Want to Create Better Recruitment Campaigns? Use your Beginner’s Mind.

Aug 3, 2021

Curiosity is underrated. MACLYN creative Troy Kelleher talks Zen and the art of talent attraction.


Has anyone else noticed that talent attraction is looking more and more like a high-anxiety game of Hungry Hungry Hippos?

As the economy continues to rebuild, organizations in most industries—from small businesses to major corporations, nonprofits and governments—are scrambling to gobble up the best talent. The pool is shrinking. And, as often happens in late-game Hungry Hungry Hippos, some players are getting desperate. They’re willing to try anything: flashy ads, bold and sometimes bizarre perks, ziplines that whisk employees from the conference room to the kitchen, etc.

Personally, I think they need some Zen.

Beginner’s Mind

In Zen practice, there’s a concept called “Beginner’s Mind.” It’s as simple as it sounds: When you practice Beginner’s Mind, you drop all pretensions, assume that you know nothing, and approach a subject with fresh eyes. You look at something, maybe something you know very well—or think you know very well—and act as though you’ve never seen it before.

When you see a toddler stumbling through the supermarket, gazing up at the cereal section with genuine awe, THAT’S Beginner’s Mind. As we get older and our brains get crammed with more stuff, many of us spend less and less time in Beginner’s Mind. That’s a shame, because, in addition to making life more fun, it can be a powerful and useful tool.

I’ve never heard anyone at MACLYN use the term, but I think it describes one of the things we do best, especially when it comes to innovating recruiting/talent attraction campaigns.

If you have a few minutes, I’d like to tell you a little bit about how our team uses Beginner’s Mind. Maybe you can use it to build better campaigns, too.

Applying the mindset

talent recruitment

Beginner’s Mind can help you create messaging for your campaign that resonates with your audience and has a higher probability of getting them to do what you want them to do.

When it comes to messaging, recruitment marketing is, in my experience, tougher than other kinds of marketing. What makes it so hard is that A.) you’re trying to have a real conversation with a professional about their field, and you may or may not be intimately familiar with that field; and B.) you’re trying to convince this perfect stranger to make a MAJOR life choice! You’re looking them in the eyes and saying: “You should take this job,” or “You should move your family here.” That’s a bold thing to say! And if you’re going to tell this person to take a job or move to a different city, you better know your sh*t. You better know all the logical reasons for why they should do what you want them to do. But that’s not enough. You also have to know the emotional reasons. And, to top it all off, you have to know how to present your message in a way that feels authentic. The last thing you want is for this person to look at your campaign and say: “OK, this was made by some nerd in a marketing office.” It has to feel real!

That’s true for any marketing campaign. If you’re marketing donuts, you should know the logical reasons why a person would buy your donut (low price, freshness, good taste) as well as the emotional reasons (because it feels good, because you deserve this, because you’re the kind of person who knows how to treat yourself). Everyone knows that. Anyone who has eaten a donut and enjoyed it can speak to the logical and emotional reasons a person should eat one.

However, when it comes to recruitment marketing, you probably haven’t actually experienced your target market’s job—or, even if you have, maybe that was years ago and things have changed. But that’s no excuse for bad messaging; you still have to find a way to speak truth.

Kitchen Confidential

If you want to speak truth about something, you have to live it. Or, if that’s not an option, you have to spend a good amount of time learning from people who do live it. Anyone can speak truth to the experience of donut-eating. But can you speak truth to the experience of being a chef? Not unless you’ve been a chef. Can you speak truth to the experience of being a neurosurgeon? Not unless you’ve been a neurosurgeon. Can you speak truth to the experience of being a world-class hula hooper? Not unless…

talen recruitment

You get the point. The mistake that some people make when approaching a recruitment campaign is assuming that they know what really matters to their target market (chefs, neurosurgeons, donut-makers, etc.) without actually spending time talking to the people and studying the work.

This is a form of Expert’s Mind, and it’s basically the knowledgeable but narrow-minded counterpart of Beginner’s Mind. In Expert’s Mind, you approach a subject with the assumption that you know all about it, probably because you’ve done a lot of Googling (Expert’s Mind is rampant in the Google Era) or you’ve been in close proximity to your target market.

In 2007, Anthony Bourdain published this fantastic memoir/confessional called Kitchen Confidential. It blew people away. The book has a lot of, um, unsavory details about what goes on back in the kitchen, but what really came as a surprise was Bourdain’s deep dive into the psychology of a line cook—what it really feels like to be caught between a flatiron, a steamer and a psychopathic head chef with a cleaver in hand. Before the book came out, everyone basically knew what a line cook did; everyone dined at restaurants; and, therefore, everyone assumed that they had a rough idea of what it was like to be a cook. And then Bourdain presented them with something completely unrecognizable: this bizarre, complicated, horrifying and oddly beautiful depiction of the culture, the language, the mentality—in other words the experience of being a cook. People were dumbstruck.

Hearing the music

Just because I know what a person does at work doesn’t mean that I have any idea what the experience is like. If I approach a talent attraction campaign with a know-it-all attitude, an Expert’s Mind, I run the risk of creating a campaign that’s cold and generic. Maybe my facts are correct, but the tone feels off and the voice isn’t authentic—there’s nothing insider about it. Or maybe it’s just plain wrong.

One way our team practices Beginner’s Mind is by sitting down and talking with our target market, sometimes for a really long time. The key is that we’re talking to the actual targets. Talking to the C-suite execs is one thing—and we do that, too—but you only get the really juicy, revealing information about the job, the industry, the culture, the language, etc., when you get to know the people you’re trying to recruit.

If you’re running a campaign to attract line cooks, don’t just talk to the manager. Sit down and talk to the cooks. Maybe their manager could tell you the same ‘facts’ about the job as the cooks, but you’re missing something essential until you hear how the cooks say it. It’s amazing how much information can be contained in a single phrase or gesture.

Of course, you’ll never really know what it’s like to be a line cook until you’ve been one. But, by sitting down and listening to these pros talk about what they do, you can pick up the music of their voice, and, as you put together your campaign, you can play those songs again and again.

Forever beginner

talent recruitment

Based on what I’ve described, you might be thinking that we only use Beginner’s Mind at the beginning of our process, when we’re building the campaign. Not so. In fact, we’re constantly tapping into Beginner’s Mind, even when we think we know exactly what we’re doing (especially when we think we know exactly what we’re doing).

When it comes to talent attraction, you often have to tweak the messaging or the tactics mid-campaign because your audience’s priorities have shifted, or some big event shakes up the industry—or, honestly, because you didn’t get the messaging right on the first go-around, which happens to the best of us.

At MACLYN, one of the things that makes our work really effective is that we’re always listening to what the results are trying to tell us. We gather all the data, lay it out on the table, look at it with fresh eyes, and say, “Okay, this part is REALLY working. This part? Not so much. Let’s tweak that.”

By approaching our work with Beginner’s Mind, we see things that an Expert’s Mind would miss. That’s really valuable for us and, of course, our clients.

Want to touch base?

We hope this little insight-appetizer helps you build a better recruitment campaign. Looking for some extra help? Our team has partnered with numerous businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations to create and execute successful recruitment marketing campaigns. In the past, we’ve made recruitment/talent-attraction campaigns for West Monroe Partners, Choose DuPage, Avanade, and Balance Autism, among others. Give us a shout-out if you want to talk turkey.

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