Reduce the panic (and prepare for poaching): Shift from reactive mode to “Always Be Recruiting”

Written by: Karl Sakas

If you’re tired of going into “PANIC” mode while running your agency, this article is for you.

Lots of things can cause panic—losing a client, losing a top employee to poaching by another agency, or learning your landlord wants to raise the rent. Although there are often red flags, many of those situations are unavoidable.

But is there a panic-inducing situation that’s entirely avoidable? Yes, indeed—closing a new client without having enough people to fulfill the work.

Beyond choosing to be a good boss that pays people fairly, the solution is continuous recruiting—aka an “Always Be Recruiting” mindset (and practice). Always be on the lookout for potential hires, so you have them lined up before you need them.

If you dread winning new business because you know you can’t fulfill it, follow my advice here—you’ll have fewer fire drills, and more time for what you enjoy. [I updated this 2016 article in 2024, to reflect my latest advice.]

Bad news: What happens when you aren’t continuously recruiting

Why the panic? Your clients expect you to start soon—or immediately—yet you know you don’t have the people to do the work. When you do this, you’re stuck doing the work yourself, frantically hiring someone you don’t know well, or both. Those solutions rarely turn out well.

Now, I’m not saying to pre-emptively hire salaried people in the hopes that a deal will close. That’s not smart business. But it is smart to be prepared—and that’s where “Always Be Recruiting” comes in.

Horror story: $20K/month… and no one to do the work

A client called me after he’d landed a $20,000/month retainer… and had no one lined up to fulfill the work. He was in shock—he was so busy doing the work that didn’t have time to recruit people, or to keep his sales pipeline full.

He’d created a vicious cycle, and it was about to get worse—three months in, his new $240K/year client wasn’t happy and threatened to fire the agency for failing to deliver anything.

Don’t get yourself into that panicked situation—especially since it’s entirely avoidable.

8 steps to Always Be Recruiting

To save you from this panic and pain, here’s what you need to start doing nowbefore you close your next big deal.

1) Dedicate a consistent amount of time each month on recruiting.

“Always Be Recruiting” relies on your making recruiting part of your regular schedule—something you’re proactively doing every week, not something you do reactively when you’re in panic mode.

The right amount will vary. At a minimum, I recommend 10 hours/month.

  • If you’re actively recruiting—or you’re running a high-growth “Equity-oriented” agency—that figure could be 20 hours/month.
  • If you’re preparing to hire several different roles, your recruiting time might surge to 40 hours/month for a few months.
  • If you outsource recruiting to an employee, freelance recruiter, or recruiting firm, your personal number could be lower… but you won’t eliminate this completely, and you likely shouldn’t try to eliminate recruiting time.

Find someone who’ll hold you accountable. I suggest choosing your head of operations. If you don’t have one—or if you aren’t comfortable with an employee keeping you accountable—ask a fellow business owner or your coach to do the check-in.

2) Build a “stable” of pre-vetted freelancers.

Freelancers are the fastest way to swap in talent when you need it. Freelancers aren’t a great long-term solution—they’re generally charging twice as much per hour as a comparable employee, and they lack the continuity you need for client-facing roles—but when you need short-term help, they’re ready.

For this to be panic-free, you need to have built a “stable” of vetted freelancers—3-5 people per role (e.g., 3-5 freelance copywriters, 3-5 freelance designers, etc.). By having several in each role, you improve your odds of having someone available when you urgently need them—but not so many that they never hear from you.

For more on finding great freelancers, see my article on the topic.

3) Think about staffing implications every time your agency submits a proposal.

Ideally, you’ll use your existing team to do the new work—but that’s not always an option. Think ahead—if the deal closes, what skillsets will you need to hire that you don’t have already? Start talking to people now, instead of waiting ’til the prospect has paid the deposit and is ready to start ASAP.

Be sure you’re honest with candidates about hiring needs and timeline—let them know it’s about a potential opportunity, not about a definite need.

Ideally, you’ll look at a matrix approach—how can you use your existing team to handle the initial work, to buy time to expand your team?

Be cautious in pitching work that requires hiring a new full-time person (typically riskier than bringing in freelancers) or that requires fulfilling work your agency has never done before (which often means it’s harder to vet the people doing the work).

4) Use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to keep track of people.

I recommend using an applicant tracking system (ATS) in general—since it’s more efficient than tracking candidates via email and spreadsheets—but there’s a special benefit when you have candidates on standby. You can tag them as “future match” or similar in the ATS, to help you easily find them again—with the benefit of having their resume and related info right there.

You can also have a generic job opening—”I want to work for AgencyName!”—open all the time, to collect resumes from people who want to work for you. Not everyone will be a good match, but some will be.

5) Pay attention to your “employer brand”—and show prospective hires what it’s like to work at your agency.

Do some searching to see what your agency looks like as an employer. Look at what’s on Glassdoor—and respond to both negative and positives reviews.

Check your social media profiles—do they accurately capture what it’s like to work at your agency? I don’t recommend requiring employees to engage in “mandatory fun” just to get Instagram posts, but you should start capturing what you’re doing together already.

Ultimately, look at whether your online footprint is going to repel or attract your ideal team members. This includes your portfolio or case studies—from a candidate perspective, do these reflect what people will be doing?

This work can really pay off—several of my clients get unsolicited resumes from qualified candidates nearly every day, primarily because they’ve made sure their employer brand matches reality.

6) Commit to keeping your employees happy… or someone else will.

As product engineer Kate Heddleston noted in a must-listen Fog Creek Software podcast (now offline, sadly), there are two ways to get great employees: “You can steal them or you can make them.”

Ultimately, I think you should accept that poaching happens. Now, focus your energies on keeping people happy and you don’t need to worry [as much] about their leaving. More on that in a future article.

If a recruiter cold-emails one of your employees about a job opportunity, your employee ideally would mention this to you… and not just because they want a counter-offer raise. But your mileage may vary (YMMV).

7) Have a “Plan B” if any of your current employees were to quit.

Having a “Plan B” for current employees applies regardless of whether you’re closing new deals—your existing employees could leave at any time.

Make a list of all of your current employees—with help from department directors if you don’t know everyone directly—and identify how you’d handle their job if they quit. You’ll probably do a mix of existing employees and freelancers. For instance, see my article on what to do if an Account Manager quits.

You may find for some people, you don’t want or don’t need to replace them. In those cases, think hard about why you haven’t terminated them already.

8) Create “Office Hours” to make it easier to meet regularly.

It’s hard—yet important—to make time to meet with prospective candidates. Holding public Office Hours on a recurring basis makes it easier to say “yes” to meetings with people who aren’t an obvious fit but who could be a match.

That’s how I hired my second Account Coordinator in 2010—the first person quit 8 months into the job. I had a great new hire start a month later—because we’d already done a speculative coffee several months earlier, before I knew I needed to hire her.

For more on the topic, read my article on how to start your own public Office Hours, including virtual options.

Keep in mind that for top-choice candidates, you should make time around their schedule—including meeting before or after the workday. Your willingness to be flexible goes a long way when someone’s a strong candidate with options.

Applying this at your agency

While there are plenty of things that’ll make you panic as an agency owner, recruiting doesn’t have to be one of them—if you adopt an “Always Be Recruiting” mindset.

By the way, how did things turn out for the agency that landed the $20K/month client with no one to do the work? Things got a lot better—I helped my client recruit people to do the immediate work, add processes to keep up with the new work, and repair his relationship with the client about the missed deliverables.

Question: What would life be like if you made time to Always Be Recruiting?

Image credit: Binoculars photo by whiskeyandtears, via Creative Commons

Originally published in April 2016, I updated this article in January 2024 to reflect my latest advice for agencies.

Want bite-sized tips to up-level your leadership skills, fast?

Get an entire book’s worth of management advice, directly to your inbox with our free 30-Day Manager Email Course. You’ll also get my twice-a-week agency newsletter, with actionable tips to help you keep up the momentum. To get started, complete the form below.