Resilience. Self-Awareness. Harmony. Ego. Basics.

Two headhunters discuss how jiu-jitsu help them succeed in recruiting

Location: Tokyo, Japan

Interviewee: Simon Gray

Photo by: Ryoji Iwata

Recruiting can be tough, especially in the beginning. Most people quit in the first three to six months. You could replace “recruiting” with “Jiu-Jitsu,” and that statement would still make sense. After the four short years I have been a recruiter, I believe jiu-jitsu is the reason why I’m still in it.

I texted Simon Gray, a friend of mine, who is a former successful recruiter, and now executive career coach in England with over 15 years of experience. He is the author of three books on job search. We used to do jiu-jitsu in Japan together. I thought he would feel the same way as I did; that jiu-jitsu helps us as recruiters. “I think aikido helped me more, if anything,” he wrote back. With that, my confirmation bias was thrown out the door.

Simon and I met in the Yoshinkan Aikido Senshusei Course that took place from April 1st, 2006, to February 28th, 2007.

The Senshusei (roughly translated as “special student”) course was originally developed for the Tokyo Riot Police in 1957. In later years, they allowed civilians to sign up for the course. As high as 70% of the participants have been known to drop out. We trained for four hours a day, five days a week, from Tuesday to Saturday. By 7:25am, we had to be in our gi and cleaning.

Cleaning is a big part of the Japanese culture. Kids in school clean their own schools. As “special students,” we had to clean the entire dojo. We were getting the best instruction from the best instructors, but the cleaning was our training in humility. After training, we swept the dojo again and had to be out by 2:30pm, only to come back for more training, cleaning, and punishment the next day. If during class we looked at the clock, wiped the sweat from our faces, or didn’t yell, “Oss!” loud enough when spoken to, we were punished with physical exercises, such as push-ups or air squats. Basically, it was aikido Bootcamp.

You can read all about Simon’s adventures in his book Suck It Up Or Go Home.

I caught up with Simon over a video call. I asked him what he thought were characteristics of a good recruiter. First, he mentioned “resilience”.

Simon compared recruitment and jiu-jitsu:

“You’re going to go to the dojo; you are going to get destroyed every single day as a white belt and a blue belt, and you have got to keep coming back and taking that to progress. It’s exactly the same in recruitment. When you start, you’re going to get rejected, rejected, rejected. You’ve got to keep going, going, going, going, and learn your trade on the job. That’s where the similarity exists. That’s resilience.”

He also mentioned self-awareness:

“I’ve seen recruiters who are so eager to make the placement that desperation comes across to their clients and their candidates. They’re completely unaware of it, and they don’t understand why they didn’t win the business or didn’t fill the vacancy.”

Simon brought up an interesting point about aikido:

“The main point of aikido is principles. While Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu have those principles within them, it’s not as obvious to make that connection. The [most obvious] principles of aikido that relate to recruitment, aside from discipline and resilience, [are] self-awareness and the awareness of others.”

Simon also said, “For any recruitment exercise to be fruitful, you have to have harmony.” He further explained:

“In jiu-jitsu, although it is a zero-sum game, to be successful, you have to create that harmonious situation. What I mean by a harmonious situation is that my actions have to be proportionate and in sync with the other person’s reactions. Otherwise, the technique doesn’t work, and I’m using force and, yes, you do need to use force…but if you’re relying solely on muscle, you’re missing the whole point.”

However, his biggest takeaway from aikido that relates to recruitment was the following:

“I think the biggest thing I got from the [aikido] course was an understanding that to be successful in life, to be successful in anything, you have to look at things from somebody else’s perspective. And, you have to do that first and foremost.”

As much as we both love aikido, Simon brought up an excellent point about “ego”. You can show up to a Muay Thai gym or jiu-jitsu academy with a massive ego, but when you spar, you will get found out. However…

“The problem with aikido is, if ego is fire, it pours fuel on that fire, and it allows people to build an unchallenged sense of themselves…because there is no sparring, and because they don’t test [their aikido skills], they never get found out.”

“When you go back to recruitment if you’ve got an ego, and quite a lot of recruiters have an ego, you can’t really maintain that ego for long, ’cause you get found out ’cause you don’t make any money.”

“[Although] aikido [is] probably the most obvious martial art to teach you principles for recruitment, the thing that’s missing is that tempering of ego, ’cause you never test it.”

Photo by: Freddie Marriage

The final point Simon made was about simplicity and basics:

“This is one of my principles for life:, We think to get better, we have to acquire more knowledge. The reality is you don’t. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” So, my view of the world is you need to have an awareness of all of this stuff, but actually, you need to do four or five things really, really, really well, and drill the hell out of these four or five things.”

Simon brought up many points about martial arts that can be applied to recruitment that I never thought about. For me, it always comes back to “resilience.” Simon, who was also a great student of the Japanese language, often brought up a famous Japanese saying during the aikido course, 七転び八起き (nana korobi, ya oki), which translates to, “Fall down seven times, get up eight times.” That certainly applies to martial arts and recruiting. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall. What matters is that you get back up every time.


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