• Shally

Is Recruitment A Skill Best Transferred or Constructed?

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

Ask any Return Peace Corps Volunteer or development worker and they will tell you that transferring skill and knowledge, changing attitudes, and shifting paradigms are chief objectives. To many educators there is no greater thrill or higher reward than knowing they contributed to the illumination of a light bulb over someone’s head as they learned something new. That moment of discovery is exhilarating for both learner and educator.

However, like a developing nation, the Recruitment Industry’s starvation for knowledge has thwarted its growth. Sister disciplines within the Human Resources umbrella have specialized degrees from reputable learning programs yet the art and science of staffing remains grossly underserved by educators. College students seeking Human Resources degrees get almost no exposure to recruitment and talent sourcing. Only fragments of curriculum exists, no dedicated courses teaching this critical function. Established HR certifications for practicing professionals offer little better as recruiting and talent sourcing credits come piecemeal from various organizations.

In the age of information where people’s talent, thoughts and ideas are a company’s most treasured product, those who replenish, maintain or increase the talent ranks of an organization play an essential role in generating profit, yet are provided almost no education, coaching or mentorship.

Perhaps this deficit originates from too few industry leaders willing to share their knowledge. Or because of those who do share, an uncomfortable majority does so by standing above the audience from a position of seniority looking down at recruiters from a pulpit, and not as mentors, coaches, or facilitators. There is a place for the time honored “Sage on the Stage” (Alison King 1993 College Teaching v41 no1 p30-35) but such learning already permeates conferences and webinars yet the “Guide on the Side” remains conspicuously absent.

Further complicating matters, every company has its unique set of idiosyncrasies, political and environmental challenges, and resource constraints. Consequently one organization’s successful formula seldom works within another’s. Too often recruiters must fend for themselves. Recruiters are expected to solve complex business problems despite having minimal guidance.


The “sage on the stage” is an instructor who transfers their knowledge through classroom lecture. In contrast, the “guide on the side” is an instructor who coaches learners by steering them in ways that assist in their discovery of knowledge. Such classroom transfer of knowledge is efficient at educating groups of people, but recruitment organizations claim they can seldom spare the time or budget to have the entire staff sit through structured lectures. Instead recruiters are sent to conferences and ad-hoc webinars to pick up knowledge from a parade of sages in the hopes that some will stick. But does this limitation come about only from lack of time, poor planning and low resources? No, certainly leaders in other industries are equally busy and under-resourced. So what gives?

Adults are motivated to learn because they must solve immediate problems, thus busy professionals often lack the patience to absorb lectures. In addition, as adults mature they have an increasing need to be self-directing. This is particularly true in recruitment where a lack of formal training has produced a culture of autonomy, and where there is a ubiquitous tint of rebelliousness. These forces combined produce a certain tension with the “knowledge transfer” learning model and tend to produce resistance and resentment in recruiters.

The prevalence of conference and webinar speakers in the Recruitment industry who take the stage as an opportunity to persuade the audience about a product, or to further a hidden agenda leaves little wonder why recruiters tend to be so unconvinced about the value of attending such lectures. After the presentation, they may feel entertained and even inspired, but are unable to take actionable steps once they return to their chaotic desks, and politically charged or under-resourced environments.


In the alternative “guide on the side” model instructors take on more of an advisory role, facilitating the learner’s discovery of answers, gently steering them to resources and productive directions, but letting the student take more ownership of the learning process. This model is far more individualized and engaging, but such personal attention is costly to the organization, can be messy or disorganized, and tends to ignore the wisdom and experience of formal instruction.

Unlike knowledge transferred in concentrated chunks where learners putt aside their normal schedule so they may attend a workshop, one on one coaching more easily fits into busy schedules and can be completed in person desk-side or virtually via telephone or online collaboration.

The guide(s) assign skill-building projects and the student meets periodically with the guide(s) for progress checks. The student will have progressively more intricate and sophisticated questions as they hit intermediate milestones, leading to richer discussions and learning.

The downside of this model is that it depends on consistent, ongoing commitment from both student and guide. The level of learning quality often declines over time as the focus wanes, other projects gain priority, and the learning relationship loses momentum. However, with program structure and formalized incentives, and close attention paid to the matchups of learners and guides, real mentor-mentee relationships can evolve, making this model very successful.

It is important to note that while experienced colleagues often have the knowledge and institutional memory, they may lack instructional ability and objectivity of a professional instructor. Another risk that the organization may not retain the primary guide long enough to fulfill the potential of the learning. Internal resources should certainly be utilized as secondary guides and facilitators, but not principal educators.


So is the “guide on the side” a better solution for the Recruitment industry? Not necessarily. Good lectures need not be boring, demeaning or formulaic. In fact, they can be fascinating and stimulate good thinking.

The answer is neither sage nor guide, but rather a blend of both. Combining lecture followed by guided discussions, learning exercises, and hands-on practice employs the best of both methods.

Adults require respect and recognition, crave practical solutions to real-life problems, and seek to fulfill their personal needs and aspirations. Adults make their own decisions and prefer to take charge of their learning. Each person reflects their individual experiences as they analyze new information. Learning a few easily digestible tips from the sage, then immediately reinforcing those lessons with hands-on practice, guided by the supporting embrace of a coach who is there without egotism, is the perfect learning environment for learning recruitment and talent sourcing methods.

Adult brains are not empty containers into which a professor pours knowledge. The sage on the stage should present new material in a way that makes students “do” something with the information. The sage must be someone who exudes authenticity, curiosity, and authority while facilitating the individuals’ paths towards constructing their own conclusions with support from their prior experience. In turn, the adult learners should also seek a guide, or set of guides, and take initiative in their own learning or else they fall prey to the confusion of a misapplied formula, a covert sales pitch or the masterful persuader with a hidden agenda.

Striking a balance between the sage and the guide is a blended approach where thought leaders introduce breakthroughs or new ideas while respect for the learner’s current knowledge and skills is retained. The challenge in sustaining this model is that this environment has to be very carefully constructed each time the course material is delivered. The existence of an expert trainer or sage who is also an excellent facilitator or guide is rare so we must take a component from each model. Success depends on lectures being delivered by abundantly capable, even mildly altruistic subject matter experts with genuine intent, and the practical or hands-on component supervised by an adequate amount of facilitators willing to set aside their egos to assist students in their personal journey to illumination.

With the traditional classroom lecture model, the instructor generates a majority of the initiative, bringing their extensive experience to bear and providing a structured learning environment, while the audience remains mostly passive. In a mentorship relationship, neither instructor nor student carries a high burden of initiative and learning is unstructured, but interaction between mentor and student is especially high. An autodidactic learning model requires an amply motivated student because it places most of the initiative squarely on their shoulders and provides little to no structure, but is the least costly of all models.

An eLearning environment provides the perfect platform for striking this balance. Lectures from credible and inspiring thought leaders can be professionally recorded and organized into tracks, combined with practical case studies and interspersed among pre- or post- requisites involving the mentorship program.


The Sourcing Institute organizes an invitation-only apprenticeship program for selectees with the potential to become recruitment and talent sourcing leaders. Though the common bond is guild membership rather than a common employer, the sense of collegiality is arguably stronger between apprentices than is typically found among co-workers. However, this model translates easily to a single company environment.

In this program the nature of the apprentice and mentor relationship is one of mutual respect, benefit and learning. The formal apprenticeship relationship model has the following characteristics:

  • a deliberate, conscious, voluntary relationship;

  • a bilateral ‘career lifetime’ commitment with no time limitations;

  • a private agreement between apprentice and mentor, and one in which the apprentice alone may decide to whom and how to disclose the mentor relationship, if at all;

  • a program that occurs between a recognized expert and highly experienced person (the mentor) and one or more other persons (the apprentices);

  • who are generally not in a direct, hierarchical or supervisory chain-of-command;

  • where there are no exchanges of financial rewards and where each party covers their own expenses such as travel, software, long distance charges, etc.;

  • where the outcome of the relationship is expected to benefit all parties in the relationship (albeit at different times) for personal growth, career development, lifestyle enhancement, career and/or personal fulfillment, goal achievement, and other areas mutually designated by the mentor and partner (apprentice);

  • with benefit to the community of practice (defined as sourcing, recruitment research, social recruiting, talent identification, etc.) within which the mentoring takes place;

  • and such activities taking place on a one-to-one, small group, or via telecommunications; and

  • typically focused on interpersonal support, guidance, mutual exchange, sharing of wisdom, coaching, and role modeling.

The process begins with an initial self-analysis where a new member identifies their professional strengths and weaknesses, pinpoint any areas they have identified as requiring development, and clearly states their developmental goals ranging from immediate tactical needs to their two- and five-year strategic plans. Selectees then complete an online business performance intelligence assessment after which they are matched with a mentor.

Together with the mentor an initial goal-setting meeting is conducted where learning objectives are prioritized and laid out in a timeline. During that meeting the mentor also reviews and discusses the selectee’s business performance intelligence profile. The outcome of this meeting is an agenda, from which subsequent coaching meetings derive structure, and a list of recommended online courses the apprentice should complete in order to achieve their learning objectives.

Meetings take place at a cadence identified during the initial goal setting. During the first year, the meetings are shorter and mostly tactical, cover the apprentice’s immediate needs, and take place with higher frequency. During this time the apprentice completes prescribed training modules and brings up questions for discussion during mentorship meetings. As the program develops, mentor meetings take on higher strategic goals and their frequency is typically reduced. Meetings take the form of quick phone calls, planned sessions using online collaboration tools, or working together in person.

After the initial year working with the mentor, apprentices begin contributing towards the goals of the collective, with each member taking on thought leadership responsibilities in areas where they are strongest. The apprentice community of practice holds team calls, which become a forum for open conversation and exchange. Sometimes the calls take the form of a practical demonstration, other times more of an open conversation depending on immediate needs.


Because mentors and apprentices handle program logistics voluntarily there is little monetary cost to the program and everyone is inherently motivated. Costs are limited to acquiring recorded learning modules from external though leaders, hiring an external facilitator and if necessary subscribing to a Learning Management System if one is not already available. Because of this, cost remains small compared to the ROI. Additionally, if facilitators guide wisely, student employees can use their normal allocation from the training budget to attend conferences, webinars, etc., and gain even more from those activities because the facilitator holds them accountable to apply what they learn. Considering the many recruiters who go to events and don’t use the material to change and improve, the ROI from the facilitator’s guidance alone makes the program worthwhile.

With the right program structure, incentives and institutional support to insure ongoing learning, the blended model of sage and guide can be a very successful and fulfilling way to insure recruiters’ professional development. Your company’s training organization may already have something like this functioning outside of recruiting, so adapting it may not be as difficult as you think.

Today, the ease of use and proliferation of social media makes everyone a sage. This makes much of the learning process easier and more effective, between the low expense of remote presentation, video and screen sharing tools like GoToMeeting, Skype, etc., and online file sharing for real-time document collaboration, version management and storage. Even if your company lacks a formal training function, as you can see from the case study it is possible to set up a successful program of this type with a very low budget.

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