Interview with Bob Corlett of Staffing Advisors

March 12th, 2014
Written by: Admin

This interview is part of a yearlong retrospective blog series commemorating TPO@20! – TPO’s 20th Birthday. These conversations with TPO partners, clients and executives focus on what has and hasn’t changed in “how we work” over the last two decades–and what we can learn for the next 20 years. This interview is with Bob Corlett, Founder and President of Staffing Advisors, who has worked closely with TPO for a number of years.


TPO: Hi, Bob. Let’s get started. For the tiny fraction of our audience that doesn’t know you, please tell us who you are, what you do and what sets your business apart.

Bob Corlett: I’m the Founder and President of Staffing Advisors, the executive search firm small organizations can afford. We’ve spent the last 12 years researching how hiring can work better in small organizations, and developing strategies that accelerate the hiring process while keeping costs to a bare minimum. 


TPO: What were you doing in 1994?

Bob Corlett: I was in my second year of my second job in the staffing business–and realizing how much I didn’t know.


TPO: Did you have an email address?

BC: Actually we had an internal company messaging system that used your initials, so I was RCC, emailing CFL. The funny thing is that when I speak to my former colleagues from that company, we still remember each other’s initials. We lived on that system.


TPO: Did you have any significant life or work milestones or special events in 1994?

BC: In 1993 I went to work for Steve Ettridge, a maverick entrepreneur. He happily skewered every bit of the conventional wisdom in the staffing business. He could see five years into the future with incredible clarity, but could never find his car keys. I learned more about business from him than I did in business school, or from anyone else before or since … I also never walked out of a lunch meeting without handing him his wallet, Palm Pilot, and car keys.

Here’s one example of Steve’s business insight: he insisted that we give our lowest prices to the customers who did not negotiate, and to give our highest prices to the toughest negotiators. Over time the hard negotiators wandered off to work with other vendors, and we ended up with an outstanding roster of happy clients, who were delighted with our pricing.


TPO: What else did you learn during that time?

BC: Steve was a process guy down to the core. He was a huge fan of J. Edwards Deming, the man who changed how the world looked at manufacturing quality. Deming was the TQM (Total Quality Management) guy. Steve was hell-bent on bringing Deming-like quality standards to a service business. He was obsessed with the speed of our computers; he bought everyone Palm Pilots when they were first invented. He spent a fortune on customized software to gain efficiencies. But mostly he obsessed over the candidate experience and how it felt to be a candidate. At that time, no one looked at the staffing business in that way. No one looked at common causes of hiring failures. Steve put me on that path.


TPO: Sounds as though he was ahead of his time.

BC: I find it amazing that twenty years later, so few firms are using metrics to take responsibility for service outcomes, or to find the root causes of hiring mistakes.


TPO: How does Staffing Advisors benefit from this?

BC: By using tight process controls and focusing on the candidate experience, we’ve been able to make our hiring process far faster and more predictable than other hiring methods. And in any service business, being faster and more predictable means we can be profitable at a much lower cost than other search firms.


TPO: In terms of changes in your industry that have had a significant impact on “how you work,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? 

BC: Well, the first change is where we work. We’re a 100% virtual company with no corporate office. We have 15 employees all over the world, and none of us have to commute, so we get terrific work/life balance, high productivity and schedule flexibility … but no snow days! We’re similar to TPO in that way, we know that great work can happen anywhere, you don’t have to be in the office to get results.

The second change is how we work. When I started recruiting in the ‘80’s, our primary communications tool was the telephone, and it was appallingly inefficient. Nirvana was getting copies of a target company’s phone directory. Otherwise you’d have to dial extensions sequentially–101, 102, and hope to find the candidate you were looking for. We’d grind out calls, asking people, “Who do you know who might be interested in this job?”

Now, everyone leaves a trail of digital breadcrumbs on the web. We find candidates on conference attendee lists, and people who comment in online forums. We find staff lists on company websites, people with specific interests on their LinkedIn profiles and online groups. Because we have the right tools, we can assemble a target list of hundreds of candidates within a few hours. In the old days, you could spend two futile hours cold calling and not reach anyone.


TPO: Can you talk more about this progression towards online recruiting over the last two decades?

BC: In addition to the joys of cold calling, 20 years ago, we’d run newspaper print ads in the Sunday paper, paying by the letter, so abbreviating “VP” instead of spelling out “Vice President” could save you real money. We spent $750,000 one year advertising in the Sunday print edition of the Washington Post.

15 years ago, and CareerBuilder were touted as the perfect solution to all recruiting needs—an efficient way to connect employers and job seekers. But we all know how perfect that solution turned out to be. Now lots of the money in recruiting is gravitating toward LinkedIn, and CareerBuilder is pivoting toward becoming a “big data” company with their slick new Supply and Demand portal.


TPO: Thinking back 20 years, what was your definition of Human Resources then and what is it now?

BC: Back then HR was about filling out forms and maintaining records. Sadly, in a lot of places it still is.

Twenty years ago, computers were more expensive than people. We had expensive computers and cheap people, so people did a lot to minimize computer time. Now that’s flipped, and people are expensive and computing is cheap. Consequently, Google is using some fascinating big data analytics to make HR decisions. That’s one reason why we enjoy working with forward-looking firms like TPO. TPO is looking at innovating solutions to common problems like how to handle employee onboarding so new employees reach peak productivity faster.


TPO: What are two things that haven’t changed in the last two decades in terms of “how we work.”

BC: Building trust and playing well with others still matters–and always will.


TPO: What impact has TPO had on your business?

BC: TPO has been a terrific business partner. They make a promise, they keep a promise. Our relationships started 10 years ago, and to reflect back on what I said a moment ago, they’re all about what matters: building trust and playing well with others.


TPO: Bob, this has been great. Thank you so much for your time and your support of TPO.

BC: Any time.


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