[Podcast] Industry Spotlight | Sharon Hulce, CEO at Employment Resource Group | The Value of Client Relationships and Retained Search

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Show notes

In this episode of Industry Spotlight, we’re honored to have Sharon Hulce, a vanguard in the executive search arena. Sharon is the CEO and Founder of Employment Resource Group, a retained-search firm.

In this conversation with Kortney Harmon, Sharon brings to light the critical aspects of her firm’s approach, emphasizing the importance of establishing value through courage and confidence during fee negotiations.

She’ll also reveal her powerful strategy in relationship building, making personal visits to clients and prioritizing phone communication over emails to create a more meaningful connection.

Sharon discusses how she measures success in her firm, and despite the simplicity, ensures that candidates are not just found, but placed.

Throughout the episode, we’ll also tackle topics such as the complexity of counteroffers, the ethical considerations in recruitment, and navigating the waters of an industry increasingly influenced by AI technology—all while maintaining the irreplaceable human touch.

Sharon isn’t just here to share her story; she offers valuable guidance from lessons learned, demonstrating why courage, determination, and a “buffalo” mentality are essential to thrive.

Join us as Sharon imparts her wisdom on the benefits of retained search, the consultative approach her firm takes, and how to stand out by offering a unique value proposition to clients.

Prepare to be inspired as Sharon Hulce pulls back the curtain on the dynamic and transformative world of retained executive search. Let the conversation begin.

Employment Research Group website: https://ergsearch.com/
Sharon Hulce’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sharonhulce/


Sharon Hulce [00:00:00]:
I track one metric and that’s send out and it’s the only metric I track. That’s it. If people aren’t getting interviewed, they’re not going to get a job. End of story. Right. So for me, the metric I look for, so we run one for five because we go to short list. One person gets a job for every five candidates we get interviewing. So my job, depending on how many placements I want that month, this is how many people have to interview.

Sharon Hulce [00:00:29]:
Pretty easy. And I don’t have to bog myself down with phone time and number of resumes in number of Smith and I do one.

Kortney Harmon [00:00:40]:
Welcome to another episode of the full Desk experience podcast industry Spotlight. I’m your host, Kortney Harmon, and I am thrilled today to have Sharon Holtz joining me. Sharon is the president and CEO of Employment Resource Group, a retained executive search firm focused on the staffing and recruiting industry. Sharon has 28 years of experience in this space and is truly an expert when it comes to retained search. In 2006, she was named entrepreneur of the year by Ernst and Young, as well as manager of the year by women in management. Her firm has been recognized nationally for its strong growth and industry leadership. And in today’s podcast, we’re going to focus the conversation around Sharon’s journey transitioning into retained search model and her insights for firms looking to add retained search to take their current retained business to the next level, or adding that arm of their business. This is extremely timely given our major shifts that’s happening across our search model.

Kortney Harmon [00:01:39]:
So, Sharon, thank you so much for joining me today.

Sharon Hulce [00:01:42]:
It’s thrilled to be back with you. Kortney, I know it’s been a while.

Kortney Harmon [00:01:45]:
I love it.

Sharon Hulce [00:01:46]:
It’s been a while.

Kortney Harmon [00:01:47]:
So do me a favor, I obviously know you from our history. Do me a favor and tell our listeners a little bit more about you, how you got here, and a little bit about your organization.

Sharon Hulce [00:01:59]:
Yeah, so my story, how I got here, it’s kind of a long one, but I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version. 28 years ago, I was working for a women’s clothing company out of North Carolina and I loved my job. I traveled every day via plane and my job was to hire salespeople all over the country. So I loved that job. But was at a conference in St. Louis flying into O’Hare and we didn’t have any landing gear. So we were in the plane and they go, listen, we got a little issue. We have no landing gear.

Sharon Hulce [00:02:28]:
The bad news is we had refueled in St. Louis, so you can’t belly land on a full tank of gas because it causes a fire. So for 4 hours, we were in the air. We finally belly land. It goes fine. But I became a very nervous flyer at that time, and I’m thinking, I have to fly every day, and I don’t want to fly right now. So I started looking for a new something. I had been cook associates out of Chicago had tried to recruit me at one point, and I didn’t really know a lot about the recruiting industry, but I thought they must have saw something in my background.

Sharon Hulce [00:03:05]:
So I literally accepted the job. I called them up, said, is that job still available? And my then husband, now ex husband, just right before I supposed to start, had a panic attack, said, I don’t want to move Chicago. So back then, we had yellow pages. We didn’t have vegan or nuts. So I opened up the yellow pages, and I saw management. Recruiters of appleton called, who ultimately became my boss said, hey, you don’t know me, but here’s my story. And I started that Monday, and I billed 509 from June 2 to December 31, and I found my vocation. So that’s how it went.

Kortney Harmon [00:03:38]:
I love it. No one ever ends in this industry on purpose, but it always ends up very deliberate in the long run.

Sharon Hulce [00:03:45]:
You all attacked me. Insane to do it on purpose.

Kortney Harmon [00:03:48]:
So tell me a little bit about employment resource group.

Sharon Hulce [00:03:52]:
Yeah, so we have been in business 22 years. So ultimately I bought my desk. I saw this business as a need at that time for sure, as had to be done in a different way. The piece that I felt was missing, it was so transactional. Three guys, three candidates for three companies. You’re always playing this chess game, and I just never felt good about that. I made a lot of money, but I kept thinking, but I don’t know where they sit. I don’t know who they’re going to sit with.

Sharon Hulce [00:04:20]:
I don’t know anything about the culture. And that was before culture was even a big thing. It was just sort of something that I said. If I could know more about the organizations I’m working with, I could pick better candidates. So that’s why I ultimately started my own. And I didn’t do anything really over the phone other than recruit. Every job order I took, I drove or flew. I still got on a plane.

Sharon Hulce [00:04:45]:
I still do to this day. And I went to see the clients when I would first start working with them, and I could see the environment. I could watch how people interact with the boss. If they scatter, if they go toward them, there’s all kinds of unspoken things that you learn when you go into an environment. And it just worked for us, and that’s kind of been our premise since that day, is to really intimately engage with the organization where they are and then go out and find them the best candidates.

Kortney Harmon [00:05:15]:
I love that. So obviously, with that motivation and understanding for an organization, were you always retained or did you start contingent and move to retain? Talk to me about that transition.

Sharon Hulce [00:05:27]:
Yeah, no. As any MRI office was back then, it was 100% contingent. That’s probably what I didn’t like so much, was it was got a guy, want a guy. So I made a decision, and it was an interesting decision. I’ll tell that story. But I made the decision that if I started ERG, I was going to 100% retained. Like, no going back, 100% retained or I’m out. So I lost my top three clients in my first week of having my business because I said, listen, you guys change your value proposition all the time.

Sharon Hulce [00:06:06]:
You’re always like, we’re going to be known as this or we’re going to do this. And again, I work construction, so they’re always like, we’re going to be known for healthcare, we’re going to do stadiums or whatever. And I said, guys, you’re always changing your value prop. Why can’t I change mine? And they said, we just don’t do retained search. But within three months, all three were back and they still, to this day, are my biggest client. Sometimes it’s having the guts to just say, this is how I work.

Kortney Harmon [00:06:34]:
What do you think steered them away initially? So those, obviously the top three, did they not want the financial investment change? What do you think drove them away initially?

Sharon Hulce [00:06:45]:
The thing that I don’t like about continued search is you will always end up doing a lot of work for free. It’s just the nature of that business. The bad part of routine is you can’t walk away from a search. Once you commit, you’re in it. But again, if you do your due diligence and are smart about the questions you ask, all of that, you won’t get stuck in a bad retain search. I mean, I shouldn’t say you won’t, but likely you will have less bad retained searches, but it’s no different than a bad contingent search. I just got to a point where in my head I went, you know what? You’re pretty damn good at this, and why should you work for free? And once I had that revelation, I just never went back. I mean, it’s kind of like I’ve never done a search for less than 25% ever.

Sharon Hulce [00:07:30]:
They ask all the time. I’m like, no, if you want to work with me, that’s what you’re going to pay me. It may sound really bold, but I think in this business, that courage, that confidence is kind of the keys to winning. Right. It’s, I am worthy of this because I’m good. So I wish I would have started retained right out of the gate. I think however you’re trained is what you become used to. Again, it’s hard when you don’t have the swagger and the confidence, but it’s been 22 years since I’ve done a contingent search.

Kortney Harmon [00:08:09]:
Does anyone in your office do any contingent searches or.

Sharon Hulce [00:08:12]:
It’s, the only thing we do contingent is MPC work. So if we have a really good candidate, but we charge 5% more to send over an MPC on a contingent basis, but it’s just for that one candidate, that’s it. And it is more expensive. So if they say, well, I really don’t want to pay 30%, I go, great, we have a retained option. Pick your poison. Wouldn’t you love to work with me?

Kortney Harmon [00:08:38]:
I love it. No, I think that’s great. So I guess my question is, you mentioned initially losing a few key clients. Initially. What are some other key challenges you faced in that transition process as you got your business? Any other things that pop your head and maybe how did you address them?

Sharon Hulce [00:08:57]:
Well, I’ll tell you the biggest thing that I learned in doing retained search, and I’ve told everybody that. I mean, I get a lot of calls on how do you transfer and all of that. And I would tell you the number one thing you have to have is you have to have a process. There has to be a visual reminder of what it is you do that’s different than got a guy want a guy, right? Sending in a resume. So it doesn’t matter what that process is. You just have to have one. So we have a very defined process of here’s how we go to market. Here’s how you receive information.

Sharon Hulce [00:09:28]:
Here’s what that information is going to look like when we get to shortlist. Here’s what you’re going to receive back on each candidate. Here’s where the assessments go. It’s almost like an orchestrated dance. Every step is well defined. And of course, it’s gotten better over the 22 years. But even in the beginning, I went out and I really much like we’re doing here, I really listened to people who did retain search and what is it that they did that made them successful. And the corn fairy, the Heinrich struggles, all those people who were known back then for being solely retained firms all had a process that they would go out and they would do their PowerPoint presentation and they would sell it to organizations.

Sharon Hulce [00:10:08]:
I don’t do that because I don’t like that canned presentation stuff. I’m just kind of me. But we have a very defined process and we have a deliverable on the backside that people really like because it saves them a lot of time, which is the number one reason why we sell our team, because it’s really clear what they get for the money.

Kortney Harmon [00:10:28]:
So there’s two parts that I pulled from that. Number one is, is there any part of your process that’s unique and special? Because obviously I don’t want you to give away any secret sauce by any means, but it sounds like you do something differently. But number two, it sounds like communication is really key in your process. It is a back and forth. There is a full behind the curtain scene where maybe that’s not the case with normal contingent searches.

Sharon Hulce [00:10:54]:
Yeah, I think it is unique for us to just go out and visit clients before we have a contract. I mean, we will literally go and meet with organizations and understand even before they have a need, just to really start to build that relationship. People forget we’ve gotten so many tools and again, all of it is wonderful. I don’t want it to sound like I’m that old school. I mean, we have AI and we have sequencing and we have all this stuff. I mean, I had the yellow pages. That’s what I had when I started, right? So that core relationship building skill became really strong because it was my voice and their voice, and then ultimately it was my going there and having a meeting with them and being able to ask really good business questions to get them thinking about how is this hire going to impact your organization and where are the gaps and all of those things that you need to do to do a good search, whether it’s contingent or retained, in my opinion, I would tell you probably the thing that, and it’s really hard. It’s not a definable, but it is something that I think we do really well, is the intuitive piece.

Sharon Hulce [00:12:00]:
I always tell people what makes you guys different? And I would tell you it’s our spidey sense. We deliver the spidey sense piece of the candidate. Like, here’s what we believe to be true in part of our presentation. And I’m the kind of person, if it looks like a rat and smells like a rat. I’m going to find the damn rat. If I have this at all, gut stunts that there’s something there. I will continue to search until I figure it out. And I share that with them in written form so that they truly get.

Sharon Hulce [00:12:36]:
What I hear a lot is I feel like I knew the candidate and then I met them and I did. So it’s written with a lot of emotional intelligence. I don’t use AI to write my summaries of the candidates because then it takes away that humanistic charm sometimes of why I love them or how they made me feel or those kind of things. So again, it’s a lot more work. Retained search is a lot more work. Contingent is fast. So if you’re all about speed, there’s industries where retain doesn’t make sense. Like it sales.

Sharon Hulce [00:13:07]:
I think retain makes zero sense for it sales unless you’re going to do an RPO. But as it relates to the worlds I live in, retained search, I mean, we’re manufacturing, we’re construction, we’re banking, credit union, and then we’re anything cross top hr, it, finance, marketing, sales, operations. Routine search makes sense there because they’re higher level, engaged with a lot of departments, that kind of stuff.

Kortney Harmon [00:13:34]:
That was my next question. I wanted to get the audience to be able to hear the industries that you serve. So obviously, whenever you first started, I’m going back to when you first started, how did you gain those additional clients to build momentum in the retained? Obviously, it was a different sell. How did you position that to change? To say, because there’s a lot of people who don’t like change. Well, no, you were doing it this way.

Sharon Hulce [00:13:56]:
I want to stay. So talk to me about what the honest answer is. And I literally did not grandfather anybody yet. I was just a bulldog because I just didn’t feel like I thought. It’s like giving a discount. Rarely is concession ever valued and often results in further concessions. Right. I mean, that was ingrained in my head early on.

Sharon Hulce [00:14:18]:
So I said, if I’m going to do this, I’m going all in. If I screw it up, I screw it up, but I am going all in. But what I did do is I went out and met every one of my clients face to face and explained the why. And I showed them the materials that I will give them now versus what they received in the past and the understanding of the candidate’s background that will be so much more in depth than what they were receiving on a continuum business model. And I said, this will not be for everyone. But if you really want a talent partner or somebody who understands your business, because we’ve been working together now six years or five years, whatever it was, understands intimately the people that you like and then don’t like, obviously, and can make it easier for you to interview all at once rather than got a guy. Stop. What did you think of him? Well, I like him, but who else you got? Okay, send him another one.

Sharon Hulce [00:15:09]:
Well, I like him too, but I just don’t know yet. Everybody’s at once. Pick one. Done. I present five at a time. These are the five best people that are available in the market. Here’s why I like each one of them. I think any of them can do the job, technically.

Sharon Hulce [00:15:25]:
Now you pick out by personality. Pick one. And they do. I love it. That’s why I like retain. It’s very pinpointed on. I’ll do this then you do this. Yeah.

Kortney Harmon [00:15:39]:
And obviously your process is clear. Now to clarify, you work across the country, so when you say you’re going to visit a client, you’re going across the country to visit a construction client that maybe you hadn’t talked to before.

Sharon Hulce [00:15:50]:
Yep. I’ll fly wherever I need to fly. What I will try to do mean, obviously I want to maximize my time. So if I have a client that, a potential new client in Boston that I’m going to see, I’ll try to visit all the construction companies in that market. Or if it’s a manufacturer in Iowa, I’ll try to visit other manufacturers in Iowa. So I try to utilize my time. Well, I’ve figured out over time that if you get established networks, like I’m in WPO and I’m a titan and those kind of things, if you get those established networks, it’s easier to maximize your time because you have multiple people within one market.

Kortney Harmon [00:16:28]:
Yeah, I love that. So if you have somebody that comes to you, I know this is a very common piece of advice that you give, but what are some tips you have for staff in firms or recruiting firms that are looking to add to retain? Like what is that first step? How do they get started? What piece of advice or tips would you give them?

Sharon Hulce [00:16:45]:
Yeah. So you have to get your ducks in a row before you, like, you can’t just say, we’re going to do retain and then you don’t have anything to differentiate. What’s the difference between contingent retain? Right. There’s got to be more value. And again, one of the things that I love, and this is something that is so easy to say, but people don’t psychologically, think about it this way, it is literally the same money. Now, what I’ve done is I’ve split it up into three pnls instead of one. So instead of you paying me all the fee at the end, you’re going to pay me a third down. Let’s say that’s in January.

Sharon Hulce [00:17:21]:
I get to shortlist in February. You’re going to pay me the second 3rd in February, and the remainder, whatever that difference is, is going to be in March. Now, instead of a $50,000 fee in March, you paid me three pieces of that, all in different pnls. So it also helps from an expense standpoint. And a lot of what we do in this business is psychological. I mean, it just is, right? So it’s selling in a way that they don’t feel like somehow I’m going to get ripped off by this. We give a performance guarantee, 100%. We stand behind our performance guarantee.

Sharon Hulce [00:17:54]:
So if we don’t find them three candidates in 90 days, we send them their money back. We’re not in it to try to, I mean, my joke is mama doesn’t need new shoes bad enough anymore to keep their money. I literally myself have built $33 million. I’m not going to do this just to try to take their down payment. I mean, it’s really about.

Kortney Harmon [00:18:17]:
We believe.

Sharon Hulce [00:18:17]:
That we can find them the best person, sit down and figure out what’s the value proposition. You have to do that. You have to think through. If we go to routine, what are the things we’re going to do different and how are we going to give better information to our clients so that our clients can make a decision quicker? That’s what retained is. It’s not pay me money up front and we can guide it and say, engaged. Well, okay, that’s fine. You can say, I’ll just do engaged. And, yeah, it’s nice you have a little bit of money down, but I like full retain.

Sharon Hulce [00:18:51]:
They are in it to win it. Like, we are absolute partners in this. They’re not going to work with another firm. They’re not going to have somebody call in and say, I have the perfect guy. And they go, oh, Sharon, sorry. We found the perfect person. That person becomes part of our process. I mean, there’s all kinds of things that happen when you legitimately are retained, which is what I love about the business.

Sharon Hulce [00:19:12]:
I don’t know. Dancing with devils. I don’t know.

Kortney Harmon [00:19:17]:
Do you require exclusivity to work with you through your retained searches?

Sharon Hulce [00:19:22]:
Yeah, it’s writing a contract.

Kortney Harmon [00:19:24]:
I love that. And honestly, a lot of people, it’s what you said. It’s technically three separate pnls. It’s about positioning your information differently and understanding your value and what you bring and standing by that. So I love that. Is there anything else you talked about obviously having your ducks in a row. You talked about having a defined process. You talked about knowing the information.

Kortney Harmon [00:19:45]:
Is there anything else a firm maybe needs to have in place before they start doing retained work?

Sharon Hulce [00:19:52]:
The other thing, there is a cadence to the language of doing retained search, and that’s the challenge of having somebody new out of the gate do retain search. Unless they come from the industry and they’re subject matter experts, then they can do it because they know enough about the industry to ask the right questions. I was not good at retained search when I first started it. I was good at search, but I don’t know that I was really good at retain search because it took me a while to figure out at that level. So if you’re going in and they’re going to pay you a third or third, they have patients hire, right? They’re thinking corn fairy, all that stuff. So even though we’re a boutique firm, the expectations don’t change. So for me, it was being able, off the top of my head to ask the question that either they don’t know the answer to, but I’m going to help them to get there. It has to be a strategic conversation.

Sharon Hulce [00:20:46]:
So tell me, what’s the person going to do and how many years experience? It’s way deeper than that. It’s really about what does this person do for their business and what does that first year success look like. And there’s all kinds of things. And when you first start, I used to have my cheat sheet and I would go through and I’d ask those questions. Now they just come naturally off top of my head. But that cadence of talking in sea level speak is also really important. You have to have that down. I tell people who are nervous to interview.

Sharon Hulce [00:21:22]:
I say, write your questions down. I mean, again, it just looks like you research their company, so it’s all good. I would do the same thing with my questions. I would make sure that I had it in front of me and I would be making notes as if I was literally just trying to learn about the organization. I usually knew a lot about the organization going in. I also would study the person I was meeting and learn something personal to see if there was some sort of an emotional connection. You wrote a book? I wrote a book. I see.

Sharon Hulce [00:21:48]:
You have three kids, I have a kid. Whatever those points of commonality are, that helps to get conversation going, obviously.

Kortney Harmon [00:21:57]:
And it sounds like it’s beyond transactional. A lot of people are stuck in our industry where they think they can send an email or all of this business can be done via email, but it sounds like it’s on the transactional. It’s that consultative approach and really giving back to your relationship versus just taking well.

Sharon Hulce [00:22:14]:
And I think that’s where I’m old school. I know what I’m good at and I know what I’m not good at. I don’t use sequencing. First of all, I can’t manage that many new clients at a time anyway. So for me, what I do is I’ll write a very personal email to them and it will be not, hey, I’m an executive search firm and I want to talk to you about your business because I delete all those messages I get. I mean, I never look at, I get probably 50 LinkedIn emails a day. I don’t read any of them. Don’t sell me on LinkedIn email.

Sharon Hulce [00:22:48]:
If you can’t either pick up a phone, call me, or send me something that’s incredibly personal, I’m not going to even read it. So I really try to give a lot of thought to if I send an email, but nine times out of ten, I start with a call, I try to leave a fabulous voicemail that just says, you don’t know me, I don’t know you. We should know each other. We live in the same industry. It doesn’t make sense that we don’t know each other. But here’s why I’m calling, and then I will send a follow up email. Just say, I left you a voicemail. Again, I don’t try to sell them.

Sharon Hulce [00:23:21]:
I try to sell an appointment. That’s it. I don’t try to sell them on working with me. I try to sell them an opportunity to talk. So whether that’s face to face or zoom, people like to do zoom. Now, I’m not a big fan of zoom, but it is what it is. People like Zoom, so I use zoom.

Kortney Harmon [00:23:37]:
And here you are today.

Sharon Hulce [00:23:38]:
I am today on Zoom.

Kortney Harmon [00:23:42]:
Now. Okay, you made a comment. I want to ask a question about it. You said I couldn’t manage that many clients anyway. What’s your capacity per recruiter? What is the expectation of being able to manage something like that? Because it is a lot more time.

Sharon Hulce [00:23:56]:
Consuming compared to, it is because you got to have five candidates, not one. So our recruiters probably work on seven to nine at a time. So I do the biz dev right now for the company. Cal is also working on it, but I’ve kind of been the main rainmaker. That’s easy to say. So I typically try to do eight to ten new retainers a month. That’s sort of my goal for the organization. I have six full time recruiters right now.

Sharon Hulce [00:24:32]:
We are in the process of hiring some remote people, so we sort of downsized to go back up again because we have all this new technology and stuff. So we needed to get our hand around that. But I just think that it’s not hard. Most people absolutely understand how to build relationships. It’s looking at it from just a different lens on, I’m going to actually get paid for my work versus not get paid for my work. Like I always say, this is how I work. I can’t tell you how many times I say that in a month. This is how I work.

Sharon Hulce [00:25:11]:
Would you do it on contingent? This is how I work. So if you want me to do it, that’s how I work. I’m okay if they want to work with me. Ultimately, a lot of them figure it out. I’m good. Can’t win them all.

Kortney Harmon [00:25:26]:
No. And if you could, probably you’d have to do a mass hiring to be.

Sharon Hulce [00:25:30]:
Able to be able to be able to. Well, at one time. So last year, early in the year, we had 74 retained searches and it just bought died. I was like, this is ridiculous. But we have a lot of clients that they give us several at a time, and we had 74 searches. And I said, we can’t manage this many. I mean, we were going insane trying to fill them all. So it’s just better to not get to that point where now all of a sudden you have so many.

Sharon Hulce [00:26:02]:
Because we never say no to our established clients. If they have a need, somebody leaves or they have a new industry they want to bring into their folder, we don’t say no to them. We want to continue to service them and to be their sole provider. So with that, if you add too many new customers, now you have unhappy customers because you’re not delivering in a capacity which they’re expecting.

Kortney Harmon [00:26:26]:
Did the down market or the past year of uncertainty? I’ve talked to a lot of offices that they were down to 30% year over year last year. Did that affect you and retained as much as it maybe affected other offices since you had those established clients?

Sharon Hulce [00:26:42]:
So I would tell you we would have been flat. Where we got nailed is on counteroffers. We had so many counteroffers last year, the most we’ve ever had in the history of ERG. And it was the talent war. It’s still one of those things where even with a downturn market construction really wasn’t hit that much. So losing a good person was still pretty significant. Obviously, we had an interesting dance with remote work, hybrid work. Construction companies go, no.

Sharon Hulce [00:27:18]:
So trying to find people that they’re like, well, I’d really like to work one day a week from home. And the owners go, no. Okay. So a lot of them are my age and they’re like, okay, these young kids who want to work from home. So it’s just balancing all that I’m just used to. There isn’t much that I haven’t had happen in my 28 years. Let’s just say that it’s an ebb.

Kortney Harmon [00:27:42]:
And flow kind of thing here.

Sharon Hulce [00:27:45]:
I think this year is going to be pretty good for us with the new technology implementation, with some of the new searches we have that are really nice, big fees, they’re a lot more fun, in my opinion, than some of the. Not as more mid, not mid level, but higher mid level. When you’re doing searches that are $150,000 fees, those are a lot more fun.

Kortney Harmon [00:28:14]:
Love that. All right, you’ve said it three times now. New technology.

Sharon Hulce [00:28:18]:
Yeah. Okay. What new technology?

Kortney Harmon [00:28:21]:
I’m curiosity killed a cat at this point.

Sharon Hulce [00:28:24]:
Yeah. So a lot of what we’ve implemented is AI driven. If I give away too many secrets, then my staff will kill me. But one of the things that we found and that we’re implementing is really a fabulous AI driven technology that helps us to find more candidates. It’s fairly new, but so far it’s proven really effective. So we’re liking that. And we made our sourcing much more robust. We needed to do that because sourcing is the foundation of all evil.

Sharon Hulce [00:28:58]:
Right. So if we don’t have good sourcing, the rest of it doesn’t go as well. So we’ve really made sort of that step back, concentrate effort to make sure all of those things are as highly functional as we can make them and then run forward and now hire with people learning new systems as opposed to coming in on the old system and learning again.

Kortney Harmon [00:29:23]:
That’s fair. I love it. I won’t ask too many more questions, but you said it twice, so my brain was sparse. So I love it. It’s changing our industry of where we are and how we find people and how we stay in touch with people. So there are a lot of different implementations across the board. Where do you see the biggest growth opportunities for retained search in the next five years? Do you see that being more of a need? Changing your relationships?

Sharon Hulce [00:29:49]:
Give me your, you know, our business is definitely going to change. I mean, AI is going to make our business change. Will people always need us? Yes, because I don’t think a robot is going to establish a relationship. I still believe in market mastery. I still believe that you need to be a master of the world you live in and over. I mean, the longer you do this, the better you get at it, obviously. So when people have a year, they don’t have those networking relationships that like 28 years, there’s not many people in. For example, I started in construction, there’s not many people in construction.

Sharon Hulce [00:30:28]:
I don’t know, or at least don’t know who I am. So when I call, they’re like, oh, hey. So it becomes less challenging. But I do think that retain search, what I like about it is, yes, it can be harder to sell. It can be a longer sale for sure, but once you have committed people, the nice thing, as long as you do a good job, you become that preferred vendor. And that’s what I like about that business is everybody’s expectations going in. They know how you deliver, they know the kind of information that you give. They know it’s more information they get from any other firm.

Sharon Hulce [00:31:04]:
So they love the fact that they know, like the first interview for them is done. Everything that they would typically ask that first interview is already in writing for them. So it takes it to that next level of being able to really engage on a lot of different things than just so tell me about you, and tell me about why did you change jobs kind of thing. We’re continuing to evolve all the time. We’re working on marketing, we’re working on all kinds of stuff. Because you do have to differentiate yourself all the time, especially in retain search, because there’s a lot of good firms and there’s a lot of big firms, but we sell tenure at this point because we know there’s not many people in our world that we don’t know. It’s a great benefit to have people. I have a few people on my team that are nice tenure, and then I don’t think I have anybody less than a couple of years.

Sharon Hulce [00:31:58]:
So we’re getting to a point where people know who we are. If they need somebody, great, if they don’t, no harm, no foul. We don’t hard stall. We’re not rude or say, I can’t believe that stuff happens all the time. Sometimes the perfect person doesn’t walk in. Well, okay. Thank you for the down payment. Next.

Sharon Hulce [00:32:20]:
And then if they go, well, I really didn’t feel like I got my value. Then I push it to another search. I mean, you got to be flexible in this business. I always say, what would you want to happen if you were the client? And that’s what makes it work. So if a client’s not happy, you got to figure out how to make them happy or you don’t have a long term client. So that’s just how it goes.

Kortney Harmon [00:32:43]:
I love it. And you talked about counteroffers. I’m going to go back to that a second. What are the most important factors in retained search for a candidate? Experience and offer acceptance rates.

Sharon Hulce [00:32:53]:
Find people who aren’t married. I’m just kidding, but not really.

Kortney Harmon [00:33:00]:
Okay, fair.

Sharon Hulce [00:33:01]:
Because spouses kill more deals than anything. And everybody who’s listening to this just laugh because I guarantee you they know. Again, I think we hit it all the time. All the time. All the time. But when talent is so tight and it is someone who is highly effective, they’re going to counter off them. And sometimes we just aren’t going to win. We will do everything humanly possible to not have that happen.

Sharon Hulce [00:33:22]:
But like I tell everybody, we’re not perfect. No firm is perfect. So we are going to lose sometimes, and we will do everything we can to replace them with somebody who’s even better. But we will lose sometimes. We have that conversation with the candidates all the time. You can say no at any point in this process. But once you say yes, my intent is that you’re all in and you are liking this and you’re committed to this process and you are feeling like this is a good fit. They go on an interview at any time, you can say no.

Sharon Hulce [00:33:52]:
How are you doing? Right. We do all of that, but the reality is our product thinks breeze and changes its mind all the time, and that’s humans. So good luck. Yeah, I mean, we just do the best we can as recruiters.

Kortney Harmon [00:34:05]:
Do you think their experience is different throughout the process than a regular contingent search firm?

Sharon Hulce [00:34:11]:
I think they like the fact that they know that we’ve been retained, so then they know that the firm is serious about hiring. Because I think there’s a lot of tire kickers out there that throw out fake positions to get their resume and then mass market them. I mean, there’s good recruiters and then there’s really crappy recruiters. And the crappy recruiters do that, right? They get the resume, and then they just start throwing their resume to everybody. Those people hurt our industry. So when we tell them we’ve been retained, they are looking for us to bring them the best of the best. So we will go to a short list of five. So you will be one of five candidates that we deem super qualified for the job.

Sharon Hulce [00:34:52]:
Then it really comes down as, you know, in personality and culture. So here’s what we know. We do a lot of marketing pieces on our clients, so they get a lot of information as well. And then we just pick the best of the best.

Kortney Harmon [00:35:06]:
I’m going to ask a question kind of off script, a big conversation that I’m hearing across the conferences and in going in, obviously, is talent shortage. There’s a conversation around upskilling and reskilling candidates investment towards that, or how are you addressing that within your firm and organization to the candidates that you currently serve? Do you have something that you kind of invest in?

Sharon Hulce [00:35:31]:
Nothing that we specifically invest in. But when you are in the retained world, a lot of the searches are confidential. So they are replacing someone that is in the active role. And they pay for a retained search because of that, because they need someone who is committed to that confidentiality piece. So I would tell you we get a lot of those every year for simply that fact is, by being retained, they feel, okay, I got one partner, they’re committed. They know that this can’t get out who it is because obviously then it would be exposed that we’re looking to let this person go. We can’t afford to have them not be there. That’s a big piece of why people will do retainers, even to begin with, is because of that confidentiality piece.

Sharon Hulce [00:36:17]:
But I think we’re all looking for the best of the best. Who doesn’t want the best of the best in their employees? So we try to do that every time we do a search. Now, do we miss? Sure, we miss just like everybody else misses. But if we miss, we fix it and we keep going until we find somebody they really like.

Kortney Harmon [00:36:35]:
The nature of the business.

Sharon Hulce [00:36:36]:
Yeah, it is.

Kortney Harmon [00:36:38]:
So you look at your firm and you look at other retained firms. What separates an average retained search firm from an excellent one today?

Sharon Hulce [00:36:50]:
Well, and there’s all these personal biases. So I guess I would tell everybody who’s listening to this, take it for what it’s worth, because it’s my personal bias. I can’t stand when a firm puts and pulls within the same company. I just hate that. And I know a lot of retained firms that they’ll pull from the Atlanta division and put in another firm in California and then they’ll be placing for that firm in just. Again, it’s my own personal bias. It’s how I was raised in the industry and it’s an ethical thing in my opinion. So that’s one thing.

Sharon Hulce [00:37:29]:
We guarantee that we won’t do that. I said, you can’t take my people. I won’t take your. That’s. That’s the agreement we’re going to have. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to take your people in Atlanta, but I’m going to take your people in California. I get it. When people get really big, sometimes it’s almost impossible to do that.

Sharon Hulce [00:37:48]:
Right. And that’s probably why I’ll never be 100 million dollar search firm. Because as long as I lead, I don’t want to be that. Now after I have people to take over my firm, if they want to do that, so be it. I’m done. Right. I’m going to be off doing something completely different. I have no idea what that is, but I’ll figure it out.

Sharon Hulce [00:38:08]:
But that is not something. So I think the whole care and concern for the client, the integrity of how you do a search, the communication, transparent communication on. We’re struggling. We are struggling with this right now. We’re going to get it done. We will absolutely get it done. But you got to know we need a few more weeks because we are struggling with what it is we know you need. We found candidates, but we know what you need and we haven’t quite gotten there yet.

Sharon Hulce [00:38:37]:
So I just think that’s what, in my opinion makes a great retained search firm. I mean, every client is different and every client would tell you a different answer, I’m sure of that.

Kortney Harmon [00:38:48]:
I love it. Have you seen offices that do contingent and retained successful model. I know you’re specifically retained.

Sharon Hulce [00:38:59]:
Yeah. There’s a lot of firms that have practices within their firm. So they have a healthcare practice and a construction practice and each of them run as independent businesses almost. It’s like a law office. Right. You have your law practice and you run in how you want. So there’s a lot of firms that run that way. And I’m not even opposed to that.

Sharon Hulce [00:39:18]:
As I hire practice leaders. If they would prefer to be contingent, so be it. I’m just never going to work contingent. I’m too damn old.

Kortney Harmon [00:39:33]:
We’re set in our ways and that’s perfect.

Sharon Hulce [00:39:37]:
I just feel like there’s got to be value for 28 years of experience. There’s got to be value for the time and the fact that I’m going to be intimately involved in this search. I still run a desk. I mean, I run a desk because I went off a desk once for six months. I almost went insane. I said, I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t just be the president of the company because I can’t drive cash flow.

Sharon Hulce [00:40:02]:
I can’t intimately know what’s going on. If the recruiters are giving me a line of line or if it’s really actually happening out in the market, I can’t help to guide and counsel because I’m not in the throes all the time saying they’re really not answering their phone. And we got to figure out why. We got to figure out how to do that. And I really do love the business. I love the thrill of the hunt. I love all that. So until I’m done, I’m just going to stay doing it.

Kortney Harmon [00:40:32]:
It’s worked out thus far.

Sharon Hulce [00:40:34]:

Kortney Harmon [00:40:37]:
Yeah. Okay is the word. What are the most important metrics you track when it comes to retained search practice? KPIs are obviously the conversation everyone wants to know, what are you measuring? How are you measuring? So what are you tracking for your metrics in retained search?

Sharon Hulce [00:40:55]:
Well, so depending on who you would ask inside my organization, they would give you a different answer because we track everything. Right? Again, this is where my old school comes out. I track one metric and that’s send out, and it’s the only metric I track. That’s it. If people aren’t getting interviewed, they’re not going to get a job. End of story. Right. So for me, the metric I look for, so we run one for five because we go to shortlist.

Sharon Hulce [00:41:24]:
One person gets a job for every five candidates we get interviewing. So my job, depending on how many placements I want that month, this is how many people have to interview. Pretty easy. And I don’t have to bog myself down with phone time and number of resumes in number of Smith and I do one, but that’s me. Our organization tracks everything and I have a data analytics guide that I would put up against anybody. I mean, he’s amazing, but I track one for me personally, and that is when I look at where our hot sheet is, when I look at where the business is for that month, I can pretty much predict within $10,000 and it’s off of one metric and that’s sent out.

Kortney Harmon [00:42:12]:
You are the second president or CEO that has said that in the last four interviews of mine and I don’t disagree.

Sharon Hulce [00:42:22]:
We tend to want to make this business so difficult. And I’m like, it’s a hard job. It’s a hard job. It’s hard to cold call when you’re new. It’s hard to find the right person. All that’s hard. But the job itself, how you measure. Super easy.

Sharon Hulce [00:42:42]:
Super easy. We just complicated, shocker humans.

Kortney Harmon [00:42:47]:
I mean, one for both. Okay, so let’s say someone wants to improve their retained search fill rate without any other advice. What advice would you give them?

Sharon Hulce [00:43:03]:
Go see your client. And even if it’s Zoom, but you have to really know what is it. That’s the win. And I think we take information down, but do we really understand what the first year looks like? What does a win look like? Like, if you and I are sitting, I always say it this way. If we’re sitting here a year from now and you say, damn, girl, that was like the best hire ever. What did that person do? And nine times out of ten, they can’t answer it. So my job is to help them to get to the answer by asking other questions. But I got to tell you, I got to know what the win is, because if I don’t know, I can’t interview a person and know unequivocally they’re going to be effective if I don’t know what effective is.

Sharon Hulce [00:43:50]:
It’s easier to do that face to face because there is that emotional connection that happens when you are sitting with a person side by side and the trust level grows quicker because you’re right beside them and they know that you are in it with them. You don’t get that over Zoom, which does create a little more, it’s a little more difficult to build that emotional connection as quickly. But for me, that’s it. It’s really understanding what the win is and building that emotional connection and trust quickly so that they know you’re going to go out and find the person that can do that for them.

Kortney Harmon [00:44:30]:
And honestly, AI coming into the mix is only making that human element a little bit further away because people, I mean, how many people, even an MRI over the years did you see? Oh, well, I can do this business via just email. I can do it. I know no one wants to phone.

Sharon Hulce [00:44:45]:
I love AI perspective. Know it helps with writing or it helps with some of that stuff. But again, I will retire when it comes to the point where AI will do all of it until we get to a place where we’re submitting people, even just to know people’s stories. And to know what is your life’s vocation? Like, if you could paint me a picture of, I mean, you get the smart ass Answers. I want to be a pro ball player. Well, good for you. On something that’s realistic, what is it that you really want your life to be? What is it that you want your career to look like? And I can’t tell you how many people I placed that I heard that story. And then years later, I call them and say, I got it.

Sharon Hulce [00:45:28]:
They go, you got what? I have your job. And they’re like, no, you don’t. And I go, yeah, I do. And I placed them. I mean, it could be ten years later. I just had a guy. I’ve had a lot of people that I placed are retiring from the same company, which is good, but they’re retiring, which makes me feel really old. But I had a guy that I placed years ago, 21 years ago, and I placed him as kind of a baby estimator, and he just became president of the company.

Sharon Hulce [00:45:56]:
And I called him. I go, I feel like your mom. Oh, I’m so proud. It was just so funny I had that conversation because I said, I’m just, like, so proud of you.

Kortney Harmon [00:46:06]:
This business, to begin with, that’s what.

Sharon Hulce [00:46:08]:
This business is all about. It’s transforming lives. It’s the coolest thing.

Kortney Harmon [00:46:15]:
Very much so. And that’s why a lot of us don’t leave, right?

Sharon Hulce [00:46:19]:
That’s why those of us that are crazy to stay in it, stay in it.

Kortney Harmon [00:46:25]:
All right, I only have one more question for you. Someone coming into this space and you can do it twofold. Actually, I’m going to put it this way. What was the one to two things that have had the biggest impact on your success?

Sharon Hulce [00:46:44]:
Well, so one is an individual, and that was Todd Dawson. A lot of people know Tod Dawson. He owns world bridge in Omaha. He was my CSAM mentor as a brand new rookie. And he was a beast. And I told him this. He was a beast to me. But he said to me, a send out every day, and you don’t leave until you get it.

Sharon Hulce [00:47:05]:
And I literally would be there till 10:00 at night, some nights till I got my send out. I mean, it was ridiculous, but I built 509 in six months. Nobody had ever done that. And I did that on a brand new desk. The only thing that was in my database was a miss build construction company. No people. When I started it, zero. And I built 509.

Sharon Hulce [00:47:26]:
And I did it because I relentlessly lived by that one metric. So he definitely was one. And then I would say probably the other thing was having sort of the courage, because I’m a big courage person, having the courage to know that there had to be a better way to do this business when nobody else was doing it that way, and to just say, you know what? This is a people business. It’s not a phone business, because I heard that out every day. It’s a phone business here. And I’m like, no, it’s not a phone business. It’s a people business. The phone is the vehicle for how I get a hold of them, but so is it.

Sharon Hulce [00:47:59]:
My know, it doesn’t have to be that way. The day I knew I was going to start my own, I had asked Russ, one of my clients was giving me crap because he like, I’ve literally sent you half a million dollars this year. You could at least come buy me breakfast. I’m like, yeah, I guess I can. And I said, I’m going to go buy Dan breakfast. And he goes, no, you’re not. It’s a phone business. And I said, that’s where you’re wrong.

Sharon Hulce [00:48:21]:
And that was the day when I went, I’m going to start figuring this out. And I ended up, I bought my desk and started a VRG because I just knew that there was more to this business than that.

Kortney Harmon [00:48:34]:
That’s amazing. I love that and love Tod. Any other words of advice for anybody looking to test the retain world? Maybe on a small scale or jump feet first? I know you gave a lot of pieces of advice here. Any other last words of advice for anybody looking to start in this world?

Sharon Hulce [00:48:53]:
Well, there’s no magic wand, but I will tell you my life’s motto. How’s that? Because this is what retain search is from, contingent. And that is be the buffalo. So the buffalo is the only mammal that runs toward a storm, as opposed to away from a storm, so it can get through the storm. Mean my desk is covered in this way. Buffalo stuff. The whole thing, like, everything is buffalo. And the reason I have all these things, a lot of people gift me things.

Sharon Hulce [00:49:22]:
I’ve got a big buffalo that my friend Dave dark gave me. The reason why I love that is because you are never going to win if you’re not willing to just say, you know what, screw it, I’m going forward and it doesn’t matter. It’s not going to be fun and it’s not going to be pretty, and I’m going to try it and people are going to hang up on me and they’re going to hate me. And I don’t care. I’m going to get good at it and I’m going to win. And that’s what be the buffalo means to me. So if you want to be a retained search firm or you want to have a retained desk, you just need to be the buffalo because that’s the only way to do it.

Kortney Harmon [00:49:54]:
That’s such good words of advice. I’ve never heard you say that in all of my years, so I’ve never heard you say that. I love the buffalo.

Sharon Hulce [00:50:01]:
Great words of advice.

Kortney Harmon [00:50:03]:
Sharon, thank you so much for coming on with us. It was a great insights for people that are looking to scale or even really just hone into their retained business. I know our listeners, thank you very much for joining us.

Sharon Hulce [00:50:16]:
Thank you so much.

Kortney Harmon [00:50:17]:
I know our listeners got a tremendous amount of value from your experience, your strategy, your perspective. They really got to take a page out of the playbook from one of the best in our industry. So to all of our listeners, thank you so much for listening. Hope you found this episode specifically insightful. For retained search, please check out any previous episodes as well as other content for growth and leadership, innovation across all people, process and technology. Stay tuned for more interviews for the full desk experience industry spotlight. Thanks for listening.

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