My guest today on Punk Rock HR is Symphony Talent CEO Kermit Randa. Listeners who work in human resources or employer branding know Symphony Talent as an organization focused on recruitment marketing, creative branding and much more that helps companies identify and hire the right people. Hiring with integrity is what they’re all about.

In this episode, Kermit and I talk about all things recruitment marketing, employer branding and the future of work — including what it’s like to be hiring right now and into 2023.

Kermit is a seasoned, results-driven CEO who strives to help businesses bring real change to their processes. “It’s easy to focus on what’s not going well and there’s enough of that in the world today,” he says, “but we are leveraging technology in ways we have never done before to connect with people.”

Punk Rock HR is proudly underwritten by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is a B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head over to

Staying Awake Because of HR’s Challenges

We know that the past few years have been tough on everybody. But HR and talent practitioners face more challenges than ever: a potential recession, finding qualified talent and constant pressure to adopt new technologies.

“I think that all HR leaders and talent leaders find themselves in the spot where they’re dealing with new pressures all the time and constantly having to adapt,” Kermit says. “They need to create new processes, harness technology, get a better view of data and do it faster — but they need to do that while they’re doing their day jobs.”

Kermit questions whether “change” is the right word to describe all the challenges facing HR leaders as we close 2022. “One thought that I just cannot get away from is, and this may be semantics, but it’s really not change. Change implies this sort of incremental thing; it is total transformation. It is not the same as it was before,” Kermit says.

The transformation is seen most vividly in what today’s younger generations expect out of work, especially employees who spent their first years in the workforce working remotely and have never known anything else.

“If you’re anywhere between 16 and 60, you’ve literally redefined what it is to work and where it is to work. The talent groups right now have to find that inherent connection between what people want implicitly inside them and to get to tie that to the soul of a company, so that where I work is an important extension of who I am,” Kermit says.

That is not necessarily bad, but it is a fundamental shift in mindset and increases the degree of difficulty for companies looking to hire.

Transforming the Candidate Process

Symphony Talent surveyed high-level talent and HR professionals about what they needed to make their jobs easier. The survey found, in order, that the top three concerns were:

  1. A lack of skilled workers.
  2. Outdated and inefficient processes and technologies.
  3. Inability to create connections with candidates.

One way Symphony Talent has tackled these concerns is through the acquisition of the recruitment marketing technology company SmashFly, an innovator in candidate relationship management. Symphony has leveraged this acquisition to create “measurable objectives” for all its customers, Kermit says.

In that survey, Symphony also asked, “How important is it to combine things like branding and agency and candidate outreach?” Kermit says. “92% of them said, ‘Very interesting to pull all that together. We would love to pull all that together.”

Practicing Resilience

If we end up in a recession, that’s only going to make hiring more important. Companies need to figure out who they are as a talent brand so, when they do compete for talent in a scarce talent market, they make strong hiring decisions.

“When we do come out of a recession, the tension’s only going to go up to get the right people,” Kermit says. “Because the people you do hire are this much more important now, especially if you’re laying off on one side and hiring on another. You got to get those people right.”

Despite all these challenges, Kermit believes that HR leaders will find a way.

“Everybody’s just not gonna sit down and say, “I guess there’s a recession, so we might as well just wait it out.’ They’re going to be resilient and figure things out, just like they did in the pandemic. And HR is sitting in the middle of that.”

[bctt tweet=”‘If you’re anywhere between 16 and 60, you’ve literally redefined what it is to work and where it is to work.’ ~ @kermit_randa, CEO, @SymphonyTalent_. Tune in to the latest episode of #PunkRockHR!” via=”no”]

People in This Episode

Kermit Randa: LinkedIn, Twitter, Symphony Talent website

Full Transcript

Laurie Ruettimann:

This episode of Punk Rock HR is sponsored by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to

Hey everybody, I’m Laurie Ruettimann. Welcome back to Punk Rock HR. My guest this week is Kermit Randa. He’s the CEO of Symphony Talent. Symphony Talent is focused on recruitment marketing, creative branding, services and strategy, and technology to identify and hire people, and hire them with integrity. On today’s episode, Kermit and I talk about all things recruitment marketing. We talk about employer branding, but we also talk about what it’s like to hire people in 2022 in the fourth quarter with an impending recession, and how to do this beautifully and with absolute integrity in 2023 to get the right people in the right jobs to move your organization forward.

So if you’re interested in that conversation, and I know you are, please sit back and enjoy this chat with Kermit Randa from Symphony Talent on this week’s Punk Rock HR. Hey Kermit, welcome to the podcast.

Kermit Randa:

Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Yeah, I’m pleased to have you here. Before we get started talking about all things talent and human resources, why don’t you tell us just very briefly who you are and what you’re all about?

Kermit Randa:

On the human side I guess, born in Ohio, I live in Atlanta, father of three and generally happy to be part of a truly wonderful family. For the work side, I’m here at Symphony Talent as their chief executive officer, where we help companies find their most vital asset: their people. We do that by bringing together creative services, technology and expertise. So I guess in some rank, like all of us, I’m trying to do the best I can for our communities, our partner, be a good parent, a respectable coach and all the other dot, dot, dot that there is in life.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well, God love you, Kerm. I mean, you’re making an effort. I love it. I love to see it. I’m really interested in the work that you do because you lead a dynamic organization, and you talk to people in the world of talent and people operations all day, every day. So I wonder, what’s going good, and what’s keeping people up at night?

Kermit Randa:

It’s easy to focus on what’s not going well, and there’s enough of that in the world today, but we are leveraging technology in ways we have never done before to connect with people. I guess that comes into what’s not working, we’ll cover that in a second. But I think people are finding new ways to connect, and they’re finding their way through a very challenging time. I don’t know when it becomes not cool to talk about the pandemic anymore, but the reality is, everybody’s finding their way. What’s cool about it, might be hard, but they are finding their way and they are doing things. There might be missteps along the way, but people are evolving, and that’s, I think, very exciting to see. Even just listening to some of your other podcasts and some of the other folks, people are having what, 35,000 decisions to make a day?

Laurie Ruettimann:

Right. Melina Palmer. That’s right. Yeah.

Kermit Randa:

I was exhausted right there, but I listened to — a wonderful, wonderful podcast by the way — the last couple have been great. But people are burdened, right? They’re finding their way. They’re finding their way, and that’s exciting.

Laurie Ruettimann:

So tell me a little bit about some of the challenges because you have a unique take. You’re dealing with people who are truly in the trenches doing the work. So there’s the thought leader perspective on what’s keeping people up at night, but then there’s the actual perspective of seeing it firsthand. So what’s keeping these practitioners up at night?

Kermit Randa:

The past few years have been tough on everybody, but we’re looking at super-tight job markets, increasing demands and expectations from employees, threat of recession. Either we’re in a recession or one’s coming, no one really knows. You’ve got the salary issues and then the uncertainty of what big challenges in the world is going to come next. I mean, we had the pandemic of course, then there’s a war in Ukraine, and then there’s the Great Resignation. So what’s the next thing?

HR leaders and talent leaders find themselves in the spot where they’re dealing with new pressures all the time and constantly having to adapt. They know they need to create new process, harness technology, get a better view of data and do it faster, but they need to do that while they’re doing their day job. So they’re thinking — the phrase I’m using right now is “candidates to co-worker” — how do they get the right connection there? By the way, human and work, they’re all doing the same thing at home, too.

So this is universal change, and I say “change,” and right now that’s the buzzword, but one thought that I just cannot get away from, and it’s maybe semantics, but it’s really not, change. Change implies this incremental thing. It is total transformation. It is not the same as it was before. What can you think of that is the same than it was five years ago?

Laurie Ruettimann:

No. Not much.

Kermit Randa:

Yeah, very, very little. Right? Because we’ve adapted and evolved, and businesses have figured it out. I read the other day that hospitality — I can’t fact-check this completely — but hospitality is only 25% of where it was pre-pandemic. 25%! Think about that. Now, I don’t think we ever get to 100 because businesses adapt, but that’s a lot of people. Here we are in the face of potential recession, and I was with a client just last week and they’re like, “Look, we’ve got to hire 20% more people per month than we used to.”

Laurie Ruettimann:

During a recession though.

Kermit Randa:

Yeah. Doubling down right now. I think it’s all these things keeping them up at night. Am I going? Am I stopping? I’m supposed to stop, but I got to do this faster. I got to do my day job, but I’ve got to be more efficient. The people aren’t the same anymore. The employees aren’t the same anymore. I think that’s such a monster difference that everybody’s trying to sort out.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well I love that, and I want to pick up on that because transformation is such an important word, and one of the ways that I see the workforce transforming for the better is through this emerging generation. I like any group of constituents that cause trouble, because it’s an opportunity for growth, right? We’ve got this new and emerging generation in the world of work that, some of them have never worked in an office, and they’re being called back to a work environment that they know nothing about. I think that transformation makes us better. What do you think about that?

Kermit Randa:

Yes, always. It just makes it really harder. Our daughter was in middle school, had a really tough time with COVID because of the schools and everything that happened with that. Now you see them moving and being very resilient and finding their way and new friends and all that, but we have to deal with the aftershock that nationally, scores have gone down. So there is a ripple effect that we got to deal with. That means you have to catch up, just like companies are trying to catch up.

Now we’ve got a recession potentially in the face of it, but I think about this generation, it’s so funny you said that. I was just having this conversation yesterday — that I can vividly remember, and if the person is listening to your podcast now, then you know who you are, I say it with love and support. I can vividly remember about five, six years ago interviewing somebody, and as a requirement for them wanting to come to work, they needed to be able to make sure they could take off time to focus on their dog hostel that they wanted.

So I’m a Generation X guy, I’m getting up there. The thought that this was an interview, I was being interviewed to see if I could create time and space in addition to the PTO so that we could focus on the dog hostel. We have two dogs, I’m a fan of dogs, all good. Nothing against the dog community, but in a million years, it would’ve never dawned to me to ever ask that question. Right?

Five or seven years ago, you might have said, “Millennials, crazy, whatever. Got to figure it out. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them,” kind of a thing. But maybe they were onto something because post-pandemic now here we are. If you’re anywhere between 16 and 60, you’ve literally redefined what it is to work and where it is to work. The talent groups right now have to find that inherent connection between what people want implicitly inside them and to get to tie that to the soul of a company, so that where I work is an important extension of who I am. That didn’t exist before, and it does now, and I think it is for the better, but it makes it a hell of a lot harder to stick the landing on getting that candidate to be a co-worker. It’s just a very different mindset.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well, and the journey from candidate to co-worker is redefined essentially because we’ve redefined what it means to be a worker. We used to lie to people and say, “If you join our company, we’re going to give you some job security. You’ll be here five to seven years, we’ll train you, we’ll school you up, we’ll give you the skills.” Now we’re having a different conversation around what it means to work, whether it’s remote work, hybrid work, part-time work, flexible work, gig work, full-time work, right? All these definitions are changing. So that’s one big challenge, I think, for both HR and the job seeker, but I wonder, what do you see as truly the next big challenge in the world of work?

Kermit Randa:

You can’t answer that question without thinking about whatever the recession is and however that impacts everybody, right? There’s going to be some tightening of some new job postings as we’re seeing. There’s layoffs, but that frees up more people to go to other areas that are still growing. But I think that the scarcity of talent is still going to be a huge, huge issue for HR recruiters and hiring teams. I think the reality is, as they hire people — the quality and the pacing, getting the right person in the right job to be able to make an impact even faster for when we do come out of a recession, the tension’s only going to go up to get the right people. Because the people you do hire are this much more important now, especially if you’re laying off on one side and hiring on another. You got to get those people right.

I mean, I was having a conversation with a CEO of another company who — a very dialed into household name — and I was asking him what his recovery looks like. “You’ve been in the job 24 years, what happens when the economy recovers? Is it interest rates-related?” He said, “No, we see it almost immediately. It’s not interest rate-related, but when the market starts to turn, we feel it because of what they do. When it comes back, it comes back super-fast.”

The challenge then is between then and now, making sure every hire that you make is essential but also can hit the ground running to some extent so they help you get through the nod of the recession.

So I think this volatility is going to be tough because it’s going to create some rubber bands and tension on “hire here, go down here.” Like we said, just like the school scores, companies are trying to come back to fill up what they lost during the pandemic, and now this is one more thing.

Everybody’s just not going to sit down and say, “I guess there’s a recession, so we might as well just wait it out.” They’re going to be resilient and figure things out just like they did in the pandemic, and HR is sitting in the middle of that. That might even mean retraining, hiring, redeploying. There’s a whole history — internal mobility — all of that stuff. They’re sitting right in the middle of that.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well Kermit, the answer to that used to be, well let’s gear HR up with some technology. Let’s just throw some tech at them, and let’s get through this really difficult time. Earlier in the conversation, we talked about some of the biggest challenges, and technology can indeed be a blessing, but sometimes it’s a curse. So talk to me a little bit about your perspective on that tension because you see that firsthand.

Kermit Randa:

Yeah. I think the curse is, at least where we live, what I call left of hire — if there’s a timeline, we kind of live in that left-of-hire spot. Payroll, benefits, all that stuff’s right of hire. We live in a world where there’s a gazillion different options you can use, technology services, whatnot, and that doesn’t work because they just don’t have the cycles to manage it. People just can’t manage all the complexity. But then when you try to go with some of the folks that are big HCM folks or ATS folks that try to spread that way, they really don’t do well in that left-of-hire space because of all of the nuances around it. Not to position the company, but if you think about what we do here at Symphony Talent, we’ve got literally a branding agency, an employer branding agency that thankfully wins awards around the world, so that’s awesome.

We’ve got to connect that, make that emotional connection, and then it’s the media, whether it’s the career website, whether it’s the CRM, all the way through to the fact that we actually do pre-employment assessments. We do all this, and then internal mobility and all that. To manage all that through different vendors is a nightmare. It is so nuanced between each one of those that we’re lucky enough that we’re the only company that has the technology that cuts through all of that. We can put one pane of glass so you can see immediately, “Is this campaign working? Is it not working? Should we advertise more here or there?”

We can do this automatically through technology and provide one pane of glass, but what we do on one dashboard is what a customer would have to have, in a more distributed world, 12 to 15 different products. It’s insanity. It’s a really unique spot that the folks that you would think the big box, one-size-does-it-all, they can’t get there because the nuances are too different and too unique. Then when you get to all the unique places, they can’t do it because it’s all strung together. You just can’t make it work. So we’re lucky enough right now to bring all that together to make it easier.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well I think that’s a really interesting point. And one of the things I wanted to talk about is how SmashFly and the acquisition of that organization has really transformed Symphony Talent. I love where you’re going with this, talking about an easier customer experience for the HR, the hiring team, to go on to see where things stand, to see what’s effective, what’s not effective, but to really get a more holistic view and understanding of the hiring process. So can you talk a little bit about your acquisition of SmashFly and how that’s really transformed not only your organization but the market in and of itself?

Kermit Randa:

Yeah, and I think there might be a little context around some data, some research that we’ve recently completed. We went out and we talked to a big group — we used an outside agency to help us do a big survey. We talked to hundreds and hundreds of folks and CHRO-level talent acquisition, and we asked them, what do you need? What’s going on? What’s amazing about this, this has a 95% confidence level. So this is really solid data. And the top concerns are lack of skilled candidates, obviously, you would think, but close to second is old processes and inefficient technologies. So the tools they have don’t work or they’re inefficient and they’re unable — the third highest was the inability to create a connection, a human connection with the candidates. So if you got that as your issue and then we ask the question “How important is it to combine things like branding and agency and candidate outreach?” 92% of them said, “Very interesting to pull all that together. We would love to pull all that together.”

So now you ask the next question of how does SmashFly help us? This is why the acquisition, again, it was done in 2019, right at the beginning of the pandemic. If you look at a calendar and say, “Pandemic starts here,” that was probably the closing day of the press release. So the company was not immune to the challenges of the pandemic, I’ll say. So they have found their way, and I’ve only been here six months, but I can tell you that was a brilliant move because now it’s all about data, data, data. We’re getting data, like I just mentioned, that’s that single pane of glass. We’re able to take companies that if you know the history of Symphony, you’ve got Hodes Group and all these other folks that are out there who among others invented recruitment marketing. Then you look at SmashFly, who among others invented candidate relationship management.

So there’s a lot of legacy and expertise tied up there that we’ve been able to pull together for data, and I think that bringing all that data that gives it one place to set measurable objectives, be able to make changes on the fly, have technology make that change for you. Again, removing some of the stuff that just people don’t have time for and letting the machines do it for them, and that way they can get better and go get the right people. Because this one talent leader told me, “By vertical, we’re all looking for the same person.”

So it’s about that experience that we talked about earlier. If you mess up on that experience — there’s some stat out there, something like if, 89% of candidates, if they find a dissonance between the message and the application process, they’ll just stop. They’re just out. And so we give data, I think, SmashFly has given us the ability to bring data and to make that even more easier so people can be more effective. Talent leaders can become more effective, and so really excited about where that’s going to go. I think we’re past all the pandemic stuff, and we’re on a tear right now and really excited about what this is going to mean literally for the industry and our customers.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well I love where this is going, because I have a prediction in 2023 that the power differential that we’ve seen, the shift to talent having power, is only going to continue even in a recession. Good people now have power. Again, I think that’s something that HR departments will have to grapple with moving forward. I wonder what your predictions are for the future when you look at this crazy market, when you look at 2023. I mean, other than talented people continuing to have a good bargaining chip, what do you see on the horizon?

Kermit Randa:

Again, this is totally off the top, but one thing I’m just fascinated by and one of the reasons I wanted to come back into this part of the industry, or this industry at all, was the fact that companies are really — I mentioned soul earlier. It was interesting, a candidate I was interviewing gave me the word and I was like, “That’s the word,” but I think companies are really grappling right now with who they are from an employer brand. A lot of people spend a lot of attention around the company brand, but you and I both [inaudible 00:17:18], we could rattle off five examples that have a very different company brand versus an employer brand. It’s a very different vibe, and I think companies are now really tuning into “We’ve got to focus on what our brand is and making sure that that pulls through all the way through interview to onboarding to whatever it might be so people don’t leave later, those good people, because they are precious.”

So I would agree with you, if you would’ve asked me, the first thing I would’ve said is the power’s in the people. There’s no question in that, but the second part of that is I think companies are now becoming more and more self-aware about “We’ve got to make sure our brand matches.” It’s not about putting pictures of the ping pong table and winter celebration on Glassdoor. It goes a little bit further than that. So I think companies right now are really kind of paying attention, and it doesn’t matter if you employ 500,000 people or whatever you are. We tend to play in the greater than 2,000 space, but I think all employers are dealing with that, so that’s number one. Two, I think finding ways just to be smarter and leveraging the same tools that you use at home, AI and think about Uber or Nest or whatever, leveraging these technologies that you use every day. Those same technologies have to be what you use at work.

I think the burden for us as technology leaders, absolutely, is it’s not our competitors that we’ve had historically. Our competitor is the person who’s like, “Why can’t this be easy like it is when I use my Nest at home” or “Why can’t this be easy when I charge up my Greenlight card for my kid,” or whatever? How come this can’t be that easy? That’s our competition, and so I’m very excited about keeping that as the bar versus whatever one of our competitors might be. So I think that’s the big change I see coming on us that people are now, with all the technology around — look, my mom can use DoorDash. She’s 84 years old, she could use DoorDash, right? She still can’t get the FaceTime camera right.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Wait, are you talking about my mom? I mean, that’s very familiar. I think about this kind of lesson that we’ve learned from the pandemic that technology, especially work technology, has to be as consumer friendly as DoorDash. I just wonder if Symphony Talent is drinking its own champagne. When your workers are out there talking about their own employee experience, are they feeling this commitment? Are they feeling as if their work experience is optimized? Are they feeling as if the company brand and the employer brand are aligned? Because I think so often I talk to technology leaders who are like, “Do as I say, not as I do.” So I don’t know. Where does Symphony Talent fall on that spectrum?

Kermit Randa:

Yeah, I don’t know that I have a great answer for that because in many ways we are still rebuilding out of the pandemic, but I would tell you that I’ve been an employee for six months, not even six months, and I am blown away by the level of commitment that people have in the company. We’ve got folks that have been with us 24, 20-plus years. They’ve had every opportunity to go do something else, but they like what they do, they love their customers.

So I don’t know that we’ve fully landed the plane. I’m very excited about what we’re planning for in 2023, and it’s budgeting season right now, so we’re doing a bunch of fun stuff, and we’re making sure that we’re funding areas that matter most. I’m seeing just in the past several months, we’ve had several projects, that real energy, that people are applying to work in different ways. So I don’t know. I don’t know that you ever land the plane. I think it would be reckless for me to answer, but I can tell you that I am astonished by the continuing commitment that the people have for the customers and what we do. That says enough right there. In this last few years’ market, they’ve had opportunities to do what they’re going to do, and they continue to go and just make a difference.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well Kermit, it was really great to learn about you, about Symphony Talent, about your products and your suite, and really your commitment to fixing work, which is what this is all about. So people want to learn more about you or the organization. Where do you want to send them?

Kermit Randa:

Well first, thank you very much. I mean, the opportunity to work on a team to help teams that ultimately help people change their destinies, it doesn’t really get better than this in terms of good stuff to do. But no, I’m at I’m literally the only Kermit here. You can feel free to reach out there or certainly LinkedIn. Would love to connect with anybody that wants to have a chat.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Amazing. We’ll have all of your good stuff in the show notes, and I just wanted to say thanks again for being a guest on the podcast.

Kermit Randa:

You got it. This was great. Keep up the good work. You’re doing good stuff here.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Hey everybody. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Punk Rock HR. We are proudly underwritten by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to Punk Rock HR is produced and edited by Rep Cap with special help from Michael Thibodeaux and Devin McGrath. For more information, show notes, links and resources, head on over to Now, that’s all for today, and I hope you enjoyed it. We’ll see you next time on Punk Rock HR.