It’s just over two years since I took the helm, as MD at Larson Group and to say that time has flown by fast would be an understatement.
I have learned so much about business and myself, so this blog is a snapshot of some of the key lessons.
I have never been one to simply follow the crowd, nor have I been one to follow the trends (you’d know this if you could see in my wardrobe!) but I can honestly say that change is something I have constantly embraced.
‘Meta’ is the Greek word for change and ‘Phobos’ is Greek for fear, and I can safely say that the last two years have been off the ‘Meta’ scale! The ‘Phobos’ I initially experienced has now become the driving force behind the companies’ attitude towards success.
After being approached by our founder Peter Robinson to take complete control of day to day running of the business, I entered a business that needed a fresh direction and focus, and a clear and innovative vision for the future.
In fact, the plan appeared to be “continue what we have done in the past and hope for the same or better results”. As we know this is Einstein’s Theory of Insanity.
For sure, if hope was the plan, it was not working.
The markets we were working in were no longer lucrative and most of the staff had little or no training, and when coupled with the level of intransigence within the business, to all intents and purposes I was starting an agency from new.
The recruitment landscape across the UK had become more and more entrenched, contingency recruitment had matured at 15% fees (now considered the norm) and the one thing that I learned early in my career is that “If everyone is going in the same direction, for those brave enough to stop and turn around, there are huge rewards to be had”. Whilst true, it is not as easy as one might think. I would say it could be likened to cutting down a Giant Redwood with a penknife, doable but very time consuming and requiring lots of determination and effort.
In business, time is never on your side and this business needed a drastic overhaul. The lack of solid direction and general malaise among certain staff needed breaking,
So why take the risk? Why not simply follow the crowd and compete with all the other recruitment agencies out there? Why challenge the norm?
On many a sleepless night I sat in the dark thinking, “am I leading the business in the right direction?” Is it only me that can see the change in the market? If the recruitment market fails to react quickly and change, then the chances of success in the future will decline drastically.
I worried that we would not survive to tell the tale. No wonder my hair has fallen out and I now have more lines on my face than an A4 sheet.
The journey over the past two years has proven that many clients have shared and backed my view of the changing market and I am pleased to say that many of those clients are now seeing the advantage of us leading the change and not doing the same old same old. What is even more pleasing is that my team are now seeing that ‘Meta’ is a good thing and we shouldn’t experience ‘Phobos’ at all.
As many clients build in-house recruitment teams that are embracing talented people with the latest technology and global recruiters offer cheap ‘RPO’ Outsourced or Master Vendor solutions the traditional low hanging fruit that the SME recruiters lived off is drying up fast.
The effects are now being seen with the percentage fees under pressure and being driven down further. It appears to me that the only difference between many recruitment agencies out there are its’ people! After all, if we recruiters are honest there is not much that is truly unique in our industry anymore. To me this simply said one thing, change is required, otherwise, the SME general recruitment agency sector will become the next Blockbusters?
I kept hearing in the office “but we have always done it like this”.
To me, that simply doesn’t cut it anymore, the world had moved on, but recruitment appeared to be stuck in 1900’s.
Consider just how much IT has changed the business world since the mid 90’s? Look at how we now communicate, letter > fax > Windows 95 > www > social media > AI (what’s next) and yet traditional recruitment still follows the same processes that were around at the start of the 20th century, with the exception of sending CV’s (post, fax, email). In the main, we still offer the same service on a contingency basis and two years ago I asked myself, does this truly add value to our clients and candidates?
Some may say a little ‘Meta’ can go a long way and that if you want to make the engine run more efficiently, then you need to get under the bonnet.
I looked at every process and I cut costs and invested heavily in areas that needed that investment.
This radical process massively changed the business.
I replaced the ‘old frivolous overspending’ on vanity products, with state of the art cloud-based software and business processes that truly created a demonstrable and easy to identify return on investment (without adding any extra cost).
For such a small agency our non-personnel costs were ridiculously high and our business processes were simply not fit for purposes.
These changes have streamlined the business, creating new strategies and processes that clients can truly see as beneficial to their recruitment processes.
One massive leap was changing Larson Group from spending 100% of our time working on contingent fees, to now writing 90% of our permanent fee income as either retained or exclusive, and this is only the start of a massive mission accomplished on our road to recovery and growth.
These changes are now setting us apart from the competition and moving us further and further away from the old traditional contingency mindset. ‘Phobos’ has been replaced with focus, and a strong mindset in believing in our services and capability. We can now truly offer recruitment services that are different.
It took real strength and resilience but I implemented a ‘WIP’ policy or walk away point in the business and we have walked away from many clients in the last two years new and old. Some in the business thought this was a crazy idea but after two hard years the results now vindicate the “Meta”.
With no stone unturned all our back-office business processes have now been streamlined, massively benefiting the business; the evolution of our offering to candidates and clients has been continually honed, developed, and trained to ensure it has become the first thought process of the business.
My first question was ‘why work for free’? Why work against those agencies who are brilliant at that contingency model, when you can focus on the roles they simply cannot and will not fill! Why simply offer a client an old and antiquated fee structure when they are looking for innovative solutions that meet their needs? Why simply offer the standard recruitment solution, when you can provide so much more, creating value for client and candidates along the way? Why simply stop at recruitment when you can provide staffing solutions other than recruitment? Why chase every client (what’s the recruitment stat, on average every agency fills 2 out of 10 jobs they take on), when you should only work with those who genuinely engage with you as a true partner?
We walked away from nearly 80% of the client base I inherited when I joined in April 2016 which was a brave decision. Why work with clients who demand 100’s of CV’s but never actually come back to you on 99% of them and who continually need chasing for payment of invoices? Who continually demand reductions in fees and treat you as a commodity, and who have multiple agencies feeding them candidates as well?
Pleasingly we still work with a select few clients from when I took over and whilst our new client base has been very hard work to build, challenging the norm takes time.
The journey has resulted in 90% percent of our new clients working with us exclusively and using us to truly headhunt the best candidates from the market, using a completely different approach to 99% of the recruitment marketplace.
This has reduced our drop-outs last year to single figures (almost all from our old contingency clients), and in fact over the last two years our retention rates for new starters is running at 96%, a massive selling point to our clients.
We have embraced Social Media and have worked hard on ways of using it to build our candidate attraction process. We have offered clients an alternative recruitment solution, one of our innovative approaches was nominated for APSCo best client initiative award in 2017, again vindicating our about turn.
Our cloud-based CRM is now our first port of call for candidates and marketing. My team has no working hours, unlimited holidays and our technology and systems allow them to work from anywhere in the world, which due to the trust we have in each other and they have a great work life balance.
We work in such a collaborative environment where we all feed off each other, which has increased our skill-sets both physically and mentally, and has benefited both our clients and candidates.
I am not saying the “Meta” has been easy and along the way we have hit many obstacles, overcome many hurdles and waded through plenty of s**t but we have created an agency which is moving in a completely different direction to the norm. We continually measure our performance, systems and output but we don’t place meaningless KPI’s on people. We measure everything however to see if it provides us with a return on investment.
They say there is no sentiment in business and I have to agree, every supplier has to add something to our business and not simply become a drain. Every process has to create meaningful activity leading us to be the best of breed in this industry and everyone in my team has to live by that mantra. In simple terms, the ‘Phobos’ created by the ‘Meta’ has created a good return on investment.
Every part of the business has been changed and improved with new accounting systems, new electronic time sheeting systems, new recruitment advertising systems, new recruitment CRM, new working strategy, new website, new office, new defined markets, and a new desire from all within to drive this business ethos into everything we do.
Along the way, I have had lots of help, after all, no man is an island!
We have a great NED in place who keeps me on the straight and narrow (together we build on our creative recruitment ideas, as I also do consultancy work for other agencies), and our system providers have been nothing short of brilliant in helping us connect all our systems together, creating a seamless environment.
My team has simply been awesome and have been involved in every single change, being the true driving force behind our ‘Meta’.
Our candidates have had nothing but praise for the different recruitment process and how involved they feel in what is after all their journey.
Being a manager is not a science: when things are going well, dare you ‘Meta’ things to ensure growth? When things are not going well do you have the conviction to ‘Meta’ or do you bury your head in the sand?
My experiences have shown me that either way you are always working against the elements; second-guessing the market place and competition. You can only control what you can control and you can only do your best! But to truly be successful in business I have found leadership is also about ensuring your team understands the plans and where you are heading, because only then will everyone have a chance of success. Two years down the line, I now stand at that point, which is all credit to the team around me, for which I am truly thankful.
My penknife is still working away at that Giant Redwood, but the light is now shining among the trees and the pathway is clear for some serious growth in the business.
So ‘Metathesiophobia’ is something to drive a business because in order to stand out from the crowd ‘Meta’ is a necessity and should not be feared.