How This Recruiter Defines “Great” Talent May Surprise You

How do you describe “great” talent?

I’d say you know talent when you hear it, but articulating why someone is great isn’t so simple. Whether you work at a staffing agency or in human resources, the way you screen, share, cooperatively review and communicate talent with hiring managers speaks volumes. But, how does your company describe “great” talent?

I’ll never forget my first recruiting job in New York City. Like most recruiters, I stumbled into this profession and soon found myself spending days on the phone talking to talent. With back-to-back phone conversations with a wide range of business and technical professionals, I was fascinated to learn more about software development and the evolving digital landscape. It was eye-opening to discover the complexity of professional skill-sets, job functions, companies and industries, and how businesses work from a people perspective.

hand-the-hand-welcome-gesture-52716The challenge was not only discovering “great” talent, but getting candidates from phone screen to on-site meetings with clients. After a 30 minute phone call to assess soft/skills and interest (and do my best to understand technical skills), I knew talent when I heard it.

But how do I describe what I heard that makes this candidate “great” and worthy of a placement fee with our client? I would throw around terms like ‘great communication skills’, ‘enthusiastic and motivated’, ‘subject matter expert’ or ‘solid culture fit’ when trying to describe “great” candidates, but these phrases were tired and often sold high-potential candidates short.

My boss would often want to have a second phone screen with a candidate, to hear ‘soft-skills’ and interview answers for themselves, before we introduced candidates to the account manager. Within a highly-commissioned business, trust and credibility didn’t come cheap.

Our recruiting team’s interview notes and subjective opinions weren’t enough and the sales team would frequently speak with the candidates a third time, to ensure they ‘check all the boxes’ and to protect their personal reputations. When we finally submitted a resume and written summaries to clients, I always wondered why it took weeks to hear back from human resources and internal recruiters, whom we called the gatekeepers.

I soon became a gatekeeper after making the transition into corporate recruiting at MTV Networks (Viacom). In addition to full-lifecycle recruitment, I was responsibility for managing 15 technical staffing vendors. Once inside, the reason for the push back on staffing agencies became obvious.

As an internal recruiter, my reputation was on the line for every candidate that gets to a hiring manager. But before forwarding a resume, I had to know the candidate had clear communication skills, reasonable insight on the job function and was genuinely interested in our company. The problem was that the recruiter only shared a resume and a written summary of how incredible their candidate was.

Every recruiter writes the same thing – ‘excellent candidate’, “awesome communicator’, ‘technical expert’, ‘passionate’ – but these words quickly lose their meaning. Without a way for me to hear the candidate for myself, another phone interview, was required.. Are you keeping count? It’s hard to ignore the terrible candidate experience, answering the same questions over and over, before getting to visit the office.

How to Define Great CandidateBecause MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and VH1 were all great brands, we usually had a healthy pipeline of in-bound talent, in addition to candidates I reached out to and sourced directly. Our internal pipeline was in direct competition with candidates submitted through agencies. Because agency candidates required a 20-30% placement fee, candidates from staffing agencies were put aside.

It became clear that sharing written notes from a phone interview wasn’t sufficient to describe talent, build trust and earn buy-in even from internal stakeholders. As a corporate recruiter, the output from my rich phone interviews became the very same scribbled interview notes and summaries I would receive from an agency recruiter.

It’s no wonder why a busy hiring manager didn’t want to read my written summary (‘great communicator’, ‘enthusiastic and motivated’, ‘subject matter expert’ or ‘solid culture fit’) wasn’t sufficient and why managers had to speak candidate for another 30 minutes, before we invite them on-site. How many phone interviews are we at? I’m losing count.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to effectively describe talent. With specialized skill-sets and job functions, how do recruiters ensure clear and consistent communication between candidates, staffing agencies, corporate recruiters and hiring teams. Sharing our opinions is no longer enough, and the shift to sharing unbiased evidence, will greatly improve and accelerate the way recruiters discuss talent with each other and with our clients.

Hiring Managers know a great answer when they hear it, but how many phone interviews must a candidate make to get to visit the office and meet the hiring team?

Most practitioners would agree a resume is not sufficient to determine the best candidate. Similarly, communicating a candidate’s strengths or areas for improvement via scribbled notes, introduces more bias and complicates the process.

About the Author

nick-livingstonNick Livingston is CEO and co-founder of HoneIt, a phone interview data and insights solution for employers. Before HoneIt, he was most recently the Director of Global Recruiting at TubeMogul, experiencing the hyper-growth of 60 to 360 employees through IPO ($TUBE), while concurrently attending business school at Haas. Joining the company as the first staff recruiter, Nick grew the talent acquisition team to nine full-time recruiters supporting all functions across 12 cities globally.

Prior to TubeMogul, Nick was the Director of Strategic Staffing at MTV Networks (Viacom), overseeing talent acquisition across the Global Digital Media and Interactive Technology organizations. Nick also worked for two SaaS HR technology companies and began his career as a technology headhunter. He has an MBA from the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, BS Applied Mathematics.

Nick Livingston



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