Talking Agile with a Recruiter

January 23, 2020
10 minute read

I am writing a few articles with the intent of helping Agile job seekers sense the level of Agile maturity in an organization before they take a job.

My first article focused on Analyzing Agile Job Descriptions.

This second article provides guidance on how to work with a recruiter to sense the level of Agility in the target organization.

If you are working with a third-party recruiter instead of an internal one, this could be more challenging. However, the practices and suggestions below may still be helpful to get a sense of Agility.

If there is no recruiter, then many of these suggestions should still work if you are conversing directly with a hiring manager.

The Recruiter Connection

When being considered for a skilled employment opportunity, there is often a recruiter. He or she handles communications between you and the hiring manager.

This is typically true for people who work in Agile related careers as they are often knowledge workers.  It is therefore critical for Agile job seekers to build a relationship with the recruiter. They play an important role in establishing connections. They can open or close doors for you.

Admittedly, there are good recruiters and less credible ones.

The vast majority of recruiters for knowledge workers should realize it’s in their best interest to connect great Agile candidates with aligned Agile opportunities.

A good recruiter will recognize the hiring manager as the paying customer. You, the candidate, are a key stakeholder.  Both sides need to be satisfied in the short and long term.

If they are effective, a recruiter will provide valuable two-way information to improve the likelihood for a mutually agreeable match.

To that end, they should encourage you to ask questions.

If they don’t have the answer, they will seek one.

A less credible recruiter will tend to focus on the documented line-item details of the job. They’ll push you to sign an agreement. They aim to set up an interview as soon as possible so they may parade you in front of the hiring manager.

This is indicative of two things:

  • Valuing documentation over a valuable solution,
  • and valuing contract negotiations over customer collaboration.

Both points are explicitly mentioned in the Agile Manifesto.

Another red flag: if the recruiter won’t entertain a big picture discussion of the role. That’s a sign they are in it for a quick turn-around. You are not going to receive much support.

Recognize that a recruiter is likely not aware of what Agility really means. You may need to frequently clarify and restate your needs, mindset, expectations and questions as they differ from traditional approaches.

However, a good recruiter should be able to understand the overall context of Agility. They should provide some key insights and perhaps even meaningful stories about how the target organization may relate to that mindset.

You may just need to have patience and dig for clues.

Start with The Big Picture

Ask something like “Can you share how the role fits within the context of the larger organization’s business and how it serves its customers?“

Beware if the recruiter:

  • struggles to provide an answer,
  • provides a vague answer,
  • or basically recites components of the job description back to you.

That may indicate they currently have a fundamental lack of understanding about the role and how it fits in to the business model.

If that is the case, then have the recruiter seek guidance about the connection. Not just internal stakeholders, but between the role and the end customer.

If you still don’t receive a clear answer, it may indicate:

  • the role has not been well thought out,
  • they aren’t really systems thinkers (i.e. they don’t see how the role fits in to their end-to-end business),
  • or perhaps they don’t comprehend the bigger picture of Business Agility and servicing changing customer needs.

This line of questioning is meant to determine whether there is “customer focus” at the organization.  This is important because the word customer explicitly appears in one of four value statements and two of twelve guiding principles in the Agile Manifesto.

Evolution of the Role

Your opening questions could also focus on the history on the role. How long has it has existed? How has it changed over time?

If it was a more traditional role that was repurposed during an “Agile transformation,” that might be an indicator. Perhaps the organization doesn’t comprehend the dramatic mindset change that is required to become Agile.

An example would be if their “Project Managers” became “Scrum Masters” that still plan Agile projects and report weekly status to management.

Another example is if their “Product Managers” became “Product Owners” who write User Stories instead of business requirements documents. But they don’t actually work closely and daily with the teams.

Try to find out if there were existing employees with different titles that now have this “new” Agile role. If so, what were their roles and titles and how were they transitioned?

Beware if they were moved to the new role (e.g. “Business Analysts” became “Product Owners” or “Product Management Assistants” or “Proxies”) without:

There might be a lack of understanding at the management and leadership level on the mindset change required for Agility.

Reporting Model

Another question to ask might be “What is the functional reporting structure around this role?”

Beware if the role functionally reports within a silo or department of similar roles:

  • a Java or .NET Developer that reports to a software development department with similar code skills,
  • or, a QA that reports to a Director of Testing

This might indicate a lack of understanding of the value of highly collaborative cross-functional Agile teams.

If, however the role is to be part of a cross-functional team that all report to a single Product or Service Delivery Manager then that might indicate some level of understanding about shared commitments and collaborative work.

Leverage the Recruiter-to-Manager Relationship

The recruiter may not always share with you the truth or the complete picture. But you can sometimes get a sense by how they respond.

Ask how long the recruiter has known the hiring manager. Have they helped place anyone else with the organization or the hiring manager in the past?

If they have:

  • What were those roles?
  • Was an adaptable and flexible approach taken to finding and evaluating candidates?
  • What were the people like that were placed?
  • Was it a rigorous process and review?
  • What was the hiring experience and process was like?
  • Was everything documented ahead of time or were things discussed as interviews progressed?

What is the hiring manager like to work with as a customer?

Ask whether they provided specific directives. Have they empowered the recruiter or encouraged them to be creative?

If the recruiter was given tight restrictions, it might indicate the manager is used to making decisions and tends to use a more command-and-control approach.

If they gave the recruiter some autonomy, it might indicate they are more likely to define outcomes (the what) and trust others to find a way (the how).  This line of questioning stems from the twelve guiding principles in the Agile Manifesto:

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

Ask how often the recruiter meets with the hiring manager. Is it an impromptu discussion or a formally scheduled engagement?

If the meetings are more flexible and occur as candidates and situations arise, then the manager may be more Agile.  If they want regularly scheduled status updates, it might indicate a tendency for a more traditional approach.  This line of inquiry is pulled from the Agile guiding principle:

“Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery [of valuable software.]”

Ask whether the hiring manager tends to use email or electronic communication tools to communicate with the recruiter, or do they tend to want to meet face-to face.  Tools aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but a heavy reliance on them may indicate the manager has less of an understanding of an Agile mindset in leadership.

It may also indicate a lack of availability to support the new role as a servant leader.  This is related to the Agile value statement of:

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”


Your relationship with the recruiter is a critical part of your success story.

A good recruiter should work to get the answers you need. They should increase confidence for a mutually agreeable placement.  That means ensuring the culture of the organization aligns with your expectations as a candidate.

Overall, if you get a sense the recruiter isn’t going to go to bat for you as a valued stakeholder, consider walking away. Find another channel into the target organization.  A lack of concern for your needs as a stakeholder is an indication the recruiter doesn’t understand what it means to be a good service provider, which ironically is at the heart of Agility.

It also indicates a risk they won’t understand or be concerned with your needs and expectations.

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Berteig Consulting

Empower Your Entire Organization with BERTEIG Consulting in Agile, Scrum, Kanban, SAFe and LEAN.

Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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