Revamping my design leadership portfolio: research results

I contacted seven recruiters I had recently communicated with by whatever means we had spoken before. Most of them wanted to take the discussion to phone or a video chat, but for scheduling reasons I had to steer the discussion to email. Two were confused, one didn’t respond, and four said things that were helpful.

Three types of recruiters

My respondents agreed on three types of recruiters and their differences:

  1. Contingency recruiter – this recruiter gets paid a percentage of the your first-year base salary upon hire. It’s a numbers game: most of the candidates they offer to companies don’t pan out, so they have to rapidly evaluate and offer a lot of companies a lot of candidates to make their time pay off. These recruiters have the least knowledge of the hiring company and the role, and may not even have a contractual relationship with the target company. They have little influence on the target company’s decision and do the lest legwork to make sure there’s a good fit. You can find a job with the help of a contingency recruiter, but they are helping the company only minimally and want to get you to an interview as fast as possible, not as well as possible. They specialize in individual contributor or low-level managerial roles, where the numbers of applications and opportunities are both high. Their tools are primarily keyword searches on large recruiting platforms such as LinkedIn, Indeed, Glassdoor, etc. This recruiter consumes job ads posted by companies and in-house recruiters. A solid LinkedIn profile that discusses the right keywords, and a resume that mirrors, it are keys to success with this group.
  2. In-house recruiter – this recruiter is paid a salary by the hiring company, or is a contractor for them, and works solely on that one company’s behalf. They typically know the hiring manager and have worked with the hiring manager to refine their own evaluation of candidates. They may look at portfolios if they feel comfortable, and will read more deeply into a candidates profile so that they can filter more carefully and reflect that they have done this work to the hiring manager. They exert a little more influence in the hiring process, and work on positions at any level up to and including middle management. This recruiter posts job ads, sometimes in specialized locations. They do keyword searches to sweep up a lot of profiles, then comb through these to create a smaller volume of potential fits for the role. A solid LinkedIn profile that discusses the right results, and a resume that mirrors it, plus some evidence of the same in a portfolio, are keys to success with this group.
  3. Retained search recruiter, sometimes known as “executive search” – this recruiter is paid up-front to fill an important position, and if they are doing their job well will have a relationship with the hiring manager, understand much more about the company and the position, and will be working from a “spec” that is much more detailed than a job description. The hiring company may have told them to favor candidates who have worked at similar companies, competitors, or places that are doing work that the company wants to do. They often understand team dynamics and the political situation at the company that the candidate would become part of. As a result they must do much more up-front assessment, understanding the profile and portfolio and doing much more in-depth screening interviews before offering a candidate to the hiring manager. They are a true gatekeeper in the process. This recruiter typically does not post job ads. The ability to do fine in a basic interview without warning, plus a resume and portfolio that display the necessary skills and acumen, are essential to success with this group.

You can tell what sort of recruiter you are dealing with in part by the level of information they provide and their ability to answer questions. If they can’t say much more than you can read from the job description, or deflect questions about the role with a “that’s a great question for the hiring manager,” you’re dealing with a contingency recruiter. It’s up to you to look at the company and decide if you’d like them to send your profile to the hiring manager. If you are approached by the recruiter they could be in-house or retained. If there’s no job ad and they interview you while telling you about the position, they are likely retained.

To be fair, all recruiters will try to qualify you, will try to make sure you are articulate and interested in the right things, are open to the salary and duties the company is offering, and are willing to take the next step in the process. But they will spend different amounts of time on that, and that time scales directly with how helpful they are to the hiring manager and to you.

My assumptions

My respondents also agreed with some of my assumptions:

  • I assumed that a hiring manager who is not a product person will be seeking to add or improve the design function in their organization by hiring a seasoned leader who can evaluate current staff and processes, develop staff, hire, improve processes, improve integration of the design function with the rest of the business, bring new capabilities to the design function, and deliver results in doing so that clearly further the aims of the business.

This was unanimously supported.

  • I assumed that a hiring manager who is a product person will have goals for the improvement of the design function, but will not be able to accomplish it on their own due to too many people and/or product lines to support, rapid growth, expertise or interest gaps, or other structural challenges. They may have a strong sense of the signals they are looking for, but regardless of that will be helped by clarity that I can tick all the boxes as a design leader.

This was unanimously supported.

My respondents were not in unanimous agreement about other assumptions:

  • I assumed that a recruiter is going to try to match my profile to the “spec” they are given, either a job description or something more specific about the signals the hiring manager is looking for. So a recruiter will be looking for these signals in my resume, and possibly in my portfolio. They are not likely to be expert in experience design, so the recruiter will be watching for general quality of portfolio items and that the right topics are mentioned or otherwise evident.

I learned that successful retained search recruiters will have more expertise in the role of the target, and some in-house recruiters, especially for large firms, also specialize. These people will evaluate portfolios with a critical eye and set aside candidates that don’t seem to have relevant experience, much as a hiring manager doing their own recruiting would. In addition, retained and in-house recruiters will also be looking for credibility in the treatment of topics such as design thinking, design systems, and process. Portfolios that demonstrate these are seen as more valuable even if the general quality of work is less-well understood by an individual recruiter.

  • I assumed that whether a recruiter is the first hurdle or not, the needs of the different types of hiring manager will be essentially the same.

In smaller organizations the hiring manager may do their own recruiting, and will have less patience to go through many profiles in depth. You’re likely to be quickly rejected if your fitness as a candidate isn’t immediately apparent. As the hiring manager rises in the ranks of a hiring company, the importance of each hire increases but their ability to spend a lot of time on recruiting falls, making it increasingly important that profiles advanced by the recruiter are high quality. So the interesting difference is less the hiring managers’ needs (all hiring managers need quality applicants) and more the level of assistance they are given (or can afford).

For me

I also asked these recruiters about my own profile. They found the following items important:

  • Experience with hardware and software
  • Experience managing cross-functional teams
  • Evidence of design thinking
  • Roadmap or other work to inform or assist product management
  • Evidence of process – this was fine but there could be more
  • Direct-to-consumer work – one recruiter felt this was lacking, which probably means I didn’t portray the audiences adequately
  • Evidence of design systems – this was lacking somewhat
  • Evidence of design workshops – this was lacking somewhat
  • Client-facing work – this was lacking

I note that none of the recruiters mentioned other joys of mine, such as developing design talent, integrating research into company decision-making, mentorship of designers and managers, or harnessing existing data sources to improve products. I could usefully make more of these points. I should not write a lot more in portfolio pieces or resume entries to try to fill in these gaps; every word should do hard work, especially in these settings. Too much prose won’t be read at all. So I’ll need to find other ways to accomplish this.