After everything that’s happened, is your recruitment business truly resilient?

Posted on Tuesday, August 1, 2023 by Alison Humphreys - Award winning NED and strategic advisor

The pandemic has made it absolutely clear that we are not “all in the same boat”. More accurately, all recruitment businesses have been through the same storm – but our ships are different.

Many recruitment businesses I know had their best ever year in 2020, and have continued that growth in 2021. Especially those supplying key workers.

But it’s not only as simple as your sector, I also know recruiters who have enjoyed record years despite being in less certain sectors. They grew their market share and promoted staff. Even in lively sectors, not everyone was a winner.

I’ve blogged plenty about the key steps to protect your business at a financial level: controlling costs, maximising productivity, managing cash and consistent business development, have a browse here.

Today, I want to talk about recruiting resilient people, because those people will adapt to change successfully.

Resilience is commonly confused in our industry with blinkered determination, even stubbornness. But a “heads down and charge” approach can leave you with a bruised head and a bruised reputation.

When I interview recruiters (and trainees), which I do a lot for my clients (recruitment business owners), here are six of the factors I look for.

1. Self-awareness

People perform better when they recognise and process their own emotions. When confronted with a major setback, they refuse to catastrophise.

If I receive a voicemail from a client saying “I need to speak to you urgently”, I don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s bad news. That flight, freeze or flee response is a problem in itself. It can lead to refusal to engage with a candidate having doubts or a client who wants to make a low offer – even tone of voice can indicate threat.

I had a regular client who chose to end our long-term agreement, she had decided to seek alternative advice. But I came of that call with a testimonial, a referral and an open door to pick-up in the future – while a less resilient person might just have argued.

2. Tenacity

It is useful to understand how people deal with a mistake, or something they did that they are not proud of. It doesn’t always matter what mistake they choose to tell you about, what matters is how they respond. Do they attempt to justify the mistake? Do they sound emotional when recalling it? What steps did they take to come back from it?

3. Reasoning

You can assess problem-solving skills with many available psychometric tests, scenarios or roleplay. But those responses are usually to a hypothetical situation. Of very little use are ipsative (self-reporting) psychometrics that ask respondents how they rate their own sociability, goal-orientation, etc. What you really want to know is how people set about overcoming an obstacle from a real-life example. Were they able to reframe the question, for example, from the other party’s point of view? Did they explore alternative variables? Or treat the negotiation as a zero-sum game? I’m looking for a growth mindset- one that says not “I’m not good at that” but “I’m not good at that yet”.

4. Collaboration

This is closely connected to social competence. What we do know is that collaboration is critical in the 21st century workplace. Remote working, international cooperation, complex supply chains. Have they maintained good relationships with former colleagues? Do they need to “own” the solution, or do they demonstrate respect for people who are better at certain things than them (not just product knowledge)?

5. Health

Honestly, I was a little late to the game on this one. Physical and mental health are interlinked. Even Elite athletes can have mental health issues that affect their physical performance. Those with razor-sharp intellects can lose their edge without physical health, and I’m sure you’ve seen examples in 2020. Have they taken reasonable steps to take care of themselves? Ask about the last time they were really stressed at work – how did they know and what did they do about it? Attention to health equates to stamina. 

6. Vision to action

Without goals, and a plan to accomplish them, nobody will fulfil their true potential. That vision doesn’t have to be grandiose; we can do without narcissists. Even Bill Gates didn’t start off with a dream of “A computer on every desk and in every home”. When I’m interviewing, I find it useful to ask people about the moment in which they decided to enter recruitment, or move jobs. Then I ask them to take me through what they did about it, on a day-by-day timeline. 

I’ve found that those who are truly recalling that moment can provide dates/times/specifics. Anyone who tells me they “always wanted to do this” has had the “always” but didn’t act, right?

Read the signs

Lots of us as leaders who have held people’s hands during the pandemic are probably feeling emotionally exhausted. Just as with an exercise programme, are those aches and bruises a sign to adjust what you are doing? Or a sign that you are enhancing your potential?


Alison Humphries is a highly experienced MD and NED, with 35 years at the top of the recruitment sector.

She advises directors and owners of recruitment businesses on strategy, finance, sales and management to maximise performance, enter new markets, prepare for sale and work more efficiently. 


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