Recruitment industry leader talks about success, leadership and the impact of COVID-19

In the latest of RCSA and LinkedIn’s The New Face of Recruitment: Female Leaders Paving the Way series, Lisa Morris, Board Director, Australia & New Zealand and Director SA & NT at Hays, talks to LinkedIn's Hannah Kissel and Clara McCarthy about what being a female leader in recruitment means, the importance of cultivating the right company culture and why it’s so important to simply thank your team for their work.

Q: Welcome Lisa. You've been with Hays for almost 23 years. Congratulations. Tell me about your journey.

When people say I’ve been with Hays for 23 years I think, “Wow, how on Earth did that happen?” For me, the three to five-year mark in a job is a really interesting point in time. Like most people in any industry or career, it’s the point when I sit back and ask myself if this is actually what I want to do.

Over 23 years it's fair to say I’ve had a few of those moments. Each time, I reassessed and asked myself if the organisation was continuing to offer me opportunities for learning, development and enhancement. Each time the answer was yes, so I kept going.

Like most people when they first come into the recruitment industry, I really didn't understand what it was about. I was a jobseeker at the time and liked what the person on the other side of the desk seemed to be doing.

I knew that my skill set was centred around speaking with people. I always enjoy talking, so that seemed to be the type of role suited to me. I am very thankful and grateful that I fell into the right company, which was moving in the right direction, that was suitable for me and had the right culture that matched and brought out the best in me.

I started out as a fresh new associate who knew nothing, started recruiting in support level roles and progressed consistently and regularly. One of the things that I really enjoyed about Hays in the early days, and still do now, is that our career path is very clear. It was always made very transparent to me what I needed to do to get to the next stage of my personal development journey, as well as promotional opportunities.

Being that way inclined, I was able to work towards and tick off each career progression goal one by one. Those opportunities existed and I knew what I had to achieve to move up to the next step in my career journey.

I recruited in a variety of different business units in the early days but I was always drawn to the leadership opportunities that focused on the development of people. So, I pursued that path and then when I came off hands-on recruiting I put all of my efforts and attention into my team and into building and developing the skillsets of people, and I love that part of the role.

Unusually, my time with Hays has always been in Adelaide. Most of my colleagues tend to move around but, for me, Adelaide is home and I never wanted to move. Whilst the opportunities were there, and I had some really good opportunities to consider interstate and overseas moves at various times in my career, I made it work here.

This was where I wanted to stay for family reasons and that hasn’t always been easy because you know in a place the size of Adelaide, the opportunities aren’t always obvious, so there was an element of having to create those for myself to keep the role interesting and to keep myself challenged.

I find myself here today still in Adelaide and still doing a big part of the job that I enjoy, which is developing people.

Q: In relation to moving into leadership, what have been the things that you have found surprising or challenging and, as a leader seeing people making that move, what are the challenges and pitfalls that they should try to avoid?

When you're on a desk and you're recruiting, the rewards are very obvious and the feeling of success is firsthand. You place a candidate into a job and you get the feedback immediately.

You know when you've helped somebody in their career because you've got them an outcome. Ultimately that’s helping them find the right job or, with clients, helping them find the right person for their role.

The measures of success are very transparent when you're running a desk. You make a certain amount in fees, you make a certain amount of placements, you achieve certain outcomes and it's very, very clear.

When you move out of that environment and into one where your success is measured through other people, an adjustment is needed. For me, personally, the transition felt very natural because that's what I was always drawn to anyway and I was never really one of those consultants who wanted to be the biggest biller in the business. That wasn't my driver. It was about how can I bring more people around me? How can I build a team? For me, it was about the team environment, as opposed to my own direct billings on a desk.

I see that transition with people in my team now and I think it comes down to really being clear and understanding your own motivations to want to take a leadership role. If those motivations are aligned well to the drivers of being a leader, then that transition is likely to be smoother.

If instead you want to continue to interact with clients and candidates and you really love the chase of making a placement, then our career path options at Hays allow you to continue doing that and embrace that part of you.

So, I think it's about coming back to what you actually want to do as an individual. For example, what are your core drivers? What are your motivators? You should always be true to them and follow them. Don't try and set yourself on a path that actually isn't really what you want, just because you feel that is the direction you have to go in order to get ahead. Find an organisation that can continue to enhance those intrinsic desires within you to continue to develop your career. Ultimately, career advancement doesn't have to be about people leadership, but if that is for you, then that transition should be a little bit smoother.

We've got some amazingly talented individuals who have gone on to achieve senior level promotions in the business and they've made it very clear and made brave decisions very early in their career that they don’t want to manage people and that’s okay.

My advice is to embrace that, make that decision for yourself and find ways that you can continue to develop. You've got to hone in on your strengths and be true to yourself on what that is.

Q: How have you been showing leadership over the last few months with the disruption caused by COVID-19?

It’s been an interesting ride. After 23 years you think you’ve probably seen everything this industry has to offer, but that's certainly not the case.

The last four months has been particularly interesting from a people perspective. We've led through the pandemic with really a consultative approach and our views on this as a leadership team across the Australia and New Zealand business has been that we're all in this together.

Nobody has been through this before. Nobody has the answers. No one individual knows what the next week, fortnight or month is going to look like because we're in uncharted territory. So to try and suggest that we do know and bluff our way through and present as this traditionally externally looking strong leadership that has all the answers, is false, see-through and it's not authentic.

I think it is important to embrace that and actually present ourselves as leaders to our business and engage with people and say, “We don't have all the answers but we're going to do the very best we can. Through all of this, we want to understand how you are going, how is this impacting on you as an individual, you as teams and what can the business do to support you through that?”

I believe you can't over-communicate and that kind of underpins my approach to just keep talking and listening and asking questions. It’s not talking for the sake of talking. It's certainly not trying to talk to present yourself as if you've got all the answers. It’s about engaging with the true intent to want to understand how people are progressing individually and what those people need at an individual level and team level to help them succeed.

Q: What does success look like through this period?

That was a real challenge for us to get our heads around because we've usually got really clear measures of success in our business and industry more broadly.

The market obviously threw some curveballs, so defining success was almost a day-by-day exercise. What can we do that is within our control? You can't control the outcome, you can't control the market. Nobody knows what is going to happen. Nobody knew how deep and hard the trough was going to be and we still don't, to a certain extent.

So, let's be less concerned about the outcome and more concerned about how we're looking after people. How are we doing the right thing by our candidates? How are we offering support to our clients? What is within our control within one day, one week, one month to help as many people as possible to navigate their careers, retain people in jobs, both internally within our organisation and obviously our temporary employees that we have out working with our clients?

Then, what's the progressive improvement on that point? What can we improve on that we did last week, this week? What can we do better in the next month than what we did last month? It's just those simple progressive moves forward that reshape what success looks like and not trying to hang too much weight on an outcome that is outside of your control.

Q: Resilience and grit have been things that are very important within a good recruiter, and within a good salesperson and a good leader. What are the things that you've done yourself to build resilience over the years, and how you think it can be built and flexed?

It's an interesting question, because we're no different to any of our clients. We're always looking for grit and resilience within our people and also the candidates that we place.

It would be great if you could have a measure that was really clear externally. But resilience and grit are tested in different scenarios and then the true measure of your strengths in these areas, what you can persevere through and how you can build it becomes clear.

I think it’s an important element that you can build. I think it is something that we can, over time, enhance and develop as a skill. For me, the process of building grit and resilience has been about appreciating that if something goes wrong, it's actually not a reflection on me personally. It's not about me as an individual. It's the job that I do, which is a very different part of me.

I think when going through any learning curve or any change, at a practical level, you can pull yourself back from when you feel that level of discomfort we all have when we're going into an environment that feels a little bit strange or where you have a reaction that is emotionally driven to something.

It's normally an indicator that you're going to learn and you’re going through something that's going to test your skills and it’s important to be able to recognise the moment to say to yourself, “Hang on, this is causing me to react emotionally because I'm out of my comfort zone”. It’s important to have a two-second window to connect your brain to your mouth and stop yourself before you react. It’s important to pull back and say, “I think I just need to sit with this discomfort for a moment and really think about why it is that I'm finding myself reacting this way.” Then respond when you actually know what the trigger is.

That way, you are coming at that challenging situation with perhaps a little bit more thought and consideration as opposed to just having an emotional response which perhaps doesn't always enact the best.

So, those are the things I’ve always tried to focus on. To externalise it from myself if there is a challenge that's causing me to react or learn and in the moment to recognise when an emotional response is coming up and pull back and question why am I having that response before I take action.

Q: You mentioned your growth mindset and that’s very much separating yourself, especially within sales organisations where you are attached to a number and, often times, when that number is taken away from them, people find it difficult because that's who they are. They're the top biller etc.

If you've got your identity wrapped around that, if that's too intertwined, the level of success that you have from an external measure is too close to your identity.

There's definitely been chapters throughout my career where it's been way too close, and you're too emotionally invested. So then when that number isn't there or you haven't achieved or you feel like you've not been the best biller or the best performing office, it's very easy to get sucked into that idea that it's a reflection of you as a person and it's not just the performance.

Q: The recruitment industry has, at times, been seen as maybe quite male or macho. Have you found your journey as a female more difficult than that experienced by your male peers?

I work for an organisation that really values meritocracy, so during the early stages of my career when I was trying to achieve promotions and meet the criteria, I really didn't feel that there was any element that came into play that was about male or female at all.

But I have two children – two girls – and when I chose to go on maternity leave I was putting my career on hold and that is a challenging chapter for any parent to work through, whether it be the mother or father who takes the lead to look after the child. It's an interruption. It’s a point in time when you are pulling yourself out of your career and that's challenging individually.

It's also challenging from a career perspective because while I was off on maternity leave, my peers were still working. I couldn’t ask them to put their careers on pause at the same time because that was my choice. Clearly, because of that, there is going to be a difference in your career compared to male counterparts. I think that element had a part to play. Not necessarily because my colleagues are male and I’m female. It was the practical part of pressing pause on my career to have children.

Do I think that there's more that organisations can be doing to support women through that chapter? Absolutely. My kids are now 15 and 12, so I'm going back to a time when Hays was in the very early stages of our journey around flex and we didn't have all the answers then. We didn't have the parental policies that we have in play now, so I was kind of doing that through uncharted territory.

That has been a highlight of my career, going through uncharted territory and taking it on as a challenge. Those periods of time were difficult because we didn't have the understanding of what flex meant for both women and men back then and we are still on that journey.

Part of what the last four months has done for us has thrown flexibility right up in our faces and we have had to deal with it. I think that if there is going to be a positive that comes out of this COVID-19 chapter, it’ll be the fact that we're all forced into a new way of working. The topic of flex has put everyone on an even playing field which means that today those conversations are gender neutral. That can only be a good thing when it comes to overcoming the challenges that women have been facing on this topic.

I really hope that organisations have learned a lot. I've heard my male counterparts say, “I didn't realise I could be so productive from home”. These lessons have hopefully projected what has been a largely female-led agenda years ahead.

I have had the opportunity to be a mentor to a number of people over the years and a number of my mentees are those who are working through the period of return to work following maternity leave. I enjoy providing support and guidance through this time as it’s such an important period in a woman’s career.

I see that a lot of return to work transitions can go wrong if the right support isn’t provided. You can't be expected to re-enter the workforce after maternity leave and operate, think, and process things in the same way that you did the day before you left. So, quite a bit of my mentoring relationships tend to circulate around that.

There are so many things that are new and challenging during this time for women. For the individual, the professional who wants to get back to being successful but, equally, you're also now a mum who wants to be there for your children and your family. So we talk about how can you make this merging of two worlds come together so that you can do the very best as an individual in both camps? I think that's a really important chapter and I think at that point if we don't really take people on that journey and there is a level of support and organisations do everything that they can, that's at the point where I think we lose people.

Why have we got this inverted situation when it comes to leadership and males dominating the more senior roles? I think because at that point in somebody's career, they're not guided well, supported well and that is when you'll start to see people drop out and say that management is too much, that they’re just going to go back to their desk and do that really well because it’s easier.

Q: If you were to give one piece of advice to any mum returning to work, what would it be?

Be kind to yourself. It's a chapter. You don't have to do everything at once.

I remember taking real offence at somebody who said to me at one point, “You can't have everything at once”. And I thought, “Excuse me, yes I can. I'll show you”. And in the process, I nearly worked myself to exhaustion and that wasn’t kind to anybody. That wasn’t kind to me, that wasn’t right for business and it wasn't right for my children. You just end up suffering as an individual when you try to take on too much.

I'm certainly not suggesting that females should not be ambitious. I love an ambitious strong woman who wants to really kick some goals and strive for individual achievement, but be kind to yourself through the process.

I think the other thing is when you're communicating to people, whether it be your colleagues, your boss, your partner, be really clear about what you need and be assertive in that. That's not suggesting you should be demanding, aggressive or making an ultimatum. But you need to say, “In order for me to achieve X, I need this”. That was a really tough lesson for me to learn, both domestically and professionally. To say, “I can't do what you're asking me to do unless you meet these requirements” and be really clear about that.

Q: What would be your advice to leaders of organisations welcoming mums back to work?

To listen, to actually ask questions, be inquisitive, and don’t presume to know. Ask what the individual needs. Just because somebody is returning to work and they’re a mum, doesn’t mean that their needs are the same as another individual in a similar situation. Every individual will have different requirements. Every individual's career is different and so the policies and framework you put in place must allow for an element of flexibility.

Conversations need to be individualised with the drive to seek to understand what the person needs in order to make the individual arrangement successful. So I think my advice is to be open and willing to hear and willing to work together to craft a plan that enables that individual to bring their best self to their work and to achieve and be successful.

No set of circumstances are identical. Every family set-up is different, every individual's desires to want to do certain things in their career will be different. I also think it's not a set and forget because the chapters of childhood development go so quickly which means that what we set in place at one point in time may need ongoing evolvement to remain relevant. Support or flex arrangements are likely to look different when children are babies to when they go to childcare or start and progress through school.

It’s an ongoing conversation and what I need in my arrangement now is very different to what I needed back when I first had my children. It is a constant reassessment, it's a constant conversation and I would say that also goes beyond the parents, quite frankly. It's what does every individual need to bring to this partnership to make it successful? Policies and frameworks within any organisation should be serving as the lowest possible position that we need to devote to. How can we enhance for every individual and really engage to support every individual’s unique set of circumstances to make the partnership really successful for that person, and obviously the business that they work for?

Having said that, no mum returning to work wants to feel like they've had rules and exceptions made for them. I think that what any working mum would want to see is that it is an even playing field, that the flexibility offerings are there for everybody. That's what's going to change the agenda and end the issues that women in leadership still face, when it becomes a non-female issue.

Q: Are you somebody who likes to read or watch or attend different self-help events?

Yes, I am. I grab a book or a podcast when I'm having a moment of wondering what's going on with me internally. Particularly if I'm questioning things or if I’m working though something challenging or different, I reach for books.

I am a massive Brené Brown fan. She is a wonder that woman. I found her first TED talk, which is about vulnerability, about 10 years ago. From that point I have tried to build that into my leadership style. I now see being vulnerable as being a strength of my leadership skills, as opposed to it being perceived as a weakness.

If you can sit in a conversation and really bring your whole self to that and allow somebody to really truly see you, you build a connection. You can't do that unless you let some of that armour down and you're vulnerable. Some of the best leaders that I have seen are those that are just genuine, open, engaging, warm, vulnerable with people, so I have tried to build that in.

Q: That links back to your earlier point about leading during COVID-19 and not pretending to have all the answers. Hopefully, a lot of people have learned that it isn't a weakness.

Absolutely, it’s not a weakness. Quite the opposite. I think there is a time when a strong leader will need to come out with some decisions, but it's after you've gone through a process of communicating, being open, being consultative and then with all of that information at hand and with all of that insight on how people are actually coping and what they need, then making decisions about the direction that you should be going.

Clearly communicating the vision for the future and giving direction on what are we going to be aiming for when we come out of this pandemic is important but that doesn’t necessarily mean having all the answers. Now is a time to be visionary whilst acknowledging we're in some tough times, we should look at the possibilities for the future and really challenge ourselves and take stock of the time that we've got available to us now. To do what others perhaps won't in this market and emerge as a stronger leader in the future.

I think if you tell that story and you keep that vision alive through your communications at every point, your people will go with you on that journey.

Q: Mentoring is something that has come up throughout your profile. How important have your mentors been to your career?

I have been surrounded by some really great inspirational leaders within our business and also in the broader community. I tend to try and look for mentors in different shapes and forms and some of the greatest teachers have been the people who report to me.

It's not always somebody who is in a formal position that you report to, who offers that guidance and mentorship and leadership.

I think I'm surrounded by people who are going to teach me different things to encourage me to learn and challenge myself to become a better leader. I have had some really good formal and informal mentors and I think that's been a really important element of my career - to try and seek them out and learn from people who have either been through what I've been through before in different environments and different industries or to find individuals who have really contrasting experiences that I can draw on and bring into our organisation.

Q: How about you as a mentor? What are the things you look for in a mentee and what are the things that you're passionate about teaching them?

I think a great mentee is somebody who is hungry to learn. They are self-motivated and they really invest in their own development.

It's more challenging and less enjoyable to mentor somebody who is looking to you for all the answers and isn’t prepared to do some of the heavy lifting for themselves. I much prefer somebody who understands that there's an inward journey that they're going to have to go through. I have people come to me and say, “I really want to be considered for the next management opportunity, I'd like to be a people manager”, and I sit there and I think “Do you really know what you’re going to be in for?”

The path is not an easy one and it requires you to really dig deep and it is an inward journey. If you are really going to embrace this whole leadership piece, you have to challenge yourself in so many ways.

I love a mentee who comes to the table and says, “I understand there's stuff that I’m probably not even aware of just yet that I need to learn, but I'm prepared to go through it. I understand that there's going to be things that aren't going to be easy, but I'm looking to you for some guidance please and I'm really open to learning.” That is a dream.

To work with somebody who's open and inquisitive about their own learning, somebody who is prepared to go through the bumps in the road and to really do the hard work, which is the inward stuff that I'm talking about and not look to somebody else to just give them a quick answer. An individual that is really self-motivated to want to go on that path is a joy to work with.

Q: Do you set up any formalised timelines or do you say “let’s try this if three months and if it doesn’t work let’s walk away”?

I tend to work in a way so that as long as it works for the individual, great. I don’t try to set up any mentoring arrangement - the reigns are in the mentee’s hands. They are the one that is driving the relationship and so the frequency, the length of how long that mentorship lasts, is in their hands. I'll be there for when they want the guidance, coaching or support I can offer, but I don't tend to set the timeline or the individual appointments.

The individual knows what they need and when they need it, so it's up to them to be able to determine what level of interaction they want. It’s also a demonstration of the fact it’s their career and their investment in themselves. They need to own it. It's got to be driven by them.

Q: What advice would you give to people starting off on their leadership journey?

Surround yourself with good people. Surround yourself with people who can continue to guide you and be inquisitive about your own learning. Have ambition and a vision of where you want your career to go, absolutely, but question what is the next thing that you need to focus on.

Keep the vision long and the goals short. Progressive improvement over time is probably the advice that I would give and you can do that well by having good mentors, good coaches, surrounding yourself with a good team and being in an environment and an organisation that has got the ability to help you to progress. Not all organisations can, and that's okay, but find an organisation that can help you progress on the path that's really what you want to do. Most importantly, be really inquisitive about your own life.

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