Rod: This month my head-to-head partner is Rob Davidson, founder and Director of Davidson Recruitment in Brisbane.
Rob, we have the opportunity to discuss Leadership in the recruitment industry. We agree that the industry, on average, does not value leadership and does not invest in developing leadership capability.
Rob: That’s right. There are a number of reasons for this, the most obvious of which is that we, the industry, I mean, continually make the age old mistake of promoting the big billers into leadership positions. We all know that big billers often make the worst leaders but that doesn’t seem to stop us continually falling into the same trap. To compound this problem, the barriers to entry are so low in recruitment, it is very easy to do a start up. And guess what, these start ups are often done by the disgruntled big billers who think they can earn more money on their own. This means that a lot of the micro recruitment companies are run by people whose strengths lie in billing rather than leading and growing businesses. I think that is one of the main reasons why this is still largely a cottage industry.
Another contributing factor which we have been addressing in our business is that what money is spent on leadership training is often directed towards the senior management whereas the real need is to provide training at the practice leader level – your first leadership role.
Rod: You have been an agency owner for a long time. What do you wish you had done differently in the early days?
Rob: Well I didn’t invest enough in myself in the early days. When I started I didn’t know much about accounting or cash flow or marketing and I certainly didn’t know about the importance of leadership for an organisation’s success. To get out of trouble and stay out of trouble requires an investment in your own skills and capabilities. Some characteristics are inherent in a person, but most can be learned.
I needed someone to sit beside me and make sure I didn’t believe my own noise. If we had a business coach or an executive coach in those early days we would have developed ourselves and our company a lot quicker and with less mistakes.
Watch The Ego
Rod: While it is a generalisation, it seems that the characteristics that make a great recruiter also make it more difficult for those people to also be good leaders. It is difficult for a driven sales-oriented person to put their ego aside, act with humility and genuinely listen to those around them and accept that feedback.
Rob: Yes, I think this is true in any sales based culture. That egoic energy you use in a ‘sales’ role is often the antithesis of the energy needed to be a good leader. It is worth pasting a copy of Jim Collins definition of the best leaders – Level 5 leaders, as he terms them, above your desk. These are the humble, quiet leaders, who lead from behind and take pride in their team’s achievements. I think this is the biggest obstacle for new leaders – you probably got promoted because you were a great individual performer and now you have to give the credit to your team. It hurts, but the thing most leaders fail to understand is that a leader does not build a business; a leader builds a team and the team builds the business.
As for listening and taking feedback that is the key to success as a leader. No-one is ever very good when first they try to lead. It is a tough gig, and that fastest way to improve is to provide a safe environment for your team to give you feedback without recriminations.
Build the Team
Rod: We see the success-driven characteristics emerge in other areas. For example, it is difficult to hire staff who are smarter than you and to hire staff that have different characteristics to you. Doing that has been shown to be a key factor in successful organisations.
An emphasis on building the team rather than building your personal success environment is a key to growth and a key to sustainability. There are too many examples of recruitment agencies that are artificially constrained by the actions of the key people – those agencies often stay at the level of glorified personal services businesses.
Rob: Over the years I have made many mistakes, but I am pleased to say that one thing I have done consistently well is to recruit people who are smarter/better than me. Some would say that is not hard to do in my case. Being a good leader starts with really understanding your own strengths and weaknesses and building a team to compliment you. In my case, I am good with strategy and vision and weak on execution and follow through. My business did not grow until I started to employ people who are better than me in those key areas. To be honest, I think leadership and success have far more to do with execution than with strategy.
Industry Structural Changes
Rod: There is no doubt that the recruitment industry in Australia and New Zealand is going through major structural changes. When you throw some economic uncertainty over the top of that it is a tough time for recruitment agency leaders. The recruitment industry is maturing and becoming more influenced by global events. What you did last year will not be good enough for next year and your organisation needs great leadership to prosper.
Rob: It is certainly becoming more important to be less insular and to invest in yourself and your company. A good question for an agency owner is: outside of your tax accountant, who has reviewed your business. We have recently invested significant money in an external consultant to review and challenge every aspect of our existing business model. This has been some of the best money we have spent. The result has been a substantial shift in our strategy away from a transactional, single location recruitment firm towards a recruiting AND consulting business with a national and perhaps, a global focus. This has required a massive reinvestment which has not been easy in these times, but I can’t see an alternative. Failure to innovate in these times probably means an eventual failure of your business. And yes, this does take good leadership at every level of the organisation to execute such a massive change.
A good leader in today’s world would also be investing significant time and energy to fully understand the forces impacting his/her business at both a structural and economic level. I would advocate getting out of your office and attending both local and international conferences if time and finances permit. The internet is a great source of information but there is no substitute for actually meeting colleagues and forming relationships. The beauty about conferences is that you often meet people from interstate or overseas with whom you do not compete. This presents a great opportunity to form incredibly valuable alliances with people who will share a level of information with you they would never tell a direct competitor.
Rod: What would be your take-away for those reading this article?
5 Suggestions For An Aspiring Leader
Rob: Here are my top 5 suggestions:
- To lead others, first you must truly understand yourself. Invest in some good psych assessments to understand your strengths and weaknesses as a leader.
- Leaders are learners – leaders are readers. What are you reading today?
- Create a safe environment to receive and respond to feedback.
- Invest in a business coach, or join one of the supportive groups like The Executive Connection (TEC) or Entrepreneurs Organisation (EO).
- Commit to a continuous journey of self improvement, “We are all in permanent Beta” Reid Hoffman.
Rob Davidson is the Founder and Director of Growth of Davidson Recruitment. Rob started this company 21 years ago when he left the law to commence what was then, a legal recruitment business. Since that time, the company has grown to be one the largest privately owned recruitment firms in Australia.
Originally Published in Recruitment Extra May 2013