Recruiting a recruiter: Back in the candidate saddle again

I sunk slowly into the rocking chair next to my youngest son’s crib. Tired. Exhausted, even. Tears swelling up in my eyes. Angry. Confused. Needing a break.

Just a few weeks earlier and right around Halloween, I got the invitation nobody wants to see in their inbox: a thirty-minute “meeting” later that morning to go over some “important information” with a senior director who I had never reported to at a company I devoted many years of my life to. Because that invitation followed just fifteen minutes after our Executive Vice President of Human Resources sent out an email describing imminent “evolution of our org,” I knew what was going to happen: I was getting laid off.

Fast forward back to sulking in that rocking chair. It wasn’t that the “weight of the world” was on my shoulders. It was the reality of the situation had finally settled in. After so many emails, Facebook posts, phone calls with colleagues and friends, and a plethora of gut-busting happy hours, the exhilaration of being a candidate once again turned into exhaustion. How do people go through this, again and again, and stay sane?

As a recruiter (or a Staffing Consultant or Talent Acquisition Specialist or whatever fancy name we call ourselves this week), there are few professional pleasures more satisfying than finding a great candidate and landing him or her that ideal job they’re seemingly tailor-made for. Getting someone a job – it’s a great feeling. Now it was my turn to become a candidate for the first time in years.

Being a candidate, 101, includes:

The application process! Before applying, you go through a virtual gymnastics of processes and procedures before actually applying to anything. There’s the series of emails you send to bypass the application process from known contacts. The nonstop phone calls, text messages, Tweets, Facebook posts – whatever it takes to find a hiring manager or make that special connection that might land you a tryout for what might be the Next Big Thing. Then there are the initial phone screens with recruiters like you, where you say the same points repeatedly. And then a screen with another more senior person. And then you talk to someone else. And then you speak to that person’s grandmother’s uncle’s brother’s second cousin’s roommate’s sister, and so forth.

Finally, there are The Interviews. In this industry, I’m not talking about getting dressed up with a coat and tie, sitting in a nice high-rise office with a window overlooking the metropolis, sipping on spritzer water and trading golf tips with a head honcho who goes by the nickname Bruiser, with a Mad Men-style arcade of booze selections behind him. This is a full-day commitment requiring intense studying, preparation, and cramming yourself into The Company’s ideal model of what they want you to be, even if it isn’t true. Knowing the company “Values” and all of that. If you’re lucky, you might get a question or two that’s actually relevant to the job: sadly, The Candidate – you – is not always at the center of the experience.

Having gone through the experience of being a candidate again, here are some basic observations and learnings I’ve taken to heart:

1) Whether you meet with one person or seven, you will be asked almost the same questions again and again. Your typical req load. A time you did this. A time you did that. A difficult client. A difficult candidate. When you messed up. When you were awesome. When you rescued a bus full of starving children dangling off of a bridge in Brooklyn WITHOUT resorting to your Spidey sense.

2) Without fail, almost nobody has read your resume. Seeing people read – and visually react – to your resume in person is kind of stunning. Forget about any layoff or other type of situation you might be in; I found that the larger the company and the more in-depth the process was, the less people really knew about me. And that was no fun.

3) Recruiters come in two varieties: Those who get it, those who don’t. With one large company, I had three missed phone screens that they set up but failed to attend. Emails sent not just past working hours, but past SLEEPING hours. Such attributes then spiral into a messy scheduling process, full of delays and needless complications. Watch out for that. While it’s great to be contacted, I spoke with some recruiters who literally were reading lists of basic qualifications to me on the phone. Recruiters that stand out come in prepared, take the time to get to know you apart from your career accomplishments, talk to you like you’re a three-dimensional human being, and narrow in on opportunities that will expand your goals and skills. They are honest, direct and give you the feedback you need to succeed.

4) Companies that claim to be agile and fast are often the exact opposite: process-driven machines fueled by pure chaos and not the slightest concern for your deadlines, competing offers, or career interests. The term “being agile” is all the rage – if a company can’t practice what they preach, stay away.

5) Every company in the world — RIGHT NOW — claims to be reinventing how they are doing recruiting. The first time I heard this, I naively got excited. Then I heard it again and again. Be smart about this: Don’t expect to turn over magic rocks; stay focused on job content and, most importantly, the quality of people you’ll partner with.

6) For many of the roles I spoke about, I spent very little time talking about actual recruiting. This is not universally true, but all too common. Focusing on core values, principles, competencies — these are all understandable things to discuss. Companies put them in place for a reason. In the end, though, I selected an opportunity that placed recruiting chops at the center of my candidate experience, pushed my comfort boundaries, and got me hungry all over again to go on “the hunt.”

What was it like, overall, to be on the hunt once again? So valuable, so educational, and yes, a mix of big highs and big lows. The best learning experience I’ve had in years, one that will inform me to be a better recruiter, better employee and probably a better person, too.

This is an exciting time to be a recruiter and to be in the high-tech world. I’ve taken my own candidate experiences to heart and promise to learn greatly from them. As 2015 promises to be a banner, breakthrough year in the world of technology and talent acquisition, being a recruiter being recruited was just the tonic this demoralized spirit needed to get excited – and hungry – all over again.

The Youngest Marine

I am not a big “Patriotism” kind of guy, but I am a big fan of our soldiers.

That is to say, the act of openly expressing patriotism has never been something that comes easy to me, even if I am often in awe of the people who carry out the mission. Part of it is being shy; part of it is not having served in the Military myself. Much of it is likely my own politics; the talks of freedom and nobility have lost some of their tinge after more than a decade of wars fought by America, and how those wars unraveled and were managed. We all remember the early days of 2002 and 2003, and through much of the 2004 election, where questioning the validity of the war was akin to trashing the warrior, which was never the point.

This got better over time; sensible minds of differing political perspectives realize that one can disapprove of the war while effusively praising the warrior. This is true for me for the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, wherein history will be the ultimate judge. I have friends who served in both wars, and the past several months of my career has been devoted to helping our veterans find gainful employment in the private sector.

Praising our soldiers and our nation never comes more naturally to me than when thinking of the experiences of my grandfathers, Burton R. Withee and Donald J. West. Grandpa Don passed away at 89 in January 2009, after a short illness. He was a wonderful man – kind, sunny, generous, and soft-spoken, but with a sharp wit and intellect. After marrying my late grandmother, Lois, in 1943, he spent 18 months overseas, much of it in Burma, and had memorable stories to tell us, but few of them revolved around major, brutal combat.

My other grandfather, affectionately known as Burt, is still alive and kicking, and will be honored as part of the Honor Flight Network’s tribute to World War II veterans in Washington, D.C., the weekend of May 30-31st. He was involved in major combat. Burt turned 88 this past March, and you’d be hard pressed to find as vital a man his age. Sure, there are certainly aspects of him that are “slowing” down a bit, if you can call it that. He has increased difficulty standing and rising from his glorious chair, where he spends much of his time – well-deserved – in front of the television, watching everything from old movies to crime flicks to the news, to horseracing (where one of his children, Joe Withee, has for decades now hosted TV and radio programs live from Emerald Downs).

Bringing out his German side, Burt is also a man of strict routine, rising possibly earlier than 4:00 am every morning to drink coffee, play cards, and begin his day. Hamburgers remain a strict Saturday tradition, and bedtime usually falls around 7:00 pm. He’s a great looking dude, too – strikingly handsome, with a clean face with relatively few wrinkles or “age spots,” and he sports his trademark thick, full head of hair, parted just like they did in the 1940s. (The youthful barista at a local Starbucks near his old home routinely crushed on him).

Few men of any age or era are funnier, sometimes caustically so; he seems to invent new and unusual curse words, and nobody in his path – not my infant son, or youthful nieces – can avoid hearing them. Perhaps because of his amazing wife of 65 years (and my grandmother), Colleen, he remains deeply connected to the issues and politics of the world. (While both are Democrats, Colleen is especially loyal, still giving Burt a hard time for voting for Eisenhower back in the day; he claims that if Mickey Mouse were a Democrat, she’d vote for him).

Why mention all of this? What’s remarkable to me is that all of this is true despite having seen and experienced enough tragedy and hardship to fill up a few novels. His life story has equal parts tragedy and heroism, before and after his service during World War II in the Marines. The events certainly stayed with him; my hunch is that for maybe five decades or so, he spoke very little about the hell he and many others went through during WWII; but now, it is often much of what he talks about, the memories still vivid and raw.

“Ask me what I did yesterday, and I can’t remember,” he told me a few years back. “But ask me about a day in the war, and I’ll remember the date, the time, what the weather was like, you name it!”

There is a reason for that, too. Serving as a Marine – perhaps one of the youngest, if not the youngest Marine at age 17 – Grandpa Burt fought in the Battle of Saipan, and was in the first platoon deployed to Nagasaki after the bombs were dropped. The latter I’ll repeat – he saw the immediate aftermath of a nuclear holocaust in person, with his own eyes. The tsunami in Japan a few years ago, with its startling images of devastation broadcast for the world, brought back memories.

After the war, he married Colleen in January of 1949, had five kids (four boys, and my mom, the only girl). He has three grandchildren (me, my brother and my sister), and by August, he will have five great grand-children: Gabrielle, 6, Olivia, 3, Bradley, 22 months, and two as-yet-to-be-named little boys.

Surviving World War II and these events is something of a miracle. He experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (it is unfair, really, to call that a “disorder” after deploying troops to the depths of hell) and many other private hardships. Had he moved just an inch or two out in the battlefield to the left or right, his life could have been claimed by a bullet or explosion. Meaning, I would not be here, nor would my son, my brother, my sister, my mother or any of her four brothers, my uncles – nor would the countless memories we have all shared together as family. Many others just like him can make the same claim; what they did resulted in not simply defeating the Nazis and “evil,” but, I believe, saving Western civilization itself.

Each generation has its own war; my parents had Vietnam, and my generation has lived through Iraq and Afghanistan. Each war has been met with different societal reaction and participation. The stories told and seen by veterans and filmmakers reflecting upon World War II is that of nobility and courage. The country was in it together, led by a president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would be elected to four terms (dying in office) during a remarkable period of American history. Each war since then has been received with increased scrutiny, leading to polarizing viewpoints. Back during my grandfather’s time, fighting a war was a national effort – everyone pitched in, be it on the battlefield or at home. Today, less than one percent of the current population has served in our most recent wars, with many being deployed repeatedly, over a span outlasting WWII by several years. I cannot imagine what our troops today have gone through, and how much care and help they will need. That they cannot get the healthcare and mental support they need from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, coupled with the denial of critical funding needed from the shameless ideologues currently controlling our Congress, is a national disgrace.

This upcoming weekend will be a major event, I presume, in my grandfather’s life. I wish I could be there to see it. He will be in the company of surviving veterans from his generation, which is shrinking precipitously. His normal, relaxed routine will be replaced by a whirlwind weekend schedule of travel to key sites across our nation’s capital city, relieved only by the in-person support of my mom and two of her brothers. It will be something for them to see, too, at this tender age in my grandfather’s life, with hopefully many years left to come.

I keep thinking to myself, what can all of us do to better support our veterans and our troops? When he made “Schindler’s List” in 1993, Steven Spielberg later launched the Shoah Project, which was simply to locate as many Holocaust survivors as possible and film them as they simply told stories. It was a brilliant and important thing to do; it has been more than twenty years since that film came out, and imagine how few survivors remain with us today. What a great idea to extend that work to our veteran communities, particularly in the era of social media, status updates, endless “selfie” photos that litter our news feeds.

Just imagine the hell these men (and their families) have gone through and seen first-hand. I remember the first time I realized I met a Holocaust survivor, too; while working at local video store (Island Video) in Seattle in the 1990s, a colorful, joyfully happy couple came in, chatted with us, rented a movie. The woman paid me for the rental, and I noticed a series of numbers running down her arm. Not long after leaving, I realized it was her Holocaust identification tattoo. How could someone who had gone through such a horrible, momentous ordeal have the ability to be so full of life, energy and good cheer mere decades later? The same thing applies to my grandfather. How can any one person – let alone a generation of warriors – wake up each day and find the time to enjoy himself after having gone through such a dramatic ordeal?

Perhaps that’s just it – when you’ve seen pure hell, experienced and lived it, you have an idea of what to be thankful for in life. Family. Friends. The comfort of a quiet evening at home. I am a bit of a cynical person, especially around politics, and especially around what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex. But I would never hesitate to raise a glass to people like my grandfathers, whose sacrifices and lives have literally given me the life I have today.

Additional information on the Honor Flight Network program can be found at their website, http://www.honorflight.org.

Some photos:

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