The Lean Recruiter - How Recruitment Agencies Run Lean

If you know me, then you know I’m a proponent of doing more with less. Whilst this has often been borne from necessity, it’s turned into a passion, and I’ve developed some skills in examining things through a lens of running lean.

The Lean Recruiter - How Recruitment Agencies Run Lean

Reading time: 14 mins

If you know me, then you know I’m a proponent of doing more with less. Whilst this has often been borne from necessity, it’s turned into a passion, and I’ve developed some skills in examining things through a lens of running lean.

We have a problem with wastage in the recruitment industry. We’re funnelled into buying bloated recruitment CRMs. We hoard jobs over and above the level that we can fill, only filling a small percentage of them. We treat our volume of scraped candidate data as a badge of honour, despite 99% of company databases being woefully unengaged.

Becoming leaner should be at the top of every recruitment business’ agenda.

Let’s get into it.

What do I mean by ‘Lean’?

By lean, I mean like a lean piece of bacon. No excess fat, cut the rind. Or a lean athlete, they’re not bulky so can move fast and are flexible.

There is a storied definition of lean popularised in the startup world. Running Lean by Ash Maurya is a fine book. I’m not going to get bogged down in semantics around lean, and I’m not a lean purist, so don’t shoot me if I stray from the path a bit.

I mean doing more with less.

Lean allows you to adapt quickly, which is essential when we consider the proliferation of technology and its affect on the recruitment industry.

We’re knowledge brokers and so we’re ripe for disruption by AI. This doesn’t spell the end of the industry, but for firms wholly reliant on contingent or sourcing from job boards for example - you will be surpassed by a robot soon.

Lean could mean less people, a narrower market focus, 1-2 business models, fixed processes etc. It doesn’t necessarily mean less of everything; you’ll probably end up with some new tools to drive automation.

How did I get here?

I started my recruitment career in 2007 and I’ve always questioned why the industry is the way it is. I’ve never liked pointless processes and the scale of wastage always rubbed against my values.

After starting my own business in 2016, I tried to follow the well trodden path my former employers had, how I had been taught but didn’t work for me or my aspirations.

Time is my no. 1 driving force. I want to own my time.

I ended up building a business that owned me and my time.

It wasn’t until I nearly lost it that things began to change and, back to the wall, I started to innovate. I became more lean not out of choice initially but, once I steadied the ship, I started to explore staying lean.

How much time could I gain back whilst delivering an improved output? This is always at the forefront of my mind.

For more on the importance of time, check out Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

The Lean Structure

The lean structure revolves around you. You are the sun and everything else is in orbit around you.

-          Sales

-          Marketing

-          Sourcing

-          Fulfilment

-          Admin

Within each of these sections, we break down the tasks further and then choose whether to retain, automate or outsource.

A note on passive income

Before I get into it, I want to make one thing clear - there are some tasks in most recruitment businesses that cannot be automated or outsourced without sacrificing quality.

Running a recruitment business is not a route to passive income, despite what many gurus might tell you. I know because I’ve been there and bought their bullshit. You will need to turn up and contribute. It will still be hard work, especially at the beginning.

At it’s core, running lean means that you need to cut as much of the fluff as possible, and maximise your opportunities to have revenue generating conversations.


One of the core pillars of a recruitment business is business development. You sell on all sides, but I’ll focus on selling to employers as they pay the bills.

I was taught the traditional way. Here is a list of employers. Call them. Either ask if they’re hiring or sell them a candidate. Our USP is that we’re specialists. Do this for 2 hours per day until you get results. Set a follow up to do it again in 2 weeks.

It looks a bit like this:

Whilst a blunt method, this can and did work for me. There is a value in earning your stripes too. However, in a lean business the ROI on spending your time cold calling isn’t strong enough.

There is however no substitute for actively engaging clients, you need to get them to a call in order to sell effectively.

Lean recruiters build systems to support getting to those conversations.

I’m not going to cover steps 2-4 here, although I will say that they can and should be templated to become repeatable parts of the process. It’s quite straightforward.

Lead generation is the time hoover.

First off, you need key foundation pieces in place - your niche and a good idea of your target hirers.

The ultimate is to build inbound from these people, although it takes time to get there. I get inbound via website assets, lead magnets, social profiles and referrals.

If you don’t have inbound, then you need to create assets that drive inbound.

If I was to hire, it would be a marketer before another recruitment consultant.

What about cold outreach (calls, emails, messages) I hear the traditionalists scream? It can have it’s place in your repertoire. It’s useful in the early days and you can leverage it in times when your more passive lead channels aren’t working. It shouldn’t be relied on in a lean business as it is too labour intensive and a lot of times, cold outreach is a one shot tactic.

Everyone is sick of cold outreach too, I even saw a R2R complaining about it on LinkedIn last week. The irony within the irony!

The exception to this is if you keep creating novel offers to serve your audience, then you drive intrigue and engagement via cold outreach.

Good sales means turning up every day for 5 years and moving the needle. Adding value and being diligent.

I think it’s almost the toughest part of running lean. You can not substitute turning up - which is both frustratingly tying but also empowering. People will buy you first, and all the frills (brand, lead magnets, services) second.

Finally, just because someone says yes it doesn’t mean you should undertake the work. There is a lot of bad business out there so qualification of opportunity during the sales process is fundamentally important.

You want to work on fillable roles with good hiring managers. It’s helps if they’re high urgency/importance as this will enhance the value you bring to the table. Keep searching until you tick the boxes and don’t settle for less.


Marketing is fundamental to the lean model.

Marketing does not mean simply speccing out candidates or sending a Most Promising Candidate (MPC) emails on repeat. This what I was taught; get a list from your CRM (that you’ve probably built personally via cold calls) and send them a formatted CV and ask if they’re interested. Make sure to attach your terms to prevent ‘back door’ hiring.

I’m not going to Google definitions of marketing to put here, I’ll just tell you what I think it is in recruitment.

Marketing is about attention. It’s delivering value to an audience in order to magnetise your profile. It’s committing to activities with a positive ROI, and not just marketing for it’s own sake. It can be contact of any nature, any touchpoint counts. It’s all about decreasing the reliance on the total number of calls (and people making them) to win and retain business.

Here is an ideation board for recruitment marketing within a lean model:

Scary, right?

With limited resources, you can’t do everything.

You commit to a channel, become a master of it and simplify/automate the output. Do this on repeat.

Tip:it helps if you enjoy it.

My number one goal with marketing is get people opted into my email list. That means they’ve chosen to listen to me, and their emails aren’t scraped from a job board or employer emails from Linkedin.

I then have the opportunity to deliver value and occasionally offers over time. I respect and value that someone has chosen to give me their attention.

Let’s focus on Linkedin as it’s both the saviour and bane of many recruitment businesses.

Consultants using it become over reliant on it and are prone to getting sucked into their feed for hours per day and simply just broadcasting job adverts as they’ve had no training.

As a lean recruiter, your job is to avoid mass traps like this.

I’ve never used anything beyond Sales Navigator which is a significantly cheaper consumer level product.

With that in mind, let’s choose Linkedin as the example of a channel to specialise in and automate.

Don’t rush off to buy an automation tool. Business owners rush into buying industry tools like Paiger or simply use ChatGPT to write their posts.

You’re better off becoming great at content production for your target market (this assumes you’ve researched if your buyers hang out online there).

It isn’t simple. Winning attention on Linkedin is a slog. You are a slave to their algorithm which overweights vapid content and can punish you without warning.

You cannot learn how to build audiences by listening to the recruitment industry. You must learn from marketers.

Not just any LinkedIn marketeers either, you need to find the real ones. There are a host of LinkedIn ‘influencers’ who are great at getting engagement for getting engagement’s sake. They are usually surrounded by other marketers, selling their one hit solutions, or better still they’re surrounded by other LinkedIn trainers.

Learn from the people who are not trying to sell you their LinkedIn system, but it’s apparent that they are leveraging LinkedIn successfully by gaining engagement on a consistent basis.

Work the best bits into a system that works for you and enables you to turn up consistently and create. Rewards from LinkedIn go to those who create and don’t consume. You can get a Chrome extension to remove your feed if it helps - I did that for a while.

So, there’s a not-so-quick overview of just one marketing channel. You can see how being passionate and enjoying an area of marketing is fundamental. It takes time and effort.

You are your brand in a lean business.

Everything here can be structured around the individual within a recruitment company but it becomes more complex getting everyone on the same page. You’re also over investing in an employee who will one day walk out with the LinkedIn profile asset you’ve helped them to create.

In summary, LinkedIn shouldn’t be over relied on for marketing. It’s one method of driving email opt-in and building a clean email list is key to running lean.


Fundamental to every recruitment business is its ability to source candidates. It can be highly systematic but does also require creative thinking, especially on tough to fill roles.

Sourcing is often defined in the 180 recruiter context. A lean recruiter splits this down further:

There is a huge amount of nuance between different markets when sourcing.

I believe that lean recruiters should retain ownership of the candidate conversation, ensuring fit before introducing them to a company. There is a power in stating to a client that you personally interview everyone. This is something tangible that AI will never replace - your clients want you, their trusted advisor, to help them make a choice.

They don’t want a robot or your junior consultant. They want you.

The good news is that sourcing is an area where you can make significant time savings - it is automatable or you can outsource it.

You must split down the areas.

You can use RPA or a VA to drive candidates into your ATS. You can have someone tag them, have a robot tag them or have them self select.

It’s crucial to have a well organised ATS, but not spend your time organising it.

You should think of your ATS as a job board candidate database.

What would have to be true for you to never need to pay to access a job board candidate database again?

Create that.

The ATS shortcuts your time to source.

Marketing assets will drive inbound and you must route this inbound into your ATS effectively.

Then, you mustn’t let this data rot, which brings us back around to engaging your audience. How do you keep your candidates engaged? One to many communications:

-          regular newsletters

-          job alerts

-          asking them to follow on Linkedin to see your content

-          regularly surprising with valuable resources

It comes down to adding value to their lives. It’s an honest endeavour to do so and you should give it to candidates for free. A rising tide lifts all boats, including your own. It’s important to positively contribute to the niche you work with.

You will still need to source via Linkedin or other job boards, especially when retained. You have a responsibility to your client and candidate base to scour and map the market.

I retain this element but you can outsource it. I like it because it keeps my finger on the pulse of who is where and doing what. I lose leverage, but I add to my knowledge. There are also ways to speed this up.

It’s crucial when you do find people that you develop a system of outreach that provides a return.

I do not use an off the shelf recruitment CRM to hit these numbers.

In a lean recruitment business, you must use the best-in-class tools for the job at hand. It’s important because you care about efficiency.

For cold email, it’s cold email tools like Lemlist, Quickmail or Woodpecker. New tools come out weekly so DYOR, I’ve used all of these tools but they may be outdated now. They enable higher deliverability and allow you to follow up.

The components to achieve these open and reply rates

-          Diligent list building

-          Warm domain

-          Email provider

-          SPF, DKIM, DMARC on point

-          Battle tested email subject line

-          Battle tested email copy

-          Battle tested follow up sequence(s)

It’s not an overnight set up but, again, it becomes an asset that you can rely on.

You must seek marginal gains at every part of the process. It stacks the probability of a positive outcome in your favour.


A key area where you need to retain control is around the interview process, managing submissions, feedback on both sides, then offers.

These are all pivotal to the success of a recruitment business and the area where you arguably add the most value. It’s also the area where people tend to feel the most let down by recruiters so it’s imperative to stick close to these parts of process.

You can speed things up using old school process management techniques, shared booked calendars, and email templates. However, this isn’t really a part of the process to rush so attention to detail and taking your time on these conversations is key.

This section is intentionally shorter as making it more lean is inversely proportional to success rates.


For me, this is the first thing that you should automate or outsource.

Admin work is essential but it isn’t the best use of your time. The first thing I outsourced was bookkeeping, followed by credit control.

The exclusion from this is banking. I would never outsource banking and payments. In a small business you need to be on top of your cash at all times. You should time block financial reviews at the start of every week.

I stopped formatting CVs a long time ago. I think it’s a waste of time. The rationale that they help prevent back door hiring is moot since the growth of LinkedIn. I get candidate’s permission every time I share their CV and I always leave contact details and full names on. Candidates are in full control of where their CV lands and they know that.

If you’re worried about doing this, you need to build more trust with your clients.

I don’t think anyone should be speculatively sending CVs in 2024 so there is no need for formatting on that front either.

I can’t think of any other major admin drains other than email repetition. For this you should use templates and keyboard shortcuts. You can set up your CRM/ATS to automate this also. I also use a virtual receptionist to manage inbound calls so I can stay on task. I rarely answer my phone, preferring everything to be diarised.

This allows me to stay on the task that I am busy with. One of the biggest challenges of running lean is personal management and discipline.

Do you need people?

It’s a personal choice.

I’m not anti-hiring at all and wouldn’t rule out building a team in the future.

I think the future of recruitment workers is to become task based.

Hiring 360 recruiters is risky and provides terrible ROI. The average billing in the industry is way behind the rate of salary inflation. I will never hire 360s or 180s again.

The job role is too complex, requiring someone to be a mini business. It’s easier than ever to create and run a business. Hence, those of the highest competence at being a mini business will either trend towards working for themselves or work for a large brand.

As a lean business, they’ll think - where is the benefit in joining you? I can do this myself. When they join, the salaries and on costs can cripple you if they don’t succeed.

In a large business, they can earn more and have an easier life. It makes sense.

Running a lean business, you have to avoid these people like the plague.

Instead, figure out the tasks that must be done and hire for those.

I prefer building robots to do the work and enjoy the challenge of building without a team. I like tech though so it’s a personal preference.

If I were to hire, it would be task based. Simple, straight forward repeatable processes that have binary outcomes and that move the needle.

What Lean Recruitment isn’t

It isn’t working from a beach on your laptop.

You can do some stuff from there, sure, and you do have more time no doubt.

However, you simply can’t service your market to a high degree without turning up and having conversations.

The key to a lean recruitment business is to build everything else in order to support and enable these key conversations.

You can then time box these conversations in order to live the lifestyle you want to live. You can outsource these conversations if you want to, but I’d only do this when you are not reliant on a lean recruitment business as a sole income. In a small recruitment business people, including yourself, are the single biggest point of failure.

Next Steps

Did this resonate with you? I’d love to hear from you.

I’ve so far found very few pockets of people who are interested in running a recruitment business this way, so keen to surround myself with people on a similar path or aspiring to build a lean business.

Sign up to my mailing list below, I usually send something out weekly.

image attribution: Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

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