Building an Advanced Talent Acquisition Function Today — People and TA Structures (Part 1 of 3)

I wrote an article not too long ago called “What does an Advanced Talent Acquisition Function Look Like?“, and received a fair few calls about it. A lot of the questions were related to building (or redesigning) a Talent Acquisition team, so I thought it made sense to follow up that piece with a three-part series on how would I build an advanced talent acquisition team based on conversations and lessons learned in the last 20 years.
Part 1 (this one), I am going into depth on People and Talent Acquisition (TA) models.
Part 2, optimal process and operations of a TA function.
Part 3, technology.
If you have read my stuff in the past, I generally like to write a few disclaimers up front to set the right context of what you are about to read:

  1. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but rather elements of what you read here that could be mixed and matched given the diverse nature of how talent acquisition functions need to operate. Some of you are going to be on the more advanced track and others in the early stages of building.
  2. Given my TA background and my experience is mostly in the enterprise space for global companies, this piece has more of that lens. But, given my previous role as chief analyst at ERE Media, and my own current advisory firm, I have now spoken to hundreds of diverse companies from small startups to fast-growing SMBs. The point of view I am going to offer will try and accommodate these perspectives as well.
  3. It’s impossible to cover absolutely everything I have learned over the years in these three articles, so obvious things like “you must train your recruiters,” or “build an effective employee referral program,” etc., I have skipped. I tried to focus on the bigger concepts and I want to give you options vs. thinking there is just an easy button answer to the best TA structure. There’s not.
  4. As stated above, I can’t fit this all into just a three-part series, and maybe it needs to be a book. What I can do for some of the key points is reference more in-depth articles I have written in the past if you’re interested in going deep on that topic.

Let’s start with people and organisational structures first, as people are your most important asset.
[bctt tweet=”When should you build an advance TA function? @TheRobMcIntosh has some advice to share.” username=”ATCevent”]

People & TA Structure

Recruiters vs. Sourcers vs. Outsource vs. Contractors vs. Agencies … that is the question.
But, before I get into the pros and cons of each of the functional roles you can have in a TA function, I need to call out what I think is foundational to your approach, regardless of the model you build if you’re going to optimise the acquisition of talent.
Having a high percentage of hires coming from employee referrals is what I have found high-performing companies and TA functions aim for as part of their optimal strategy. After employee referrals, I have found that the next highest source of candidates is all over the map. There are many reasons why this could be the case, from industry type to different job families and where you might be physically when recruiting these candidates.
What advanced TA functions do first and foremost is recognise the value of mining the heck out of their own databases. But even with these advanced TA functions, a much smaller percentage have actually put a robust talent relationship management methodology in place that continues to nurture the relationships with talent that they have identified as better-quality fit.
I am not talking about pushing out content through social media or creating “talent communities.” I am talking about a systematic approach to identifying the better-quality candidates and keeping in touch with them. How you tactically might do that is important, but in my honest opinion, you need the strategy and framework in place as to identify who are these higher-quality candidates first.

A TRM (Talent Relationship Management) Design Process Methodology

We all know that finding good candidates is hard enough, so why treat every requisition like a brand-new search every time if you don’t have to? If you have invested the previous energy and effort on assessing candidates who were a solid match for your organisation, then, where it makes sense, formally track and keep in touch with those potential future-fit candidates. Wouldn’t life be a lot easier if the right candidates you are looking for were under your nose in your own ATS/CRM?
Most ATSs will allow you to build some type of either requisition structure, or folder structure, or even #tagging structures where you can move your candidate persona types off that open req into this talent relationship management design structure.
The simple premise is that these persona types are a higher-quality candidate, because you have spoken with them previously, generally understand what motivates them, and have been through some form or interview to validate that they are a quality candidate.
Common sense note: The design methodology is not meant for every role type in your company. If you have certain roles where all you need to do is just post the job and you get hundreds of quality candidates applying, then this approach is not relevant. I bet you can’t say that is the case for every job family type in your company though.
This is a simple visual (click to enlarge) I have put together in the past to explain:

Depending on your organisational structure, you can replace the role of talent advisor in the middle of the hub with a recruiter or sourcer who’ll continue to build relationships with each of the persona types. But I have found more success with a dedicated sourcing team given that most full-lifecycle recruiters are stuck in just-in-time based recruiting and they’re not able to invest the time in scalable proactive relationship building activities.
Future Fit = You have interviewed them, they have the right skills, good culture fit, but they need a little more experience related to some of your must-have criteria.
The Warm = Interested in your organisation but the timing might not be right (waiting for annual bonus, finishing up a company-paid MBA, etc). You know they are a high-potential match based on previous conversations, but you need to connect them to the right opportunity when the timing is better.
The Withdrawn = They meet the key requirements of the role but withdrew from the process before making it to the offer stage. If the business gave them a thumbs-up prior to withdrawing from the process and if the circumstances are right in the future, they might be a future fit.
The Silver Medalist = Came in second for an opportunity. Could they fit elsewhere now or in the future?
The Unknown = This is the only persona that is the exception to the rule and a little different. You have not spoken to them, but given your market and competitive intelligence, they work for certain types of companies that your own company would be interested in by default. Example: If you work for Accenture, then by default, pretty much any candidate identified who works for Deloitte, KMPG, or PwC is of interest to your business. Finding a way to build relationships with these non-candidates is strategically in your best interest.
The Offer Decliner = Made it all the way to the offer but withdrew from the process (could have accepted another competing offer, etc.). If the circumstances make sense, you want to keep in touch. History has shown me that this is one of the highest-quality candidates in the persona set. I have lost count of the number of times my teams have followed up with people who turned down our offer, only to hear from the candidate that they made a mistake and would like to re-engage. If the right opportunity arises, you should make the offer again.
Here’s a real-world example that taught me a value lesson in creating a robust future fit talent relationship management strategy:
Back during my early days at Microsoft, we decided to identify all the college/campus candidates in the last five years who turned down our offers. We ended up with a list of about 600 names. We could only connect with half of them (this was before LinkedIn became what it is and the research tools we have today). Out of the ones we did connect with, the majority of them were blown away that we were even following up all these years later. The following month we generated 16 hires from this one activity.
To this day, I wonder how many people we could have hired if we had a future fit methodology that allowed us to keep in touch with them over the years as they continued to pick up more career experience.
Let’s now look at the different resources at your disposal to build an advanced TA strategy and organisation.
[bctt tweet=”There is no one-size-fits-all TA solution. It depends on your business says @TheRobMcIntosh” username=”ATCevent”]

Recruiters (Full lifecycle)

There is nothing wrong with a TA structure where all your recruiters are doing full lifecycle. Less hand offs means fewer things can go wrong or get lost in translation. We have been doing it this way for years before corporate sourcing came along as a way to split the specialisation. There is no one perfect way to structure your TA function. Sometimes decentralisation works where the recruiters are imbedded into the business units. Other times leveraging a CoE model where sourcing/branding/marketing/ops/recruiting coordinators are sitting in a virtual centralised model works as well. My only advice on the full life-cycle recruiter model is there are only so many hours in a day. You must be operationally strong and diligent to make sure your recruiters are:
A) Given the right req load balance based off the complexities of the role. Not the vanilla one-size-fits-all approach where you guess that 50 is the right number of reqs open per recruiter at any one time. I am super impressed with the data-centric way that the OPOWER TA team went about creating req load balancing based off req complexity. You can read the case study here to find out more.
B) Continually inspect where your recruiters are spending their time. How much time is being spent on activities that are achieving the primary objective of making hires vs. activities that yes, while necessary, may not be the right thing to have your recruiters owning because they’re taking critical time away from achieving their primary objective. I will go into this in more depth in the process and operations section. Some additional strategic and tactical things to consider with this model:
When you’re a smaller company, recruiters are going to do it all. As you grow and scale, think carefully when do you make necessary headcount investments in resources involving specialisation of the recruiting function: hiring a branding/social/marketing person; hiring a sourcer; hiring an ops person to create consistent processes at scale, what are the key metrics to be reporting; managing vendor relationships; hiring recruiting coordinators to share the heavy load of scheduling/rescheduling/canceling of interviews.
The topic of resource balancing is always front and centre for TA leaders. Why hire a dedicated sourcer when I could just hire another recruiter? Why hire a recruiting coordinator when I could hire another recruiter and reallocate some of the recruiting tasks around to the whole team? Why not just hire a contractor given I am getting pinched on budgeted headcount? This leads us to the next point….


I have been doing this long enough to know that when/how/why you hire a contractor really falls into a couple of buckets. There might be some other scenarios beyond what my observations are, but I think they are likely to be one-offs. Here is why:
Scale = If the business comes to me with an increase in hiring demand that goes above the req loads of my current team, then I have some choices to make. Is this demand short term (now) and is the need long term (sustained increase for the next few years)? If I need to ramp up quickly but the need is not a sustained need, then obviously this is where you would use contractors (or staff augmentation).
Budget Approval = Or should I say lack thereof. Many a time, a TA leader will ask for additional full-time headcount. And yes folks, we all know that we don’t always get what we want and we can only take what is given. In short, people will use their programmatical dollars to pay for contractor headcount to meet the hiring demand because the budgeted headcount approvals did not come through to the levels a TA leader might ask. This is not the right approach, but it is the reality we live in.
Short-term Specialisation = There were times where I needed to engage a specialist contractor because we were hiring a group of candidates we had no historical experience with. We were also not sure if this was more of a short-term play vs. a more sustained effort where the volume of hiring would be consistent enough to support a full-time person.
Like anything to do with recruiting demand and the model you build, you will be faced with the need to mix and match as best as you can with what you are given. If the year-on-year demand increases are large and sustained, then the contractor option diminishes significantly.


If I was the head of TA for a company that needed to hire hundreds of similar job families, lower complexity jobs (Example: customer service, warehouse workers, retail salespeople, etc.), I would seriously think of engaging an RPO vs. building it all in-house. My experience is that RPOs (not all of them though) can do it faster, more consistently, and for less. Additionally, it’ll also help if they are on point with our employer branding messages, that will go a long way to mitigating some of my initial concerns. But, depending on the location, role complexity, and whether it’s a spike vs. a constant need, I might lean towards the contractor/staff augmentation path as well.
While RPOs have gotten more sophisticated over the years, I would not outsource the lower-volume, higher-complexity, mission-critical roles. I just have not found that they can do it as effectively as building your own internal capability. It’s not always about low cost. ?
But… make sure you have very tight SLAs and KPIs in place. Make sure the RPO has the data-centric thinking and horsepower to proactively identify areas for improvement. If you are hiring an expert at high-volume recruiting, then you will want these insights as part of your quarterly business reviews. Demand that you want opportunities identified before they become problems. You want options with suggested alternatives. You want metrics and analysis with a dollar lens associated. You need to be able to show your internal executives what the ROI is. You need to have the RPO show how TA is making or saving the company money.
Treat the RPO as a partner, not a vendor. Your success is dependent on their success. Make sure you align your recruiters (if that’s the preferred model) with this. I’ve seen too much finger pointing in my career by recruiters playing the blame game with the RPO vs. treating them as an equal partner. Lots of times it’s not the RPO at fault, so stop using it as a convenient scratching post just because it is the “vendor.”
As a final note of interest with some RPOs… they have much deeper pockets than you do when it comes to technology. They are going to have access to more technology and tools. Remember, they have multiple clients, so they have tested the effectiveness of these tools and approaches in a diverse array of industries and markets. They are going to be able to do and try things that you can’t, so keep that in mind as you evaluate if/where an RPO is right for your strategy.


The last point on RPO partnering is just as much, and maybe even more, important when you have or are building an internal sourcing team. Most sourcing team models are built on sourcers supporting/partnering with recruiters, who are the primary contacts for the business. You must remove the friction as quickly as possible between recruiters and sourcers, because if you do not, you’re going to end up creating an “us vs. them” culture in your own function. I know this because early in my career, I was the idiot who unfortunately created some of this friction. I learned this lesson the hard way, so be mindful as you build your own teams.

Creating mutual goals is one way to accelerate success

When it comes to what the actual sourcing team does, here is what I would do today based on lessons learned:
Have them focus on low volume/high complexity reqs. They must be focused on mission-critical, high-impact roles. Creating a sourcing function needs an investment mindset from all stakeholders, not a cost-centre mindset. By focusing on what’s most important and impactful to the business, you will accelerate buy in.
Don’t “goal them” on hires. Goal them on quality of candidates being submitted/accepted. If your kickoff call and requirements gathering is solid but your sourcers are not hitting 80+ percent of the recruiters/hiring managers accepting those candidates, then it is time for a dialogue. Is it a sourcing quality issue, or poor job requirements gathering that is not crisp and clear, or is the hiring manager moving the goal posts on the need? Great TA functions clearly understand how important and how impactful the requirements gathering and validation at the beginning of the process is. Remember that shit flows downhill.
Goal them on the number of quality passive candidates they are engaging with every week. Goal them on how many candidates they are moving through a talent relationship management methodology pipeline: Cold to Warm to Hot to Matched to an open req each month. Though they should not be goal-ed on hires, the activities and measures should be tied to showing progress through the funnel which ultimately produces a hire.
They should be spending the majority of their time trying to identify and attract talent that is not looking. They should be spending their time nurturing talent against your talent relationship management strategy. Having an experienced sourcer searching job boards is just a bad use of resource allocation. Have your recruiters handle the inbound. Let the sourcers deal with the outbound for those mission-critical reqs. I wrote about this very topic this a lot time ago, but it’s even more relevant today as you ponder this for your own organisation. Are Passive Candidates a Waste of Time in a Volume Hiring Model?
Have some experts on your team who are good at market and intelligence research. It is important to have someone who can understand supply/demand data and be able to use it explain the competitive landscape and identify where the talent is. Having people help craft this story so that you, as the leader, can use these key data points to drive the right talent-acquisition strategies is a must-do if you’re going to become more proactive in the market.
[bctt tweet=”Recruiters vs. Sourcers vs. Outsource vs. Contractors vs. Agencies. When should you use them? @TheRobMcIntosh explains” username=”ATCevent”]


When should you use agencies depends on the size and sophistication of your company and your own TA function. Here is what I have observed, learned, and how I’d approach the partnering with agencies. Yes, I said that word partnering again, like I did with RPOs.
Just too dang small = Companies that only do a handful of hires a year are going to be more inclined, and rightfully so, to engage a handful of specialised agencies to fill their needs. With the company being able to get a reasonable amount of hires from referrals, posting jobs to a few local sites, it makes sense to partner and parse out the balance of those harder-to-fill roles (could be more senior-level roles) to a good old third-party agency. But when does this change?
It is a little bit of a “depends” question, but here’s my advice. When the total annual agency fees start getting up to around the fully loaded headcount costs of a good senior recruiter + any tech/licenses you might want to invest in, then that should be your starting point as to whether there might a better mouse trap available. Let me put a bogey out there of $100-150,000 a year in agency fees. The assumption is that the company is going to continue to grow, and with this, comes more roles (growth + attrition). As part of your go-forward recruiting strategy, you, of course, are not initially (not short-medium term) going to jettison all agency hiring, but you will of course get more strategic about when and where to use agencies vs. using them all the time.
Executive Search = Where executive search is concerned, this not only affected by your TA structure, but also the C-suite’s behaviours. Let me address behaviour first.
C-suite behaviour = I met one senior HR leader who, while saying it costs too much money to hire people for the company, was not even remotely willing to discuss having the internal TA function help with those traditional executive search roles ($100,000+ fee roles) to help reduce the cost to serve. I raised my eyebrow at that hypocritical statement.
The more I probed on this, the quicker it became apparent why some of the C-suite have this mindset. He said to me: “Just like no one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey, no one gets fired for engaging one of top big executive search firms.” Did I think we could do the job just as well or even better given that we have a solid handle on company, competitors, culture, coupled with a solid interviewing methodology in place? Heck yes.
I eventually got them to think differently by doing a bake off – our candidates vs. the executive search firms’. We did not get all the reqs, but we got the majority vs. the historical and default executive search firm approach from the C-suite. We proved our value by showing the results. Which leads me to structure…
Structure = While you might now have a reasonably sized internal corporate recruiting team, they just don’t possess the capability, confidence, and experience to effectively engage with the C-suite on filling these open positions. Very rarely will you see junior (less than three years) recruiters engaging with the SVP of enterprise sales on filling a GM need in their financials services market. The role is just too critical and they are not going to hand it over to have a junior recruiter to engage with very seasoned professionals.
Now where this starts to change is if the TA function has built credibility and trust with the C-suite, and if the C-suite is also trying to reduce the cost to serve through TA. This is where you will find that larger organisations have dedicated recruiters/sourcers filling these roles internally. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out the math… $250,000 roles @30 percent fee x 10 roles a year adds up to $750,000. I’m not dissing on executive search firms’ value, but I gave up on the myth years ago that they have some secret selection process better than anyone else … Bahooie, they don’t!

Yes, specialised executive search firms have potentially deeper access to talent in their database, plus pre-existing relationships, but I also know and have seen dedicated internal corporate executive search teams do a great job of building these relationships as well over time.
So, if you believe you have the trust with the C-suite, the sourcing strategy, and assessment infrastructure in place, then if reducing agency spend, while not impacting speed/quality, is important, this is where I see internal executive search functions being built.
Specialisation = Like where you would engage a contractor, where the need is specialised and not in high volume, then partnering and engaging an agency makes most sense.
Hiring Manager’s Buddy = I have met many a hiring manager across my career who will just default hand their open positions to an agency buddy whom they have worked with in the past. It could have been from previous organisations where they did it this way, or it could have been that the recruiting function does not effectively deliver.
If I was a hiring manager who was working with an internal recruiting function that sort of sucked, and I know a great agency recruiter who got things done, and if I also owned the budget, then why wouldn’t I? If you find yourself in these situations and have a dedicated recruiting function, and the hiring manager is not budging, then you have some credibility and trust issues to work on. The best suggestion I can make here, is to get other hiring managers in your organisation who are fans of the internal recruiting function and have them act as champions to help show the value in the relationship they have with your team. It takes time, but it works nearly every time.
Now that we have covered some of the whys and where on the resources at your disposal, let’s look at some of the different organisational structures.

Decentralised vs. Centralised vs. CoE

If you have worked in a large enterprise for long enough, you are probably going to see changes to the way the TA function is structured more than a couple of times. Logically, part of how a TA function is structured is related to how the business units in an organisation are structured. As the business changes its organisational structure, generally so does talent acquisition.
There are lots of pros and cons in every TA structure, but in my experience, the closer you can get aligned to the way the business is structured, the better off you will be.
Yes, I know some of you reading this just want the easy button answer, but the best way to give you my point of view on the different TA structures, based on my own experience and hundreds of conversations with other TA leaders, is to show you the pros and cons. It’s not my job to tell you how you need to line up your organisation model.
Decentralised — Pros

  • Tighter alignment to supported business groups;
  • Partnerships and relationships develop quicker and more deeply;
  • Ownership, control, and accountability increases;
  • Recruiter/sourcer gains deeper knowledge and expertise in the supported area.

Decentralised — Cons

  • Creation of siloes and lost opportunities for sharing talent and best practices;
  • Accountability only to the area you support;
  • Lose broad competitive and market Intelligence. Missed opportunities;
  • Tendency to reinvent the wheel on tools and processes… “We are different than group X.”

Centralised — Pros

  • Ability to move and deploy resources quickly against enterprise demand;
  • Collaboration and knowledge sharing happens more fluently;
  • Retention of IP can be maintained broadly;
  • Ensures consistent processes, SLAs, and standards.

Centralised — Cons

  • Ownership issues of resources and control by supported customer groups becomes prevalent;
  • Harder to foster deep and close partnership with supported recruiters;
  • Depth of Industry and business group knowledge diminishes.

[bctt tweet=”Can a Centre of Excellence TA model be the solution? @TheRobMcIntosh examines the pros and cons. ” username=”ATCevent”]

CoE (Centre of Excellence)

Centre of Excellence became more prominent in the early 2000s. If you are not familiar with the model, think of CoE as a blend of centralised and decentralised models. In TA terms, you might find the sourcing, operations, marketing/branding, and recruiting coordinators residing in the CoE to support the recruiters and/or HR business partners who are aligned to the business.

  • Business generally likes the one primary point of contact for all things HR;
  • Subject matter expertise knowledge resides in a central location where everyone knows where to go;
  • Consolidation and consistency of process and policy;
  • Resources can be more easily deployed across the enterprise related to priorities.
  • With HRBPs generally being the primary point person for the business in a CoE enterprise model, they can:
  1. Lack the depth of knowledge;
  2. Become the bottleneck;
  3. Think they are the customer vs. the business.
  • Functions like sourcing can get pushed to the back office and not add the needed value during the kickoff call/intake meeting;
  • Relationships can fray given that the CoE resources are not tied specifically to an area. Not everyone feels they are getting the equal amount of love;
  • Rather than recruiters accessing the greater pool of sourcing/coordinators, they go to their favorites, causing strain on the model.

In Summary

I have given you some broad strategic and tactical things to consider. Yes, many organisations will mix and match the above models and resources to most effectively identify, attract, and assess the talent needed to meet the business demand. I am yet to find a one-size-fits-all solution, and as you go on your own individual journey, keep in mind that just because something worked perfectly for you in your last company, never assume that you can cookie-cutter the approach in your new organisation.
In part 2, I will spend time digging into lessons learned on what optimal process and operational governance looks like when building/fixing a talent-acquisition function.
Image: Shutterstock

This article first appeared on ERE on 4 October 2017.

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