How to Scale Your Hiring: An Inside Look at ExactTarget’s Sales-based Recruiting Model

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From the back of a cocktail napkin to a $2.7 billion exit, ExactTarget’s story is a SaaS fairytale that most technology companies would love to emulate. Launched in late 2000 before email became a standard tool in the marketing arsenal, founder Scott Dorsey and his team built a software company that was perfectly positioned at the bleeding edge of relationship marketing. Today, as Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Dorsey’s creation helps businesses create scalable and personalized email, mobile and social marketing campaigns that create a powerful 1-to-1 customer experience.

While there were many factors that contributed to ExactTarget’s success and eventual acquisition by Salesforce, one of the key factors was the scale and quality of the company’s team. As ExactTarget’s Senior Director of Global Recruiting during the critical years prior to the acquisition, M.T. Ray, now High Alpha’s VP of Talent, was up-close and personal on how the company scaled their internal recruiting operation from 5 to 45 and used those resources to grow the company from fewer than 500 employees when she joined ExactTarget in 2010 to more than 2,800 at the time of acquisition in 2012.

Ray joined ExactTarget as their first sales-focused recruiter and almost immediately teamed with the company’s new senior leader for sales. “I look back and think, ‘Wow, that was like a dream come true,’” says Ray. “He was someone who really understood the value of great talent, and the fact that we needed the best talent in the seats to sell our software.” This strategic partnership proved to be critical to the success of Ray’s recruiting efforts. Building on this foundation, Ray was able to build and scale a progressive recruiting effort that was based on a sales model. Her holistic approach expertly leveraged tools and tactics from Jobvite to LinkedIn, created a clearly defined and internally driven incentive plan for in-house sourcers and recruiters, and ultimately enabled ExactTarget to reduce their recruiting agency fee to zero.

Elevating the Hiring Function

“100% – the key to success is a sales leader who really trusts you,” says Ray. She adds, “Including me as the sales recruiter in leadership meetings, showing me respect at the table with other company leaders was really important.”

In addition to showing support, it was also critical that leaders on the business side played an active role in defining expectations and holding everyone accountable. From the start, there was no doubt that Ray’s partner on the sales side was taking recruiting seriously. “The message from the top down was clear: It’s important that you are engaged as leaders in finding talent, interviewing talent, assessing talent and hiring talent,” says Ray. “Just as important, people were made to understand that it wasn’t just the recruiting team’s job, it had to be a partnership between recruiting and the business.”

To help make this point, Ray changed her team’s job titles from “Recruiter” to “Recruiting Partner.” It may seem like a small thing, but it helped hammer home the nature of the relationship that Ray and company leadership were trying to build with the internal groups.

Beginning with the sales group, Ray initiated weekly meetings to create a consistent cadence of communication about headcount as well as an opportunity for Ray’s team to work collaboratively with leaders to define hiring profiles. “Once we got the profiles defined by function in the sales world and knew what we were looking for, we could really get the machine rolling with the sales team,” says Ray. “We hired more than 60 people that first year.”

Structuring Recruiting Like Sales

After doing some field research on internal recruiting models by studying the successful practices of Silicon Valley giants like LinkedIn, Facebook and Salesforce, Ray returned to ExactTarget with a plan to build an internal recruiting model that mirrored the sales function.

“The idea was that we’d have an internal team sourcing candidates, basically doing lead generation for candidates,” Ray explains. “We’d have recruiters handling the process with managers from start to finish and closing the deal. We’d have an ops team to schedule interviews and ensure that each candidate’s experience is a positive one, and that our brand is well represented.”

Earning Street Cred to Create Buy-in

The transition from an agency-based recruiting model to an entirely in-house function was not without it’s challenges. “It was a bit of a Wild West scenario before recruiting was positioned as a bigger player in the process,” Ray recalls. “Managers would have no problem reaching out independently to an agency, and then terms would be horrible.” Eventually, with the proactive support of sales leadership, Ray and her team were able to wrangle rogue recruiting efforts and consolidate everything under a highly successful and cohesive team and process.

As with any cultural or operational change, Ray had to build trust with her internal counterparts not only in sales, but also in services and product. “Being able to show what we could do was a turning point,” she says. “It took some pushing, but once we had results we were able to gain the confidence of key people across the organization. It was uncomfortable at times, but with Scott Dorsey, our CFO and my leader in HR as advocates for what we were doing, everyone eventually became a believer.”

Implementing the Right Tools and Tactics

When Ray joined ExactTarget, the company was spending a lot of funds outsourcing all their recruiting to various agencies. The company didn’t even have a LinkedIn presence. To eliminate the company’s dependence on agency providers, Ray knew she had to implement the right tools and build ExactTarget’s employment brand by getting more involved in social media and social recruiting.

Building a Passive Candidate Database

“I knew we had to go after passive candidates ourselves versus paying agencies to do that,” Ray says. “There were too many instances where someone would make an introduction to a great candidate, but we didn’t know what to do with them because they weren’t really an applicant.”

Ray used Jobvite to create a candidate CRM to track those passive prospects, market to them, and keep them warm. “The focus was on ensuring that the pipeline was always full,” says Ray. “And, it was actually fun.”

The Jobvite database became one of the recruiting team’s most valuable assets. “It took us a while to figure out how to categorize people and use the system,” says Ray. “But we were able to put most of our contacts into the database and then cultivate those relationships. The person in charge of sourcing used a content strategy to stay in touch, and profile tags to segment. Eventually, we had a nice, robust database to utilize.”

Establishing a LinkedIn Presence

Initially, ExactTarget didn’t have a LinkedIn presence, but Ray knew it was a mandatory tool for posting jobs and finding candidates. “We set everyone on the team up with a LinkedIn Recruiter seat, and then each team member could add candidate names to the Jobvite database,” Ray explains. “Each candidate was associated with a team member for compensation purposes.”

While Ray says that some team members were naturally better than others at prospecting and running campaigns on LinkedIn, the overall effort was a success. From having no LinkedIn presence in 2010, ExactTarget expanded its presence to include nearly unlimited postings by the time they were acquired by Salesforce in 2012. Ray also credits the team’s LinkedIn activity with playing a big role in cutting agencies out of the recruiting process.

Setting Goals and Ground Rules

In addition to giving her team the right tools, Ray also made sure that everyone knew how to play the game. “We were very clear what the sourcers were paid on and what the recruiters were paid on,” she explains. “We made sure that if someone tagged a candidate with their name they had actually talked with them and had a relationship. We ensured that everyone kept cultivating good people by having conversations and providing updates. If there wasn’t any activity on a particular candidate for an extended period of time, that candidate kind of became free game.”

Overall, Ray’s team focused less on the numbers and more on being an actual team. In addition to various individual competitions, she ran team spiffs once in awhile that rewarded the entire group for working together. “On a quarterly basis, it was more about trying to cultivate passive candidates and build our own internal database,” Ray says. “We always wanted that to be the first place anyone looked to find a candidate — not to take the search to an agency, but to try to find the perfect candidate amongst the passive people we were cultivating.”

Building a Partnership to Be Proud Of

“The way we set things up created an environment where people were motivated to keep the recruiting function in-house, and we were proud of that,” says Ray. “It was gratifying to be able to say that we had reduced agency usage dramatically, and that we were able to do it internally with a progressive recruiting model. To have support from leadership to take risks, try new things and be innovative in how you build out a team internally doesn’t happen very often. I’m so appreciative to have had that support and very proud of what we accomplished.”

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Senior Talent Manager, Sales & Marketing