Saturday 23 January 2021

A short note on recruiter experiences

Thinking about the recruitment process recently, I've on three poor experiences I've had, and one stand-out one:

In about 2017 a museum leader role here in Aotearoa came up that I went for. I was shortlisted, and took a day off work to fly and meet the recruiter (that wasn’t required, I did it off my own bat and at my own cost). The recruiter proceeded to tell me I looked "too young" to be a credible candidate, and I should come back when I had some wrinkles. I nonetheless made it to the final three candidates, after which  the recruiter would call me occasionally, say things like "Just checking you haven’t done anything silly, like get married or get pregnant". It was one of the most patronising and overtly sexist encounters of my working life.

Around the same time, another museum role came up. I was approached by the recruiter to provide my CV and (although I was luke-warm on the position) I did so. I made it to the longlist, and the recruiter rejected me with the feedback that they thought I was insufficiently experienced, and really need to “go somewhere and get a really good failure under my belt". I felt at the time that this was risible feedback - how do you build a failure into your career path, to prove you can rebound from it? And moreover, what employer could in good conscience let an employee fail at the level this recruiter felt was necessary for me?

In 2019, a recruiter asked me what my career goal was, and I said Chief Executive of Te Papa. The recruiter asked me what I was doing to build for that goal, and I outlined it. Then they sat back and said to me "Look, I’m going to be honest with you: there are two things that from my experience are going to stand in your way of achieving that goal. One is that you present as young, and the other is that you’re a woman". And while in this case I don't believe sexism was at play (from the recruiter, at least - they were reflecting back to me the outcomes of the system they were familiar with), I was infuriated that my (perceived) age and gender were seen as fatal flaws. And even more infuriated that as a educated, privileged Pākehā woman, my chances were still likely to be much better in this context than others'.

So much for crappy experiences. My great experience was with Russell Spratt at Jackson Stone, who was the external recruiter for my current role.

At the end of our first interview, Russell asked me what I felt stood in my way of getting the role. And I said – because of all this conditioning, all this feedback I’d received on being too bubbly, too enthusiastic, too young-looking – that my biggest concern was that I just didn’t look like what people expect a CE to look like.

Russell talked me off this ledge. He gave me the reassurance - speaking as an expert who spends all day doing this - that pictures of what "leaders" look like are changing. He helped me me realise that I’m not alone, and also that at a certain point in your career, employers either want you for all you bring, stand for and radiate outwards – or they want something else. It’s both deeply personal (entirely about you) but also de-personalised (it’s not that you’re not likable or not good enough, you’re just not what they need right now). It was a bloody invaluable piece of mentoring and increased my confidence hugely.

For the last couple of years, I've told people those crappy stories, and I've discouraged them from using the recruiters I had those experiences with. I've probably (if I'm honest with myself) indulged in a little bit of "revenge is a dish best served cold" behaviour rather than given the feedback to the people who were concerned. 

Just recently, I've started looking at this in a different way. Recruitment is one of the most important things you do as a leader. It's absolutely fine - useful in some circumstances - to enlist external support. But it's your responsibility to set the tone for the recruitment, and your expectations of the experience your candidates should have. If candidates have a crappy experience, that rests with you. 

 So think really hard next time you do a piece of recruitment – what’s the experience I want to create for people who go through this process?

Sunday 17 January 2021

A short note on cover letters

My interest was really piqued this week by this question on Twitter

Here's some advice I've got for cover letters, based on reading hundreds over the past 10 years. I should note that when I recruit, I've always done all my own shortlisting - I don't delegate to HR, recruitment companies, or use AI tools to parse applications. So my system is probably a bit old-fashioned and personalised.

One page is fine

At Te Papa, we're now regularly receiving 100-200 applications for vacancies. Every one of those applications is read by a human being. My own preference is a 1 page cover letter and 3-4 page CV. No letters of reference, no work samples, no certifications for the first application unless explicitly requested. 

At The Dowse, I was reading applications as attachments to email (opening all the bits of an application all in the different formats they were provided). At Te Papa, we use software called Springboard which does enable you to print out applications, but I do everything online. I set aside a morning or an afternoon and I put my head down and push through. I try to value every application (and I take breaks when my concentration is flagging) but anything you can do to help me grasp your unique offer easily is much appreciated. 

One page helps me see everything in one go, and with retention when I'm reading heaps.

Remember that links may or may not function in your cover letter or CV (depending on the format I'm looking). I will usually only follow links once I'm down to a shortlist. If you tickle my curiosity/memory, I'll probably google you. Some people immediately jump to social media to research applicants, I personally don't.

Say why you want the job

You wouldn't believe how many people forget to put this in their cover letter (or even talk about it much in an interview). I hope for all applicants they're in the position of being able to apply for roles they care about. In my own case, I believe museums are special places, and I want to see applicants who share that feeling.

My basic format in my own cover letters:
  • I'm excited to see this role advertised because <your connection to this type of work and/or to this organisation>
  • My experience and skills are well suited to this role <high level matching to role description>
  • I'll bring these personal qualities to the role 
  • Working here would mean <this> to me
Do your best to find out who to address the letter to

I do genuinely appreciate when someone addresses the letter to me. if it's not apparent from the ad, contact whoever is doing the recruiting and ask who to address the letter to. I won't discount anyone who writes 'To whom it may concern' or 'Dear Recruiting Manager', but this is the first thing I'll see in an application and it puts me on the right footing.

Get some help

For my last two job applications, I've had friends who I've worked with in the past workshop my cover letter. Describing yourself through the eyes of colleagues rather than from your own perspective can help you be bolder and more focused in your cover letter.