The ATLAS Journal

Matt Bartoloni on Recruiting and Building a Niche in China

Over four years in Beijing, Matt emerged as one of the city’s most successful foreign recruiters, working with several top international recruiting firms before moving into the education industry for an in-house role with EF.  Before leaving EF and Beijing to return to the U.S., he was the leading recruiter of foreign teachers in the company.  Matt shares his insights for successful professional development: 

The job that you had most recently with EF, you were the number one recruiter for your cohort. Everybody was working with the same systems and had the same resources. What do you think it was that allowed you to reach the top spot?

Mainly just hard work — you have to be able to put in the time. The second most important thing is that before I started, I had set out goals of what I wanted to achieve and then every week, every month, even every day sometimes I would have goals and would say, “OK, I need to make sure that I interview five people.” If that means that I stayed at work until 8:00 PM the night before to make sure that I have five people lined up the next day, then that’s what I’m going to do.

It was also important to stay organized. When you’re a recruiter, your biggest obstacle is the amount of stuff you have to deal with. You have your clients. You have your candidates. You have your systems and all these things need to be taken care of at different times.

For example at EF, before I can apply for a visa, I need to get the required documents, which may be like a background check and a medical check and resume. Before I can get those things, I need to make sure that the person passes their interview. So there are all these stages that need to be checked off before you can go to the next one.

I made sure I had very clear organization of my work and then I stuck to it, then I didn’t deviate from what I had set out as my strategy.

How did you get started in recruiting out here and how did you gain traction in your career initially?

When you’re a foreigner, particularly if you’re working in sales, you’re working in a role where you have to create something from nothing. You have to realize the parameters of what you’re capable of.

I think when you work in something like recruiting or anything where you have to develop a network, you look for your niche. I would definitely not look at it as a downside, I would look at it as a positive because those people who take a very broad approach are trying to deal with business in all of these different markets and get spread thin.

You start by looking at where can I be successful. I got into legal recruiting to start out with in Kelly Services because there are a lot of foreign lawyers who are working in Beijing, and I knew I would have an advantage over competitors because I could talk to these people in a way that a local recruiter couldn’t.

So inherently from the start, when I looked at recruiting, I looked at where can I be the most successful one. If somebody is worried about being pigeonholed or not having opportunities, I would say consider it a blessing. You’re going to be far more successful if you hone in on one certain industry and ignore the people that won’t do business with you to focus on the people that will do business with you, rather than trying to be a generalist and talking to everybody.

Can you share a practical example of how you’ve been able to get creative and focused to achieve results for the companies you’ve worked for?

I think that’s one of the big benefits of living and working in China is that you develop a skill set of solving problems and using creative solutions to meet needs that if you were doing the same job in America or in the West, you might just follow a pathway.

You have to do things that are a little bit off the wall. When I first arrived and was doing legal recruiting, I would host a lunch every week or so that started just because I had a few friends in the legal sector. We went to CJW, three of us, and we would chat and I knew both of these guys and they were both guys that had committed their resumes to me and said, “OK, if you have opportunities, let me know.”

Then because we were all foreigners, it became a thing where if they had other foreign lawyers that they knew, they would say, “Oh, you should come to this lunch,” and by the time I had ended, there was something like a dozen 1awyers that were attending these events and I was somebody they would communicate with regularly about opportunities and I was able to land a few of them as clients and it really ended up being a huge networking opportunity for me.

What did you discover over your time as a recruiter in China that may not have started out as super obvious or intuitive?

I’ve now been a recruiter in China for four years, give or take, and I remember in the beginning when I would interview people, I would look at their resume. I would go, “Yeah, yeah, this guy is good. He has worked for GE, or he worked for ConocoPhillips.” So he worked for one of these great companies but what I didn’t realize at the time is that a lot of these guys had a particular type.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, people would get jobs predominantly because they spoke English or they had a little bit of experience in their sector but they frankly weren’t great. To really find top performers, I had to learn how to get beyond the CV and look at the person in a way that they couldn’t fake it.

Somebody can say, “Yeah, I worked for GE and the company grew by 200 percent.” But in China from 1995 until 2005, everybody grew by 200 percent. So I would look for certain behaviors that were characteristic of people who were successful and would likely lend to a person being successful in a future position regardless of the CV.

One thing that was inherent is what you would call a results-oriented attitude. What was the goal that somebody had set out for you? How did you meet that goal or exceed it? What were the things that you did in order for that to happen? Somebody has to be able to logically go through what they did in order to be successful.

Then the other thing that I would always look for would be – we called it managing performance when I was working at EF. Inevitably, you’re going to have an occasion where something doesn’t go perfectly. And then the question is: what did you do to fix it?

Somebody who is good at managing their performance should be able to accept criticism, have enough emotional intelligence to not be defeated by it, and then use feedback to resolve the problem. They should be able to tell you specifically how they overcame the obstacle and they should take personal responsibility for the issue that happened.

What was it like on the client side as a foreign recruiter or project manager? What could you bring to the table that was distinct from your colleagues?

One example: when I was with a Western recruiting firm out here, I remember a company coming to us in the spring of 2013 and saying, “OK, we’re going to open this factory in three months. We want to hire these 10 people,” and these were very unique roles. This was a German energy company just entering China, and there were only a handful of people in the country that were doing this type of work.

They came to us and said, “OK, we’re talking to a few recruiting firms. We’re going to give you the opportunity to find these people and we want them in three months,” and they said, “Go.”

Immediately, I knew that this was something that was going to take a lot of work. I expressed that to the client and I told them, “You’re going to need to hire me on a retainer so that I work exclusively on this case or else we’re not going to be able to complete it, and in fact nobody will be able to.”

Then they told us, “Look, you know what? We have some other companies. They’ve said that they would be able to do it. We will contact you if that doesn’t work out.”

In fact, they did. Two months later, they came back and said, “Our project is supposed to start in one month now. We need to hire 10 people for this to begin and we haven’t been able to hire anybody. We will give you a contract. We will hire you on retainer but then you have to guarantee us that you get all these roles.”

Then we had to go through together with the company to ask, “What roles do you need now? What roles do you need in two months? What roles do you need in six months? What are the compromises that we can make?”

It ended up working out very well. We hired seven or eight people for them. The project launched on time. They got the people that they needed.

I think as a service provider, as a consultant, you always have to be confident in your own opinion. I could have very easily just accepted their terms and said, “OK. You have this other company that’s recruiting for you already. I don’t want to lose business to them, so I’m going to fight for these same roles,” and frankly, nobody would have won in that situation.

At the end of the day, there is always a solution. It may not be 100 percent what you wanted. But if you understand as a business what you do need and what you don’t need, you can get things done. So I think by staying positive, staying dogmatic and working hard you will always end up getting the results that are necessary.

How do you see the experience that you developed in China applying to the next phase of your career in the U.S.?

There are two things that are I think really great about doing business in China now and how it applies to America. The first is that China and particularly in the first tier cities, it’s as modern if you’re working with a multinational company as working in New York or London or anywhere. I think if you’re working for a buyer in Beijing, the expectations [when it comes to professionalism and sophistication] are as high as somebody who’s working for a buyer in the West.

The second advantage is because you’re on your own oftentimes in a lot of companies as a foreigner where your role isn’t necessarily defined 100 percent and you have to create that role for yourself, being successful means that you are self-reliant, that you’re able to manage your own pipeline or manage your own business effectively, that you create your own network and can work effectively with people who have a completely different background than yourself.

So the strengths I’ve gained as somebody who’s worked in China that I can apply back in America, are in understanding a ground-up type of development and being able to work across very diverse perspectives.

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