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Recruitment industry leader is embracing L&D and coping with COVID-19

In the latest of RCSA and LinkedIn’s The New Face of Recruitment: Female Leaders Paving the Way series, Melanie Clark, Learning and Development Consultant, with Randstad, talks to LinkedIn's Hannah Kissel and Clara McCarthy about the increasing focus on L&D within the recruitment industry, the impact ofCOVID-19 on the workplace and her advice for smaller firms looking to keep their staff educated and engaged.

Q: What’s been your experience with L&D and what drew you to L&D in the recruitment space?

I’ve been with Randstad for over 25 years, so I can’t say with my hand on my heart that I set out to have a career in L&D but I definitely feel that I’ve landed in my space. I started as a recruiter with Select Appointments, who were purchased by Vedior and then by Randstad, as we are now known.

I fell into recruitment. That long ago, it wasn’t as well regarded as it is now. There were a lot less barriers into entry in terms of who we might have chosen to recruit. I was a decent recruiter but I wasn’t the best recruiter so, about five years into my career, I put my hand up and said “What else can I do?” and I was lucky enough to get an opportunity in our IT department as a data base trainer.

So that’s really where the teaching side and the L&D side of what I do began.

We didn’t have a dedicated L&D team then either. It always did, and still does for us, fall under the HR banner. Our HR Director, Felicity Empson, is incredibly interested in all things learning, so she and I work together. We actually have the largest L&D team we have ever had. Usually it’s hovered around one or two people, but we actually now have a dedicated Operations L&D team who specifically hone in on onboarding and the consultant piece, in terms of training.

My focus is fairly heavily around leadership and I retain the role of Technical Trainer. I personally have quite an interest in IT and tech, so when we went to Google, I was naturally part of that project team. We’re in the midst of revamping and revisioning our CRM and I am part of that team. So I have retained that tech piece, just because I like it, more than anything else.

Q: The recruitment industry, and indeed the world, is going through a uniquely challenging time because of COVID-19. How has that changed Randstad’s approach to L&D and your role in that process?

Interestingly, whilst we have had to be agile in our approach to what we are delivering during these unprecedented times, we were already well equipped to provide virtual training as it is part of how we deliver to our teams normally due to the breadth of our business and number of offices we support. From onboarding being provided virtually (using Google Hangouts) to ensure all new team members get the same experience to our consultant program also always offered a virtual experience to ensure all the offices that were not covered by our Trainers Network.

For Leadership training, we began a project of converting our F2F training to “just in time” learning modules that can be accessed by our team via a dedicated L&D intranet page at any time as needed.

This is supported by larger training programs, which are also conducted as blended learning programs virtually. The team have had to pivot somewhat in terms of adjusting our training content to the current climate to ensure it is relevant. This has been done by virtual group discussions and surveying our people to target the business needs.

We’ve got a huge breadth of offices and a huge breadth of locations that our leadership team work in, so it was really difficult to get people to get out of their offices, to get out of their businesses to come to a location for often a three-day period. That role is such a pivotal role in driving business, it was often difficult for people to feel they could come along unencumbered, and we could only run them a certain number of times a year.

So things like trying to save money on travel and accommodation – all those sorts of considerations – meant we had already gone pretty far down the path of converting all of that to “just in time” so we created a dedicated L&D intranet internally and it acts as a skin to deliver these modules to people when they need them.

So, a newer manager would be encouraged to go through those in potentially a more dedicated, ordered fashion but it also means that our longer-term, in terms of tenure, managers can go back and revisit them. So if they were about to do A Great Conversation, which is our performance management process, they can go back and look at that content just before they do that conversation to make sure it’s going along the right track.

And that is supplemented by three major programs – one that focuses on sales, one that focuses on leading transformation in the digital age, where we partner with London Business School, and the third one is our Global Mentorship Program that is run out of our Frits Goldschmeding Academy in The Netherlands. The last two were actually virtual already, so we feel quite lucky in that we haven’t had to pivot that much, in terms of how we were already delivering to our people.

Q: Now, more than ever, businesses are relying on strong leadership to get them through this crisis. What does “strong leadership” mean to you? How are you showing it in your role?

For me, a strong leadership is an empathetic leader. One of my favourite leadership voices is Brene Brown who talks about great leaders needing to be vulnerable first. Leaders need to be able to adjust their leadership style to suit each of their team members to ensure they get the best out of the individual. The best leaders want to see their teams succeed and learning how to ask great developmental mentoring questions ensures the person understands they often have the answers within themselves, they just needed someone to ask the right questions!

After having worked on my own for much of the last two years, I recently added to my team so I’ve had to brush up on my own learning and practice in this area, along with working completely remotely. To adjust to this, we have incorporated a daily WIP meeting so project and tasks are discussed often and we are working towards the same goals, along with tools like Google Jamboard as a visual representation of the items we are working on.

Ensuring that I am checking in often in these “face to face” sessions and gauging energy levels and motivation of the team are more important than ever during this pandemic as everyone can and will react differently as the weeks go by.

I believe Randstad has done a spectacular job of ensuring the wellbeing of our teams here from a very early stage. Our senior leadership team have lead the way with having a plan that was communicated to the entire group, using our internal communications tools to repeat messaging and provide updates to the group, converting activities to virtual ones (CEO roadshow to CEO virtual team meetings), holding a wellbeing month to encourage healthy work and home habits during April and “walking the talk” with regard to pivoting to meet the needs of our clients and candidates.

Q: What would you say to recruitment agencies that are just on the beginning of their L&D journey or are interested in exploring L&D? Some agencies could potentially be hesitant because they might not recognise the ROI right away and some agencies are very much revenue focused.

If I think about some of the feedback I get, and obviously we are a larger organisation, I think things like EVP questionnaires where we ask people what attracts them to us, time and time again, Learning and Development opportunities come up as a reason people want to join us.

It doesn’t have to be as grandiose. When we started out, there was only one-and-a-half of us and what we offered was certainly not to the level that it is now. When I think back to my Select days, we weren’t doing all these technically-based things. We had VHS video tapes that we had to watch when we first started and documents we had to go through and read that formed L&D.

So you can start small and still have people feel like they are getting some form of development.

Something as simple as having an IDP. I’m not saying we do this exceptionally well across our business – it’s still something we have to push some of our management teams to do. Having an IDP means understanding some of the competencies that make up a person’s role. It’s about underpinning what someone does and helping them understand that. Having that conversation is the most important thing.

There are so many things out there now for those smaller, boutique places that are not going to have a budget to potentially have a dedicated LMS and ways to deliver training through that. It’s as simple as having a list of the competencies for the role and being able to work through them via conversations and, with some regularity, going back to them and revisiting the goals. It can be as simple as that.

I’ve actually been mentoring a lady in the recruitment industry through the RCSA’s Pearl Mentoring Program. She was in a sales role in her business and, again, she was pretty good at it but just didn’t love it. She ended up building a role for herself because she was naturally that person who people came to, to ask her questions. So she has built herself an L&D role in that business.

So it’s interesting to understand that it doesn’t have to be this great big beast like we are. It can be as simple as starting a conversation, revisiting it and having an understanding of what makes that person successful in that role and what’s the expectation from the business’s perspective.

Q: In the case of a smaller agency, why should people care about L&D apart from the fact “it’s good to learn”? People know people should be learning and developing but they don’t always tie it back to the overall development of the business.

From my perspective, ultimately, most people want to continue to grow and learn. Even our top, top billers, there is very little that I can teach them, but they still want some form of development. If you are not providing an environment where it’s discussed and there are options for people, or an opportunity on the table to have a discussion, you are going to lose those people because they are not feeling as if they are going to grow as an individual.

For us, if I think operationally from the front office perspective, money is only going to drive them so far. Some of the best development initiatives for us have not been your more traditional learning opportunities, it’s been where we’ve had things like mentor groups or coaching circles or initiatives where somebody else has come up with the idea and it’s something they can do. Something as simple as a book club. We have a business book club internally that people can join. I think, fundamentally, humans just want to continue to grow as people.

Q: What is engagement like at the leadership level with these programs? Someone can want to learn and be dedicated to learning but if the L&D program is dependent on the leader delivering it, what does that look like in terms of engagement?

We are really lucky in that most of our management team have been here as long as I have, if not longer. So I feel that Felicity and I, from a HR and L&D perspective, have cultivated really great relationships with those individuals and seen them grow and develop through the training and opportunities they’ve had themselves. And I think that is probably the reason why they want to be involved generally, from a facilitation perspective, in delivering those programs. They know the benefits because they’ve done it themselves.

But also, I think, our people crave that involvement from the leadership team. That’s usually what makes or breaks a program for us – having time with a senior leader from our business is one of those things that generally will be a catalyst for someone wanting to join a program.

We’ve just rounded out one of our programs – Leading Transformation in a Digital Age – which was a 10-week program. It was blended learning, so there is a portal they have to log in and interact with some content but then we have five touch points across the program where we come together for an hour in a webinar.

We’ve just had the likes of Jo Jakobs, who is one of our directors here in NSW, Adam Homer our CFO, Frank Oerlermans who is our director marketing & communications ANZ /digital strategist APAC, and Nick Elsdon, our group director being involved in this program alone. They actually facilitate those sessions and we wrapped this program with a two-hour series of presentations, where each of the individuals had to present back and get real time feedback from that senior leadership team. We are lucky we have that longevity in terms of people having been with our business and growing up themselves within the business and learning the benefit and knowing the benefit of working on themselves through the development programs that we’ve had.

So, I don’t have a lot of problems having people facilitate for me and committing to it. We are probably lucky from that perspective.

Q: If we look at everything that’s been going on recently, you mentioned that in terms of L&D it’s been quite an easy move for you because you moved everything online before that. How are you looking at supporting the organisation and what are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome?

After the dust settled on everyone working from home, again we were lucky to have everyone in our business working on a Google platform and everyone has a Chrome book that they can take home. I work three days out of four from home anyway, so that piece for me wasn’t difficult and that transition was relatively easy.

Some of the challenges we’ve had to overcome have been more around people who are not as comfortable working from home. Some of our more extroverted consultants thrive in a face to face environment. You go from my team in HR where it’s pretty quiet most of the time and you go onto those floors where there’s nothing but chatter and talking and people standing up and selling. I think a lot of them thrive on that interaction and that banter and the noise and those sorts of things. So we’ve done a fair bit of working around providing work-from-home resources, not only for our own people but also our clients and our candidates.

That’s extended into wellbeing. Not that we don’t normally do those things but there has been much more of a focus on providing those opportunities and really marketing them and reminding people of our EVP programs that are available, both internally and externally, so they can reach out and talk to somebody if they need to.

They have probably been our biggest challenges. Again, most of our training, right from onboarding, was already done virtually because of the breadth of our offices. We made a concerted effort over the past year to focus our onboarding training.

We are lucky enough to have a trainer’s network. We’ve always had some sort of network but for the past 18 months we’ve had our best version of that. We’ve got around 30 members on that trainer’s network and those team members help out. So for us, we were in a relatively good position where there were people who have made good relationships in an office and the trainer’s network allows us to have people on the ground who love and enjoy helping. People who are not necessarily part of the L&D team, that people can reach out to. What that has done is give us that spread across the business where people can go and ask questions.

I think the challenges were probably more around working from home, but I see a positive out of it in that it kind of forced everybody into the position we’re trying to push them into, especially from a leadership perspective around our “just in time” training because there were definitely some people who were not as interested. There were some people who love to come together and discuss ideas. We didn’t launch at a great time because we launched in February but I think what it has done is given people that little extra bit of time to take some of those things in and try something different. So, from our perspective, I think it’s been quite advantageous because, hopefully, we are proving that it works.

Every year our CEO and usually the CFO go around and do a live roadshow where they visit every office and present and do Q&As. They are doing that virtually this year. It’s actually a smaller group – they are doing it by teams. We had our HR one a couple of weeks ago and one of the questions was “how is this going to change the way we do business, moving forward?”.

There was definitely a sentiment, more in our Operations than in Sales Support, that maybe salespeople were not going to be as efficient if they were working from home. But that is actually not the case, as we are up by about a third in terms of activity. So that is likely to ignite some conversations about changing the way we work or how much office space we need moving forward – some of those questions. They haven’t come up yet but I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to change the way in which we operate.

Q: You mentioned people needing to have someone to speak to. Is that something you look at internally, especially at a time like this when a lot of people have a large expat cohort - how their mental health is when they don’t have the daily check-in of coming into the office?

Absolutely. I am really proud to work for an organisation like this. I feel like we were ahead of the curve. I think it really helps being global. I feel that we have been communicated with a lot. We have internal social media tools we use, like Workplace, which means people can post stuff. We’ve just undertaken a Health and Wellbeing Month in April, when we did things like MeMo Master Chef, where people had to create a healthy recipe and share it. We’ve done a really good job of sharing best practice around how we actually move into being this digital leadership team and having people feel like they are part of something.

Most of our sales teams had a stand-up meeting every morning so are now doing that virtually, offering a sort of theme and still celebrating birthdays and anniversaries and all the awards. So, for us, nothing’s really gone by the wayside because we’ve changed the way we physically have to work.

All of those other things still happen – all of our awards programs, everything is still business as usual from that perspective.

I think that was a really important drive from the leadership team – that as much as possible, let’s keep doing those things we were doing. They’ve had silly hat days and French themes and various ways to engage our people whilst working virtually.

And there is lots of information sharing at that leadership level, as well, across the management team, about “this is something I tried and it really resonated”. I sent out a document to everyone – 50 different games you can play virtually with your team. We have always encouraged our managers not to do the same thing with meetings and check-ins, week in and week out. We have a training session around “creating rhythm” but still having fun and excitement. Maybe going on a walking meeting every now and then or changing up the way the way you might conduct your meeting and all those sorts of things.

Q: Your LinkedIn profile states: “Human connection is at the heart of our business. Our personal approach, supported by state-of-the-art technology, is what sets us apart in the world of work. We express this with as being Human Forward.” What is “Human Forward” and where did the term come from?

Human Forward is the promise we make to our clients and candidates and our own teams. Like most things to do with marketing and branding, Human Forward came out of research and is used to describe how we want to interact with clients, candidates and our own people. But, for me personally it holds a lot more meaning. Having worked for the same employer for over 20 years, I have literally grown up at Randstad. They are my family (well my second family). Human Forward means that in everything we do, whether internally or externally, we are first people and we put people first.

This has been increasingly evident in the time of COVID-19 - all the plans that were put in place, were “people centric”. Any changes that have been implemented, considered people first. For me, the number of messages of praise, thanks and appreciation on our internal social pages in the last three months have echoed our Human Forward promise or as I like to think of it, just the kind of people we recruit. We hope that Human Forward means we can provide the best of both worlds for our candidates, clients and team members - great digital or technological tools or processes that only serve to enhance the human interactions you have with us.

Q: What guidance would you offer females looking at getting into leadership in the recruitment industry? Anything that’s helped you along the way?

I feel like I have always been surrounded by really strong female leadership within the recruitment industry, from the day that I entered it. When I first started, there were very few men in the business. We went through a period, years and years ago, where we were actively trying to boost the male numbers because we would only really get females applying. But I think, as we have grown as a business, and depending on some of the industry spaces we’ve gone into, that’s definitely levelled out.

In our senior leadership team, we’re not 50/50 but we do definitely have a couple more males in there in the last couple of years. But two CEOs ago, we had Deb Loveridge, who is pretty well known in the industry, as our CEO for a number of years.

I think the best piece of advice I can give – and maybe this is quite selfishly as an L&D person - is always be curious, want to better yourself and be a life-long learner.

I think one of the things female leaders tend to be better at is having empathy and being vulnerable.

I mentioned Brene Brown earlier - they are two of the things she talks about quite a lot. I think those qualities in leadership are so sought after these days that some of those “boy’s club” leadership qualities are getting edged out more and more. So I think if you continue to grow yourself in those particular areas, whilst mastering your craft, then you are going to hold yourself in really great stead to be a great leader.

Recruitment is a really tough gig and I don’t think we give it enough credit most of the time. I always tell our consultants I think they sit in one of the most difficult roles in our organisations because they’ve got clients and candidates and sales targets and all of these different people. Their product is people, which is one of the toughest things in the world to sell, I think, because we all have our own mind and we change it.

But I think if you really want to succeed, you need to be curious and understand every part of your role, not just how to sell but all of those other elements about how a balance sheet works and understanding different personality types and continuing to learn about those things and truly building yourself up to be a consultant to your clients and to your candidates and being able to offer industry insights, you are going to become a much more well-rounded individual and someone that clients and candidates will trust.

I think the way we do business will be forever changed (as a result of COVID-19) I think LinkedIn are probably leading the way in many of these things and what many businesses are going through probably hasn’t affected you quite as much and, from a tech perspective, we were ready to do it. But I think the desire and the trust to let people do it probably wasn’t where it needed to be for that to happen, and this has forced it.

I forsee sweeping changes across lots of different industries because this is how it’s going to have to be for a while.

And we’re proving it is possible.

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