Why Curiosity Might Be the Most Important Skill for Recruiters


[This blog post first appeared on the LinkedIn Talent Blog in February 2020]

Curiosity. It doesn’t show up on nearly enough core competency lists, and it’s tough to measure. Yet curiosity is accountable for much of the success of top corporate recruiters. Of course, other competencies are critical, too — adaptability, learning agility, drive, prioritization, influence, etc. But those typically get quite a bit of love in recruiter performance reviews already, whereas curiosity does not.

My team and I at Recruiting Toolbox have worked with thousands of corporate recruiters and hiring managers inside many of the best-known companies on earth. And as you uncover what makes a great recruiter great, you start to hear common themes across industries and geographies. Curiosity is not always explicitly called out, but it’s there — it’s like an underlying competency, that leads to the more visible competencies that talent leaders and business leaders tell us they want to see more of in their recruiters.

They want recruiters to know many things, but these six are very common:

  1. Know my business better — our company and team goals, the challenges/risks we face, the actual work we do and how it helps the company, our growth plans, our products, our markets, etc.
  2. Know our teams better — our key people, our leadership styles and culture, our hiring capabilities, our internal talent pools and possible successors, etc.
  3. Know our target candidate profiles better — what capabilities we need and why, the target backgrounds and sources of top talent for our roles, our target candidates’ needs and motivators, etc.
  4. Know why diversity is needed here  what type of diversity we need to add to the team and why, what kind of challenges someone "different" would face and how we can set them up for success, etc.
  5. Know internal and external metrics — the internal barriers to more speed, quality, and diversity and how we can improve, external market insights (especially compensation) that’ll help us improve the ROI of our recruiting efforts and make more realistic plans, etc.
  6. Get more creative — what we can do if traditional sourcing, assessment, candidate experience, closing strategies and tactics aren’t working well enough, how we can deal with our current realities/constraints to still deliver the talent we need to move our business forward, etc.

And, doing each of things well requires you to get curious and ask questions. Once you know those six things, everything gets better (and easier). This includes planning and getting proactive, setting expectations with unrealistic or uneducated hiring managers, building an effective sourcing strategy, finding and engaging top talent, leading the interviewing process and facilitating a quality hiring decision, selling and closing talent, influencing the business and HR partners, improving diversity, speeding up processes, and more. 

Some of my favorite people in our space talk about curiosity as key to success as well — Glenn Cathey and Tracey Pass, for example, are students of all kinds of business ideas. In fact, talk to a top talent acquisition leader today about what they read, and you’ll likely discuss books and articles from outside of the HR space. Why? Because many of the lessons to be learned about strategy and scaling, deploying great process and experiences, marketing, influencing, and more come from outside of recruiting and HR. Marketing, Sales, Supply Chain, Data Science, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Finance, Psychology, Economics...all of these disciplines help us innovate in talent acquisition.

How to foster curiosity 

I recall a recruiter I coached when I was a corporate recruiting manager years ago. A big piece of feedback we discussed in their performance review was related to their lack of business acumen. We discussed how that deficiency was impacting their performance and how hiring managers perceived them (based on the way they contributed — or didn’t — to quarterly planning meetings and many misfires on candidate profiles). 

I helped by identifying the kind of information I wanted them to read and learn. But, in retrospect, that was a mistake. Why? This recruiter read everything I asked them to read, and then reported back to me to let me know that they'd checked off all of the tick boxes on “your reading list for me.” Ugh!

Do you think anything changed with that recruiter? Do you think getting the kind of outcomes I wanted for them, the business wanted for them, was simply about reading a few articles? Nope. In fact, hiring manager/business feedback remained the same for this recruiter — “not great business acumen” — which led to candidate submittals that were not quite right (keyword matching is not enough), not able to sell our employee value proposition (EVP) to passive candidates credibly and effectively, not able to educate us on market realities, etc. 

I learned from this mistake as a manager. I realized then that my approach to coaching them was all wrong — instead of listing out a bunch of internal and external business docs to read, I should have instead addressed my underlying curiosity concerns. I should have influenced them to be more curious...to WANT to know this information, to understand HOW TO USE this information to help them win in their jobs.

Today, when we train recruiters to be talent advisors or train recruiting managers to be more effective leaders, we share a list of the top 20 questions a talent advisor (or recruiting manager) should know the answers to. We don’t list out all of the things you should read — instead, we sell the idea of learning more, of being curious, of self-assessing your own knowledge, of pursuing answers to the questions that the business wants you to know the answers to.

What kind of questions would make a top 20 list to me?

Questions like:

  • What are the top three biggest initiatives that are driving the need for more/better/different talent in the businesses you support?
  • How appealing is the work we do to our target candidates? And why would someone who's already doing this kind of work with a key people competitor want to make the move to our company, to this team?
  • Out of all the reqs this VP/director has open, what are her top priority roles, and why?
  • What’s the current makeup of the teams I recruit for, and what do they need more of or less of? More diversity, more senior talent, more specialists, more managers, more doers, and why?
  • Who are the strongest and weakest hiring managers on our team, and what do they need from me, HR, and their bosses to be more effective?
  • What are the top three things I can do to improve speed in our process?
  • Are we missing out on good hires (false negatives)? How do we know?

One of our client talent acquisition leaders, Tony Cornett, took our list of questions and challenged himself and his team to go out and get answers. And then every quarter, each person would share what they learned with the rest of the team. He was creating a culture of curiosity, of learning, of sharing, and of driving accountability around it by creating a public space to share what everyone had learned.

So, my challenge to you: Get Curious. Tell your boss the kind of questions you want to get answers to this month, this year. And then get to work — read inside and outside of your industry (I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s blog for marketing tips), set up coffee chats with supportive business leaders, go to a conference outside of HR (I go to at least one tech or marketing conference every year), listen to podcasts about tech, psychology, economics, and science (my favorite is Freakonomics), and most of all — ASK QUESTIONS. Demonstrate that you’re eager to learn and that you're genuinely curious. Hiring managers and candidates LOVE sharing with people who want to listen and learn. People will make the investment in you — to share insights, to point you to other people and information sources — if you show them that you care.

What non-talent-related conferences do you go to? What podcasts do you listen to that broaden your understanding of business and technology?  What blogs and books would you recommend to someone who’s getting curious about the world around them? Tweet me your suggestions @vlastelica.


John Vlastelica leads Recruiting Toolbox, a consulting and training firm that focuses 100% on helping organizations raise the bar on hires, turn recruiters into talent advisors, design new recruiting processes that deliver more speed, and improve the effectiveness of their strategies. He brings experiences from his work as a former corporate recruiting director (Amazon, Expedia) and consulting/training work with many of the most amazing brands on earth: Disney, Nike, Adidas, Sephora, IKEA, ESPN, Google, Salesforce, Starbucks, Target, Booking, PepsiCo, SAP, Nestle, and Hulu. He’s also been a #1 rated speaker at LinkedIn Talent Connect, ERE, and SourceCon. Reach him at @vlastelica.