Trent Cotton On The Secrets To High Performance Recruiting

by Tim Plamondon

high oerfromance recruiters working in small team

What makes high-performance recruiting teams exceptional? Trent Cotton, a highly esteemed talent leader and the amazing author of High Performance Recruiting, has identified three pillars that distinguish high-performance recruiting teams from mediocre ones. 

During a recent RPOA Expert Panel webinar, he shared the secrets to building a great recruiting team, discussing the seven key characteristics that distinguish high-performance recruiters, the work environments where they flourish, and the leadership styles that nurture them.

Mediocre Recruiting Teams v. High Performance Recruiting Teams

Cotton shared that mediocre recruiting teams lack accountability and say "no" to innovation, new ideas, and feedback. High-performance teams find workarounds in the word "no" and take ownership of their actions. Members of uninspired teams stick to the status quo and avoid stepping out of their comfort zone. In contrast,  high-performance recruiting teams embrace innovation and feedback and challenge the status quo. He shared that the benefits of those workarounds include: 

  • 30% increase in operational growth rate,

  • 60% improvement in employer brand, 

  • A 50% increase in the quality of hire leads to a 25% increase in employee retention.

To Cotton, these benefits are a testament to the power of high-performance recruiting teams and the importance of cultivating a culture of innovation and accountability. He next delved deeper into the seven traits to help the audience understand how they contribute to creating a high-performance recruiting team.

The 7 Traits of High-Performance Recruiters

Cotton led the audience through each of the traits one by one that are essential for a high-performance recruiter. The seven traits are the following: 

  1. Bursty Communication

  2. Respectful Conflict

  3. Intellectually Curious,

  4. Goal-Oriented

  5. Grit

  6. Accountability

  7. Adaptable

Bursty Communication

Cotton said that bursty communication means high-performance recruiters prefer brief, to-the-point communication. They use daily stand-up meetings to create this environment and share updates on their obstacles. These meetings are short and effective, allowing recruiters to provide their updates and get back to work quickly.

Respectful Conflict

Cotton emphasized the importance of respectful conflict in high-performance recruiting teams. He observed that passionate debates among team members can lead to some of the best ideas and solutions. However, sometimes, this is misunderstood as aggression and needs to be addressed to create a safe space for open discussions. Cotton encouraged creating an environment where respectful conflict is valued rather than boring meetings that lead to mediocrity.

Intellectually Curious

Cotton believes that intellectually curious recruiters have a unique approach to their search strategy, which allows them to find the most efficient way to find the top talent. He experienced an intellectually curious recruiter who found a candidate by searching through a forum. He encouraged nurturing and supporting intellectually curious team members as it can lead to successful outcomes.

Goal Oriented

Cotton observed that goal-oriented recruiters are driven, love the hunt, and strive to meet their targets. They break down their goals into smaller units and constantly monitor their performance to improve. As a leader, he said, "It's important to encourage this behavior as it helps the individual and the team grow."


Recruiters with grit like to fail fast and reframe failures and obstacles as learning opportunities. The chance to prove their worth and please their clients drives them to excellence. However, recruiters with grit sometimes have difficulty letting things go and may need help moving on from a lost opportunity.


Cotton stressed that accountability leads to a balanced partnership between recruiters and hiring managers, increasing performance and building trust. The 48-hour feedback loop and sprint recruiting are examples of creating accountability.


The last trait Cotton covered was adaptability; Adaptable recruiters will try new things and seek innovation. These recruiters will likely chat with others and share new ideas with the group. They derive their energy from trying something new, and they view change as an opportunity to learn and accomplish tasks in new ways.

From Cotton's experience, the three most essential traits for recruiters are intellectual curiosity, adaptability, and grit. These traits, he said, "Help them to succeed in different roles and connect with hiring managers." 

7 Environments In Which High-Performance Recruiters Flourish

Cotton next shared that high-performance recruiters must flourish in seven types of environments. Those environments are the following:

  1. Cognitive Diversity

  2. Agile Workplaces Processes. 

  3. Small Tactical Teams

  4. Beehive Mentality 

  5. Purpose-Driven 

  6. Flow State, 

  7. Playground.

To accommodate time constraints, he focused this part of his presentation on three critical environments: playground, small tactical teams, and flow state. 


Playgrounds encourage innovation and good ideation without rules. Cotton said, "It's fun to watch the minds of people working in teams."  He believes organizations often get tripped up by trying to accomplish something within a box, but no boxes are on the playground.

Small Tactical Teams

Cotton emphasized the importance of small tactical recruiting teams in solving problems effectively. He noticed that high-performance recruiters naturally self-organize into small teams, which makes them flexible and accountable and fosters close-knit relationships. He recommended that talent leaders encourage high-performance recruiters to form small tactical teams.

Flow State

The third environment Cotton shared was the concept of flow state, a mental state of hyper-focus and deep thinking that can lead to great ideas. He said he had experienced a flow state as a musician while playing music. He suggested providing space for recruiters to think profoundly and do research to avoid burnout and improve their recruiting strategy. 

7 Leadership Styles That Nurture and Grow High-Performance Recruiting Teams

After discussing the different environments high-performance recruiters need to thrive in, Cotton moved on to the seven leadership styles that nurture and grow these teams. They are as follows:

  1. The Coach,

  2. The Doctor

  3. The Shepherd,

  4. The Negotiator,

  5. The Scientist,

  6. The Change Agent,

  7. The Navigator.

The Leadership Matrix

Cotton created a leadership matrix to explain the seven leadership styles. The matrix includes two main factors: team health and conflict. Team health describes how the team is responding, whether they are stressed or engaged. Conflict includes internal stress, hiring manager conflicts, and market changes. The matrix can be customized based on the specific needs of the team and organization.

His matrix shows that these traits are integrated within talent leaders. The key, he said, is knowing when to apply each style. Cotton recommended using his leadership matrix to help new leaders understand when to use each leadership style to solve problems within the recruiting team.

He explained that the coach leadership style is the core of all the other styles and presented when to apply the various different leadership styles.

The Coach

Cotton explained that the coach's leadership style integrates these different leadership styles. As he puts it, the coach sits in the middle of these different leadership styles because there are times when the coach embodies all of the traits, and they use this embodiment to encourage innovation and growth by motivating and inspiring team members to leave their comfort zone. 

He next explored when to apply the different leadership styles. 

The Shepherd

He first shared that a leader should be a shepherd in a team setting with low conflict and high team health. Cotton said that in this situation, the role of a shepherd is to guide the team, ensure its development, provide proper nutrition, and keep them on the right path. At this point, Cotton said, "The team is self-organized and everything should be okay."

The Doctor

Cotton suggested proactively addressing low team health and conflict before they escalate. He prefers the doctor approach, which involves asking questions to help team members find solutions and regularly checking their well-being. As a leader, he says it's crucial to take on the role of a doctor and help team members find the road to a healthy lifestyle, especially in virtual environments.

The Navigator

Cotton said applying the navigator style is essential when dealing with high-conflict and low-team health situations. As a navigator, the leader should communicate transparently and directly. He stressed that they should be the voice of strength and reality, helping the team maneuver toward a solution in a direct but diplomatic way.

The Scientist

Leaders should become scientists, he said, when they need to de-escalate conflicts and take care of the team's well-being. Applying the scientific style requires the leader to rely on data rather than opinions or emotions.

The Change Agent

Cotton observed that the leader needs to be a change agent when there are high-intensity and high team health situations. As a change agent, the leader can help the team look at the problem differently. He proposed that the leader offer different solutions and question whether the team has tried a particular tactic.

The Negotiator

Cotton emphasized that there will be times when the leader needs to act as a negotiator between a recruiter and a hiring manager. He noted that leaders should calm both parties and help resolve the conflict. They should also inspire both parties to find innovative solutions to the problem.

Before taking questions, Cotton discussed tactical approaches to hiring and developing a high-performance recruiting team.

Tactical Approaches

He emphasized the importance of identifying and playing to individual strengths rather than trying to manage weaknesses. He suggested assessing team members' needs and discussing in what environments they feel most valued. Additionally, he recommended using the leadership matrix to evaluate individual needs and adjust leadership styles accordingly.

In conclusion, Cotton's insights into high-performance recruiting teams offer a blueprint for creating a culture of innovation, accountability, and excellence. By embracing these principles, organizations can attract top talent, improve employer brand, and increase employee retention. 

We highly encourage you to watch this invaluable webinar to learn more about this framework so that you can implement it and improve the recruiting performance of your organization. 

Learn more about high performance recruitng to improve your recruitment process. 


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