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Success & Failure: The difference between those that win and lose in recruitment

Author: Toby Babb

Published date: 2018/07

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The recruitment industry has a problem. 

In a classic case of “cobbler’s shoes,” the sector suffers from high attrition rates with many who enter failing to make the grade. Year after year, company after company hire talent from outside the industry and see an average of over 40% fail. Some would argue the true figure is much higher. Academies will be set up to hire ten grads hoping that two will be successful. The graveyard of ex-recruiters, burned by their experience, is full of stories of woe giving an external reputation that drains the flow of talent into the sector. It creates a stigma that drives away people who could be exceptional.

But it doesn’t have to happen that way.

Recruitment is a professional service that needs to be re-imagined. A great recruitment business is the critical partner to any company serious about growth. If you have great people you have a great business. If you fail to get great people, no matter how great your product, you will fail to be a great company.  It is a vocation with true meaning and purpose. A profession to be truly proud of. It brings a truly entrepreneurial career with great rewards. 

On the surface, it is a career that is underpinned by straightforward processes and procedures. Following these can make the job almost fool proof. There is art and science for sure, but in nearly 20 years, I am convinced that anyone with the right attitude can thrive. There are many, many stories of success in the industry. At recent counts there are over 35,000 recruitment companies in the UK and many more thousands of exceptional recruitment processes. Standards and expectations are high. There is certainly pressure attached to targets.  Despite this, whilst there are a myriad of variables to deal with, it is a job that simply shouldn’t have the failure rates that it does.

So why does it happen? Undoubtedly some of it is down to the incessant own goals scored by the industry. I have seen consistent over-promising in interviews, poor support and training, lazy on-boarding and a sink or swim mentality. All of these are avoidable. By far the biggest issue, however, is in the selection process itself. Companies are setting people up to fail by hiring the wrong people and not knowing what it really takes to succeed and fail. 

I heard the words “talent archaeology” recently. This is looking at what it takes to be successful in your industry or company. Having worked in 2,500 person global businesses over two decades, I have seen a trend in where people succeed and where they fail. It is hugely important, when you think about a career in recruitment, that you think about if you truly espouse those traits. If you don’t, choose something easier. If you love the challenge, you’ll love the job and have a career you will be hugely passionate about.

So, what is difference behind those that succeed and those that fail? Let’s start with the seven deadly sins that represent the most common traits of people who fail to make the grade:

  1. Mentality – It all starts in the head. The failure rate of people who become result obsessed is extraordinary. They shortcut the process and, with best intentions of doing the deal quickly, see the result move further away. As the focus becomes more desperate, the confidence falls. As the confidence falls, the motivation sags. The result gets further away and the break happens.
  2. QQD – Quality, Quantity, Direction. The three words that will be the reason for failure in any recruiter. Is there enough being done? Is it of a suitable quality? Is the activity being pointed at the right work? Recruiters fail due to one or all of the above. 
  3. Empathy – Transactional recruitment kills careers. This job is about relationships and those who see candidates and clients as marks will invariably fail. A lack of empathy will be a sure fire career killer. 
  4. Talking – A common trait of those who I have worked with who haven’t made the grade has been they are great at talking. Great at talking AT people. Awful at listening. If you love the sound of your own voice, don’t get into recruitment.
  5. Work rate – Quite simply, the biggest reason for failure in recruitment. People in interview talk about their “money motivation” and the list of “things” they want to have or achieve. They then turn up late, do the minimum acceptable levels, have Monday flu. If you think you want to achieve but don’t really want to put the work in, this isn’t the job for you. Don’t apply.
  6. Focus – A lack of focus is a recruitment consultant killer. Constant distraction, an inability to follow the plan, persistent cigarette breaks. If you have an inability to discipline yourself, I’ll wager it’s not the right job for you.
  7. Pressure – As with mentality, pressure is something you need to deal with in recruitment. If that pressure is going to make you focus on short term wins and go home beaten, don’t take the job.


Seven reasons not to become a recruiter above. I massively believe in candour in interviews. It simply isn’t for everyone. But there are those of us who absolutely love it. People who don’t claw their way to the weekend. People who couldn’t be more passionate about what they do and thoroughly enjoy what they do. When you do the job well, and you are winning consistently, it’s the best job in the world. 

It doesn’t matter what you have done before. We’ve got sportsmen, brokers, salesmen, landlords, casino pit bosses, ex-forces. You just need seven things.

So what makes you succeed?

  1. Discipline – The hardest worker in the room (as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson says) will invariably win. Loads of people say they are hard workers. Few are really willing to commit. Those that do succeed in recruitment 9 times out of 10.
  2. Kaizen – Constant improvement, critical non-essentials, sponges, marginal gains. It has become a cliché recently but a commitment to kaizen (continuous improvement) is the fundamental key to success in recruitment. A dedication to mastering the art. Few really want to get better every day. Those that do turn learning into action will win.
  3. Shaking the tree – The harder you shake the tree the more apples fall. Those who, at the start of their career, do more than others win. In your first 90 days, some will do 30 days’ worth of activity, others will get in six months. If you are afraid of numbers, picking up the phone and making things happen. You’ll fail. If you embrace the activity and work hard at mastering it, you will win. Simple.
  4. Systematic process – The most common trait you see in any high performer in sport, business or the military is a consistent systematic process. A formula for success. Everyone is given that formula when they start. Those who make it their goal to execute all aspects of that process get consistent results and win.
  5. Be Cool – This comes from playing the long game. Not expecting instant gratification from everything. Committing to and trusting the process. Letting the score take care of itself. Executing 5 keys consistently and having the patience to wait for the results.
  6. Planning – Big numbers and high impact activity comes from careful planning to make it happen. High quality lists, great notes, meticulous research. You either run around like a busy fool or plan for success.
  7. Listening – Excellence through understanding was our first mantra as a business. This means asking deeper questions. Truly understanding needs. Qualifying and disqualifying. The best work on the right things and do the simple things well. Brilliant basics and mastery of the fundamentals. The basics of recruitment all focus around asking great questions, listening to the answers, and then asking more questions.


So there we have it. Seven highly achievable, controllable things that, in my opinion, contribute to the best becoming the best. Unglamorous things that make the glamorous things happen. Our view is that these contribute to the four types of top biller: The Grafter, The Thinker, The Competitor and The Connector. You can read about all of these here

On top of this, we interview for three things. The person, the Professional and the Recruiter. Good people with the desire to be professional and the ability to connect with others. If this sounds like you, we want to talk to you. Knowing this is why our retention rate is so much better than the industry average. It all starts with having the right people.