22 October 2020

“At the end of the day our business is all about relationships – so that’s what we’re focusing on.”

LinkedIn Talent Insights Interview

Robert Walters, CEO of the Robert Walters Group, spoke to LinkedIn’s staffing industry consultant, Adam Hawkins, to discuss the value of face-to-face interaction, corporate social responsibility, and why technology is not a threat, but an enabler to the recruitment industry as part of LinkedIn’s #TalentVoices Leadership interview series. Read the full interview below.

You’ve been in the industry for more than thirty years. I’d love to hear about the evolution of your business, as well as your individual journey.

After a brief spell as a chartered accountant, I spent eight years placing accountants at another well-known name in the recruitment field. During this period, I established their New York office, but by 1985 I was ready to go out on my own. My vision was to create a specialist and international recruitment business based on a non-commission model. I’ve always believed that this model generates the best outcomes for clients and candidates. It’s also the foundation of our company culture because it creates a supportive, team-based environment where people work together to deliver the best mutual outcome for clients and candidates.

In your opinion, what has changed in recruitment over the decades - and what will always stay the same?

Over time we’ve seen an exponential increase in the amount of information available to clients, candidates and recruiters. However, what hasn’t changed is the need for a human filter to cut through and make sense of, what is in many cases, an unmanageable amount of data - that industry expert who can advise on market trends, salaries, opportunities, the culture of an organisation or the unique attributes of a candidate – something an algorithm simply cannot do.

You’ve steered your business through other crises - do you see any parallels in lessons learned?

Clearly, this crisis is unique in that it’s driven by a health issue; it affects every sector and every country. But at the end of the day, the impact on recruitment is the same as with previous crises and it becomes a question of confidence - if people are too nervous to make decisions, either as candidates or clients, because they don’t know what the future holds, then they sit on their hands and the recruitment market slows. In markets like this, it’s essential that we keep close to our candidates and clients, providing them with expert advice and support to help them get through this challenging period, whether they are hiring or looking for a job or not. At the end of the day, our business is all about relationships so that’s what we’re focusing on. And as we do this, I’m confident we’ll be well-positioned to accelerate growth once the inevitable recovery comes.  

Where in your business are you seeing the biggest impact? 

There’s sector, then there’s geography. Two sectors that have really grown strongly are technology and healthcare, no great surprise there. However, from a geographic perspective it’s been very volatile with different countries having varying degrees of success in dealing with the pandemic combined with underlying political uncertainty in the UK, Europe, the US and Hong Kong for example. All of this volatility has been challenging for us as a global business and of course for our clients as well. However, we are fortunate to be in a strong financial position, and just as importantly, we have a cohesive, resilient and dedicated set of employees who have come together successfully to weather this crisis as one.  The strength of the Group’s culture has really shone through.

I recently interviewed CEOs across the globe. The general feeling is that while we may be physically distant from other team members, in other ways we’re closer than ever before. We’ve seen each other’s living rooms, children, pets, and so on. That actually builds a deeper bond. 

Yes, my leadership team is spread out across several continents, but as we have navigated the business through this particular crisis I’ve definitely seen them more frequently through regular Zoom or Teams calls, and had real glimpses into their home lives. In some ways it has driven greater collaboration cross-region and cross-function, as we are all experiencing the same issues in this truly global pandemic. However, whilst in some respects, remote working has been a success with many positives, most people, certainly in our business, couldn’t wait to get back into an office environment as soon as it was or is safe to do so.

It’s interesting to note that many businesses have publicly backed away from their initially positive wholesale stances on long-term remote working because they’ve seen a drop-off in productivity. They have recognised the need to get people back into the office environment to facilitate that human connection, the generation of ideas, to onboard new starters in person, train and mentor junior employees and so on. It’s harder to maintain a corporate culture while we’re all apart. As I mentioned earlier, for the Robert Walters Group, our culture is based on team work so working side by side, and helping each other get results is a really important aspect of our business.

How have you led your business and your people over this period?

The way I have led the business comes down to the experience I’ve gained in other downturns - I’ve always found straight-talking and transparency to be the best approach. 

We’re an organically-grown organisation. We don’t acquire, so the culture and DNA of the business is very real and very strong – and you can destroy that in a heartbeat by being too aggressive when things get tough. We want to be there for the recovery - there’s no point taking an axe to something thirty years in development for short term reasons. When the market comes back, it will come back strongly. You need to hold your nerve so as not to lose good people.

On the topic of culture, you’re slowly integrating people back into the office, while maintaining other areas through remote working. How do you continue to nurture and evolve your culture now in an industry built on decades of presenteeism?

The social aspect of work is very important in our business. We have great digital tools that have helped keep people connected and our staff have been very creative in keeping everyone close and engaged but it’s not quite the same as being together in the office.  In the longer term I do predict that the balance on home working will reverse, and that eventually, we’ll get closer back to how things were before the pandemic. However, that said, I can see that some functions and roles, are able to be delivered remotely and therefore what some commentators are calling hybrid models will no doubt become more popular. But for our recruiters there’s definitely a desire to be back together in the office once it’s safe to do so.

I want to turn the conversation to the future of work, your area of expertise. I know you’re doing a lot of thought leadership around the subject of mental health.

Yes, we are taking it very seriously. We have been producing thought leadership materials on, for example, preventing workplace burnout and how to manage mental health in the remote workplace, to help our clients and candidates. Additionally, our employees are very passionate about supporting mental health and by way of example in the UK we recently fundraised for the mental health charity Mind, on our Global Charity Day.

In terms of staff wellbeing, we have an employee assistance programme so employees can receive counselling should they need it.  Of course, we may also face a whole set of new issues when people get back to the office, some people might be a little nervous about interacting with others, for example. Let’s not forget that if this does go on for another six months, there will be people who have been out of the office for a long time. There naturally needs to be a period of acclimatisation. Once people have got over that initial nervousness, being used to this type of client-facing role means they should get back into the swing of things relatively quickly. 

We shouldn’t underestimate the value of that human interaction - particularly when our very business is people. Sometimes, the five minutes before a meeting can be some of the most important: understanding a person’s body language, the way they interact with others, and so on. Those informal moments are the gold as a leader.

Yes, I agree, the face-to-face element of things is all important. On a Zoom call for example, you tend to have a very specific agenda; out for lunch or coffee or even in the corridor you are more likely to stray beyond the boundaries of one topic. Recruitment is, and always will be, a human relationship business.  

Tech is clearly going to play a pivotal role going forward. I know your business is pretty savvy - how do you find the right balance between data and the human touch?

Yes, we very much see technology as an enabler not a threat. The right technology has a powerful part to play in freeing up our consultants’ time so they can focus on building relationships. Our business has very effective technology & transformation and innovation functions whose role it is to look to the future and ensure we are early adopters. It’s one of the reasons we were so well prepared for the pandemic as we’d already completed a global roll out of Surface Pros so we were able to seamlessly transition our people to work from home.

While technology and data has its part to play, there’s a limit to what extent you can be data-led. I remember one of the very first candidates I placed in an investment banking role. He didn’t meet any of the client’s up-front specifications, but they hired him because I was able to take the time to explain and highlight his other qualities and transferable skills. He had a very successful career at the bank and in other roles thereafter. Simply put, his career might have been very different if it had only come down to matching data. A good consultant will know that while it’s useful to utilise that data, it’s also crucial to look past it. It’s all very well having filters that dictate who fits the job specification, but these can’t be used in isolation. With the vast amount of data out there, recruiters should instead use these filters as tools to help make the process more efficient - without devaluing the human contact aspect.

Social impact looks set to form a huge part of the future skills landscape. What can you tell us about your passion for corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

It’s very much at the heart of the business. We talk to employees a lot about how our purpose is to power people and organisations to fulfil their unique potential, and our CSR very much flows from that. We’re involved in a whole range of CSR initiatives across the globe one of which is our long-term partnership with Global Angels, supporting a sustainable development project in Tsavo, Kenya. Over the years we have helped to bring food, water, sustainable farming, job creation and education to the Itinyi Valley community in Tsavo. It’s been hugely rewarding for some of our employees to visit Tsavo in a volunteering capacity to see what’s happening on the ground.

Another example this time from Asia is the support our Hong Kong business provides to Feeding Dreams, a Cambodian charity and grassroots community school providing free education, school meals and community support to over 800 underprivileged children and families living in Siem Reap’s poorer areas. As well as fundraising for the charity, some of our employees have travelled to Cambodia to volunteer at the Feeding Dreams school, teaching the children English and Maths.

Last year we launched the Robert Walters Group UK Young Artist of the Year Award in partnership with Saatchi Gallery and UK New Artists. We wanted to support young UK artists by giving them a platform from which to grow their careers and fulfil their potential.

Personally, I’m involved in a government-backed prison reform project focused on the rehabilitation of prisoners, which has taken me as far as Norway to understand how they do things there. We found that our people were very keen to get involved and use their skills to help those who are preparing to leave prison. Earlier this year we launched Re:Start in the UK which gives our employees the opportunity to go into prisons to advise leavers on job seeker skills where no support is given - whether that be help with writing their CV or giving a mock interview for example. Simply put, we do what we can with our expertise to help people get back on their feet.

As an organisation, these initiatives and many others like it right across our global business, have and always will come from the heart. Our commitment is authentic and long-term.

What has been your big “aha!” moment this year?

There have been a few! But the biggest one has been seeing the loyalty and actions of our employees throughout this crisis and the way they’ve come together to get the business through this challenging period. I knew we had a strong culture but it takes an unprecedented crisis like this to test it. It’s been absolutely heart-warming to see and I want to end by thanking all of the Group’s employees for their steadfastness and commitment.

Read more from the #TalentVoices Leadership interview series here.