10 Things Anyone Can Learn From Proven’s CEO Louis Song

This month marks the 10th Anniversary of Proven Recruiting. Since starting the company with Ingram Losner in 2007, we’ve grown from seven original employees to more than 200 core employees and consultants across the US.  

During these last 10 years, we’ve experienced our share of growth, adversity, luck, and life events – including the passing of one of our founding members, Jason Collins, as well the Great Recession.  We’ve opened (and closed) offices, matured from startup to established business, trained hundreds of recruiters, and helped tens of thousands of companies and people move forward in their businesses and careers. We’ve also learned our share of lessons through mistakes – both big and small.  

Building a company from the ground up has taught me a lot, as well as how much more there is to learn. What follows are 10 defining lessons learned while turning a vision into reality.

1. Recruit the right people.

Someone once told me that the most important decision I’d make in life would be choosing my life partner.  Both personally and professionally, I’ve been blessed to have partners who have complimented my strengths and weaknesses.

One common thread is the guiding principles we live by: Make $hit Happen, Do the Right Thing, Celebrate Success, Give Back, and Try. Learn. Grow. Repeat. These aren’t just nice words on our website. They’re the way we choose to approach life and business.  We’ve had our share of disagreements and challenges but knowing that my partners are grounded in the same principles has always provided me with the confidence that we would work things out.

From life and business partners to friends, to employees: the people we recruit to surround ourselves with have a direct effect on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. These are the people whose attitudes, beliefs, and habits will bleed into and shape our own.  That’s why I choose wisely when selecting a partner of any kind. Indeed, long before I had the courage to leave the corporate world and start Proven Recruiting, I watched my wife Lee Ann Kim start and run the San Diego Asian Film Festival, which soon grew to be the 3rd largest Asian Film Festival in the US. Recruiting and surrounding ourselves with people who inspire and challenge us is essential for both professional success and personal fulfillment.

2. Decide and take action.

As recruiters, we’re always asking “What do you want to do next in your career?”  Regardless of experience, many people respond with, “I can do X and Y but I can’t really decide between the two.”  Maybe the better question is “What do you want out of life?”

In growing this company, I’ve learned that we’re going to be faced with a myriad of choices each and every day.  “Do we go after this line of business?  Should we hire this person or the other person, or not hire at all?”  Or for individuals, “Should I take the job with company A or should I take the job with company B?” I’ve come to realize that we’ll never have all the answers. If we’re lucky, we get 80% of the information regarding a decision, or even less at times. After carefully considering the facts, we have to stop deliberating and make a decision.

Right or wrong, action moves people and companies.  Analysis paralysis keeps things stagnant, and doing nothing can at times make things worse.  In most cases, it’s not the choice that counts as much as the work and dedication following the decision.  

3. Setbacks are unavoidable.

From the outside, it’s only human nature to see our awards and our people and to think that we’ve had it easy. That’s because time isn’t transparent – you can’t see the past ten years, the 30,000+ hours of effort and countless, sometimes heartbreaking setbacks along with successes. In a Facebook world where everyone else seems to be getting promoted while being on vacation all the time, it’s natural to think others have had it easy.

Some people do start with more but anyone that’s achieved anything worthwhile also has endured pain along the journey as well. There were months and sometimes years when it seemed like we kept making the wrong decisions or couldn’t get out of our own way.  In the last year alone, we’ve endured the death of a founder/friend, the departure of our #1 recruiter, and the closure of an entire division.  Sometimes the success we celebrate is getting up one more time than we’ve been knocked down.

I’ve been doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for nearly 10 years as well and three years ago, I won a Gold medal at the National Championship and last year, silver at the World Championship. If you saw my Facebook pictures (yes, I’m guilty too) you wouldn’t have seen the first six years where I lost nearly every single match AND competition while enduring countless injuries including torn labrum in both my shoulders, a separated rib and broken hand (hit by a bus – topic for another blog).

4. Knowledge is useless. 

When we first started the company, “experts, coaches, and consultants” told us what we were doing right and especially what we were doing wrong.  We were given advice on everything from strategy to hiring to systems.  When I asked them about their experience starting and growing their own company with their own money, I was often met with “uh, eh, well, you know . . .”

Very few people truly know what it’s like to leave the security of the corporate world and to bet your entire life savings on a new business. THAT will teach you something. Knowledge can be obtained from classes, books, and podcasts, but the skills of working with real people and navigating complex situations can only be developed through action. Knowledge us useless. What matters is how you apply that knowledge, what you learn from your experience and how you do better next time. 

5. Balance is bullshit.

Superman, Superwoman; they don’t exist. No one can do everything and be their best selves at all times. It’s just not feasible: you can’t be the hardest working employee, the best spouse, the most devoted parent, and in perfect physical shape all at once.

There’s no right way to do life, but there are more and less healthy ways to define your own success. We have to accept the fact that “Work/Life Balance” doesn’t really exist. We can’t compartmentalize ideas of ‘work’ and ‘life’ – especially considering the fact that the average American spends more than 90,000 hours working over the course of a 50-year career.

Instead, I’ve found it useful to imagine life as portioned into seasons. Maybe you’re going through a season of great professional growth and other ambitions like traveling have to be put on the back-burner. Or maybe you’re experiencing some personal changes and challenges – marriage, a baby, or serious illness – and work is having to take a backseat.

Work is an extremely important and integral part of life.  It provides a sense of purpose, of community, and a way of providing for ourselves and our families.  Ideally, work is the platform, the vehicle that allows us to pursue our passions, whether that’s to travel the world, to become financially independent, or to rescue animals.  ‘Elevating life through meaningful work is something we support for our employees, our clients, and our community.

6. Do the right thing.

We founded Proven Recruiting with something to prove: we wanted to show that it’s possible to grow a successful company based on the principle of treating people right. “Right” for us is defined as maintaining transparency, setting and keeping commitments, and talking with people instead of talking at them.  We strive to create an environment where our employees are our first customers and not an afterthought.  “Increasing shareholder value” is important but it sucks as a rallying cry to motivate employees who want to make a real difference in the world.  

One of the biggest issues with today’s digital world of online ordering, emailing, and faceless conversations, is how hard it is to get a human being on the phone – especially someone willing to work with you to solve your problems.  When discussing our customer service policies, the question I always ask our employees is “would we want to treat our mother, father, or best friend like this?”  If the answer isn’t a resounding yes, we know something needs to change.

Looking for a new job can be extremely stressful and for most people, it’s a foreign experience that can be hard to navigate. To help, we make it our priority to answer each and every call, rather than rerouting them to an automated call service. Though we’re only able to place a small percentage of people, we are committed to helping, in some way, 100% of the people who get in contact with us. Whether it’s recommending our Resume Workshop, offering dedicated help improving their LinkedIn profile, or connecting them with other agencies specializing in their field, we’re passionate about providing value in every interaction.

7. Work your ass off AND don’t be so hard on yourself.

I’ve never been the most eloquent, outgoing, or smartest person in the room. My college GPA was 2.7/4.0.  Truth is, many of the skills I’ve eventually gotten good at have started out slowly.  While most recruiters make their first placement in their third month, it took me nearly five. I used to constantly beat myself up for not being as fast or as smart or as good as my peers.  I often questioned whether or not I was good enough or if people would think I was a fraud.

The one thing I’ve never been criticized for is my work ethic. I worked six days a week and averaged 60+ hours/week for the first two years of my recruiting career – just trying to catch up.  When starting Proven, I worked even harder.  If I wasn’t with the family and sometimes even when I was, I was working on growing the company. From configuring computers, to coaching our employees, to developing training programs,  I never felt that I could do enough.

As the business solidified and our team got stronger, I eventually accepted the fact that I would never catch up.  There would always be more work and it would consume me if I didn’t apply limits.  This is a realization many eventually come to; you have to accept that there’s no such thing as “enough,” there’s no “catching up” to life. Put in the work, keep moving forward, and don’t be so hard on yourself.

8. Solve problems.

It’s only human to try to convince others of your worldview. From politics, to applying for a job, to attracting new clients, so much of our focus is turned inwards – toward our services and products – instead of toward the person or people sitting across from us.  “Hire me because I’m a fast learner” or “work at our company because we’re the most highly rated firm on Yelp.”  So what?

One of the more important lessons that I’ve learned is that EVERYONE has problems that need to be solved – not just you. Whether it’s a CEO that’s considering a strategic acquisition or the mid-career professional who wants more time with their children, all of us have an issue that we could use help with.  The tough part, as applicants, as hiring managers, or as salespeople, is getting past the initial wall of NO.  

If you’re one of the 200 people/day trying to sell me something and your email or voicemail is all about you, your company, and your services, you won’t get through to me. Social media, Google, and whole host of other tools allow us to conduct personalized research like never before. If you do even a little research on me and my interests, and offer to help me win my next jiu jitsu tournament, I’m all ears.

My advice? Get past the ‘wall of NO’ with personalization, genuine interest, and actual solutions. Don’t be another generic salesperson.

9. Life doesn’t get easier; you get stronger.

A 50 lb weight never gets lighter. The 26.2 mile marathon never gets any shorter.

You get stronger.

Whether we put the effort in working at the gym or working at the office, sharpening and improving the quality of our skills strengthens emotional, mental, and physical muscles. It’s a fallacy to think that with experience, life gets easier – even if it appears that way. But give yourself credit where it’s due; with deliberate practice and patience, you got smarter, faster, more knowledgeable. You put in the effort and eventually the work seems easier. It’s a matter of effort and perception over time.

10. Real leaders create leaders.   

Transitioning from an employee to a business owner has been an evolving process. Only now, after nearly 20 years in a leadership position, am I really understanding the true meaning and value of leadership. It means that when something fails in our company, it directly reflects on the way in which I’ve selected, trained, and engaged my employees. I’ve learned to take complete ownership of mistakes and to put systems into place to prevent them from being repeated.

Ultimately, real leadership is more about creating leaders than simply being one. The final test is what happens with the organization once the current leaders are gone.  Does the company flounder or does it continue to grow and flourish?  We’re now actively working on building a legacy of leadership, rather than a company based on two leaders.

We can’t wait to see what the next 10 years have in store!

About the author:

Louis Song_CEO_Proven Recruiting-01Louis Song 
Co-Founder & CEO, Proven Recruiting

With more than 20 years of experience in Information Systems Analysis, Technology Recruiting and Sales Management, Louis is the driving force behind Proven Recruiting’s innovative culture and award-winning staffing services.  

Since co-founding the company in 2007, Louis has grown Proven Recruiting from seven original founders to more than 200 core employees and consultants spanning offices in San Diego, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Previously, Louis was a Managing Director for one of the largest staffing companies in the country. He managed an office of more than 70 people that generated more than $40M a year. Louis graduated from the American University in Washington D.C. with a BA in Psychology. He is active in local business and community organizations as a board member of the Asian Business Association (www.aba-sd.org), and Pacific Arts Movement (www.pac-arts.org).  

Have a question for Louis? Ask him in the comments below!