Strategy Archives | Underwood Executive | Executive Search & Talent Management

How to select the right candidate…what the perfect resume won’t tell you

By | Executive Resumes, Executive Search, Interviewing, Performance, Recruitment

Finding talent, interviewing, recruitment, hiring, search and selection ….it’s easy! It’s not rocket science. How hard can it be, get resumes, interview, have a chat, make an offer – done! If only this was true….

This week I was asked how do you pick the right person at interview? How long have you got?! The person asking was disillusioned by a highly talented person leaving to take a very similar role elsewhere with the only obvious added benefit seeming to be ‘working closer to home’.  The another business associate was being challenged by picking someone from 20 great resumes that all seemed to have the right technical experience.  Both were apprehensive due to incorrect hires in the past that initially looked right on paper. They were desperate for the secret ingredient, the right answer, the one thing that I could tell them that they didn’t know to ask at interview to get it right.

Subsequently, I attended  a meeting with a client who was completely frustrated and surprised when what they thought was a ‘perfect hire’, resigned after 2 months.  They too wanted to know where did they go wrong, when the resume appeared to be perfect?

First and foremost – recruiting people is not easy. Picking the right person is even harder.  We do it every day here at Underwood Executive and see, hear, talk and advise clients on how to do it better. It is an ongoing battle for most business owners – finding, sourcing and selecting the right people.

Here’s what all three situations had in common – you must look beyond what’s on paper and what’s technically being said at interview and hire for culture and motivational fit.

I agree that skills and experience are important.  They are necessary in the recruiting process, but what causes you headaches and performance issues goes well beyond being able to do the job, it’s a person’s ability to fit in and being in the role for the right reasons.

How do you determine this? It’s not fool proof, but here are some quick guidelines to follow in a search and selection process to increase the odds:

  1. Technical skills & experience – is easy to assess from a resume, very factual, qualifications, systems experience etc. Some level of experience is still needed for most roles.
  2. Competencies –what are the competencies they need to do the job eg: strategic thinking, decision making, achievement drive. The key is that they must give a SPECIFIC example of a time when they have demonstrated this competency. This will usually occur in 3 parts (tell me about a time when…., what did you do and what was the outcome). If they don’t give a specific, they haven’t demonstrated the competency. Don’t ignore this – even if the resume is fantastic – if they can’t answer these questions, we follow the rule of thumb that past behaviour is a predictor of future behaviour.
  3. Motivation – this is often the trickiest part of the interview to assess. It involves asking questions around why they want the job, what is their perfect job, what other jobs have they applied for, why have they left previous jobs, what makes them stay with an employer, what makes them leave, who has been their favourite boss, who inspires them and why, where has been the best/worst culture they have worked in. Did I mention why they want this job? Not just any job. Why this job above all others in the market? And then tell me again why you want it – make sure they convince you.
  4. Warning signs – this is usually around behaviour during or post interview. For example, I had a candidate tell me they would call me Monday to confirm their interest in an opportunity, they called Tuesday at 5pm. For me and our culture, this is a warning sign they wouldn’t fit in as one of our values is integrity – you do what you say you will do.
  5. Reasons for leaving – don’t ever accept the first reason.  I ask several times on the same job – tell me what were your reasons for leaving? What else contributed to you leaving? What other reasons were behind this decision? Probe, probe, probe and look for patterns of behaviour.

Always include motivation and culture questions in an interview and actively listen to what is (and sometimes what isn’t) being said at interview.  In my experience, motivation and cultural fit is more important than skills and experience.  The culture fit and motivation buys you loyalty, commitment and top performers, who in the long term outshine the power CV with a technical answer for everything at interview.  Go with your gut – will you and your team enjoy working with this person every day of the week? And whatever you do – don’t “hope” that it will work out – it never does. Hope is not a recruitment strategy.

Fear, Lies & Leadership….How to have honest conversations

By | Communication, Leadership

Wouldn’t leadership be easy if you could just have a frank conversation? Just say what you think and not worry too much about the delivery or consequences? Here it is – this is what I think – take it or leave it.

I met with a new business owner this week who reflected on a culture he had created in the early 90’s where candid conversations were the norm – none of this skirting around the issues and constant worry about upsetting people or legal consequences.  He reflected on the types of conversations that he’d had, “James, it’s just not working out. Not for you. Not for me. We can go through performance plans and recording these conversations or we can just agree it isn’t a fit for either of us”. He saw this as refreshing, effortless and talking straight.

This frankness and boldness is not the norm in what I observe in most organisations today.  I see many leaders through our coaching programs avoiding difficult conversations, making them harder than they need to be or avoiding the real issues, so  team members walk away feeling more confused and unsure about what they need to do to keep the boss happy.  The answer? Leaders need to let go of the lies and embrace the fear of having an honest and direct conversation.

I did this today, as I had to tell a candidate they were unsuccessful for a Chief Executive role. I could have said the other candidate had more experience, that you performed well, but you were just pipped at the post. I could have softened the blow to make them feel better and avoid upsetting their feelings. But in this case, it wouldn’t have been honest or direct. And it certainly wouldn’t have helped that person move forward and achieve their career goals. Instead, I told the candidate where they performed well and was straight in explaining it was his limited examples demonstrating strategic thinking and developing teams, which let him down in the process. Yes he was disappointed, but he was thankful for the feedback to improve his interview performance for next time.

In my experience, when leaders think they are being clear, often the team member hears a completely different message. Why? Because the manager is trying to ‘soften’ the blow, rather than being straight. I’m sure you have seen it, tried it or been on the receiving end of it.

If you really care about your people and want them to perform, succeed and grow, you owe it to them to deliver feedback (no matter how difficult) in a straight manner. Most people can handle constructive criticism as long as it is honest, delivered straight and comes from a place of good intent.

Tackling tough conversations is one of the most feared things to deal with by many leaders. At a recent CEO panel interview, we asked a candidate to discuss one of the most difficult negotiations he had been involved in. We didn’t hear about a contract negotiation, a legal dispute or a financial matter – it was the ‘people stuff’ that he admitted to still getting ‘butterflies’ in his stomach when addressing difficult situations. It’s not easy, but these conversations are critical to ensure that you are on the same page and communication is clear and direct.

Quick reminders to deliver honest conversations effectively:

  1. Good intent – you are doing the right thing by an individual to share constructive feedback that will assist them to improve, grow and perform.
  2. Direct communication – be straight and don’t ‘soften’ or confuse your message with more words and dialogue than is necessary. Deliver your message and then stop. Don’t be afraid of the pause.
  3. Avoid personalisation and emotion – this is not about someone’s personality or traits, this is about behaviours.
  4. Be specific – use real and immediate observations, not what you’ve heard second-hand on the grapevine.
  5. Action – what is the behaviour you want to see, or a system put in place, to ensure the desired behaviour is implemented going forward?

One of the greatest things I have learnt as a leader and as a coach is to have open, straight, frank and often difficult conversations face to face. It is never easy when dealing with people and their emotions – but you can really change someone’s experience and perspective in a positive way when you deliver your message succinctly and with good intent.

Be tough on performance, never on the person and don’t hang on to things – openness and honesty is the basis for long-term leadership success.


nicoleunderwood pty ltd is an executive search and consulting firm with a holistic approach to talent management. We deliver executive coaching programs where we work one on one with leaders and leadership teams to further improve leadership and communication skills. You can find out more here.


Are you ignoring staff issues? 4 ways to get your head out of the sand

By | Communication, Leadership, Performance

This week a friend of mine told me he quit his job after being head hunted for a new opportunity (closer to home, more money, leading a bigger team and better long-term career prospects). I was pleased for him and wondered why he didn’t seem that excited.  “What’s wrong?” I asked. “My current boss hasn’t spoken to me for over a week since I resigned”. Sorry? Your boss is ignoring you? Yep. Pretty much since the meeting where he resigned, his boss has been so ‘disappointed’ that he has decided to give him the “silent treatment”.  Not exactly your classic successful leadership technique!

It appears this “bury your head in the sand” technique is not isolated to just this leader either.

In another example, a client was telling me about a problem employee who despite ongoing feedback, remained unreceptive to improving his performance. Interestingly, he had not yet responded to a meeting request from this employee from a week ago, telling me he couldn’t be bothered and that he was over investing any more time and energy in the situation.

Now, I get it. I do. As a leader you can often spend hours coaching, supporting and providing advice to help develop your team members and there are days it can feel like a thankless job.  However, I challenge you to look at your own behaviour. Are you setting the tone? Are you leading by example? Are you perpetuating the undesired behaviour inadvertently?

4 ways to turn it around:

1.    Don’t bury your head in the stand

Like my client, there are many days where as a leader you probably feel like mimicking my 4-year-old by putting your fingers in your ears saying “I can’t hear you …. La la la”. But ignoring something or pretending that a situation with your staff member is going to improve, disappear or fix itself is just plain stupid.

Ignoring what’s happening will never make a situation better. A real leader will address the situation head on, openly discuss the problem (without blame or emotion) and together encourage a solution.

2.    Make a decision – imagine the perfect scenario

When I was frustrated with employee issues it always became worse or the problem was enhanced when I thought about it, talked about it with others, analysed it, worried about it – but things only ever changed or improved when I actually made a decision.

A great way to obtain clarity is to imagine in 3 months time that the person has improved and the performance problem is solved – how does it make you feel? Positive? Then you can commit to moving things in the right direction. Can’t image that situation or it still feels ‘off’? Chances are you have a cultural mis-alignment and even if the performance improves, this person is not the right match for you and your team.

3.    Manage the performance up or out  

Once you have committed to addressing the problem head on, it’s time for the conversation where you discuss where the employee’s current level of performance is and where you would like it to be.  This discussion should highlight several areas as to where the employee needs to improve and the action steps they are going to take to develop. Ultimately, this should result in someone stepping up or off – either way; it’s a better result than the current situation of non-performance.

4.    Communicate with good intent

To give the employee (and you) the best chance of success, you need to operate and speak with good intent. You can’t fake this. Be authentic. Demonstrate  that you want to see this person succeed in their role and that you are here to support them in reaching the desired behaviours/objectives.  This means showing strong belief and using positive language in your conversations.

Don’t forget as the leader, you are always on show and every interaction – positive, negative or otherwise is being observed and often recreated somewhere else in the business. If you are not feeling “in the zone” or you can’t project the vibe you want to create – best to take some time out, close the door or reschedule that team meeting – people can spot a fake a mile away! Whether you like it or not – the leader sets the tone.





Winning respect – 10 ways to give up wanting to be liked

By | Leadership, Results

I recently read about the upcoming release of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”. As the COO of Facebook, she talks about Mark Zuckerberg (her boss) and the advice he gave re her desire to be liked by everyone and his belief that it would hold her back in her career.

This is the second time I have heard about a leaders’ desire to be liked in a matter of weeks.  One of my female coaching clients said to me “I want to be respected, but I still want to be liked a little bit too”.

Is it possible to have respect and be liked as a leader? Will this goal hold you back from being an effective leader long-term?

My first opportunity to lead a team early in my career, presented me with the immediate challenge of winning the respect of a group all older than me.  How was I going to win them over? I started with showing them my results – facts and figures and methodologies that were black and white – I figured they couldn’t argue with achievements! It was the first step in establishing respect.

Since then, I’ve learnt other strategies leaders can use in the race to win respect, while losing the notion of being everyone’s friend:

1.You’ve already got friends– I have challenged leaders in the past who have struggled with this concept that you already have friends and work is not necessarily the place to gather more. Sure you might make friends, but it shouldn’t be the primary focus – avoid blurring the lines.

2. Relationships – I’m not saying don’t be friendly or don’t have social interaction with people. Certainly there is a human element to leadership and part of building relationships is getting to know the personal side of your staff.  BUT leaders need to show consistency, professionalism and not play favourites.

3. Deal with non-performance – a leader who gains respect, will have the courage to deal with non-performance quickly and without fuss.  Focus on the behaviour, not the person.

4. Lead by example – a leader who sits in their office, is always busy and unavailable in meetings, will not gain the respect of their team. Walk the talk, get on the phone where people can hear you, go on client visits, sit in open plan – showing you can do the job wins respect.

5. Hold people to account – being clear on what people are responsible for, give them the knowledge and tools to perform their role and then get out of the way.

6. Be clear on what you stand for – a respectful leader knows their values, is clear on what is expected and consistently inspires through communicating the vision.

7. Intuition –  go with your gut and call behaviours as you see them.  If you have a ‘feeling’ someone is going to resign, or something is up with the person who had his or her arms crossed in the meeting – don’t ignore it. Trust your gut and have a conversation – nip issues in the bud and encourage an open dialogue, don’t let unspoken issues fester.

8. Recognise & reward – catching people doing the right thing and being very specific about what they have done well goes a long way to building respect.

9. Open communication – what’s happening in the company, good, bad or indifferent shouldn’t be a secret.  If you don’t talk, people will make up their own ideas and assume – sure fire way to kill respect.

10. High standards – a respectful leader will push you outside your comfort zone and show belief in you to go further to achieve more than you think possible.  Not many leaders are willing to push hard for fear of losing approval.

During my leadership career, it has been a learning journey to earn respect, some people probably liked me and others probably didn’t. The difference is that it didn’t actually bother me. Great if you do and it doesn’t matter if you don’t. My role as an effective leader is to believe in you, coach you to top performance and support you in that journey.   There is no easy path. That journey will require moments of being uncomfortable and challenged – a respected leader doesn’t apologise for that or seek approval.

The goal as a leader should certainly be more about behaving in ways that create respect and if people to like you too – it’s a bonus, but it definitely shouldn’t be the aim. 

“Popularity is temporary, Respect is timeless”


Someone not playing by the rules? How consistency governs success

By | Results, Strategy

In my blog post “People leave leaders – the uncomfortable truth” I discussed how changing business culture and my leadership style were two contributing factors to increased business results and overall success.  In this journey, there was another significant milestone that made business easier, more enjoyable and more profitable – consistency of service.

Our company had a large banking client who had high expectations, rarely used recruiters and was quite vocal about his frustration with the turnover of Consultants in the recruitment industry.  When we finally won an opportunity to recruit, he developed a relationship with one of the more experienced Consultants on my team.

When she got pregnant and was preparing for maternity leave, I knew her replacement on this account was critical to get right or I would risk losing them.  The new account manager was introduced and not long after, there was another new assignment for her to work on.  At the same time, this client was on the board of another organisation and was dealing with another one of our Consultants on that opportunity.  In the space of several months, he had exposure to three Consultants, plus his existing relationship with me.  I’ll never forget the day he called me to give me some feedback.  I remember thinking “oh no, what’s gone wrong, he doesn’t like that he is dealing with so many different Consultants”.  It was the opposite. He was ringing to tell me how impressed he was with the consistency of our process, our approach, our service and methodology. He said regardless of whether he was dealing with Tom, Dick, Harry or myself it was the same. We had the same vision, the same way of doing things and a real consistency of service delivery.

This was no accident. We filtered this “sameness” through the organisation from the vision and values, to dress code, to being on time, how we answered our phone, our report writing and how we presented at meetings. We wanted every interaction with our company  to represent and reinforce what we stood for. It was a highlight for me to see this being recognised by an external customer who had noticed and was experiencing the benefits.

It wasn’t a walk in the park to get to this point.  It took discipline, persistence and holding people accountable to uphold these standards. Often new Consultants who joined us from other firms didn’t like ‘our way’ and would try to “buck the system”, take a short cut or revert to their old habits.  As a leader, it was tempting to let these behaviours go, especially when they were producing results. Ignoring it never worked. It always backfired. It always turned ugly and became more difficult for me, the team and the Consultant in question.

I remember going out on a client visit with a new, but industry experienced Consultant to observe our service in action.  We got in the car and I asked about the organisation, who we were seeing, what the history was etc. She knew nothing. There was no preparation, no research or knowledge. Gulp! It pretty much went down hill from there including no street directory or directions to get there, making us late, no apology to the client, no setting of the agenda, no use of our presentation folder and no closure or follow-up.  Everything from her training and induction had been thrown out the window. She liked to do it her way and couldn’t see the problem. Doing it her own way wasn’t going to work in our culture. There were two choices – embrace the proven strategies that deliver results and consistency of client service or conclude we weren’t right for each other.

Harsh? Too blunt? Not flexible enough? You could certainly argue that revenue and results from an experienced recruiter is not something to walk away from so quickly.  But what’s the long-term impact? What are the consequences for the brand, culture, team approach, reputation and ultimately the client experience? It was a risk I wasn’t prepared to take. We parted ways and I learnt a very important lesson to stick to what you know works, be consistent in every detail and don’t apologise for reinforcing processes that deliver. Your team members are either on the bus, or they’re not.

Deliver consistently to your customers and you will enjoy consistent success.

Do your interviews stink? 10 ways to turn pro

By | Attraction, Recruitment

This week I met with a promising new client. They have a handful of vacancies, one position that has been vacant for 3 months and another that they have interviewed 30 candidates for (yes, face to face) and still haven’t found the right candidate. Hmmmm…. Houston we have a problem!

The managers are pulling their hair out as it is taking too long to find and appoint talent and the HR team is frustrated that the leaders aren’t taking more ownership of the process.  Clearly what they are currently doing is not working. They need to change and fast! It got me thinking about the basics of interviewing.

1. Prepare – have you read their resume prior to the candidate walking in the door? I remember years ago a client asked one of my consultants after an interview why the candidate was walking with a limp.  On the resume it detailed his involvement in the Paralympics after having his leg amputated in an accident years earlier. It could have been an awkward moment if the client had asked the candidate directly or worse still…..made a joke about it! Reading all details on a resume allows you to be on the front foot (pardon the pun) and demonstrates to the candidate that you are interested in their background and are taking the process seriously.

2. Welcome – make sure the receptionist knows who will be arriving and at what time so the candidate can be greeted in a professional manner.  I had a meeting the other week and within 3 seconds of walking in, the receptionist got up from her desk walked around to greet me by name and took me straight into a meeting room where I was offered tea, coffee or water. Wow! What a welcome. Simple, but so effective. I was immediately impressed.  Also consider where you will be interviewing and make sure the environment is creating a great first impression, not like the other week when I observed dirty coffee cups from the last interview still on the desk!

3. Timing – a structured behavioural based interview should take 45 minutes to an hour. However, depending on the role and how many people are on an interview panel, interviews can blow out past this allocated time. Make sure you either stick to the schedule or have a fudge factor between candidates. Don’t make the mistake one large company made with one of my friends when his interview went over and on his way out he met the other candidate short listed for the role. He just happened to be an old colleague he had only spoken to days earlier for advice on the role! Awkward!

4. Icebreakers – I have observed many client interviews and it seems one of the hardest parts for people who don’t interview that often are the first 30 seconds to a minute. I have seen full silence where no one knows what to say through to immediate drilling of candidates with a barrage of questions.  We need a warm up folks! No matter how experienced a candidate is, there is always going to be nerves, so having some small talk from reception to the meeting room is essential before settling into more of the formalities of the process.

5. 1st question – I know most inexperienced interviewers tend to run a less structured interview and that can be okay, but one word of advice, have your first question ready.  Go for something open and general to get things moving for the candidate. I recommend so tell me about your current work situation or how is that you are in front of us today?

6. Technique – we all have our own styles and way of asking and extracting information, so when you get to the end of the hour to ensure you have got all the information you were after, have three areas to investigate – skills and experience (years, industry, qualifications, tasks), competencies (learned behaviors eg: communication, analytical skills) and finally motivation (rational and emotional) around why this job? Otherwise you risk an hour of chatting and getting off track, the result being that you can’t accurately assess the candidate’s suitability.

7. Close – winding up the discussion is just as important as the welcome. Thanking the candidate for their time, asking if they have any further questions and then telling them what the next steps will be in the process. I also like walking them to the door / lift, shaking their hand and encouraging them to call within the agreed timeframe.  This leaves a lasting impression.

8. Summary/rating /concerns – once the candidate leaves, don’t answer the phone, check your emails or race off to your next meeting, take 10 minutes to write down your thoughts. Do a pros and cons list. What could this candidate bring to your business, what answers did they rate highly on? On the flip side, where are there still question marks that need to be flushed out. Give them an overall rating to compare with other candidates.

9. Response & speed – you know the biggest gripe from job seekers is that companies don’t get back to them.  If you are going to the effort of interviewing someone face to face, then you should give them the courtesy of ringing them and telling them verbally why they didn’t get the job. Honesty and respect go a long way in building your reputation as an employer of choice. Speed is also another crucial ingredient to a successful interview process.  Don’t wait 4 weeks to get back to people – trust me they will have forgotten you by then and probably taken a more attractive offer.  Ask yourself what your expectations would be? 7 days at a maximum.

10. Feedback – don’t take the wimps way out and say “Sorry; there was a more suitable candidate.” No kidding!! That’s why you’re not offering them the job. But specifically what did that candidate demonstrate more effectively or what was missing? It is extremely rare for someone to get defensive if the feedback is delivered in an honest, genuine and specific manner. After all, anything that you can offer them to improve their chances next time will be appreciated.

Some of you may ask, “Why do all this if we don’t like the candidate and we know we aren’t going to hire them. Why go to all this effort?” One answer – market reputation.   As much as you might find it easy to hire one person today, there is still a skills shortage and depending on roles, availability, timing or competition you might just find yourself in a situation of trying to attract talent to your organisation and role.  It is still very much a two-way street in the employment market, so do your best to ensure the candidate leaves wanting the job, wanting to join the team and with an overall positive impression of their dealings and interaction with you and your company.

Interviewing is a skill.  It takes time, practice and preparation to ensure it is an effective exercise that achieves the end result of assessing a candidate’s suitability for your vacancy.

Want your team to get the edge on interviewing techniques? Speak to Nicole about workshops and coaching programs here.


Does your job spec answer the question “what’s in it for me?”

By | Attraction, Recruitment

When was the last time you read a job description that was fresh, dynamic, exciting and evoked an emotional response? Even better – it really made you want the job? Probably never is my guess. That’s because job descriptions are usually old, boring, outdated and too long. They are costing you candidates! In today’s market, the highest quality candidates – the talent that companies are finding so hard to attract, recruit and retain – have estimated drop off rates as high as 90% once they have read a job description.  Some of the reasons include:

  1. Doesn’t excite or engage them
  2. Work looks exactly the same as their current position
  3. Their skills don’t meet all the “essential” criteria
  4. Unclear, unprofessional and ‘reactive’ language
  5. Long documents that don’t capture their interest

What doesn’t work 

Imagine all that effort you have put into writing an advertisement, all that money you have spent using attraction strategies and all that time invested in the recruitment process wasted all because of one document.  The truth is that job descriptions have traditionally been a document kept on file by human resources as a ‘must have’ that outlines all tasks, skills, qualifications and experience required to do a certain job within an organisation.  These ineffective job descriptions often include spelling errors, use of internal jargon, are often way too long and wordy as well as being unclear and visually unappealing.

The reality today is that these documents are now being judged by commercially savvy job seekers who know what they want, will pick and choose the jobs they apply for and ultimately accept.  They don’t want just any job – they want an opportunity that presents a better challenge than the one they are currently doing.  Once they read a job description that essentially sounds like the job they are already doing – where is the incentive to change?

The opportunity

This is where the opportunity lies! Most organisations are missing this sales opportunity to entice, engage and excite candidates into their organisation through having an up-to-date, professional and different job description.   If used effectively, a job description can become a sales tool to showcase each opportunity within your organisation as a unique proposition that proves a commitment to investing in people, each role and a strategic recruitment strategy to find the best talent in the market.  One of the best examples I have seen this year was an Editor role with the on-line business community Flying Solo – it was a true sales document, pitching the best parts of the role and what outcomes you would be responsible for driving and how this position contributed to the overall direction of the organisation. In addition, came a values document which detailed ‘what mattered most’ to the organisation and explaination of their five core values and culture. It was inspiring! Needless to say they got a great response and did not have shortage of candidates to interview.

Tips to achieving effective job descriptions include:

  1. Short & simple (not more than 3 pages)
  2. Stating an overall purpose of the role (expressed as an outcome, not an action)
  3. Most exciting tasks and challenges (not all of them)
  4. Outcomes to be produced and key result areas
  5. Transferable skills required to be successful
  6. Current (reviewed every 12 months as a minimum)
  7. Visually appealing

Job descriptions should be used as an attraction tool to encourage candidates to investigate your opportunity further, not to dismiss it and decide on their own accord that it is not worth pursuing.  What are the most exciting parts of your role and how can that be expressed effectively? Is “seeking 5 years SAP experience” as exciting as saying “use your SAP knowledge to lead our system implementation team”?

Keeping job descriptions specific, up to date and focused on the most challenging aspects of a job will result in a wider and higher quality of candidates for you to choose from.  And remember people apply for the work that they will be doing, not the skills they possess – the tip is to write your job descriptions with this in mind.  Candidates in this market have one subconscious question they want answered “what’s in it for me?” and your job as the employer is to demonstrate how your opportunity is better than their current situation and to draw them into the possibility of something better.

Underwood Executive delivers tailored solutions for recruiting and retaining top talent.  

How to reduce staff turnover with a flexible culture

By | Culture, Results

Staff turnover is an ongoing headache for most businesses.  Even booming industries like mining & resources are experiencing their fair share of hurt with 18% of workers leaving within the first 12 months and total turnover costing over $140 million per yearThe recruitment industry is certainly up there with rates ranging up to 45%.  Factors contributing to this include long hours, demanding client expectations, cultures that don’t support work/life balance initiatives as well as poor leadership and performance driven by deadlines and commissions.

Certainly in my first few years of managing a recruitment business, I was a culprit for churning through staff.  I made all the classic mistakes of hiring on experience, rather than culture, ‘hoping’ they would make it and leaving performance issues to fester.  The results were certainly consistent with the industry averages and left me tearing my hair out.

One of the instrumental factors in turning it around was creating, supporting and encouraging a flexible workplace culture.  Let me just start by saying it wasn’t easy.  There was no quick fix or magic cure to move from the traditional 8am – 6pm workday with “nazi style” metrics and expectations of ‘being in the office’.  It was a gradual process that required ongoing communication, buy-in from all employees and a commitment to leading by example.  Trust me the first time I left the office before 6pm it felt very strange!

In the end, I had nearly half my workforce on part-time flexible arrangements and a 100% voluntary staff retention rate.  I also experienced the highest levels of revenue and profit in our history.  It taught me that a flexible approach and creating a culture where part-time is possible, creates loyalty, increases performance and reduces staff turnover.  Tips to making it work include:

1.    Be realistic – I learnt that high performing Consultants moving from full-time to part-time need to manage their own expectations of what they can achieve.  Being able to step back and say perhaps I can’t take on as many clients as I used to, or being able to ask for help is okay.  You can only do what you can do after all.

2.    Prioritisation – the key to finding the balance is to make sure that you are doing the important rather than the urgent.  In recruitment there always seems to be something urgent, but it is critical to be clear on what makes the difference and doing those important things first is essential. As General Manager, I worked 3 days a week and ensured that I divided my time between coaching consultants, seeing clients, performance management and planning.

3.    Productivity – in my experience part-time employees work fewer hours in the office, but are capable of being just as productive as full-timers.  When those Consultants were in the office, they didn’t have time to waste and they were extremely good at juggling a range of tasks. I had one Consultant who billed 80% of her full-time billings in the year that she reduced to 3 days per week.

4.    Strategic approach – Recruiters and leaders taking on flexibility requests, need to have a big picture view of how it will work.  This involves planning and being more structured with tasks and time management. Just saying we are going to be flexible and family friendly doesn’t work unless there are real strategies in place on how this will work in a practical day-to-day sense.

5.    Support – I learnt very quickly that part-time Consultants need the full support of their leader, their teammates and family for it to successfully work for everyone.   This ranges from having tools of the trade such as remote access; Ipads and iPhones through to open communication, disciplined notes in the database and having the right attitude.  Once part-timers feel they have this support plus your trust, they will always (in my experience) put in more hours and effort.  Funnily enough this commitment by high achievers will always deliver greater results than what you pay them. Wouldn’t any boss want to increase billable hours with no increase in fixed costs?

All in all, I found creating a flexible work culture to be nothing but a positive and productive experience.  I truly believe it creates a strong competitive advantage and goes a long way to attracting and retaining top talent.


Nicole will be speaking at the 2012 RCSA International Conference in Fiji on: How creating a culture of flexibility will win the race in attracting and retaining top talent

Beauty vs brains……does it have to be a competition?

By | Results, Success

The Adelaide Advertiser ran an article on Saturday titled “The Ugly Side of Being Beautiful”.  It revealed research stating that 47% of US Recruiters believe women can be penalised for ‘being too good looking’ and attractive women who attach a photo to their resume were less likely to secure an interview than their ‘plainer rivals’.  On the flip side, Chief Economist Darryl Gobbett said, “the aesthetically gifted will always reign supreme”. So is beauty a help or hindrance in getting ahead?

Just last week I spent a coaching session with a female recruiter who is both young and attractive – a combination that she perceives is proving a little tricky in securing more senior work.  The assumption is that she doesn’t know what she is talking about, doesn’t have as much as experience and couldn’t possibly do as good a job as the more ‘seasoned’ recruiters in the market.

A CEO (a man in his mid 60’s) told her that she would have a tough time ‘making it’ in the market. When she enquired why, he said being young and good looking would mean that a lot of people would automatically think she lacked substance! Really? Isn’t that a little old fashioned? Aren’t we past that day and age of outdated thinking? Perhaps not and truthfully people generally won’t admit to making these assumptions or give you the time to prove them otherwise.

I decided to play devils advocate.  How can you prove to me that you are capable of doing this type of recruitment I asked her? What confidence can you give me that you will do a good job and deliver results? After our 90-minute session, here is what we uncovered:

  1. Mind set & belief – you can’t buy into someone else’s incorrect perceptions of what you might or might not be capable of.  If you belief you can, then you can.  If you wavier, doubt or demonstrate insecurities, you will never convince a third party of your abilities.  Be clear on your knowledge, ability and results.
  2. Walk the talk – I had a consultant who worked for me many years ago who was beautiful, young and had a high-pitched voice.  She was convinced that clients didn’t take her seriously once they saw and heard her.  To combat this, she wanted her physical presentation to represent her ability (she was extremely capable and delivered top performance results).  Small things like tying her hair back, wearing glasses, dark coloured suits etc all helped her own confidence in walking the talk – portraying the image she felt was more representative of her abilities.  There is nothing wrong with a “fake it until you make it” approach which involves exuding confidence, remaining calm and delivering an educated response.
  3.  Tell them – having your elevator pitch ready is critical to answer “…and why should we use you?” What makes you different from the last Consultant? This pitch should describe your offering, differentiator, benefits and the results you deliver.  However, let’s face it, most Consultants’ say similar things, which is why you need to be able to communicate this with passion and conviction to then back it up with real examples.
  4. Show them – actions speak louder than words! Using visuals in a pitch is very convincing.  Get really specific – show an example of a campaign, search methods used, how many candidates you had, where you found the successful applicant, timeframes etc.  Any piece of data (think facts & figures) is going to help build your pitch and show the client you have done this before and the results speak for themselves.
  5. Risk-free – giving the client a “what have you got to lose” enticement is helpful in getting them over the line.  What can you offer that your competitors won’t? Is it a longer guarantee, testimonials from a similar campaign or client? Less financial commitment upfront or a timeframe deadline? Entice them to take a risk and give you the opportunity.

Regardless of industry, role or level of experience, we all have to prove our capabilities, demonstrate our experience and be able to articulate our offerings in a compelling and convincing way that brings long term opportunities and results – regardless of looks.

I don’t know about you, but with any service offering, I would much prefer to deal with someone who is enthusiastic, shows commitment, has the ability to do the job and will bend over backwards to deliver the results.  Of course, having beauty and a brain appears like the ultimate combination –but this is business, not speed dating!

Perhaps being genetically gifted gets you in the door, but brains may ultimately win you a place at the table?


Nicole is a Fellow of the RCSA and a current RCSA council member in South Australia. Nicole combines her recruitment, leadership and coaching expertise to work with other recruiters and organisations to achieve their own success through increased performance.  

Technical competence without people skills – what is it costing you?

By | Leadership, Results

A common problem I see in many organisations is that somewhere in their senior management team they have a person with strong technical competence, but who lacks the essential people skills and leadership expertise. The story goes that they are leading the way with their knowledge and experience, meeting expectations, producing innovative ideas, delivering on project deadlines and are knowledge champions in their field.  However, the issue preventing them from getting ahead or a roadblock to their further success is their inability to deal with colleagues, inspire their staff and get outside their comfort zone to take the next step in their professional and personal development.

One HR Director told me that the response from a technically brilliant manager was “things are good, there aren’t any problems, no-one’s losing money – let’s keep doing things the way they are”.  Another in an accounting firm is a star – she is “a doer”.  In a client meeting, she is all business, discussing the issues and then is firing on all cylinders to get the job done. Meanwhile, the client is still pouring a cup of coffee wanting to debrief and perhaps even converse in a little banter about the weekend. In another, a technical manager has got significant staff turnover and the Managing Director refuses to do anything about his ‘leadership style’ because there is no one as good as him in the industry. Really?

At what point does technical competence excuse someone from poor behaviour and being able to operate under a separate set of rules? At what point does an organisation say enough – we love the results, but you’re destroying our culture, loosing our future talent and just a pain the butt to work with!

I’ve seen it and I’m sure you have too.  These people can sometimes appear as a protected species – anything goes because they have the knowledge, they’ve been in the business forever and are producing the results.  Here’s the problem – you can’t promote them to an executive role because they don’t inspire, empower or lead from the front.  The alternative is to leave them and continue the way they are, improve and coach them on their people skills or let them go. In my observations, most choose to leave them as they are, because it is “too hard” to do anything else.

The long-term recruitment and retention issue here is that high potentials may not be attracted to the firm due to the perceived reputation they have heard on the grapevine.  Similarly, high potentials within the business eventually leave because they can’t see a career path working for this person or in an environment where these behaviours are accepted.

The best result is to build on their leadership and people skills.  Imagine that – your highly valuable employee is now not only producing, but also inspiring others to deliver similar results.  That would be a huge turnaround for culture, results and retention. A typical by-product is the individual also benefiting through increased job satisfaction – due to not being the only technical expert with all critical pieces of work resting on their shoulders.

In my experience a technically experienced performer is not magically going to improve their people skills over-night.  Hoping that it will get better is not a strategy. In the past, what tends to happen is they are sent on a leadership course with fingers crossed that they will return a ‘changed person’.  I don’t know about you, but I have never seen such changes after attending a training program. Of course they come back with increased knowledge, perhaps even some awareness and on the odd occasion you may even see them implement a couple of new strategies! Once the course is finished and becomes a distant memory, these new ideas are generally long gone and tend to disappear.

What is more valuable and can have far reaching effects is when a person is coached on their behaviours and the impacts that they are having on other team members, direct reports or clients and the long term cost to them if they continue in this way.  The key here is of course knowing what this particular person’s triggers are eg: not gaining access to larger projects or more responsibility, bigger clients, bonus payments etc.  Linking the behavior to what motivates or demotivates them is certainly going help drive the message home while keeping them accountable to change.

I was surprised last month when someone I know left a high profile job and what I percieved as a great business.  He said to me after leaving “Nicole, life is too short to work with d#!*heads”.  I was surprised to hear something so blunt, but I got the message loud and clear.  I wonder when some of these leaders are going to get a similar message that technical competence is only one part of a much larger people picture that if dealt with can produce bigger and better results for all involved.