If business is war, nowhere is that truer than in recruitment. At every step, a recruiter enters into a binary competition, to win the PSL’s, to have the best candidates and to fill the roles. Winner takes all where second place is nowhere. Therefore to win at recruitment means to apply the art of war. Sun Tzu wrote of this, to act as a guide to his generals, where several passages can easily be applied to recruitment. Key quotes include:

“The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.”

Define how you want to go to war and play to your strengths. If you are a small company then a winning strategy could be to build relationships with candidates where they look to work with you exclusively, where you can then work for them tirelessly in the knowledge that if you find a role they are suited for, you will win the fee. In contrast, if you are a manager in a bigger company, can you negotiate with clients exclusive terms so lock out competitors, if only for a window to allow for first mover advantage? Put simply, understand your own strengths and play to them.

“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.”

Identify every variable which can impact on the success or failure of filling a given role. How many other recruiters are working the assignment? Is there an internal recruitment team on this too? How early in the recruitment cycle have you been briefed? If you are working the job along with say four other recruitment firms, why is your chance of filling the role any better than 20%? Similarly with the candidates you have registered with you, how many are solely using you? Could it be better to work with fewer good quality candidates and look to present them to every opportunity in the market?

“We cannot enter into alliances unless we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.”

Identify people who share the same clients as you and look for ways where you can collaborate to create win wins.

“He wins his battles by making no mistakes, making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory.”

Establish and codify best practices within your market. Create a process which incorporates them and maintain it. for some markets, best practice could mean high volume cold calling, in others it could require a high level of close contact with clients. Whatever it is in your area, know what it is you need to do and keep to it.

“Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?”

During the working week, how productive are you really? How focused are you to maximising your effectiveness? How much more time would you have if you only do what fits within your process? People talk of giving 100% but what does giving 100% really mean? Do you really give 100%?

“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

Don’t let your process be too rigid. Different clients will want different approaches, be flexible enough to understand when an alternate approach is needed and be creative in looking to work with them. The same applies with candidates.

“If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.”

If a client presents a role due to the failure of a competitor, don’t hesitate and proactively engage at the first opportunity. Take the chance, at worst you lose nothing, at best you win a client you never would have had and your competitor loses one.

“Now a soldiers spirit is keenest in the morning, by noonday it has began to flag and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp.”

Carl Icahn the investor famously would schedule his toughest negotiations for late afternoon, where on the day he would wake just before lunch, and prepare in peace for the meeting to come. Why? So when the negotiations would commence, he would be sharp and ready, whilst the counter party would be weary from their working day, where often they would have woken twelve hours before. Learn the lesson from this. If you can’t control your working hours, control your schedule, make sure to start your day with the toughest meetings and end the day with the easiest tasks.

“Soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.”

With people in your team, firstly make sure they know explicitly what is expected of them, where rules are applied consistently. Nothing destroys morale like one person seemingly getting preferential treatment, or breaking rules and nothing being done about it. Equally be professional and courteous at all times. This is a balance though. You can never befriend someone who you may need to fire one day, so don’t try to. Instead, keep a distance, in a way where people in your team know you will listen and be sympathetic to any concerns they have. If someone needs special working conditions, make sure they then keep to whatever they commit to.

“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

Possibly the most important rule of all. A prolonged war saps resources whilst provides no spoils. The client who can’t make up their mind and needs five different people to meet a person before making a hiring offer. The candidate who wants to leave but doesn’t seem to know what they want to move to. There are a hundred different ways in which your time can be wasted by people, where you are working for free for them, unless someone is hired. Therefore set a hard limit on how long you are prepared to actively work on a job or with a candidate and keep to it. Save your resources and apply them elsewhere.

Over the last ten years Vacancysoft has worked with recruitment firms of all sizes to help them map out market activity in order to identify changes in demand. For more information about how we can help, please contact us.


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