In my youth, I was destined to be a fourth-generation engineer—or at least that’s what my father anticipated. I went to school with his roadmap in hand, but it turned out I didn’t have a passion for engineering. What I had was a passion for helping friends and classmates make one of the most important decisions that can be made in a life: what to “do for a living.” It’s a phrase I’ve always taken seriously—a reminder that career paths, too, should nourish us. So I played Disburser-of-Sound-Advice when friends were uncertain about what summer internships to apply for. I had an interest in, and a knack for, seeing the broader landscape of an industry; an ability to foresee the path that a particular choice would lead to. Of course, I also had a great deal of care for my friends—a desire that they would indeed feel nourishment and belonging in the work choices they made. You could say that my lifelong insistence on a relationship-based approach to recruiting began there.
The first recruiting job I took was in an agency, where recruiting was a very sales-oriented role: dial as many numbers as you can, talk to as many candidates as you can, and the law of averages maintains you'll make the placement. But I was the proverbial tortoise in “The Tortoise and the Hare.” While my colleagues speedily ran their fingers over their telephones, I was sitting down and digging in deep with every manager. “Why do you have this open?” was my standard inquiry. “What are you trying to solve? What skills are you currently missing?” I had a 90-day ramp-up period in that job, and toward the end of it I was certain of two things: I was taking exactly the right approach, and—precisely for having taken it—I was going to get fired on day 90. But as luck would have it, two customers finally said, “Cho, you're right; this is exactly how we need to address our hiring.” And I went from nearly getting fired to being one of the top producers for that agency. All because I took the big-picture approach of: How can I help build your company?
It was a revolutionary approach back then, but it turned into a career of helping organizations think about scaling hiring based on matching the right talent to solve for the most critical business needs. Not “I need more of this type of person,” but rather: “Here's our business problem. Now that we’ve clarified it, how do we attract and hire the right talent that will solve for it?” You keep asking the questions and it ultimately boils down to one thing: going beyond writing a standard job description by finding the candidate who aspires to become an expert in solving precisely the business problem you have. Getting to know your candidate first—no matter how junior the role is—and then considering how their skills and ambitions fit your need. Most companies have this backwards, but the best recruiting orgs have made the candidate experience a differentiator.
And I don’t have to tell you that candidate experience is the hinge on which every talent acquisition org should be swinging in today’s rapidly-shifting talent environment. We must be constantly iterating on our recruiting processes to ensure that one guiding principle—I’ve coined it "the golden rule"—always remains consistent, in that we treat each candidate the way we would want to be treated, ultimately creating the best interview experience that accurately matches candidates’ skills and aspirations to the needs of the business. And it all starts with building and nurturing the candidate relationship.
When I started in this industry 22 years ago, recruiting was a service organization, an administrative function. But today? It's such a strategic differentiator that companies are willing to invest all the resources they can to achieve the hiring that will drive their business goals. My last company, Robinhood, knew this so well that they acquired a staffing firm that more-than-doubled our recruiting org. And we went from producing 1,000 hires in 2020 to over 2,500 in 2021.
But the difference between good and great companies isn’t just that they understand recruiting as a strategic function. It’s that it never ceases to be a strategic function, no matter how big the organization gets. Investing in recruiting makes obvious sense when you’re a young company in hypergrowth: brand awareness isn’t there yet; the talent market has to be actively informed about who you are; over time you become a brand of choice. But a lot of companies that see that evolution in brand awareness ultimately evolve from a strategic model to a transactional model. After all, they finally have a machine that’s moving on its own; they’re getting as many qualified applicants as they can possibly engage. So why invest more? That mindset is ultimately detrimental to a company’s thriving. So when Gem decided to hire a Chief Recruiting Officer, they were making a meaningful statement: recruiting will be a strategic function at Gem in perpetuity. We will always have a recruiting leader who has a prominent seat at the table.
Of course, my decision to join Gem was about more than the meaningfulness of this role. It was Gem’s resolve to build a product, and a culture, whose focus is on relationship-based recruiting. I started using Gem at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; it was called ZenSourcer at the time. I had worked with Steve Bartel—Gem’s CEO—at Dropbox, and I knew him as a phenomenally smart engineering manager who deeply understood recruiting. Steve was always very vocal in candidate debriefs; he was consistently offering suggestions for how to improve the recruiting process. It left a huge impression on me. So when he reached out to pitch ZenSourcer to CZI, I didn’t even need details about the product. I was in. Steve and Nick’s approach is to consistently ask for customer feedback, so—along with hundreds of other recruiters who’ve helped shape the product into what it is today—I provided input. What this means is Gem has truly built a product for recruiters, asked-for by recruiters.
And what the most thoughtful recruiters I know recognize is the industry as a whole has forgotten how to take a relationship-based approach to engaging candidates. Some of my most memorable hires have been candidates I nurtured for an entire year. And those candidates, by the way, are typically more engaged and more loyal to the company in the long run. I can’t stress this enough when I hear about the challenges every TA organization faces: not having access to the right candidates, the inability to close them without entering a bidding war, saturating a particular market and then running out of strategies to ensure that talent stays excited about their brand. All of these problems can be solved by taking the transactional element out of recruiting, thoughtfully nurturing relationships, honoring talent as though they were your college friends whose career paths and happiness truly mattered to you. Gem’s insistence on building a product that emphasizes the human approach makes it a true differentiator in a saturated world of recruiting tech. Because the best recruiting teams have figured out how to differentiate themselves through the candidate experience. And that’s the right approach.
Recruiting is at a remarkable inflection point. Talent is now insistent that the companies they work for, the logos they put on their shirts, need to be absolutely representative of the mission and values they care about. For the first time in history on such a grand scale, people are willing to quit their jobs without a back-up plan because they’re experiencing values and vision misalignments in their current roles. So now TA leaders are obligated to create strategies to have authentic conversations about mission, values, culture, and impact with their applicants—regardless of whether they’re at hundred-plus-year-old companies like Coca-Cola or newly-minted unicorn startups like Gem. Add to this that talent is now transient. It's no longer that if you want great engineers, you just cast a wide net in the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, New York, parts of Austin. Given the pandemic, who knows if they're there? You now have to create a strategy across all regions. Which means thinking hard about why those pools of qualified candidates want a job from you.
Here’s a scenario from the not-too-distant future: an engineer in Bozeman, Montana is considering three jobs: one from Coca-Cola, one from a FAANG company, and one from Gem. The company that’s going to win that offer-accept is the one that’s nurtured a relationship with her throughout the process, regardless of whom she knows at the company, how big the org is, and so on. The company that’s clear about its business goals, its mission, and its values, and sees clearly how those things align with hers will be the most attractive company for her. The way you win talent in a borderless environment is to create a clear, articulate, and nurturing environment. And that’s the fundamental shift I think many recruiting professionals are under-appreciating.
Ask any sourcer or recruiter why they love Gem, and you’ll get an answer along the lines of: “Oh my gosh, it's so awesome. It automates all the things it takes hours for me to do.” But if you continue to ask the whys—“Well, why is that important?”—what you ultimately get to is that great sourcers and recruiters are always thinking about ways to engage, curate, and cultivate relationships with candidates, regardless of how high-volume their environments are or what well-oiled machines their hiring processes have become. That's why they fundamentally love Gem: the level of automation is reciprocal to the level of personal touch and engagement they can offer. The ability to go straight to relationship-building is why Gem has such a fanatical following.
And the best part of that story is: we’re just scratching the surface. We’re building out features for full cycle recruiters, for hiring managers to build relationships with the talent they hope to eventually hire, for executives to think about hiring more holistically and build comprehensive recruiting strategies from there. That’s why I'm so thrilled to be here, and hopeful to play a small part in shaping a future for recruiting in which relationships once again play the central role.
Gem is not only dogfooding its own product; it’s also holding itself accountable to its own insistence on relationship-building and long-term nurture. I experienced it in my own hiring process here. Our new General Counsel recently accepted an offer after Gem nurtured a relationship with her for a year. So our founders are using that mentality for their own hiring practices. They understand the long game.
Ultimately, we want to build a recruiting organization at Gem that becomes the reference model for every company out there. I’m insistent about the need for the entire industry to shift from a transactional model to a relationship-based one; and I’m inspired by every Gem’s desire to innovate on talent acquisition, their vision of what it can become. Humbly speaking, I do hope to influence the industry to think about recruiting as a strategic advantage, even past the hypergrowth phase. We’ve got hypotheses; we’re going to experiment; and we plan to publicly share everything we learn along the way—failures and successes alike. We also want to be skillful stewards to our Engineering, Product, and Design teams, providing tangible, data-driven feedback that will improve Gem’s product—iteratively and exponentially—over the long-term. Becoming the reference model is a happy burden; it carries a learning curve I'm eager for. And now I’m not only using, but also working for, a product that can be the catalyst for that groundswell of a change.
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