Kevin Dunn: "We all just need to relax. I mean, we’re not curing cancer here, we’re filling roles."

December 11th, 2016
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“We all just need to relax. I mean, we’re not curing cancer here, we’re filling roles.”
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Kevin is a rare thing in the business world. He’s one of those souls who appreciate living, and understands that business isn’t life. He’s got a refreshing approach to working hard, but he does it so he can live well. You don’t often find people like that. It’s easy to get so consumed in the business, easy to forget that life is happening outside the walls of your office, and it’s scarily easy to lose perspective. Kevin has managed to hold on to that ever-elusive perspective.

You’re in Baltimore right? (I strongly resist the urge to start singing ‘Good morning Baltimore’ from the top of my voice. Somehow I can’t imagine he’ll appreciate it).

Yeah I am. I started my career in New York, but after 9/11 I came back.

Did you leave New York because of 9/11?

Partially yes. I grew up in Northern Virginia as the eldest of three and my parents were getting older. I thought maybe it was time to go back and be around them a bit more.

Were you worried about your safety after the attacks happened?

Well, it was pretty crazy. They locked the city down, you couldn’t use the phones, it was mayhem. It was pretty scary. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that scared in my life.

I can’t imagine how terrifying that would have been. Did you fear there would be more attacks?

Well it happened at a time when we Americans thought we were invincible. Then we thought, wait a minute, this could happen at any time, to anybody. I don’t know if I worried about it happening in New York specifically, but did I think it could happen anywhere any other place, yes definitely.

We’ve seen it happen in Brussels and Paris and London etc.

I’ve never talked to anyone who moved their life as a result of 9/11.

Yeah well, I was working on Wall Street, which is about ten blocks from the trade center. At the time I was placing administrator professionals and I had been at the Trade Centre a few days before the attacks.

It’s crazy because me and my parents ate brunch at Windows of the World, which is at the top of the trade center. And the week before, I had walked in a candidate on the 23rd floor of Tower two. It was a really strange time for me.

What happened to your candidate?

Unfortunately she didn’t make it.

How did you deal with that?

My thought process was that I can only control the things that I can control. It was terribly sad and it’s something I think about often. What if she didn’t convert there, what if I’d gotten her a different job, what if she was working mid-town vs Wall Street. It was tough.

Do you think it affected how you deal with candidates after that?

I would say it’s given me a broader perspective, but the fundamental way I deal with candidates has always stayed the same.

Well that got really deep, really quickly.

Haha yeah, funny that.

How about an easier question. How many years have you been in recruitment?

Too many. I’m too old to be an astronaut now.

Was that the original dream?

Yeah I think so, when I was about 5.

Well if the recession hits again, and recruitment doesn’t work out, you could always go for it. They say it’s never too late to learn something new.

This is very true.

So you’ve been in the industry since 98, and your business is people. I always think the interesting thing about recruiters is they see humanity at its best and worst. What’s your favorite thing about humanity that you’ve seen?

For me it’s when that candidate that you find a really great job for, reaches back out to you, and lets you know how happy they are. It makes me feel good about what I’m doing.

Does that happen a lot?

HA! No. You get those calls maybe 1 out of 100. As recruiters we don’t expect it, but it’s lovely when it happens.

So what about the negative side of humanity?

Well, people react in a negative way and will get angry at you. But you just have to take those things in your stride.

You’re at Cisco at the minute. What are they like to work for?

It’s interesting. The thing I liked about agency is that you’re working on a variety of roles. By the time I had left I was a director, managing big teams and working on such diverse projects. But I didn’t have corporate experience, and I really wanted that, which is why I made the move to PayPal, and now Cisco.

And how do you feel about corporate life now that you’re in it?

Errmmm…

Love it or hate it?

I think it’s got its pros and cons. There’s certainly a better work life balance on the corporate side. When you’re in agency you’re constantly hustling after the dollar. You’ll take calls at 11pm because a client in San Fran is calling. In corporate you get paid a salary whether you place someone or not.

Do you miss the hustle of agency?

Sometimes I do. I definitely don’t when a candidate bails on a job. I don’t have to freak out then because I’m not thinking, ‘there goes a $20,000 fee.’

For example, I just had a candidate that was due to start with us at Cisco next week, and he got a counter offer from Amazon with a hundred thousand dollar sign on bonus. I just had to move on and find another candidate, but I wasn’t sweating it out as much as I would have been if I was staring down the barrel of a $25,000 placement.

You can’t really compete with a hundred thousand dollar sign on bonus.

Exactly! You don’t even bother, just move on.

I guess he must have been a good candidate for Amazon to do that.

Well it’s interesting because when I was at PayPal I recruited a lot of people from Amazon, and their salaries really aren’t that competitive. But they give people these giant signing bonuses, but you don’t really recognize any of that cash until the third year. And knowing people who work over there, it’s a sweat shop. They work them like dogs.

So I guess all the hype in the press about Amazon is true?

I mean it’s definitely a tough place to work. You have like 3 tiers in the tech worlds. The Googles at the top, then the Amazon’s and PayPals and Yelps, and then the third tier is those mid-size to large organizations that have great work-life balance and you can work from home and telecommute etc.

Business is changing. We’re now more concerned with living then working, whereas once upon a time it was the other way round. If you had to put that into a percentage, what do you think it should be? 50/50?

Honestly, I think it should be 70/30, especially in recruiting. It’s extremely stressful. You have candidates coming at you about jobs, hiring managers coming at you demanding roles be filled, and the tech market is extremely competitive and tough. It gets stressful and you need to have an out. If you ride yourself really hard day in and day out, you’ll burn out and get tired of it. It’s very important to take time for yourself. Take extra days off and recharge your batteries. I mean, we’re not curing cancer over here, we’re filling roles. What we do doesn’t save the world by any means.

You could be recruiting the person that’s curing cancer.

That’s true. But for me, I’m recruiting tech professionals. That candidate that was there on Friday, will still be there on Tuesday.

Cisco have a mission statement about making the world better. So technically, you kind of are making the world a better place.

Yeah, you could say that, everybody contributes to the economy. For me, my goal is to do what’s best for the candidate. But at the end of the day the candidate has to do what’s best for them and their family, and I’m not going to try and force somebody to do things.

Does that happen a lot in recruitment?

Well I’ve worked in agencies where it’s very cut throat and I just don’t operate that way. Some people are very successful like that, but it’s just not me. It’s one of the reasons I left one of the agencies I was working for because it got to a point where they were asking me to do things just to get billings up etc. It’s just not my style.

There’s a lot of discussion about the art of storytelling, and how recruiters need to be storytellers. If your career was a story, what kind of story would it be?

I’m in recruitment so it would obviously be a drama.

Like a big Greek tragedy?

Yeah I think so. There’s always a lot of moving parts, and that’s one of the things I enjoy about this business. Every day is different and can change in a heartbeat. You have to be able to be very fluid. I’m not the type of person that could sit in an office and type data entry for 8 hours. I love interacting with people and having conversations. I love it when people tell me their passions.

I do joke a lot about recruiting, but I’m really passionate about it, and I love it. I think when you find other people, in other verticals, with the same mentality, it makes the business fun, despite the drama.

So if you had to pick a film your career was like, what would it be?

Probably the Goodfellas. There’s a lot of comradery. I’ve worked in the big cities like New York, but in Boston its smaller and there’s a community feel. I know a lot of the recruiters here, I’ve worked with some of them, some of them have been vendors of mine. It’s a tight knit community and the good recruiters all look out for each other.

You’re big on collaboration then?

Of course! If there’s a great candidate I can’t place, I’ll pass that on to a friend at another firm. I believe if you pay that forward, it will come back to you eventually. Sometimes you just need to have blind faith.

What piece of advice would you give to the new graduates going into the business world?

Always be open, honest and direct with every person you meet. Don’t bullshit people. Tell them how you feel about thigs. People can see through when you’re not honest. The truth is sometimes tough to say, but people will always appreciate it more.

What is the worst mistake you’ve ever made in business?

Just one?

Haha yup just one. And I’m asking you this straight after you’ve just told me about being honest so….

Tactical. I was working as a mortgage banker recruiter, and we were recruiting recruiters. A friend of mine was going to come down and run that, so I moved over to this division and it was the worst mistake ever. I was making placements at other offices and not getting payed. I went a good 5 months not getting paid more than my base salary and at the time, my base salary was shit.

So what did you learn from it?

I learnt to take a step back and assess a situation. I had made the move because this guy I knew was going there. He was very successful at Robert Half. Making money hand over fist, and these guys would make a ton of placements a week, then fly to Vegas for a weekend, gamble all weekend, buy a 5 thousand dollar Armani suit, or a Rolex, and then come back to work on Monday morning. He was really successful and kind of convinced me to get into this. I had some doubts but I followed him, a little bit blindly, and it just didn’t turn out well. You know sometimes, you’ve just got to trust your gut.

Did you go to Vegas?

No, I’ve never been.

Really! Even I’ve been to Vegas.

I have what people like to call an addictive personality. If I get to Vegas, I’d probably end up divorced very easily. It would be bad.

So this is self-preservation?

Exactly!

In business there’s generally parts we love and hate. What parts of the business world don’t you like?

I think sometimes business takes a front seat to a lot of things in life. We all want to live in a bigger house, buy a better car etc., and sometimes you let that success that you’re trying to attain overshadow what’s really important in life. Family and friends, are the things that really matter. I mean, you can always get another job.

What is the most important thing in life for you?

Family. And that includes good friends who are like your family. You can’t replace that. You can replace almost anything else, but that.

So basically we all just need to chill out a bit when it comes to business?

Exactly! It’s time to relax. Everything else will be there the next day. We’ve all had people who have passed way too early in life, and maybe we forgot to say something because we were too wrapped up. Or you forgot to tell your friends or family that you love them.

So perhaps your advice to millennials would be don’t take it all so seriously? 

Yeah well millennials are a whole different conversation. But at the end of the day yes, you have to look at what’s important. And one of the things the millennials have over us is that they don’t take it so seriously. But then again, sometimes I feel like they don’t take it seriously at all, which is very frustrating.

Do you think they care less?

I don’t deal with a ton of millennials, but I’ve had candidates that are looking for $130,000 a year and they’re straight out of school with no experience. I mean, I was on $27,000 when I left school.

So they just need to bring it down a peg or two?

Yes!

But they’re a very entitled bunch, they expect the world.

Yeah, and I don’t mean to say that in a broad brush way. There’s a number of them that are really smart and deserve what they get. But a lot of them are very confident, and I would say, just be a bit more humble.

I don’t think humble is something you find much of in our industry.

If at all.

If you had to use three words to describe your job, what would they be?

Challenging. Exciting. Frustrating.

People are essentially the most frustrating entities ever.

People in our business, that are good at what they do, are able to navigate those challenges. You’ve got to be able to talk to people at C-suite level. One of the things I learnt early on in my career when talking to these guys was that, yes they’re in a high position and deserve that, but honestly, it doesn’t make them a better person than me. They’re just in a different place.

Who’s your role model?

It’s going to sound very clichéd and cheesy, but my dad. I was adopted when I was very young, and they didn’t think my mom could have kids but I ended up having two sisters. My dad, who’s a judge and an attorney and started his own law firm, would get up at 4:30 every day and go to work, but he was always home for dinner and home when we got back and very engaged. Every night before dinner he and I would play chess. I respect the fact that he worked as hard as he did so that we could enjoy a lot of things others couldn’t.

Are you a chess master now then?

Ha, I wouldn’t say a master, but I can hold my own. Chess is a very interesting game, and it requires a lot of thought. You have to think two or three moves ahead. I need to formulate answers to objections that haven’t come up yet. I think chess helped me think a couple of steps ahead, and successful people in recruiting are able to do that.

So maybe all recruiters should learn to play chess.

You know what, I’m all for that.

Can you tell me something about yourself that no one knows?

The first concert I ever went to was MC Hammer

Haha, how was that? (I resist the urge, again, to start singing ‘can’t touch this).

It was amazing. I would go to that concert again right now.

Still a fan then?

Definitely. I can be quite insecure about myself, and shy, so it’s good to go to things like that and let lose.

How do you get past being shy in an industry built on talking to everyone?

I laugh and joke around, and have a good time. I try to take a step back and think about what life is about. It’s about enjoying your family and friends, and your wife. A lot of times people get so caught up in trying to make more money, buy more things and do more, and that’s not what it’s all about. Sometimes you just need to get out and say, I’m going to Key West, or I’m going to take a trip with my wife to New Orleans. Eat some great food, drink some great wine, and enjoy each other’s company. That’s what it’s about.

And just like that, Kevin Dunn instills hope in me that we’re not all working our lives away, and that there’s a big beautiful world out there, and we just need to go and enjoy it more.

Would you like to work in recruitment in London?