Theo Smit’s blog changes from The Thinking Recruiter to Lessons from 21+ Years in Recruitment

Theo Smit knows about recruitment. 2020 marks his 21st year as a recruiter in South Africa serving the broader SA market as well as entities in Europe and the UK. He has founded two Recruitment Firms, which he has navigated through turbulent economic times and led recruitment teams through boom and recessionary markets. Theo is known for sharing insights gained through his daily interactions with clients, staff, recruiters and candidates alike. He has written more than 100 blog posts to date and these can be found across his social media platforms, committed to improving recruiters’ efficacy and career prospects.

The early years

Originally a schoolteacher, I, like many recruiters, attended an interview at an agency to explore my opportunities, but ended up being convinced I was “recruiter material” and took up the challenge of an entirely new career.

I started my career in 1999 with Premier Personnel as an internal consultant to successful Big Biller, Audrey Kaplan, who was an incredible mentor and to whom I owe most of my successes in agency recruitment. Audrey was a true business partner to her clients, largely unheard of at the time.  She cared, she listened – and I watched, and learned.  We partnered incredibly well on the management consulting desk and this translated into success for us both. I recall my highest commission cheque in September 2008 equated to more than 40 times my starting salary at the agency!

Premier was a job order machine and, although it sounds ideal that we barely had to source specs, on reflection I’ve learned that I in fact took on too many job orders (sometimes more than 50 at a time) and this led to my near burnout, despite riding a wave of success. Premier Personnel, off the back of exceptional performance, was acquired by the Adcorp Group and I’m proud to say I was a top biller within the Group, winning several Chairman’s awards and nominations.

We had fax machines when I started in recruitment and we consumed countless rolls of thermal paper as CVs fell onto the floor day in and day out. As a leading player, Premier Personnel was an early adopter of the Internet and MS email and our first “database” beyond the filing cabinets, was a communal Dos based terminal. While we attempted to keep up, the impact of technology including the eventual rise of the job board, meant that the job specs no longer simply rolled in.  Hindsight is 20/20 and had the business (and other brand-leading agencies like it) made more effort to stay ahead of the latest recruitment trends and global methodologies, they might have retained their top positions.

I always admired Michele Khoury, Premier Personnel’s founder. She was a force to be reckoned with, more explosive than a pack of dynamite, and any Corporate Financier or Chartered Accountant worth their salt wanted to be on her phone list.

Lessons learnt: –

  • partner with purpose, know your market better than anyone else.
  • remain specialised.
  • focus on quality not quantity and remain relevant.
  • be proactive, always market a good candidate because there’s bound to be interest.

Growing Up

After 12 successful years at Premier Personnel, I started to carve a path for myself which would see me live out my dream of running my own shop.

The first stop in this journey was spent as an internal recruiter at McKinsey & Co’s Johannesburg office, where I sourced, enticed and placed consultants within their Implementation practice. The boom in management consulting, banking and technology, and the convergence of these sectors provided an exciting learning experience and it was here that I honed my specialist recruitment skill, gaining an in-depth understanding of a consultants’ career lifecycle.

I then went on to establish a recruitment firm within a family trust holding entity which we called Nextleaders; a name which resonated with me and my career-long desire to help identify and recruit the future leaders. As Managing Director, I for the first time held the reigns and with the support of a fantastic team of specialist recruiters that I personally selected we built a successful, influential firm.  Core to our success was our unwavering commitment to our customers (client and candidate).

As a passionate recruiter, despite being the business owner, I could keep doing what I love most – interviewing professional top-class people and building meaningful relationships with clients.  This was all thanks to Conrad Vermaak, a long standing business colleague and specialist ICT Recruiter who managed the day to day delivery of the team.

I demanded a lot from my staff, but I invested more and this reaped dividends – for all concerned.

We were committed to achieving the audacious goals we’d set, and we surpassed R10 million billings in just the third year of the business’ existence.

It is at this point in my journey that I embraced the power of social media and personal digital branding.  We shared which clients we were engaging with (unheard of for competitive recruiters), what we were doing as a team, views and opinions on broader industry issues and in so doing, built our credibility and showcased our employee value proposition.

I learnt so much during this phase of my journey and soon came to realise that it was time to stand on my own, frustrated by the rigidity of group structures and requirements.

Lesson learnt: –

  • Surround yourself with a team who share your values.
  • Play to your strengths.
  • Delegate to and empower your team.
  • Invest time and energy in building relationships, with your clients, candidates and team.
  • Leverage the power of social media.

Moving Forward – Disrupting the Status Quo

Believing that traditional “grey” recruitment models were broken, I created Theo Smit Recruitment (TSR), built to offer tailored recruitment services that shift beyond the status quo of boxed contingent and search offerings.

Embracing the technology that drives talent acquisition today comes with the territory, but the real differentiator for #TeamTSR is our market specialisation and commitment to building and maintaining strong, consultative relationships with clients and candidates.

In a world where transactional recruitment is commonplace and often done at arms-length and from behind a screen, I believe TSR’s success can be attributed to authenticity, mutual respect, personal attention and genuine care.  Testament to this is the numerous unsolicited compliments received from candidates and the fact that I have placed some individuals 4 or 5 times within their careers. 

That brings me to our team.  I am blessed that Bonisile Hlatshwayo and Sheila Mtakwa, two of the best recruiters in their fields, believed in me and my dream and followed me to TSR. The team has expanded, including great colleagues from Premier days, Nikki Sacks, Sandy Gaizley, Jenny McGrath and Leigh Swartz who share my goals for innovative, customer-centric and personalised talent acquisition solutions.

Embracing the new world of work, I’ve created opportunities for work-life balance; through flexi-time, remote working and non-traditional employment relationships, particularly valuable for my female-dominated team, most of whom are moms.

Looking back, the mechanics of recruitment are simple and not vastly different from when I started, other than the use of more sophisticated technology. It is still the emotive parts that differentiate.

In a rapidly changing marketplace, where jobs are advertised for which skills are scarce, and where talented individuals have a great deal more negotiating power, it’s our ability to connect, educate, influence and collaborate – with client and candidate – that drives success.