Talent Archives | Underwood Executive | Executive Search & Talent Management

South Australia – the market, the future & the opportunity

By | Change, Results, Success

I attended the AMCHAM luncheon last week featuring Raymond Spencer, the Chair of the Economic Development Board in South Australia. I was curious to hear his view and outlook as clients and candidates have consistently been telling me over the past few months – it’s tough.  In 24 hours I had a job offer recalled due to ‘cash flow’ and ‘revenue concerns’ and another candidate told me he had his interview cancelled due to the company deciding to “not proceed for now”.  Let me just mention – both of these examples are in the apparently ‘booming’ resources sector. It demonstrates the current feeling of caution by businesses in Adelaide and this mentality of “let’s wait and see”.

Raymond certainly wasn’t backward in coming forward and was quite open in his observations and thoughts of the Adelaide business community.  I found his opinions to be refreshingly honest. In short, some of his comments included:

  • SA businesses aren’t aggressive enough – it’s just not part of our DNA and in general we have a glass half empty approach – being too quick to see what’s wrong vs. what’s right
  • We are very very lucky, there is a real opportunity here in SA right now – we just don’t realise how good we have it
  • Not enough attention is paid to organisational culture and embedding the right values and behaviours that deliver successful outcomes
  • We don’t support risk with the possibility of failure here vs. the US where innovation and risk are supported and expected
  • “People are our most important asset” – everyone says this, but how do you transfer this to your bottom line? It must come back to your culture and be entrenched in everything you do

I certainly felt he illustrated the conservatism in the Adelaide business community that “newbies” to our city usually describe and perhaps our definite lean towards pessimism not optimism. What they really mean is that we generally don’t like change and there is a fear factor about doing something different, taking a risk, considering alternatives or developing new relationships.  Doing things the way we have always done them tends to be our auto pilot strategy.

The bigger picture here of course is what Raymond highlighted  – that we are potentially missing a much larger opportunity.  This could pass us all by if we don’t come together as a business community and support each other, consider new alternatives such as joint ventures to win bigger business and be open to change.

His over-riding theme and certainly based on his own business success, was clear and not linked to the economy, market conditions or political landscape – it was this: business success still comes back to people, culture and leadership. Without these key elements at your business core, the rest is pointless.

Let’s agree – Adelaide is a great place to do business. We have growth industries, we have talented people, we have the lifestyle and the cost of living, so we should all be open to new ideas and ways of doing things and embrace the opportunities before us by taking action with an attitude of positivity.


























“It’s the vibe of the thing”……can you explain your culture?

By | Culture, Leadership, Results

Last week I spoke at a boardroom breakfast to a group of leaders from infrastructure, mining, legal and local government.  The topic was on my blog “technical competence without people skills –  what is it costing you”? I was a little apprehensive prior to the presentation knowing that most of the people in the room were technical experts and here I was about to tell them that they needed to develop their leadership skills!  I shouldn’t have been concerned.  The input, debate and discussion was encouraging.

There was one question that came up about three quarters through my presentation “you’ve spoken a lot about culture today…. what is culture anyway?”.  As a public speaker, there is always a small sense of dread getting a question that you may not have an immediate answer to…. but this one, this one I could talk about for a whole other session!

My immediate response was that culture is the values that guide internal behavior and action within an organisation.  Someone else in the room quoted the movie The Castle saying, “it’s the vibe of the place”, another said, “It is the unspoken expectations of how things are”; another said, “It determines whether you fit it in or not”.  It is such an intangible element, yet the most important aspect of an organisation.  A cohesive work culture is a powerful retention advantage and an organisation that stands by its values in everything it does – action, behavior and consequence is important to staff.

It is the number one question I get asked at interviews about a potential new employer “what’s the culture like?”. This can sometimes be hard to articulate and to describe to a third party – but it is an essential step in winning over a prospective employee.  Why should they leave their current role to join your company? In this day age, it has to be more than the job description and the pay because you can be assured there is a comparable job down the road. Culture is the differentiator – it is the intangible ‘something’ that can get a star candidate across the line.

I had a marketing executive call from Melbourne this week wanting to discuss the Adelaide market and potential opportunities.  He understands that finding a similar level role and remuneration may be difficult, but he is more interested in the right ‘cultural fit’ and returning to his home state.  He will only move if this match is right.  He is representative of a large proportion of the ‘passive’ market that is open to change and opportunities, but still need to be ‘sold’ on culture and an employer’s value proposition.  The problem is that so many companies still can’t successfully articulate this offer.

I know recruiting for myself; it was only when I could confidently communicate the culture at interview stage that my rate of hiring the right people and keeping them skyrocketed.  I didn’t do the big sales pitch – just here it is, warts and all. I learnt what were the two things about our culture that made people thrive and stay and they were also the two things that made people leave. It was not uncommon to get to the end of the interview and agree that it wasn’t the right match for either of us. Better now than later I say.

The same with clients. I was recruiting for the mining industry last year and I had a technically competent candidate who ticked all the boxes in terms of skills and experience.  After an hour and a half, I knew that there wasn’t a cultural match – he was motivated by flexibility and being able to blend his work life with family life.  For this particular organisation and role, the culture required strong achievement drive and a commitment to long hours and travel.  That’s okay of course; it just wasn’t the right fit.

The hardest part for recruiters as well as companies recruiting themselves is to be able to articulate the internal workings and behaviors of the company without being apologetic about it, in an honest and compelling way. Then sticking to it – even when you know it’s a great candidate in front of you, being able to walk away because ultimately you have different values and ways of operating is critical to long term retention.

Not sure how do you articulate your culture? Ask your staff!  They will tell you and usually come up with better descriptions and examples – especially about the unspoken culture.  My first week at Recruitment Solutions back in the late 90’s, I went to head office wearing a pantsuit.  The girls in the Sydney office looked me up and down, took me to lunch and told me that women weren’t allowed to wear pants! What? That wasn’t in the manual! I had been through induction that covered values, behaviours, standards etc, there was nothing about not being able to wear pants! Internal culture – you won’t always find the answers in the training manual.

Remember that in the race to recruit and retain the best and brightest means being able to convey your culture – what is so great about working here? Include this in your recruitment process – at the end of the interview have a 5-minute spiel about culture, expectations and values. Save yourself and the individual a lot of time, money and emotion by getting the culture fit right upfront.

Culture is everything. It is still one of the most important elements to attract (and keep) the best people to your organisation. Get a jump-start on your competition and recognise that at the core of what makes good companies great is a strong organisational culture.

Of course for those that don’t have a great culture…don’t worry about trying to articulate it….perhaps we should get together and discuss how to improve it?

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.

Who’s hot and who’s not…what the perfect resume won’t tell you

By | Recruitment

Interviewing, recruitment, hiring, finding the right candidate….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….

Last week I was doing the school drop off and was asked independently by two separate parents in business how to pick the right person at interview. How long have you got??? One 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 other was being challenged by picking an internal hire 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 was called to a meeting on Monday 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 Entrée Recruitment and see, hear, talk and advise clients on how to do it better. It is an ongoing battle for most business owners – finding, recruiting and retaining 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 that I follow in a recruitment process to increase my 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: teamwork, 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 don’t have the competency. Don’t ignore this – even if the resume is fantastic – if they can’t answer these questions, they won’t be a high performer in the job.
  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 others in the paper and on the net? 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 a job at Entrée, they called Tuesdayat 5pm. For me and my 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.

As I picked up my daughter from school yesterday, one of these parents thanked me, telling me how much easier her three interviews had been that day. Her change in questions towards motivation and culture opened up her thinking about what was being said at interview, if they would fit her team and it increased her confidence in making the right hire.

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.