When I was young monsters were scary things in your cupboards not internet job portals. Pete Fellows Reports.
This is the second part of an article I published earlier in the year primarily about my early days in recruitment. I’m not really sure why I’m writing them exactly, possibly self-aggrandisement, or to highlight how different (or similar) recruitment was back then, or so you can get to know me better and perhaps by extension where Fellows and Associates’ philosophies were formed. It’s probably the first one though. I do have a very high opinion of myself. In case I haven’t mentioned it - I’m awesome.
Fellows and Associates is five years’ old in August and in that time I’ve had two kids, we’ve moved offices quite a few times and I once saw a 1930/40s steam train pull into Wakefield station for no reason. Seriously it was completely random. Here's a photo.
So on to part two. To recap from where I was in part one – I had been talking about my career with Manpower and how it was at a point where recruitment companies were really beginning to use technology to complement the process. Manpower had invested in technology extensively, very much to their credit. As a sidebar I can say that working at Manpower was one of the most fun periods of my working life, it was a very friendly atmosphere in general and whilst there were stresses of course they were stress-lite in comparison to what was to follow.
Unfortunately the fact that technology existed and could be useful escaped the attention of my next employer.
I left Manpower in mid-2000 as I felt it was time to specialise and focus on a specific sector and I had seen many of my Manpower friends and ex-colleagues massively increase their earning by moving jobs. Manpower had no commission structure to speak of at that time so to earn the big bucks you needed to change your earning model. Fortunately for me being on a manager’s salary I had a good negotiating position to both improve my base salary and gain the benefits of a commission. Unfortunately, to reference ‘The Last Crusade’, I chose poorly. Whilst I will not name the business I worked for here, suffice it to say that it was disastrous but actually fairly typical of many of the recruitment businesses at the time (and probably quite a few now).
There are quite a few recruitment firms that like to do things on the cheap and can be run by people who have worked in recruitment for a long time and have quite fixed beliefs in how things are done. Unfortunately, the integration of technology and how it aided the recruitment process impacted more heavily in the last decade than it had in the previous one and trying to do things the way they had always been done was not necessarily the way to go about things. Whilst of course there was the internet, email and a very decent version of Windows in the 1990’s, for the most part recruitment was done in the same way it had been in the 1980’s with a reliance on paper records and contacting people primarily by phone. Advertising was done in print in the 1990’s as much as in the 1980’s. I’m pleased to say this is based on perception not experience, I’m really not that old, my recruitment career began in 1998 but there was plenty of ‘this is how we’ve always done things’ at the time to give my perceptions merit. Monster.com didn’t even exist until 1999, for example.
By the time I left Manpower all consultants had their own PC and gradually but increasingly, more business was being done via email. Quite often email led rather than followed phone calls. In my new business, we had one computer between the four of us, all records were paper filed and my notes on clients were primarily kept by scribbling on the relevant page in the printed edition of the Legal500 (at least they splashed out for that). We actually sent CVs by courier to clients!! Yes in a rather unbelievable case of false economy the company paid couriers to hand deliver CVs to clients rather than invest in a few computers so we could email them. There was little or no candidate checking, it was discouraged to meet candidates face-to-face as it was seen as too time consuming and given how cut-throat the environment was, it was not uncommon for consultants (which I was) and managers to actively try to take credit for fees (and hence commissions) for work done by others.
I was there for 3 months and a whole bunch of us quit and a few of us joined a new employer TMP Worldwide, thus following what had been a spectacularly bad decision with a really rather good one. TMP Worldwide at that time was a recruitment advertising business that had made some - what turned out to be - pretty significant acquisitions such as Monster.com as well as investing heavily in buying recruitment businesses such as Harrison Willis, a very well established UK, primarily financial and to some extent legal recruiter just prior to my joining. So at the time I joined I was selling under the brand TMP Harrison Willis, then TMPW acquired the incredibly successful legal recruiter Quarry Dougall so we were using that brand interchangeably with Harrison Willis until ultimately there was enough recognition to simply use TMP Worldwide.
The acquisition of Quarry Dougall had a massive positive impact on my career, their way of working was enlightening and very different to what I had been used to thus far. TMP had invested in technology so everyone had email, a direct phone number, voicemail, well maintained interview rooms and a sophisticated database and data collection tools. On the other hand we were required to detail everything we did on the database which at various points seemed a bit daft and even more importantly than this, the whole system was based on an intranet as an operating system. You accessed email and word processing software on a central server instead of a local machine which meant that when the system went down, which I seem to remember happened quite a lot, you couldn’t do anything at all as there was no software stored locally on each machine. On the plus side, they were enlightened enough not to block what were the earlier forerunners of social networks at the time. My search engine of choice was Alta Vista as far as I remember. I do miss having more search engines to choose from than the established two nowadays as well as wishing I had the foresight to buy Yahoo shares in the 1990’s and cash them in for Google shares in the 2000’s.
It’s worth emphasising the oppressiveness of the data collection regime at TMP at the time. We were required to record every interaction, detail every conversation and these statistics were used analytically to assess performance. In the earlier days there was a great deal of useless information – note taking that filled no purpose other than to record that an email had been sent. There was of course a need for data sharing in a large organisation with numerous consultants but knowing that someone had tried to call someone who wasn’t there and they didn’t leave a message is surely overkill. I also felt that the tail wagged the dog. At various points my activity statistics were very good and I was making lots of money. And the assumption was made that I was making a lot of money because my activity was very good. But in fact I felt that my activity was high because I was very busy which in turn generated a lot of money. The reason I was busy was down a lot of preparation, research and emailing prior to these periods of business had taken place, which made them possible for the most part. I have never felt the view that a high volume of phone calls leads to a high volume of business is particularly robust. But that is even more the case in a digital age. To illustrate the point, probably my most rewarding client whilst I was with TMP, one of the largest and most successful law firms in the world had, when I first approached them, a preferred supplier list longer that an average household weekly shopping list. I had opened up correspondence primarily via email and over a course of a period of months built a relationship mostly over email with the occasional inconsequential phone call. The waiting game finally paid off when my contact approached her extended network of contacts asking for our opinions on a particular issue. It wasn’t a job assignment but a question of advice which probably got a brief, polite, but not too detailed, reply from my competitors. I, on the other hand, went to town. I replied my ass off. In other words I wrote an incredibly detailed answer, researched a lot and spent about a day and a half on it in total. Barely did anything else. My activity for a couple of days was shocking. But it turned around my fortunes with the client significantly. From that point I worked myself into a position of a sounding board, I actually gave advice on what competitors to use and which not to (not everything can be exclusive but clearly influencing policy is massively beneficial) and was able to suggest new directions to solve recruiting problems meaning that it widened the pool of available candidates in many instances. Of course I still had to do well filling the job instructions I received; which I did, and that led to a huge amount of recorded activity – phone calls, interviews, all of the things the recording software liked, but they were not the means to the end that the corporate philosophy envisaged.
I think this is very important as recruitment develops in the 2010’s. Increasingly business is done via email which actually significantly changes the profile of the people needed to do the job. Whilst you still need people who are able to sell solutions over the phone or face-to-face, as, if not more important, is the skill to develop a rationale in writing - to be persuasive in text correspondence and when talking to a wider audience on social networks. I still think some recruitment companies forget this. When we have used recruiters to find staff for Fellows and Associates (yes I know we’re a recruitment company but we don’t keep a database of recruiters that want to work for us, so we do from time to time instruct outside help) I’m amazed at how poorly some of the emails are written. Spelling mistakes, poor sentence construction or just a simple lack of understanding – I do occasionally receive emails from people who think we are in real estate recruitment, when Google would have been a simple fix for this if they didn’t understand what ‘intellectual property’ is.
At TMP (which is now Hudson Global, Inc. as TMP Worldwide separated from its recruitment businesses in 2003 – I left in late 2002) we worked incredibly long hours and yet we worked far less hours than many of our competitors. I have never been convinced that recruitment needs to be a long hours’ job. It needs to be a ‘contact me anytime job’. You do need to be available when people can talk which does mean evenings and weekends for candidates but it makes more sense to go home have a break then call that candidate late at night when you need to, than having an artificially long day so consultants can do ‘out of hours’ calls whilst still at work. And assuming you are sticking to a business model reliant on telesales then you can’t really make a sales call at 6pm at night, so from a business development perspective you can only realistically be calling people between around 9.30ish and perhaps 5pm so staying late for sales seems kind of pointless (unless working internationally of course). Clearly smartphones are massively helpful with this and yet many recruitment firms don’t offer them to all of their staff. That really does seem bonkers. At Fellows and Associates everyone gets a smartphone, we don’t insist on replying to non-urgent emails out of hours but it does mean we are able to handle crises (like a sudden change of mind from a candidate or, a new candidate application from someone with a highly sought after background) more immediately.
Despite some of my criticisms TMP was incredibly important in developing my recruitment career. I was given a huge amount of autonomy, trusted in for major pitches for work and, when I started to become successful, was respected and rewarded for it. They had a very simple model in that regard – if you were successful you were both rewarded and respected which cut through corporate politics quite efficiently. I have since worked for companies with much less of an idea of how to manage their staff and which powers to give away and which to hold back. TMP certainly did not have this issue. I had excellent direct management there, it was tough in the early months as I was developing a new market (I recruited non-lawyer positions for law firms, and non-fee earner positions for management consultancies and accountancy firms) and success was difficult to achieve but they saw the long game and took the risk on me that it would pay off. And that is probably my final thought. I really think that many people that leave the recruitment profession were not given enough time or the firm they worked for had such a rigid model they missed the opportunity to allow them to thrive. I was always a bit of an unconventional recruiter at TMP and my various bosses over the years there saw this, accepted it and to some extent encouraged it. Rigidity in recruitment is just plain stupid, believing that you, as an experienced recruiter, should only impart knowledge and not receive it is why your business may fail but more importantly why you are failing your staff. Of course, I know everything about recruitment and am never, in any circumstances, wrong.
Pete Fellows is the founder of Fellows and Associates. He once got to level twenty something on 1980’s classic coin-op Gauntlet. Nothing in his life will likely surpass this.
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