Transform Scary Hiring Managers into True Partners with These 6 Tips

By Pamela Babcock April 9, 2018
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​NEW YORK CITY—Recruiters, do you want to make your worst hiring-manager relationship not so intimidating? Consider these moves from the playbook of Tracey Pass, vice president of talent acquisition, diversity, inclusion and wellness at ESPN.

"When I think about the power of a hiring-manager relationship, it really is all about being curious, building trust, being essential and holding each other accountable," Pass said April 3 at the Greenhouse OPEN conference for recruiting professionals. Pass asked audience members to visualize their scariest hiring manager. "Does a face pop up right away?" she said to nervous laughter.

To highlight potential pitfalls, Pass focused on a once-strained relationship with a former head of software engineering she identified as "Scary Elwin." The big issues? Pass said he was "crazy smart" and "knew a lot about subject matter [she] knew zero about." But if he didn't like something, he immediately called Pass' boss. He also had unrealistic expectations about recruiting, since he had never aligned with a talent acquisition leader. Lastly, his e-mails might as well have been full of Wingdings or emojis: "I would read them and [think], 'I have no idea what this even means.' "

Pass noted a 2016 Bersin by Deloitte report, which found that the most influential predictor of talent acquisition performance is a strong relationship between the recruiter and hiring manager and that strong hiring-manager relationships are four times more influential than any other talent acquisition performance drivers.

Eventually, the pair had a fruitful working relationship. But it wasn't without a lot of work.

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Demonstrate Curiosity

Pass joined ESPN in 2016 after working 13 years at Target, most recently as a senior group manager for talent acquisition. She said one way to get a hiring manager in your corner is by learning more about the roles to fill. When Pass led a team to recruit fashion designers, she knew nothing about design but studied trends, went to New York Fashion Week and even splurged on a designer handbag. "I told my husband it was research, although I just really wanted the handbag. But I just immersed myself in the culture of fashion to make sure we could get the best talent."

To sharpen her knowledge about software engineering, Pass signed up for Saturday coding classes at a local community college. Elwin was impressed. She also cold-called technology companies and visited to learn how they recruit software engineers.

Being an insatiable learner isn't the only way to develop a working relationship with your hiring manager. Pass recommended:

Being essential. Give your clients strategic insight and teach them something they don't know. When a hiring manager announces he has a batch of jobs coming in, don't show up with an empty notebook and pen—you'll look like an order taker. When Elwin began asking advice on whom to bring in, Pass knew she was becoming essential. Before, conversations were, "Tracey, I need 25 engineers and I probably need them by next Friday, so if you could do that, that would be great."

Communicating often. Pass initially pulled back when Elwin called but eventually scheduled three weekly "touch points"—most via text since that's what he liked.

Establishing trust. As their work relationship began to flourish, they talked about what trust meant and how "if either one was steering the ship in the wrong direction, [they] would tell each other." That led to honest conversations and lively debate, she recalled.

Aligning strategy. Pay attention to the hiring manager's team and where their business is going. Share their pain. Do they need a certain skill set? Are there diversity goals that haven't been hit? High turnover? Deliver results and measure them. 

Driving accountability. Carry the ball. Your actions don't have to always be in favor of the hiring manager; hold them accountable, too. If a manager said she was only going to do 10 interviews and is now speaking with candidate 11, let her know. Same for salary limits, since managers with expensive tastes often forget that until the end.

In closing, Pass showed a candid photo of herself and Elwin, which she said she keeps in her office. "We did incredible work together. I actually talked to him this morning, and he said, 'Working with you was one of the biggest thrills of my life.' I learned as much from him as he did from me."

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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