The Only Skill That Really Matters for Recruiting & Sourcing

While there’s been some slight advances in the tools and technologies available for finding top talent, even the most advanced systems are simply automating what the most effective sourcers and recruiters have always done and will always do, because you don’t need a matching algorithm, machine learning or even any professional certification or credentials to be a kick-ass sourcing pro.

You don’t even have to be particularly inclined towards tools or tech, nor do you need a ton of experience—in fact, in sourcing, that can often be a liability. That’s because to be good at sourcing or recruiting, you really only need one quality: “learning agility.”

If you’re not familiar with this term, I’ll turn to my old pal Josh Bersin for a definition. According to the august analysts over at Bersin by Deloitte, “learning agility” is:

“… a competency or capability which describes a person’s speed to learn… People with strong “learning ability” can rapidly study, analyze and understand new situations and new business problems. They have developed techniques and a passion for fast learning, and are not afraid to jump into a problem and try to understand its various causes and ramifications quickly.”

Yeah, I know that “learning agility” sounds like the worst kind of HR buzzword bull$h!t, right up there with “personal branding” and “emotional intelligence.”

But based on the above definition, it also sounds a whole lot like the approach and skill set of every elite sourcer in talent today. There may be a litany of conferences, training, certifications and programs dedicated to teaching new recruiters how to source, but the fact of the matter is, if those recruiters don’t possess an inordinate amount of innate learning agility, all the training in the world won’t make them any more than a mediocre sourcer.

Fortunately, the best in the business—those with the highest amounts of learning agility—as it were, tend to be a little lazy when they watch their less agile counterparts struggle and sweat over the small stuff.

This means even if you have no learning agility, then while you might not be a natural sourcer, if you’re one of the few people willing to bust out 50 phone calls or messages a day and put in enough time and sweat equity into their sourcing techniques, then it almost always makes up for what should be an insurmountable capability gap. 

This is because of the secret the best sourcers don’t want you to know. It’s also the definitive answer (and an even more honest one) to that ubiquitous question: How did you figure all of this stuff out?

The answer, in short, is not a best practice. It’s common sense. You just probably won’t find the truth particularly satisfying. The fact is, I figured it out as I went along.

I have no idea how I figured out how to source, or search candidates, or even market to consumers as has been the case in my later career; I’m making most of this up as I go along, but somehow, it seems to be working most of the time.

It’s got nothing to do with my experience or background, though; I truly believe that being able to “figure it out” is mostly a matter of mindset and how you approach any job requirement—recruiting related or not. I wish I could point to some specific training program, or a kick-butt book, or even provide a template or name or some sourcing sensei I studied under, but that’d be bull$h!t.

The reality is that I never claimed to be amazing at sourcing, nor any sort of expert on recruiting technology. Other than the first couple of weeks at my first ever job, I’ve never received any formal training, nor do I read books, download whitepapers or listen to webinars and podcasts on sourcing to keep my skills sharp. In fact, I think most sourcing related content to be boring and extraneous at best.

But there sure seems to be a whole hell of a lot of it, which seems like a lot of good words wasted to hide the fact that there’s no magic formula or “silver bullet” in this business. Either you’re an autonomous autodidact or you’re in the wrong business.

The problem is you never know if you’re going to be good at sourcing—or if you possess the necessary foundational amount of learning agility, until you actually try it. As Bersin writes:

“Learning agility is not necessarily an academic skill; rather, it describes a person’s ability and passion to quickly study a new problem and use their learning process to gain deep understanding before making a decision. It is not, for example, the ability to ‘shoot from the hip’.”

Nothing comes naturally, of course, but if you’re going to learn how to do recruiting the right way, you’ve got to learn it by yourself because no one out there can teach you how to do it the way that’s going to work for you.

There’s no such thing as an “expert” in sourcing or recruiting who knows more about what’s going to work for you than you do. Of course, if you haven’t figured that out by now, you should probably look into moving into another part of HR.

FOT Background Check

Matt Charney is the Executive Editor for Recruiting Daily, whose flagship property, RecruitingBlogs, is the world's largest social network and content sharing platform for recruiting and HR professionals. Matt oversees editorial strategy and content marketing for RecruitingDaily's portfolio of online properties. Prior to joining RecruitingBlogs, Matt served in marketing leadership roles at leading HR technology companies like Talemetry, CornerstoneOnDemand & Monster. Matt began his career as a corporate recruiter for such companies as Walt Disney and Warner Bros. Matt has been named as one of the top 25 influencers in recruiting by publications like the Huffington Post, Glassdoor, CareerBuilder and LinkedIn, and has been recognized as one of the 2015 HR Game Changers by HR Magazine adn SHRM, the 2015 HRO Superstar for Analyst Excellence and the 2014 Top Recruiting Blogger by Social Talent. His blog was also named one of the top 15 business blogs to follow by Wordpress in 2014. Matt serves as a member of the advisory boards for the Candidate Experience Awards, Rolepoint, RecruitiFi, Take the Interview, HiringSolved, Universum and Textio. Follow him @MattCharney or connect with him on LinkedIn (


  1. Ya’ gotta be a contender. Ya’ gotta be doing this stuff day in and day out to get it. Ya’ gotta’ be getting your hands calloused and your skirts dirty; your feelings hurt and your nose bloodied to figure this stuff out. Using automation only makes you soft. Most of our industry is soft. That’s why you’re not seeing a whole lot of new, interesting stuff.

  2. Is Common Sense and intuition all we need in terms oh hiring right? In this digital era what is the exact role of technology and artificial intelligence according to you? I agree that we need to go with our gut feelings in many scenarios, but how accurate and effective would that be? Many hiring managers are facing such issues in hiring right candidates and technology have enabled them to hire the best in the industry, saving cost and time. What is your opinion this?

  3. Brian says:

    This is an incredible piece. I have seen great success in the recruiting space at a young age and have been asked countless times how I do it. I’ve never really been able to answer that question very well, but you nailed it on the head with this. Most mediocre recruiters have concrete answers to this question and they’re all mostly a crock. I love the phrase “learning agility” and I’d couple that with “business acumen”. Those two characteristics are deadly in the recruiting space. Very few recruiters have both, and if someone does have both, they typically don’t go into the recruiting space. Thank you for sharing this article!

  4. Matt Charney says:

    Brian – I feel you on that. I’ve been trying to define that amorphous concept for years before I came across this term and I was like, “yeah. That’s the one.” Appreciate you weighing in and you must have a great mind, since we’re clearly thinking alike.

  5. Glen Cathey says:

    Nice to see you write on this topic. Pretty much mirrors my own experience, detailed here: I do believe the principles of Deliberate Practice can have a significant impact on developing expertise.

    Of course, the benefit of “learning velocity” is not limited to sourcing – it pretty much applies to everything and all roles. Here’s a nice article on how it applies to software engineering:

  6. Glen Cathey says:

    It’s good to see you writing on this topic Matt. Like many, I developed my skills autodidactically through trial and error. However, I do believe there is an underlying process that supports the development of mastery – deliberate practice. I’d like to some articles I’ve written, but it appears links aren’t allowed here (tried once, comment never posted).

    Of course, none of this only apples to sourcing/recruiting – it applies to practically everything. I’ve seen some interesting articles talking about the importance of hiring for “velocity of learning” when it comes to software engineers. I’d link to them but…

    • Matt Charney says:

      Glen – anything that’s worthwhile in this industry extends way past sourcing and recruiting. And I agree with you on process being essential, the only thing I’ve seen (and you’ve seen more, correct me if I’m wrong) is that you can’t teach agility in the absence of “velocity of learning” (that sounds like a weird Indie film), but it’s process that can keep that velocity moving forward – and nice use of “autodidactically,” Glen. Where’d you learn that?

      • Glen Cathey says:

        While it feels logical to say you probably can’t teach agility or velocity of learning (Google “HR advice: Hire for velocity of learning”), I wouldn’t go so far, especially for children. Certainly there are innate differences between people, but I don’t think it’s beyond comprehension to train people to be more agile in their learning.

        I snagged “autodidactically” from an autistic devops pro I converse with on Twitter. #truestory

  7. Your article runs against any common sense approach to developing skills

    Here are your words

    “Nothing comes naturally of course, but if you are going to learn how to do recruiting the right way, you have got to learn it by yourself, because no one out there can teach you how to do it the way it works for you. “

    Earlier you say, “I figured it out as I went along “

    This seems the slowest possible way to learn anything and could even be laying the groundwork for developing some false ideas and bad practices that can later be hard to change.

    Fortunately Glen Cathey injects some common sense and while I have no problem with anyone being able to learn quickly on their own why would anyone want to spend longer than necessary to learn something. Let’s take Glen for example- anyone who has ever seen him live or watched his Youtube demo’s can see that he really knows Boolean search – so should I ignore the vast knowledge he has and spend hours and hours learning it myself? I can learn in hours from him but it could take me days and weeks to learn what he can teach me in much shorter time.

    If you took the same approach to learning to play basketball – ignore all the great coaches out there and say he I will learn this all by myself- I will figure it out as I go along – how practical is that approach.

    Your article comes across as if to say no one can teach anyone anything and we all need to learn how to do it ourselves by trial and error……. Seriously

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