agency too so maybe we're both a little biased. :) I've been a corporate recruiter for a year and a half and have filled almost 200 reqs in that time. You don't get that kind of hustle being an HR person playing at recruiting. All of my (current) coworkers come from agency as well and you can tell... (we've seen the "other side")

Comment by Martin Ellis on December 13, 2012 at 12:33pm

..and I'm going to disagree with you, although I enjoyed your blog.

I started as a headhunter almost seven years ago after a career when I used headhunters to find me senior managers all over Europe. I was singularly unimpressed with each one I came across. That gave me the motivation to be the headhunter I never found when I needed one.

I then deliberately avoided speaking to any other headhunter or recruiter for 3 years as I wanted to find out for myself how to do it better and quicker than those I'd come across previously.

So I disagree that you need to join an agency first, but I agree that most of your points are important, but they can be learned in other industries that probably make you a more rounded individual when you join this sector. Because of that I find I can engage leaders on discussions to everything from sales to service to the balance sheet, and that seems to be an important skill I may not have learned if I'd stay in one narrow silo.

Comment by Ryan Harding on December 13, 2012 at 4:45pm

Well said Will!  I started my career with an agency, and it was such a great learning experience.  I agree with all the points you mentioned above, and feel that I am successful today because of what I learned at Sapphire.   Thanks for sharing...

Comment by Amy Ala Miller on December 13, 2012 at 5:33pm

Martin, did you start directly in-house? When I hear "headhunter" I think of someone working independently operating a full desk... so far closer to agency than in-house, but I don't want to misread you. :)

Comment by Sunil Kumar on December 14, 2012 at 3:01am

Great article Will. Very well written and i completely agree on every point having started my career in agency.

Comment by Martin Ellis on December 14, 2012 at 9:02am

Hi Amy. Perhaps headhunter loses something in Atlantic translation. I run my own executive search company. I started it directly on leaving a large company where I was the Managing Director. I had nothing to do with the day-to-day recruitment function there, I simply used headhunters when looking for new senior managers around Europe. I work for commercial organisations who need new senior people and supply them with a pre-qualified shortlist to their specification.

Comment by Will Thomson on December 14, 2012 at 9:58am

Thanks Ryan & Sunil!  Martin- still a bit confused, but when I was using the term "agency", I was referring to anyone supplying candidates to an organization that works for another company (headhunter/temp agency) and is paid a fee for finding them.  This is different from a corporate recruiter who only supplys candidates to their specific company they work with.  Corporate recruiters do not get paid a fee or percentage of a persons salary- their job is to help their own company, not others.

Comment by Martin Ellis on December 14, 2012 at 10:04am

Just for clarity Will. I had nothing to do with recruitment before I started as a headhunter. I simply ran some services businesses across Europe. I came to headhunting cold.


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