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Recruiter Tips: Are You ‘Consciously Incompetent’ Or ‘Unconsciously Competent’?

Recruiter Tips- Are You 'Consciously Incompetent' Or 'Unconsciously Competent'?

One thing I learned very early on in my career looking after teams of recruiters is that every single new consultant needs to know that, as their manager, you truly appreciate where they’re sitting in terms of their level of competency.

I also quickly learned that their perceived level of competency then had a direct impact on their actual level of confidence in or on the job.

Ask any recruiter that ever joined one of my teams over the years and they would tell you that at some point in their first week I sat down with them in the boardroom (either individually or as part of a new starter group induction) and the very first thing I did was draw a long line on the whiteboard.

I then added the following “milestones” along the time line.

  1. Unconsciously incompetent
  2. Consciously incompetent
  3. Consciously competent
  4. Unconsciously competent
  5. [Subconsciously competent]

I never included anticipated timings or dates against these milestones since progress along the axis would always depend upon the individual recruiter and I certainly didn’t want to set any unrealistic expectations.

Then I would talk through each of the competency ‘stages’ one by one.

I should point out that I did this for every single new starter. It didn’t matter if they’d been recruiting for one minute, 18 months or 5 years. They were all new to my team and new to the organisation and to me that was all that mattered.

Obviously I have no idea how long you’ve been in the recruiting ‘game’. But as a recruiter reading this particular post, please play along with me for the next few minutes.

Let’s say today’s your first day recruiting as part of my team, and we’re in the boardroom together. I’ve drawn the competency axis on the whiteboard.

So please now allow me to explain …

1. Unconsciously Incompetent

This stage represents the very early days where you literally don’t know what you don’t know.

Even if you have recruited before, right now you don’t know any of the team and the many different personalities that make it up; you haven’t been exposed to any of the internal jargon or lingo; you have no idea how we do things around here; you don’t know any of the clients or candidates. you may not have worked with the same ATS or CRM …

Of course there’s a chance that you haven’t actually even recruited before.

You’re literally completely unaware.

But that’s nowhere near as daunting as stage 2.

2. Consciously Incompetent

Suddenly it becomes apparent just how much you don’t know. Or, to put it another way, just how much you’re expected to know. And just how quickly you’re expected to pick it all up.

It’s not uncommon for many new recruiters to panic at this point.

Don’t worry … nobody is expected to pick it all up overnight. After all, is there really such a thing as ‘hitting the ground running’?

It’s during this phase where if you are a new recruiter, you may start to feel uncertain, lose confidence or start to doubt your own ability to meet the business requirements.

My suggestion here would be to find a buddy or mentor.

3. Consciously Competent

You’re into this phase when you’re suddenly aware just how much you know.

You understand “who’s who in the zoo”; the internal processes are all making sense; maybe you’ve already met some of the key clients; perhaps you’ve even won a few new ones of your own; if you’re running a temp desk you’ve familiarised yourself with the best talent and you’ve started building your own candidate pool.

Above all, if you make a mistake, or if you’re unsure of something, you know who to ask, where to look, or you can quickly discover a way to find the solution yourself.

Consciously competent‘ feels good.

4. Unconsciously Competent

Then one day you just wake up and it all feels like second nature to you.

You no longer have to look up a client’s phone number; you can be talking to a candidate while simultaneously filling in all the job details in the database; you can meet with a client on your own; go into your weekly meeting with your manager feeling completely prepared; write the tender for a new client pitch; or you might even be asked to train a new recruiter or help with their induction.

You’re “cooking with gas”.

For many recruiters it can take 6, 9, or even 12 months to reach this point so please don’t to put too much pressure on yourselves.

5. Subconsciously Competent

There were times when I hired some very experienced recruiters. This never stopped me from still drawing my competency axis but on those occasions I would add in a ‘bonus’ milestone … “Subconsciously Competent”.

I wanted those ‘gun’ recruiters to appreciate that there was still a stage that they could aspire to reach.

That’s when you might find yourself waking up in the middle of the night remembering a candidate you met a year earlier who would be perfect for the brief you took yesterday (hint: always keep a note pad and pen next to your bed!); or you’re contacted and asked to comment on the recruitment industry for a blog or journal article; you may be invited to speak at a conference on recruitment industry trends; you might even be introduced at the conference as an industry ‘thought leader’.

It’s a very nice feeling.

*       *       *

I really liked it when I’d see consultants put their own version of my competency axis up around their desks, or highlighting the stage they felt they were at.

Often they would bring their time lines into our weekly meetings or performance reviews to share with me exactly when they’d had their “Aha” moment and realised they were progressing along the axis.

In some cases they’d come to me asking for reassurance if they felt they were slipping back to the left. This could happen (most commonly from stage 3 back to stage 2) if, for example, I promoted a recruiter, gave them additional responsibilities, or asked them to focus on a new niche or specialty area.

For any team leaders or branch managers who happen to be reading this post, my one tip for you is to understand that all your team will be at different stages along the competency axis, even if you hired a bunch of them at the same time. Stay close to all your recruiters individually, let them know where you think they’re at but at the same time ensure you are aware of where they feel they’re at.

What ‘stage’ are you sitting at along your own competency axis? The fact is that it really doesn’t matter … as long as you genuinely feel as though you can celebrate your progression as you move along the timeline to the right.

Paul Slezak

Cofounder at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for 20 years. Follow me @paul_slezak.

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