Rich Cho is talent acquisition platform Gem’s new CRO. But he’s not in charge of revenue. He’s the chief recruiting officer.
On the heels of an all-out brawl for high-skilled tech talent, Cho is beginning amid a cooling in the market. A growing list of tech companies are announcing they will not only slow down hiring, but freeze it as the market continues to slump and layoffs continue. But Cho says he’s not worried.
The 20-plus-year recruiting veteran has worked through a total of three economic downturns over the course of his career, which has spanned some of the hottest hyper-growth tech companies including eBay, Facebook and, most recently, Robinhood. He spoke with Protocol about why now it is still more important than ever to have someone in leadership focused on recruiting and hiring. Cho advises that slowing down can produce a more thoughtful and productive hiring process, but companies should still be as responsive to candidates as possible. And when it comes to hiring at a startup, recruiting is the most strategic thing you can do right now.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What attracted you to working at Gem and jumping into this role that's similar to your prior roles, but has a very different title?
One thing you'll find about companies at an early stage is that recruiting is the most strategic thing they can do when they don't have a brand and they're really building out the organizations from the ground up. So recruiting leaders, like myself, are one of the most strategic executives on the team. And over time, as a brand gets established and the recruiting flywheel gets moving, recruiting then becomes more of a service organization. What drove me to Gem is that Gem had said that recruiting will remain strategic in perpetuity, as long as we're around and growing. That's something that was the most attractive to me.
What are the responsibilities and new focuses of a chief recruiting officer?
The new types of responsibilities tend to be around helping our executive staff make really important decisions. When it comes to things like location strategy … that is a vigorous debate that's happening in the market today. Companies like Airbnb are announcing that they're full time remote. The founder felt that that's not only the wave of the future, but that's where you're going to get the most candidates — you have more optionality with candidates. Now, we're not quite sure if that's right or wrong based on the data, but that's a really important strategic decision that the C-team has to make. And the role that's new in the CRO title is that I have an opportunity to help facilitate that discussion and come up with a proper decision that impacts the company long term.
What are some of the KPIs that you're going to be paying attention to in order to know you're being effective in this role?
I think it first has to start with the core metrics that allow us to determine whether or not the recruiting is moving forward in the right direction. These are simple things like conversion metrics, from when we originally engage a candidate to how successfully we're able to close them. But from that core set of data, we can now do more insightful analyses around, you know, is there a correlation between how quickly we hired them to how often they accepted an offer? There are other bits of data that are also really important in that funnel.
And last but not least, a whole new field of data that allows us to then ask the really difficult questions around: Are we hiring in the same way that tech has been hiring in the past? Or do we have any insights that indicate that we can be more innovative in the selection process so that we can welcome in candidates from non-traditional backgrounds that would help to increase our company's overall diversity as a result of that? That's going to be the heart of what allows us to not only create a more efficient and effective recruiting system, but allows me in my role to facilitate proper conversations at the C-suite so that we can make decisions that impact the company's culture and the growth of the company long term.
Oftentimes when it comes down to just trying to get people into a role, a lot of diversity and hiring initiatives are the first things to go out the window. From your experience, how do you keep that from happening, and what do you keep top of mind to make sure that you're still connecting with a diverse array of candidates?
Speed will always have some level of detrimental impact. The main reason for that is because of the fact that the way we've been selecting [hires] has been codified for decades. We have a certain set of questions that we put a lot of trust into and so as a result that's going to produce a more homogenized outcome.
What the teams that I have been a part of have attempted to do is set up an experiment to see if there are certain sets of questions that folks from traditional backgrounds — meaning the same colleges or companies that you're used to hiring from — how are they performing against those that do not come from the same colleges and companies that [you] are used to hiring from? Then you start to ask yourself what’s the efficacy of those actual questions, and if they're not effective, can you change them or replace them with something that actually is a much better indicator for success?
Those things by proxy slow down the process a little bit. In today's environment, there might be an argument to be made that hiring thoughtfully is the right strategy over hiring as fast as you can in a frenzied environment. You start to bring in a selection process that, in my opinion, actually produces better results. So you start to go slow only to go faster at the back end of [the hiring process].
What do you think hiring looks like, especially as it relates to diversity, in a time when tech hiring is possibly slowing down over the next several months?
Now is the absolute best time to focus on creating better processes, more objective processes, and increasing efficiency. I've been through three recessions in my professional career and as a result, I know recruiting is going to rebound. And in many cases, when it rebounds, it rebounds aggressively because the first staff to be cut tends to be on the recruiting side, and then you don't have enough resources to sort of dig out of it. But companies that actually prepare and create better efficiency during this time end up in a much more advantageous and competitive position. This is also the time when you can invest in those experiments that I just mentioned.
The hardest part about actioning true change in the selection process is to apply some of the things that we're learning philosophically around unconscious bias. Applying that to the questions that we asked and then creating a structure that allows for the interview panel to be more thoughtful around how to call out when certain biases occur or certain things in the hiring process occur. And that takes time, to be able to go through that change management. But now is that time to go through those experiments, go through that full transformation, and at the same time also instrumenting more thorough [and] more efficient recruiting practices.
During the 2008 recession you were at eBay and then Facebook. What lessons did you take from working in recruiting during prior downturns that you’re keeping in mind right now?
It was a tale of two companies. EBay was directly impacted based on the recession that we were moving into, whereas Facebook was a less-than-500-person startup that was really gaining a lot of momentum. The key to Facebook's success was to bring in the best talent that they could to get through that very transitional period of growth. So while companies like Google were pulling back hiring and laying people off, recruiters [at Facebook] were on the back end bringing them in as aggressively as possible.
So the three lessons that I'll say is that in this environment every company has an advantage to being able to bring in top talent that aligns to their mission. It requires a lot of work around building a strong talent brand message that addresses why that company would be great for any candidates aligned to their mission and values. Talk about why that company is still growing in this period of recession or slowing down hiring. And then, obviously, market that appropriately. So that's point number one.
Point number two, as companies start to talk about slowing down, or freezing or laying off hiring, you're going to start to see a lot of the quality of inbound candidates increasing exponentially, because now people are saying, “Okay, well, if my company is not growing, I should probably think about a growth-based company.” So the lesson that I learned is to start to think about how to not only increase talent brand, but also work on a process that allows you to be faster and more responsive to inbound candidates.
And then the third and final one, which is, this is more philosophical. I've seen during down economies people becoming more risk averse. In this period of time, we spent a lot of time at places like Facebook early on talking about why now is the time, especially in an organization that's small, to elevate your career trajectory because you're going to have an outsized impact in your role, your industry or your career … So philosophically, I would highly encourage candidates not to be as risk averse. Obviously, look through the business metrics to make sure the company that they're going to join has solid fundamentals, but now's the time to really think about taking the leap in a high-growth company.
Sounds like you were not nervous at all this morning reading the headlines about the coming slowdown in the tech industry.
I was really excited that we would have an opportunity for amazing talent that would be potentially looking for something new and something different than the companies that have to make some cost-cutting decisions.
That being said, why is it so important with everything going on to have a chief recruiting officer in the C-suite right now?
With the slew of new trends that we're seeing in talent acquisition from remote hybrid work to navigating this new economy, and understanding the role that talent brand plays in really speaking to the heart and passion of candidates, it requires someone that has a seat at the table. Someone that both will be a great counsel to the rest of the C-suite, but also help shepherd great decisions that allow companies to really take advantage of an opportunity where you now will have access to some amazing talent in the market today. And I say that for both startup companies, midsize companies or newly minted unicorns like us. But I also believe this is important for 100-year-old brands to think about how they're going to continue to attract talent in this new talent acquisition market.