Recruitment agency founder Helen Pärli: HR is strategic and requires a complex set of skills


This time, we have a chance to meet Helen Pärli, the CEO and Talent Partner of Smartful Growth recruitment agency.

With an education in economics, Helen has combined her background and recruitment by starting her own agency. Having in-depth knowledge of recruiting for difficult roles, Smartful Growth has built recruitment processes and an employer brand to be proud of.

Helen believes that in addition to good people skills, which are considered an obvious must-have for a recruiter, strong analytical and technical skills are the ones you need in the future. This interview is packed with tips and techniques to consider.

How did you get started in recruitment/talent management/HR?

I wasn’t sure what to take on next when I finished high school. So, I decided to take on a Bachelor’s degree in Economics because it seemed useful no matter what direction I would pick for myself next.

So, I found my way to HR and recruitment thanks to my Business Administration studies. It was then that I realised that I love working with people and want to learn more about HR. As many HR teams in Estonia work as generalists, I also had the opportunity to dive into different aspects of HR, including the recruitment world.

What would you say is a common misconception about the work of a recruiter/TA manager/HR professional?

From my own experience, I can say that, boy was I misled by my assumption that HR is about working with people. There is so much more, and often, HR needs to be between two front lines – management and employees. There is so much more to HR than just working with people. It’s strategic and requires a complex set of skills.

But when it comes to recruitment, I see that many companies still believe that recruitment is done only by HR teams. During my recruitment trainings for in-house recruiters, agency recruiters and hiring managers, I try to break this myth. The whole team should be involved in hiring to reach excellent results.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve managed to overcome or improve on during your career so far? How did you do it?

I think my biggest challenge so far has been starting my own talent agency. It just so happened that a month into my new role as an entrepreneur, the global pandemic hit, and the world changed within just a few days. As we all know, the speed of change has taken up a notch since then.

Working with my own mindset helped a lot. I really like to think about the worst-case scenario – what’s the worst thing that might happen? This helps to handle stress and take on bolder decisions moving forward.

In addition, as I like to say, starting my journey during a pandemic has designed pivot skills into my own and my agency’s DNA. Be ready to pivot and see what’s waiting around another corner.

What are some of the most rewarding experiences or achievements you’ve had in your career so far?

It’s funny how the most rewarding moments tend to be small moments that cannot be measured in money. For me, the first moments that I can recall are all related to sincere appreciation from my candidates, clients or partners. I think the element of surprise makes them stand out the most. Whenever you get a heartwarming thank you from your candidate, pointing out something you did but haven’t noticed yourself, or when you can see from your client’s eyes that their kudos are coming from deep down.

It feels really rewarding to look back at our list of hired candidates and see so many difficult positions in there. This number might seem small, but as we are a small agency that doesn’t only focus on recruitment, I’m proud of our 120+ hired “unicorns” so far.

Different pro bono projects also come to mind. I took the approach that we will always try to make room for pro bono projects – by helping NGOs with our professional knowledge and skills, and we are able to make a meaningful contribution to the future of work.

What kind of experiences have you had as a candidate yourself?

I haven’t applied anywhere for a long time, so this is a rather difficult question.

The first thing that comes to mind is from different reach out inMails, emails and calls that I have gotten. I’ve been headhunted for a number of positions, but one inMail stood out this year. The recruiter sent me a bulk email indicating that they were hiring an HR Manager and I might fit the role. After my reply that I’m actually not planning to close up my agency in order to apply for a 9-5 job, the recruiter sent me several apologies and then changed the approach by asking what timeline I am thinking about and whether she should reach out again.

I could assume that sending the inMail to me was probably due to the high volume of contacting that was done without a deep screening of the sourced profiles, but I loved the way the recruiter handled the situation and changed the course of our discussion.

Something similar has happened to a client as well. We were discussing our cooperation to help them hire an HR Manager. After finishing our discussion about the expectations for the candidate, the CEO turned to me, asking if I would like to join them myself.

I’m excited about all the opportunities that AI is bringing us. But, on the other hand, this is scary because I can already see that the ability to keep up with new technology and tools can vary a lot for different recruiters.

The game is changing so fast that those who still handle their recruitment in emails and Excel sheets might one day realise that the knowledge and skills cap is too big for keeping up with the world. I’m in recruitment daily, and still the FOMO is real.

What do you feel is special about your current place of work? Why should people apply?

Obviously, I’m biased when answering this question because it’s my own company. Still, I believe that one of Smartful’s biggest value propositions as an employer is our 4-days-a-week working policy – Fridays are off. On top of this, we have a super flexible working time and place, meaning that you can chase the sun in Bali, travel as often as you need to see your family in another country or simply plan your day as your heart wishes.
Another thing that I hear from our candidates is the way we combine our values into daily work and how our whole team is engaged in our development efforts.

What tools that you use in your day-to-day work are the most valuable to you? What do you use them for?

It might sound too simple for some, but there are still many companies that don’t understand the value of great ATS software. When the basics are not in action, it feels wrong to recommend any amazing tools that “would do it all” and make the recruiter’s life easier.

I will not reveal my top choices, but I can say that there are many good tools for mapping the profiles, generating keywords, sourcing, reaching out and making sure that your candidate gets the best experience. I would recommend being curious and experimenting.

In your opinion, what are the most critical skills and qualities a recruiter should possess to be successful in this field?

People often think that recruiters just need to have good people skills – far from it. What I feel is that recruiters need to have a really good ability to solve problems, think outside of the box, use logical and systematic approaches and keep up their technical skills.

Don’t get me wrong. Recruiters also need people skills like empathy and active listening.

But the key is probably a resilient mindset and the ability to upskill.

How do you approach diversity and inclusion in the hiring process, and how do you ensure fair and unbiased recruitment?

That’s a tricky one. We are all biased, but for anyone in the recruitment process, it’s important to be mindful of it. We have had different workshops and trainings to uncover our bias and find solutions that would work for us and our clients.

Diversity and inclusion are also part of our SDG agreements. It’s something that we try to keep in focus on different levels – within our own team and in our interaction with clients and candidates.

Do you track any metrics/KPIs in your day-to-day work? If you’ve managed to improve any of them recently, what did you do to achieve better results?

We are getting more and more data-based as our agency grows. But to be honest, I don’t feel that we have reached the level that I would like for us. In order to really measure all sorts of results, you need good tools and clean data. The second one is even trickier.

A good ATS helps to track different recruitment metrics, but in business, there are so many more things that would be useful to track. Our team is constantly working towards cleaner data that we could reach quickly and use for decision-making when needed. We have made our processes more systematic and created supporting agreements.

How would you define a good candidate experience? What strategies do you use to offer one?

Good candidate experience is vital. It has so many layers to it, and the right answer might vary based on the profiles you recruit and your overall recruitment process. But I can share one thought that I usually bring to my recruitment training as well.

I would recommend mapping down your recruitment process, every single step, as detailed as you can. Then, put them on a timeline and think what your candidate would feel during each step – give scores to every single step and then focus on moments when your candidates might feel the biggest drop in their feelings. Focus on those pain points and find solutions to make those moments feel better for your candidate.

Recommend us 3 books/TV shows/podcasts, and let us know why you love them.

Oh, this is the question I least like during such interviews.

I’m not great with books. When I pick up one, then it’s usually during my vacation, but it is still something professionally developing.
The one I finished during my recent holiday was “Growth Hacking” by Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown.

I also struggle with podcasts. It’s hard to find a good podcast – there are good episodes, but I haven’t found the kind that engages me for many episodes. But instead, for example, I often listen to Spanish “podcasts” or mini-lessons through Spotify while driving.

But when it comes to TV shows, there is only one possible answer – “Friends. I’ve seen it at least ten times, but it starts again and again when “it hasn’t been your day, or months, or years…”.

How do you know when it’s time to take some time off to avoid burnout? How do you recharge?

I can feel burnout coming when little things start to annoy me, and I start losing my passion and motivation to do the things that I usually like to do.

On a daily basis, I like to have a flexible approach to my calendar. I schedule gym workouts for the first part of my day, book a slot to simply go for a walk with my dog and use my evening to see my friends and family.

I allow myself to have zero days. I feel it really helps to have a zero day with no responsibilities every now and then. For me, this is a day when I do things for just one reason – “I feel like it”. It took me a while to shake off the feeling of guilt when not doing anything productive or smart, but now those zero days are my favourite way to recharge.

What motivates you professionally?

This is easy—my inner drive.
It has different triggers, but I will keep those to myself for the time being. 😊


Thank you, Helen, for sharing!

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Save your seat to a free webinar, “Key trends and changes in recruitment for 2024“, taking place on the 12th of December. We will view recruitment trends and changes from the perspective of job boards and headhunting, recruitment software, and recruiters’ day-to-day tasks.

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