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The Importance of a Principal Recruiter role - for Talent Executives and Individual Contributors

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

I have a true passion for my profession and therefore, a few months back, I started a series of initiatives for further understanding the adoption of (and promoting) the role of a Principal Talent Acquisition partner in organisations.


I (originally jokingly) named it “a Mission”.


Now, my Mission is to make individuals and leaders alike, aware of the importance to create a role beyond that of a “senior recruiter” in companies. A role which does not direct individuals solely on the managerial track.


I hope that my series of blog posts, interviews, frameworks and skills deep-dives will help you differentiate between a senior individual contributor (Senior Recruiter) and a Principal. So, whether you’re a leader aiming to refine your talent acquisition org chart and roles, or an individual contributor aspiring to elevate your career without treading the managerial path, this piece is your first ever compass.


👀 We talk about Recruitment 5.0 but we still have a glass ceiling to break through? Something seems off.


In this dynamic world of talent acquisition, I will candidly admit that it’s disheartening to witness the prevalent inflation of titles within our sector. Companies label roles based more on candidate market push (or compensation leveling) and less on real job responsibilities and impact.

No disregard for the awesome work put in by folks in the industry, however, I believe that it is high time to really debunk the role of the Principal Talent Acquisition partner.


We delve into the fascinating blend of skills, technical knowledge and capabilities that underpin the role of a Principal Recruiter. This is a personal, researched, tested, delivered in my day to day job - view.


What this post does:

  1. Briefly describes the role of a Principal Talent Acquisition partner

  2. Showcases (table style) some of the (high level) main capabilities

  3. Draws a soft line between the managerial and principal role

  4. Shares the “call to action” - to advocate for an improved career path in talent acquisition

  5. Leaves the door open for the next blog posts.

Let’s start with the basics:


In comparison to our fellow software engineers, for instance, the talent acquisition (or recruitment) career track lags severely behind when it comes to career paths. The IC (individual contributor) trajectory is way less established in most organisations (regardless of their size) than the managerial track.


LinkedIn Future of Recruiting Report 2023

So, what really is a Principal Talent Acquisition partner (AKA Principal Recruiter)?


A Principal Recruiter role is a role of true impact, acting as the “linchpin” between the TA strategic vision and the practical execution in your company. We are architects of talent acquisition operational excellence, mentors, coaches, and, very often, the driving force behind continuous improvement, innovation in TA initiatives and recruitment processes & strategies. Also, force multipliers - enhancing the skills and capabilities of the entire talent acquisition organisation (department).


What the role is not - a glorified Recruiter role with a main focus on delivery (regardless of the level of the vacancy).


For example, my work ties into the companys' (or departments') OKRs and the business priorities overall - it rarely stagnates at “hiring numbers” and cNPS.

  • Possessing a deep, strategic understanding of the business priorities and plans, we are able to lead initiatives which solve priority 0 issues.

  • Principals are extremely autonomous (working with very little direction and supervision) in day-to-day work, but we are required to be able to collaborate (and be completely aligned) with senior management in order to make good business decisions, sometimes with great bottom-line implications for the company.

Principal Recruiters are the connective tissue between the on-the-ground work completed by their fellow recruiters, and senior executives, while still remaining hands-on and immersed in the day-to-day recruitment activities (eg. 360 recruitment).


The distinctive role of a Principal Recruiter:


We are distinguished by our deep technical know-how and excellence in hiring practices. We possess specialised knowledge and expertise, and have to continuously refine our skills, in order to stay abreast of industry trends and developments.

This role is pivotal in navigating the complexities of a global talent market, ensuring the recruiting process remains relevant to the company's needs / expansion and adapting to changing market trends and organisational priorities.


At the heart of the Principal's role lies the art of influential leadership & communication. In an environment where strategic decisions hinge on the accurate and timely flow of information, the ability to connect effectively with senior stakeholders is paramount. This includes providing direction on a specific domain’s team structure, hiring priorities, and process improvements at a global level. It's an “art” that requires not just clarity and precision, but also empathy and deep job role understanding.


The invaluable impact of a Principal Talent Acquisition partner also stems from their capability to team-build, to upskill their colleagues, across the entire TA department. They spearhead initiatives across all TA teams and lead projects that will enhance the results of everyone in the recruitment team.


The high level skills and capabilities of a Principal Talent Acquisition partner:

  • Deep Recruitment Expertise

  • Problem Solving - Results driven

  • Autonomy

  • Influence (Gravitas) and Leadership

  • Critical thinking

The roles have, in my opinion, both horizontal and vertical complexion.

 
Extract from LinkedIn the Future of recruitment 2023
 

Capabilities:

Category

Example

​Horizontal vs. Vertical complexity

End to end talent acquisition excellence

  • Technical strength (expertise in their craft – recruiting 1on1).

  • Excellence in hiring practices.

  • Vertical - specialisation in specific areas of recruiting and profound knowledge of the recruitment lifecycle.

  • Horizontal - Interaction with various departments and stakeholders to align hiring practices with organizational goals.

Project Management / Program Management

  • Leading deep, complex and high-ROI projects (local, global, etc.).

  • Steer the project team and all the communications

Vertical - leading large projects, often involving multiple teams or departments. This could include initiatives such as setting up a new office location or standardising hiring practices across the entire organisation (for example, for one job role or for multiple - such as the entire Product Management job family).

End to end Talent Acquisition strategies for entire business domains / departments

  • Guiding the talent acquisition strategies for entire companies or for specific domains (in smaller companies. Eg. Commercial, operations or technology, etc.

  • Hiring planning, market mapping, hiring action plans / strategies, internal mobility and DEI, etc.

  • Vertical - Principal Recruiters often provide strategic consultations to senior leadership, advising on talent acquisition strategy, market trends, and best practices. This requires a high level of knowledge and expertise and for them to be great data driven storytellers.

  • Horizontal - Principal Recruiters often work closely with different departments such as HR, Operations, Legal, Finance, etc. This requires a broad understanding of the organisation / domain and the ability to work effectively with a diverse range of stakeholders.


Cross-functional expertise

  • Working cross-functionally – also in a matrix setup – being advisors to HR business partners, the business, the executive leadership team, several delivery teams (or domains, departments or business units).

  • They cut across specialisations as well (eg. commercial + technology).

Horizontal - Principal Talent Acquisition partners often work closely with different departments such as HR, Operations, Legal, Finance, etc. This requires a broad understanding of the organisation and the ability to work effectively with (and influence) a diverse range of stakeholders.

Innovation and process redesign and deployment

  • Continuously seeking innovation in recruitment processes and making them relevant for the company.

  • Standardisation efforts, seeking sponsorship in the business and TA, and developing, leading and deploying entire projects/programs.

  • Talent Intelligence and Market Mapping

Vertical - Principals drive continuous improvement across all areas of talent acquisition function. This involves monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of the current processes, identifying areas for improvement, and implementing changes. This often impacts all levels of the company.

Driving the implementation and adoption of tech tools, domain wide

  • Actively promoting the use of recruitment tools within the organisation

  • Driving adoption and training others to use tooling effectively. eg. serving as a CRM implementation champion

  • Facilitating training sessions for new tooling

  • Onboarding and auditing new tooling ahead of purchase decisions

  • Leading build VS buy exercises

  • Sunsetting tooling

Vertical - Specialisation in the functionalities and applications of each tool and training others effectively. Horizontal - Collaboration with different departments and teams to ensure widespread adoption and communicate the benefits effectively.

Leadership

  • Leading large projects and providing mentorship to all other recruiters, all without the formal authority - typically associated with leadership roles.

  • This requires a unique blend of influence, persuasion, and collaboration capabilities.

  • Leading change initiatives alongside senior management.

  • Horizontal - they often need to negotiate and influence across various departments and teams. They are involved in strategic discussions about talent needs and planning across the company (to Global level). This requires a deep understanding of the talent landscape and the specific needs of different departments or functions.

  • Vertical - Principal Talent Acquisition partners often provide strategic consultations to senior leadership, advising on talent acquisition strategy, trends, and best practices. This requires a high level of knowledge and expertise and strong influencing skills.


Problem solving

  • “Innovative Solutions” for example, crafting and implementing action plans (solutions) to overcome recruitment challenges and bottlenecks, ensuring the smooth and efficient functioning of the talent acquisition processes.

  • Strategic and critical thinking is required in order to anticipate potential problems and devise preemptive solutions, mitigating risks and optimising outcomes.


Vertical - Identify and resolve intricate issues within the recruitment processes, lifecycle, company wide strategies or career paths, by leveraging deep knowledge and expertise to address challenges.

📌 I highlighted “high level” on purpose - as the list is far from an exhaustive one. I have also seen various other categorisations of skills / capabilities. For the purpose of this particular post, I consider that these are sufficient.


Do you need a Principal if you have a Manager?


Having both a Principal Talent Acquisition partner and a People Leader within the same talent acquisition team is not about redundancy; it’s about synergy.


While Leaders provide direction, set goals, and monitor performance (to name but a few responsibilities), Principals bring in-depth technical expertise and innovative problem-solving skills to the table. We work autonomously, influencing executive decisions through “on-the-ground” expertise and by collaborating effectively with various departments and stakeholders.


This synergy allows for a more holistic approach to talent acquisition, combining strategic leadership with technical proficiency and innovative thinking, ultimately enhancing the overall effectiveness and success of the team.

 

Research finding:


My series of (so far) 14 interviews with Talent Acquisition executives (from company sizes ranging from 500 to 20,000 employees) revealed a common theme - that, if you are a smaller company, you probably do not need both a Manager (People Leader) AND a Principal.


Some argue that, in a smaller company, if you have a HR Leader, you may not need a TA Manager at all - as your Principal(s) will take care of the upskilling and mentoring needed by your talent acquisition folks, including the actual delivery.

 

However, the talent acquisition sector is falling behind when it comes to established career paths, especially for individual contributors. The trajectory is less established in most organisations, regardless of their size. It’s imperative for the industry to create and embrace this IC career track, allowing recruiters to explore their potential beyond conventional roles while not pushing them into management.


A Call to Action:


Let’s champion the evolution of the talent acquisition profession! Embrace the transformative role of Principal Talent Acquisition partner and be a catalyst for change in your business.

I am a number 1 Fan and I hope that my on-the-ground experience to date will allow me to add to the conversation and to, at least, plant a seed for future change.


Enough, for now, on this Intro piece 🙂.


Short bottom-line:


The role of Principal Recruiter is not just another title; it’s a commitment to excellence in the field of talent acquisition. It’s about leading with no authority, purely through expertise and influence, being true advisors to the highest level of the People / Talent / HR / Executive functions in organisations.

It’s time to debunk the role of the Principal Talent Acquisition partner and differentiate between a senior individual contributor (senior recruiter) and a Principal.


Until next time,

Andreea


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