Automation and AI to Improve Candidate Experience for Executive Hiring - Trent Cotton, Director or TA, BBVA
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Welcome to the Recruitment Hackers Podcast. A show about innovations, technology and leaders in the recruitment industry brought to you by Talkpush the leading recruitment automation platform. 

Max: Hello, everybody. Welcome to the record hackers podcast. This is Max and I'm today with Mr. Trent Cotton, director of talent acquisition at BBVA dialing in from Atlanta. Hi, Trent. Welcome to the show. 

Trent: Hi, Max, glad to be here. 

Max: Pleasure to have you. So, we were discussing with Trent, some of the big changes that happened in 2020. And we'll talk a little bit about BBVA’s new policy on diversity and talk a little bit about AI and the recruiting sprints that you're running for your team. I think. There's a lot to learn for our audience there. But before we get into all of that, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today?

Trent: Sure, sure.  I converted to the dark side of HR in 2004. I spent the first part of my career working through college as a banker, and in 2004 my daughter was two and a half, almost three years old. And, you know, I just got tired of lending. It was like, a loan, a loan, a loan.

And, at the time I was managing four States for a mortgage broker and had, I think, 48 people that I was managing. And I said, you know what, I'm going to make a pivot. And took a contracting job with the bank, working as a recruiter and was trained by six, I'm using air quotes, recruiters. But they were technically like HR people that just did recruiting.

And, I think that their sole purpose for six months was to convince me that I would not like recruiting. I wouldn't be successful, and they almost got to my head. But the difference between me and them is that I could sit with an executive, a banking executive and talk about, you know, the size of the portfolio, yield spread, about the changes in the market, all that business stuff.

And then also, because I used to manage, I knew where to go and find the people. So just like that, I just kind of progressed and it's been a fun ride. I've done a lot of banking recruiting. There's nothing in the bank that I haven't recruited for. I've done some tech recruiting for a tech firm, and did some healthcare recruiting, but now I manage a fantastic group of 28 people that keep me on my toes and keep me innovating. So, like I said, it's been a fun journey. 

Max: Yeah, recruitment it's kind of like where people end up, after sales hasn't worked out for some people, but  there is a wonderful element of delivering someone, a career, a stepping stone, a next step. But in your case, you know, your timing was pretty good. Right? Getting out of mortgages in 2007. 

Trent: Oh gosh! It was providential, very. And you know, that was the other thing that I realized, that I loved sales and at the end of the day, that's all recruiting is. Just like a salesperson you need to have a pipeline, you need to manage a portfolio of talent, and you've got to be able to close a deal working with both your internal client and the candidate.

So at the end of the day, we are salespeople. I just think a little bit more highly refined. And what we do  it's harder, because it's not like I'm trying to sell you a TV or sell you a product. I'm selling you an opportunity. And there's a certain level of domains and intelligence that I think is paramount for somebody to be successful.

But I agree with you, whenever I'm looking for people to add to the team, the first thing I look for is, do they have that sales mentality? And that portfolio management and development of a pipeline? And if they have all of that, I can teach them the rest. 

Max: Well, I'm a startup CEO of building talent acquisition software. And when people asked me: How do we innovate? My answer is maybe a little bit uninspiring, but it's like, we just look at what sales and marketing does, and we know that it's coming into recruitment in three, four years from now. So we start building it now and we’ll be alright. And continuing on your sales analogy, you know, you were saying, that recruitment is sales. Which I agree with.

In the sales universe, the size of the deal that you make will affect the composition of your team and the marketing to sales mix. How much are you doing marketing? You're going to do more marketing with products that are a little bit cheaper. And you're going to do more sales, more hand holding when the product is a little bit more expensive.

And so, if we apply that to recruitment, you know, the sort of white glove recruiting service would only work up until a certain level, and then for everything else you would have to have a different workflow, and a different sales to marketing mix. Does that apply for you at BBVA? 

Trent: It does. It does. So we've got the high volume on the branch side and then we've got the professional and executive, and even within the professional executive side, we've got kind of entry-level positions. So usually if I bring someone in, maybe they were a banker, and they want to get into recruiting or HR. I'll take them on and either have them work in retail, which is high volume, or kind of a higher volume on the professional and executive side. That way they can get used to all the things that as recruiters  we've got to be aware of. 

The HR laws, what to do, what not to do, to build up a process. And then as they progress, and as they learn to source, and as they develop that acumen, to me, there is a different level for the level of search that I work on versus someone that's working on maybe a mid level. There's not a lot. I mean, at its core, it's the same, but how I have to go about it is a little bit trickier. Because most of the time, if you're trying to get an executive, there's a different type of wooing that you do than someone that's a middle executive, you know, to me it's just a different rapport. So, it's almost like, of course sales is not a good idea.

Because I was trying to think of, how would you market it? But I do think that maybe core sales is kind of your run in the middle basic model. There's a client out there for it, and you need to market it to them, specifically to that audience. But if I'm selling Bentleys or something like that, I have a totally different target market. Totally different networking. And that's a different level of client, a different ego that I have to deal with versus someone that's just coming in and: Hey! I just need a car. It doesn't have to be new. You know, it doesn't have to have even powered windows. It just needs to crank and to get me where I need to go.

So, it's all about knowing your audience. And I think at the core, that's what sales is all about. Knowing your audience and being able to find the right need for them at the right time. 

Max: You and I have a commercial brand. And so, if we ever start looking for a job, you and I Trent, I mean we're just going to use our sales experience. Right? We're going to start looking into our network and like finding the job that's right for us. At the level that you're describing, you know, these kinds of bank executives, I would assume that they would also be able to like, find their own jobs to a certain degree. Do you find that to be the case or, you still need to do a lot of hunting?

Trent: I still need to do a lot of hunting. They can go and  find their own job if they want to, because it's a very tight knit network at the top. The difference is that sometimes they're so busy or they're so entrenched with their own company, that my job is just to get them to lift their head up and say, okay, is there something else that you might want to do?

Or are there competencies that you're doing in your current job that could be transferred over into this job that you never even knew existed? Or an area that you never even thought about exploring? So, a lot of mine is selling them on the opportunity. And then once I sell them, then I've got to evaluate them and make sure that they qualify. Where I think it's a little bit on the flip side, on the entry level, you don't necessarily have to sell them on the job. It's making sure that they meet the qualifications, that they are a good cultural fit, and that it's the right time for them to make a move. And then you sell them on the brand. So it's a different sales process in my opinion, or at least that is what I've seen.

Max:  Well, I'm thinking  you might start something in there. I had a career shift and they may not end up working for you, but they may still take you up on your advice, if you do it well. That could be like a side metric. What you could start tracking is: How many of those people we’re having conversations with we’ve managed to influence their career?

I went off track but, you were saying before we got started. You were talking about the AI and ML, transformation initiatives that you're working on. In my company, we apply AI mostly to engage with candidates at the front of the funnel and answer their question and direct them to the right opportunity. And then pre-screen them. In your world of managers and above, how can you apply AI there? 

Trent: That's interesting. because you know, you and I kind of geeked out a little bit about AI and ML prior to talking and the first bias. If we were talking about this 18 months ago and I brought AI and ML up to maybe senior management and said: Hey! this is something I want to do.

I would have to get over the first hurdle of explaining what it was, and explaining the efficiencies. So fast forwarding to today, they understand the efficiencies, but the questions you just asked is the first hurdle that I have to jump because they go, well, what if a senior executive applies to a role and they get this AI thing?

You know, that's not the kind of experience that we want for them. And I mean, it all depends on the product. I've seen some products that are incredible, you know, whenever you interact with them,  you actually forget that you're dealing with an AI. You know? 

So dealing, I guess I struggle because most of the time that there is... Once you get to a certain level, having people applying to that. Yeah,  it's very rare and I guess maybe I'm so cynical that whenever they do apply, I'm going, okay, what are you running from? You know, I kind of like the thrill of the chase, but most of the time we're going out and bringing that talent in. And we can actually introduce them and say: Hey, there's going to be an AI that's going to ask you some followup questions. It can also answer any of the frequently asked questions about benefits, you know, any kind of onboarding stuff.  So it gives them an extra layer of that white glove treatment that's available 24/7.

Max: I like that. Yeah. It's easy to think that just because somebody has got 10 or 15 years of experience, that they have all the answers, but they've just probably got as many questions  as the juniors. And they, you know, they may be even.. The juniors would ask the question because you know, they don't know. And vice versa where somebody a little more experienced might be a little bit embarrassed to ask. But the questions are just as important. So the AI then would service the same. You know, primarily a candidate experience and engagement layer, to prepare them for the possibility of working at your company.

Trent: Yes, definitely because it's still part of the branding experience.  And that's the thing that's been so impressive to me, doing some demos with AI assistants. Just trying to kind of explore over the next 12 to 24 months: How can we as an organization implement this, to increase the efficiency, but also enhance that candidate experience?

And I think that whenever people are talking about AI and trying to sell it internally, or even whenever the companies come out to me, and want to do a demo. You know, I always say, you know, do you ever bring up the fact that this is a fantastic candidate experience? You're missing a golden opportunity if you're not, because that's a huge selling point for me.

In my mind, I own the candidate experience for everyone who applies with my firm. If I have an AI out there, that's constantly showing them videos, you know, messages, and maybe they started the application process and they stopped because they need to go cook dinner or something like that. And that assistant goes and continues to engage them. 

That in my mind is a fantastic experience for the candidate, but it also creates so much efficiency for my team. Because I cannot wait for the day that the 20 people on my team come in and they have a day that's been booked for them while they were asleep or enjoying their family. The job just posted, that AI goes in and parses out the necessary information sources internally, and externally evaluates them. Once they're ranked, you know, we've set up a minimum limit so that anybody that makes 85 and above, AI goes ahead and books them on my calendar. I mean, how cool would it be?

You know, to think that, 10 years ago, this was just like farfetched, but we're in the grass of being able to have recruiters come in and have seven or eight qualified. I mean, not just qualified candidates booked, but also to be able to have a 360 view outside of the resume. I mean, it's just absolutely intoxicatingly exciting.

Max: I wasn't a recruiter like you in 2005. And I don't know what attracted you to... 

Trent: We didn't have Google! When I arrived here we didn't have google! Yeah, I heard some of my new team members. They were like, this googling stuff is so hard! I was like, Oh good God. I had a phone book. I remember getting new jobs, because we had a large footprint, and so part of my intake was asking them to send me a phone book. So that way I could cold call some of the realtors to get mortgage bankers, or some of the banks, or whatever. And you know, now you've got all kinds of things that provide all kinds of contact. I mean, it's sitting right there and it's just mind boggling to me, the transformation that has been done in 10 - 15 years. 

Max: Yeah. Yeah. And then that adrenaline and dopamine hit that you used to get from finding a profile that might be a good fit. But, I do think that that's going to phase out over the years because sourcing will be more and more automated and that dopamine hit will have to come from a later point in the process, which will be, yeah, the candidate expresses an interest, says, yeah, I'm going to take the offer. I don't know. It'll come just a little bit further probably, because the volumes  are just constantly increasing. The easy access of data is increasing. And I imagine that your bank has also experienced an increase in applicants over the last few months. You're tracking that?

Trent: It's been rather steady. Believe it or not. You know,  in the U.S the impact of Coronavirus has been… It depends on the market. You know, we have some markets that... they aren't like Corona doesn't even exist, it's business as usual. And then we have others that were hotspots. 

Max: And Georgia was a little bit like that. 

Trent: Yeah,  Atlanta we got to shut down, I think  three or four times under like an executive order. And I think it was a fun two weeks where the governor said the state's reopened and our mayor goes. Nah! And so there were like all kinds of means, but, you know, what is it? Our dad said I could go outside, and our mayor is female, but mama said no. The rest of Georgia was out traveling and the rest of us, you know, in Atlanta, we were just locked down.

Max:  How confusing! You know, mommy and daddy arguing. 

Trent: Oh yeah. So it was quite fun just to kind of sit back and watch, but we're starting to see candidate flow increase a little bit, but we did not really see a major impact in the amount of candidates. What we have seen as an impact is in some of the critical areas that we need to hire, the marketers became so incredibly competitive.

In the banking world, from an economic standpoint, in the U.S, mortgage is hot right now! And I mean, an underwriter in the U.S, a mortgage underwriter could just about name their price. And if they're good, a bank will pay out and probably give them a bonus. And that's some of the compression that we're seeing in the U.S, not the applicant flow. We're really having to go out on the hunt, and we can find people who are qualified, but then we're competing in things that sometimes are... I mean, I've seen offers and I just go: What? They are offering what? You know, how is that bank even making money? So there's a little bit of a frenzy and some of the key competencies. 

Max: Yeah, I have certainly heard a number of sectors where the volumes have gone down, like in retail, and in healthcare, and where people don't want to come to a physical office for health concerns.

Trent: Right. 

Max: And I think that there's also limited mobility because people are, you know, kind of looking for safety and security and so less likely to hop jobs right now, which may limit your ability to do your work. Right? 

Trent: Very, very.  

Max: Hoping it will get a little bit more rosy post-election.

Trent: Yes, yes. We'll see after the election. And then I think we'll see it after the first of the year. But the thing for us is, you know, kind of how we do recruiting. Corona was a fantastic stress test for us. Because it was working. We had just rolled it out throughout the entire bank and then Corona came and it really forced our clients to rank in terms of priority, which jobs are most critical over the two week period.

And so I guess that's why I stumbled a little bit about candidate flow and all of that, because  how we view metrics are completely different because of how we recruit. So, whenever I'm on. You know, certainly whenever I'm talking to people in TA, you know, they go, what's your time to fill? And I'm like, I don't know. It's not, I mean, we measure it, but it's not, it's not the driving metric. And it's, especially if we're on video, I like to kind of watch their mind, it's almost like looking at a computer, you see the little time clock turning. It's like they're trying to process, wait, time to fill.  You don't even look at it? No, we don't. We look at the priority roles and how many we close within the priority, or excuse me, within the sprint. 

What we found in, I think it was 2018. You know, I've been in recruiting since 2004, and it was one of the first times since I got into recruiting that I actually stopped. And I said, am I doing what I need to be doing? You know, is this really? Am I passionate about this anymore? You know, I was dealing, I was managing a smaller team at the time. I was dealing with the same customer comments. You're not getting enough candidates. Not enough qualified candidates. It has taken too long to fill. And then, you know, the recruiters are going, the managers aren't doing this. And I felt more like a daycare owner than I did, you know, a team lead for a recruiter. And about that time, our bank was going through an agile transformation. So I got to spend a week learning the Kanban, or Kanban depends on how you want to say it. Learning that process.

Max: I don't speak Japanese.

Trent: Yeah? haha.

Max: So applying Kanban to recruiting, right? Sorry I interrupted.

Trent: Applying  Kanban to recruiting. So that was kind of our beta, but then I went through the agile methodology training for about a week and a half and listened to Jeff Sutherland's book on Scrum. And I was doing like a four or five hour drive and I was listening to the book and there were so many times I went, Holy shit. There it is. You know, that's what I've been looking for! 

And so as a group, we identified that there were four pitfalls in traditional recruiting. Everything's a priority, which means nothing's a priority, the lack of feedback, the over analysis, paralysis, FOMO, whatever you want to call it. Whatever the hiring managers have that makes them want to interview 25 people for, you know, an hourly job.

We were also misaligned with our client, because there were so many times I'll sit down with the executive and go, we filled 48 jobs in two weeks. Or, you know, 48 jobs last month. And on average you only have 16 openings. Why are you complaining? Well, those weren't the most critical ones. Well, how do we know which was critical, which wasn't? So there was a lot of misalignment. 

And then two, we instituted WIP limits. So work in progress limits. And what that did is that it allowed us to be able to kind of keep that process going. So now whenever our team comes in, they've got a dashboard, they're open regs. Every two weeks we meet with them.  We call them sprint owners, product owners, whatever, they can be the executive for a line of business or their designated.

Max: But its not. A sprint owner is not going to be, someone from your team. It'll be the hiring manager, typically. 

Trent: It's the client, the client drives the priority.

Max:  Yeah. Makes sense.

Trent: So, the four principles are feedback, is kinda like the gas in the car, it keeps the process going. WIP limits, keeps us focused. And then the business drives and the priority. And what we do is we, you know, I'll sit down and go: Hey, Max! Your entire department, you've got 20 openings. And we're going to go… The other thing that we instituted of course, was a sprint. It forces a lot of efficiency. So, Max, you've got 25 positions, you've got a hundred points or a hundred dollars, whatever you want, however you want to think about it. Over the next two weeks. What is mission critical in terms of jobs that I've got to fill? 

And so what you'll do is you'll go through, you've got 25 jobs. You can't do like four, four, four, four, because we won't let you, we usually say we need at least two jobs that equal, you know, North of 35 or 40 points. So that way, we're forcing them to say, what is most critical? And so you'll go through and you'll prioritize. Now those that are without points, we still work them, but it's in order, we're going to work that, you know, the 50 pointer first. The 15 next, and then the next 10’s and then 5’s. And then once we have everything going in the right way there, then we move on to the others that don't have points. 

So as a recruiter, I can come in and I can look at my dashboard and let's say, I'll cover seven different divisions, and it can be incredibly overwhelming. For each of those seven divisions I know what their priorities are, and it's already stacked up on my report. And so what I'll do is, I'll look at my 50 pointer.  Where am I in that? And so that's where the WIP or work in progress limits come into play. So we created three different swim lanes. The recruiter interview sourcing lane, the hiring manager submitted being, I just submitted your resume. I'm waiting on feedback. And then the hiring manager interview. 

And so what our goal is, is to have a max of five interviews with the manager, five waiting on them to have some kind of feedback, and then maybe have two or three in my back pocket. Once I hit that WIP limit on that 50 pointer, I move on to my next one.

And so whenever COVID hits, you know, we shut down our branches to drive through only, and a branch manager. You know, we did that for, I think, about a month and a half. And. It was interesting to me because this is high volume and we came to a screeching halt, but it really forced the executive to say, okay, I need a minimum of four people in that office for it to run this office over here has two. This office over here has three. So this one is a 50, that one's a 40, and the recruiters were able to spend more time on the critical roles than just trying to take some easy hits. 

Max: It would have taken them three, four months to adapt to the new normal.

Trent: Easily! 

Max:  With this advance it was clear, you know. How do we keep the lights on, and change everything real fast to change the priorities without having to hold every project? Trying to centralize the decision-making. 

Trent: Yeah, but what's cool is that we didn't change the priority. Our client owns that priority. Our job is to execute on it. And so I always tell the team, the point is to define success in the eyes of the client. So what we do is we'll track, you know, what percentage of points do we get? So if the budget's a hundred and we closed 45, of course, it's 45%. We want to see an increase sprint over sprint. And if it decreases. Then that's where, I mean, nobody can hide in sprint.

So, if we've hit our WIP limit and the managers have not given us 48 hours, or they have not given us feedback in 48 hours. We have rules of engagement where we go to the client and say, you are becoming an obstacle. How do we work together and get this done? Same thing on my side. Yeah. If an executive calls and says, you know, we don't have any candidates.

If I look and I see that we're at our WIP limit and I go: No, we actually do! Have you talked to your manager? This is what I'm showing. Or, yeah, you know, you're right. That's a 50 pointer, I need to get with, you know, Susie Q who's a recruiter, and find out what's wrong, is there a sourcing issue with the candidate flow? Do you need more resources?

So we were able to move quicker, of course more agile. It's kind of cliche to say, but we were a lot more flexible. So in our critical areas that had a huge hiring volume, we had others that were normally kind of our main stage. They had stopped hiring and they were kind of violating budget. I was quickly able to move a lot of resources over and make sure that we were able to keep that level of client service that we want.

And for the most part, we have a couple of glitches, but for the most part, it worked. And the thing that I loved is watching. Yeah. Cause all 28 people report directly to me, which can seem overwhelming if you look at it in an old chart, but it's not because they'll look as a team where are the points? And if I've got capacity, I'm going to reach out to Veronica. Hey, are there any sprints, any jobs that have points that you don't have time for that I can take? And then they take it and they run with it. And so there were several times I'm in one on one. Yeah, yeah. So that to me has created a lot of efficiency.

So now my eyes are going even more so to the AI ML, and looking at products and saying: how can we increase that funnel of candidates? Do it by eliminating the bias? Which is one of the things I love about AI, is removing that bias that all of us have. So increasing that funnel, but then also increasing that candidate experience and thus increasing the efficiency of our recruiting team. So to me it's just like hand in hand. You can't have one without the other. 

Max: If operations are running, and the clients are kept happy then you've bought yourself some room to do automation and to reinvent your process next year. And  that makes a lot of sense. 

It sounds like you have a lot more to say on this sprints recruiting, and this means applying the agile. I myself have been thinking about different environments where we could apply it outside of the banking world, and how it would be adapted, maybe even in a high volume recruitment situation where clients are of a different nature, perhaps.

We can have a follow up discussion on this topic, if you're interested, but in the meantime, working people could work in finding out more about the sprint recruiting methodology. Do you have some, some visual resources, that you can send them to?  

Trent:  Absolutely. So they can connect with me on LinkedIn. It's really easy. and, I've got a blog out there, blog website,, and I share a lot of bots, you know, things that we've discovered... Yeah, you know, I try. And I'm actually, I'm writing a book and my goal… If I keep up with everything that I should be doing, I should have, in the editor's hands, the first part of December and ready to release in January.

But to your point, I've actually talked to a lot of companies outside of banking, and you know, they ask: How can you apply it? And, you know, is it the same? So for me, It's kind of a curiosity of going, okay, well this works here. I wonder if it works in a different industry? So, you know, I'm kind of doing some consulting on the side with them. You know, just how do they implement it? And try to understand their recruiting process. And for me, it's fun because I also learn how somebody outside of, you know, I've worked in other industries, but you know, how does healthcare takes sprint recruitment and apply it? But then, what is healthcare doing that maybe we should do?

You know there are some things that, you know, some complexities that they have that we don't, and they're able to get around it. How? And, how can we apply that competency, here at the bank? So to me, it's just fun. I like to geek out whenever it talks about talent acquisition, you know, the leadership development within TA and of course, AI and ML.

Max: Let's book another call, another interview to talk about the idiosyncrasies of hiring heads and hiring managers in different industries and the different ways that they can make us miserable. 

Trent:  Yeah.

Max: Trent, thanks for sharing on the sprint recruiting methodology. And guys, you can connect on, if I got that right, and on LinkedIn, Trent Cotton. And, looking forward to reconnecting, Trent. 

Trent:  All right. Sounds great. Thank you so much, Max. 

Max: That was Trent Cotton from BBVA, telling us about sprint and recruiting.

And you could practically feel the excitement, the fact that there was too much to communicate in a 30 minute window. So I hope we'll get Trent back on the show, and I hope you investigate this sprint recruiting concept and how it can apply to your world. If you enjoyed it, subscribe and share. We look forward to seeing you back on the recruitment hackers space!

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