Ep9 – The Employee Engagement and Recruitment Edition with Steve Leebrook
James chats with Steve Leebrook who has over 20 years B2B sales and recruitment experience spanning contract, interim, permanent and search.
He’s currently CEO for SystemsAccountants in the US, a highly niche business specialising in Financial Systems & Transformation., where he’s responsible for delivering their growth ambitions.
They discuss the differences in running recruitment businesses in the UK and the States, employee engagement, being heard, chat bots, and of course, service.
James Nathan: 00:53 Hello and welcome to the only one business show with me, your host James Nathan, and I’ve got a very, very interesting guest for you today and I’m know you’re going to enjoy the conversation. This gentleman has got over 20 years experience in business to business sales and in recruitment spanning all the aspects of recruitment you’d expect the contract marketplace, the interim marketplace, permanent as well as search, which is often called head hunting. He’s currently the Chief Executive Officer of Systems Accountants in the US which is a highly niche business specializing in finance systems and transformation. And he’s also responsible for delivering their growth ambitions. We’ve worked together for a good few years now. I’ve always enjoyed my interactions with him, particularly because he’s a big rugby fan, which never hurts. Please welcome Steve Leebrook. Steve hi, how are you?
Steve Leebrook: 01:43 James, hi. Very well indeed thanks. How are you?
James Nathan: 01:46 I’m great, thank you. And I’m delighted to be able to grab you because I know you’re flitting between the US and the UK at the moment, getting that operation set up. How are you? Have you got a house? Are you ready to go with it?
Steve Leebrook: 01:58 Yeah, it’s been a long time in the making actually. It feels like it’s been happening for some time now, but we’ve yeah, it’s all real. We’ve, we’ve got a house and we’ve got schools sorted out for the kids and clubs and stuff. So we’ll be over there full time from from the first week in August. So it’s it’s suddenly become very real and all happening, but really excited about it.
James Nathan: 02:18 And how are you finding the business difference between the UK and the US
Steve Leebrook: 02:22 Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the way we transact business in the US is a lot different. I think without being too disparaging to my colleagues in the recruitment industry in the UK, the recruitment or staffing in the US I guess is seen more of a profession. So you find people coming out of law firms and accountancy firms to go into recruitment. Yeah, there’s the big brands out there who play very well. Our niche is transposed really well over there. There’s not many people doing what we do in the way that we do it. I think it’s all about relationships and the English accent goes a long way for this as a bit of a novelty factor around that. But there’s, there’s no doubt it’s certainly the land of opportunity and we’ve had year on year growth since landing in America probably three or four years ago now. So it’s it’s really pushing onto the next level and expanding more of our services and growing that out. So it’s a really exciting time.
James Nathan: 03:25 Fantastic. I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks in Orlando and keep telling people about it cause I had such a wonderful time. But one of the things I love about America is that kind of opportunity. They talk about it being the land of opportunity, but people truly I think want you to do well. If you suggest you get to start a business. I know in, in particularly where I’m from in Australia, people will sort of say, ah, well, you know, good luck, but it won’t work or whatever. Where there, they’re very kind of positive and yeah, go on and do it. And I liked that. I think that’s a really good thing.
Steve Leebrook: 04:00 Yeah, no, absolutely. And we’ve, we’ve seen distinctions between the different regions that we’re in. So we’ve got offices in New York that services to tristate and an in Chicago, but the, the guys in New York know New York’s for the young guns and it’s all about career and long hours, and the money. You’re absolutely right it’s anything’s possible over there. As long as you, you put your mind to it and you invest the time. So it’s yeah, we’ve certainly seen that firsthand ourselves.
James Nathan: 04:26 Fantastic. Well, I can’t wish you enough luck over there, Steve. It’s going to be great to track you and watch what you’re managing and managing to achieve. What do you find about service, because services obviously key to my heart at the moment. How different is it in America to the UK?
Steve Leebrook: 04:45 Yeah, it’s I guess it’s mixed really. I think for me, America has always been on a bit of a pedestal around, around service, customer service and engagement. I think from a cultural point of view, sometimes to the point perhaps of being a little bit crass and a bit a bit too much. But I think it’s, yeah, it’s the expectation around service now is really, really high. You know, we’re, we’re working with with a range of organizations from sort of pre IPO, fast growth companies to, to Fortune 500 companies. And, and the expectations around our service to them is the same. It’s more demanding. So I think the u s just has that general demeanor around service anyway. And it just means you have to, you have to work harder and think more creatively about how you build that service offering out above and beyond your core offering, if that makes sense.
James Nathan: 05:43 Absolutely. I think you know, we’ve both been in recruitment a long, long time and you know, there’s absolutely businesses who treat the customers, whether they become their candidates or the clients in a very, very fine way. And there’s others who treat them as a money making exercise. Recruitment has a bit of a bad name in some ways for service. Is that changing? Are you seeing changes?
Steve Leebrook: 06:12 In the US yes. I think, you know, when you think about service in our industry, in the recruitment sector, I think recruiters need to evolve and become more what I would call professional problem solvers. And I feel that that standards of service in the recruitment industry generally have fallen. In the UK I genuinely feel that you don’t have to do much to make yourself stand out and look really good, you know, which is a shame. It really is a shame. And I think that, you know, don’t forget we’re brand ambassadors for organizations. We’re ambassadors for candidates that we represent. So it’s all about delivering successful outcomes for them. And that service absolutely has to be front and centre. So I guess it’s a lot, depends on the definition of service and the expectations of our candidates and clients and what that service needs to look like. But I think for those companies who are focusing on service then you know, for the wrong reasons unfortunately that, that absolutely stand out.
James Nathan: 07:22 Do you know, hearing you say those things, Steve, it saddens me rather than worrying me. You know, particularly when I hear people saying, well, I think service levels are dropping. If anything, it should be the absolute other way around. I think you nailed it a minute ago. You mentioned the word relationship. And in my mind at its very base level, recruitment is a business of relationships, relationships in different styles and different ways, but it’s about that relationship and how you do it. And if differentiating yourself is just doing a good job, then it’s great for businesses like yours who, you know, do that. It’s sad for the industry though that just doing a good job differentiates you.
Steve Leebrook: 08:06 Yeah. And I don’t think it’s specific to the recruitment industry necessarily. I think, you know, automation is and outsourcing has helped companies reduce costs. There’s no doubt about that. But I firmly believe it’s been at the expensive, disenfranchising their customers due to lack of service. So chatbots is a great example. You know, they’ve got a place but, and even in the recruitment industry, but you’re absolutely right, it totally dilutes the value around relationships. And if you haven’t got relationships in the recruitment industry you’re not off to a good start.
James Nathan: 08:43 Ah, the number of businesses that I’ve, you know, obviously I see a fair few and I still see people throwing bits of paper about and hoping some of it’ll stick. You know, it never did and it never will. You might make a quid here or there, but you’re certainly not gonna build a business with it. I think you tapped on chatbots there. I don’t know if you’ve picked up my latest blog about them, Steve. I was having a proper rant about chatbots recently because I was a problem with BT, you know, service business, one who doesn’t get a great deal of positive press, but you know, you can’t phone them. You know if you have a problem, you’ve gotta use a chatbot. Now for some people are saying, I love chatbots.
James Nathan: 09:25 They’re great, well that’s fine, but you need to give everybody the opportunity to contact you in the way that works best for them and be available. And I think in recruitment, you know, back in the good old days of, you know, when I was new into the industry, we didn’t have email. I’ve got to show my age now we use fax machines. And we had two telephones, one incoming and one outgoing. And you had to get back to people. It wasn’t a choice. And you didn’t have the luxury of dropping them an email and hoping for the best you had to action and those sort of skills are part of that service offering, aren’t they?
Steve Leebrook: 10:07 Yeah, absolutely. And I think, unfortunately, you know the industry generally has become too transactional and too to commoditized now. And so that service piece is, again, it’s just getting shadowed. But I think what we’re focusing on is how do you deliver value rather than cost and how do you, how do you take that concept to a client and say, you know, what’s the value of the service that you provide? So working with our clients to exchange money for a measurable outcome that is valued by them. Rather than leveraging a fee for a transaction. So you know that that’s a fundamental shift. And being a reactive supplier to a proactive partner and they’re two very different things. So it’s all about the value versus the cost, which isn’t a new argument. It’s not a new concept. But I think if you can articulate that in the right way to clients, then it’s, you know, it’s a healthy place to be.
James Nathan: 11:05 Oh, I absolutely agree with you. It’s not a new concept by any stretch, but neither should it be. It’s another one of those things that’s kind of almost gone out of fashion. And you think, really? How, how can that be? Most businesses want to work with a business for the first time and then work with them forever. You know, to be that number one supply to be the one they think of to be the only one they bother with, you know, when it comes to hiring in the niche that you guys work in, you want your client to say, well, you know, we call Steve not whoever we can find.
Steve Leebrook: 11:44 And that’s thinking long term. Right? So that’s playing the long game. That’s thinking beyond the fee, beyond the reward beyond any result its thinking about the extras perhaps providing knowledge, sharing ideas, giving advice, you know, providing clients or candidates with feedback or data or insights in support thats a value to them. And again, over and above the core service. So that’s goes back to my earlier point about sticking out like a sore thumb for just doing a few extra things that really don’t cost you time or money but may mean a huge amount to the people that are receiving it.
James Nathan: 12:22 Isn’t that a lot more fun?
Steve Leebrook: 12:24 Yeah. Correct. Yeah. Yeah.
James Nathan: 12:26 I mean if I think about, you know, the relationship you and I’ve had over time you know, obviously we both like rugby and it’s always nice to work with people that have similar interests. But, you know, in terms of personalizing, you guys were sponsoring the Rugby Business Network and when you said to me, James would you like to come along? I was absolutely tickled pink. It was a lovely thing and that was purely because we knew each other. You understood what I liked and you had something that you thought I might enjoy.
Steve Leebrook: 12:54 Yeah. It sounds simple. Again, I’m not if it’s a generational thing. I think, you know, some of the millennials now, some of the new guys that we have in the industry genuinely just have different expectations around their work environment and expectations of what they need to do to be successful in their roles. So there’s a big education piece around that.
James Nathan: 13:17 Yeah, I think there absolutely is. And I always hesitate when people talk about generational differences particularly as millennials are anybody bought after 1980. Now, you know, they’re about to turn 40. So they’re not really young generation, although I’m about to said 50 and feeling every minute of it. So when we look at them, you know, people talk about how we should work with younger generations. We absolutely should because you generation on generation from to time, you know, time dot. There’s always been differences. However, we need to educate the staff we work with, hire the right people in the first place, hire against core values. So we’re getting that right style of individual from their base, not just from their skills and their attitudes, and then help them learn how to work with the generation who’s older than them. Cause the generation who’s older than who holds the purse strings.
Steve Leebrook: 14:18 Yeah, you’re right. You’re right. That’s a model that works well. So, and yeah, you’re absolutely correct. It’s not something that is necessarily an obstacle or a blocker to delivering good service, but you just need to understand how you manage that correctly in your business.
James Nathan: 14:32 It should keep us on our toes, shouldn’t it? It should keep us thinking.
Steve Leebrook: 14:35 Yeah, yeah. I mean you’ve got to, everyone’s gotta be thinking about service. We’re really niche business so, you know, references, testimonials, case studies, a gold to us. You’re not going to get those without good service. You know, we’re not a big volume recruiter where you can sometimes hide behind bad service. So yeah, getting our new hires into the organization, that’s a fundamental discipline and values around that that we try and instill in them. And I think that’s a big thing as well. The service piece is very much a cultural thing. It’s top down. It’s about engendering the right values behind what good looks like on service. You know, it’s about accountability about transparency, about honesty. You know, all of those good things that should be as I mentioned earlier, inherent part of the culture.
James Nathan: 15:32 It’s interesting talking to recruiters about recruiting for their own businesses because you’d expect that they should be the very best at doing that. But actually hiring good consultants is much harder than people imagine. And like all industries you know, out of 10 people, only one of them will be worth having a chat with, but then narrowing it down to getting that value set right. You know, take that one and divide them by 10 again. And I think we forget, you know, the lessons we teach our clients, we sometimes forget ourselves.
Steve Leebrook: 16:08 Yeah, no, that’s right. And I think as companies grow, as we’ve experienced, especially international growth across different locations and territories, you have to be ever so careful that those messages don’t get diluted. And then suddenly you’ve got, you know, you’ve got a core business like we have in London, but our European operations and our US operations are detached from that. So how do you still drive the right values and make sure that they are passed on to the people you’re hiring.
James Nathan: 16:40 It’s, it’s a very interesting thing when you talk about scale like that. I talk quite a lot about the Ritz Carlton and group and what they did and how they managed to maintain that. And a lot of it’s to do with really great leadership and management. Those people understanding the business, truly understanding the business and then reinforcing that message. At weekly catch ups, at daily team meetings at all the places that you should be and taking time out of the business conversation to say, right, well, this conversation is about how are we doing this week guys? Plus what are we doing in our business? And it’s really important. What have you done in your business Steve? What have Systems Accountants done to improve the service offering that you provide your clients?
Steve Leebrook: 17:31 That’s a good question. Yes. We’ve worked quite hard at that recently. We’re a business that has been going for 20 years and I think you know, being absolutely frank ist’ only relatively recently that we started addressing some of these issues. And that’s not a reaction to anything bad that’s happened. It’s just us being proactive and wanting to maintain the standards we’ve talked about. But internally we did a big exercise around employee engagement. So really taking each employee on a journey through their experience with the business and really listening and garnering that feedback and using in a way where we could do something with it. So is there a training need? Is there needs around education? How can we adapt the business to address some of the issues that we have and really kind of take the temperature of the business?
Steve Leebrook: 18:28 Where are people’s heads at? Culturally where are we? What are people like and what do we need to do more of and where are the things we need to improve? And that was a really insightful exercise for us. So we didn’t always hear the things that we wanted to hear. And some of it was, was hard to swallow. But you absolutely got to start somewhere on these exercises and I think the employees value that you’re allowed to have an opinion. You’re allowed to have a voice and we hear you. So that was the first thing. I think. Secondly, we have, I’m relatively recently actually, we’ve started to introduce feedback surveys for every placement that we make. So whether it’s a permanent or candidates. So we send a very brief survey out to the the client about their experience with this as a business about the experience with the consultant that they dealt with.
Steve Leebrook: 19:21 Reasonably quick and simple, but it looks at things like net promoter score, which you can measure and again, identifies training needs. And then same for the candidate experience as well. So it keeps us accountable, it keeps the consultants accountable and it helps us do that continuous improvement and assessment about getting better and improving the things we need to work on. So that’s been two real big strides for us where we’ve seen a tangible benefit in terms of employee engagement internally, but also engagement with our client and candidate communities.
James Nathan: 19:57 It’s an interesting….. It’s a great process you’ve been through. Should I say….. Did you find when you did the engagement with your own staff, with your own guys, were there any big surprises? Were there things you, you’re expecting to see that you didn’t or vice versa?
Steve Leebrook: 20:16 On the whole, to be honest, I don’t think we’ve really had any expectations cause we hadn’t done it before. You know, we like to think, you know, people in the business that are happy otherwise, why did they turn it for work on a Monday morning? But I think it is more than that. It’s giving them an opportunity and they’re all anonymous by the way. Now it’s an important thing for them. There’s no way we can identify who said what, and people knew that. So I think a lot of came out around leadership, around personal development training. We thought we’d got that right. We thought we did, we did enough in that area and clearly we didn’t. So we fixed that. And I think just tweaking some of the cultural disciplines within the business as well. So there wasn’t one big standout issue. I think there was just two or three that we thought were areas that, you know, for an incremental change we would get a big result that from the teams.
James Nathan: 21:11 It’s always little things, isn’t it? Little little changes in the right way. And employees being heard is something you said. So many businesses say they do that. I remember back to my very early days working for Hilton International and we had this….. they did a really good party, basically called Hilton Thanks You. And you’d go and have a great meal and lots of drink and a nice band, dance away too and all of that sort of thing. But preempting that was a meeting where you were supposed to talk about, you know, what you really thought. Well nobody did because they’re all too scared of losing their job.
James Nathan: 21:48 So you know it’d be nice if this happened or you know, minor stuff, which didn’t really matter. What they were really looking for, I’m sure they spent a lot of money not getting. And that was disappointing. When I think about it now, I mean I hadn’t, I hadn’t thought about Hilton Thanks You for some time. But you think, well how many businesses are actually not…. They’re asking for feedback but not doing it anonymously like you guys have. So they feel that there’s, you know, there’s an angle. And how many are really not listening if they, they hear the result…. If one employee says something different to the rest, a lot of businesses would be inclined to ignore that feedback because it doesn’t fit with the, with the general gist of it. Cause that’s what mathematics tells us. But actually does that dissenting voice have a very good point and is that point worth listening to and could that radically change our business in ways we hadn’t expected it to?
Steve Leebrook: 22:45 Yeah, that’s a really good point as well. And just having a forum for sharing ideas. You know it’s a classic thing where it doesn’t matter with if you’re on the shop floor in the boardroom, you know, ideas from everyone in the business are really important and you haven’t got the right vehicle for them to be able to garner those ideas, then you know, you’re missing out on big opportunities.
James Nathan: 23:04 So it goes back to hiring the right people and having the right open culture. Cause people talk again about openness. I’m not sure it was one of the values you mentioned before. But openness, you know, glass doors and open doors and all that stuff is important. It’s important stuff. Where’s it all moving to? What do you see the future of recruitment, the industry as a whole and then where do you see service fitting with that future?
Steve Leebrook: 23:32 I think really it’s…. There’s a couple of issues around this. I think I’ll probably allude to my early point around the way the service is delivered. So you think about in the recruitment industry, increasingly HR, Procurement, RPOs are your interface. So, how do you deliver value in service to the client, to the hiring manager that you really working for where you can’t get past some of those functions if you like, to be able to transpose your knowledge, your experience, your thoughts, your insights, you know, those guys aren’t interested in that. They just want a transactional service. So I think it’s understanding more about your supply chain into organizations and, really giving people a genuine and sincere reason to want to engage with you, personally and professionally. You know, some of our best clients have become friends and that wasn’t out of design. It’s just, it just happens that we’re helping each other on our career trajectories and there’s lots of synergies between what we do. So it’s just really providing experiences for people that are going to help them in their own professional careers. And, enable you to grow together as organizations.
James Nathan: 24:54 Does that change over the level of the people you’re working with? So, you know, more junior and more seniors. Is it different?
Steve Leebrook: 25:03 I don’t think that you can differentiate I think the service levels need to be standard across the board. Where in our industry, all our candidates are likely to become clients whether that’s, you know, in two years, three years, five years, or 10 years. And I think it’s, it’s one of those things now, especially with social media you know, your personal reputation and your employer brand is always in jeopardy. So you’ll be known and remembered for the one bad thing you did rather than the 10 good things you did prior to that. So you can’t afford to mess this up. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re a junior candidate or whatever type of client you’re working with, you absolutely need to have the same rigor and governance around distilling that service for them.
James Nathan: 25:54 I was expecting you to say that and I’m glad you did as well because that candidate to client thing…. There’s no greater compliment. Is there when a client says to you, Steve, could you help me in my career?
Steve Leebrook: 26:07 Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly that. And again, that’s a good litmus test that, that you are doing your job right. You know, there’s lots of recruiters out there. And I think, you know, why would someone choose you? I think if you ask yourself that every day or every week and just, you know, keep sharp around the answers to that, then you know, you’ll be making great strides.
James Nathan: 26:30 We talked about automation before and you’ve just mentioned that sort of internal recruitment, RPO stuff. There’s a lot of friction added into the recruitment process through those things. You know, one of the things that makes us want to work with another business or in my opinion, makes us want to work with others with the business is that it’s easy. You know, business has to be great value and great business has to be easy. If it becomes difficult, we don’t like to do it. And whenever we add friction into, or friction points into any process, it makes it more complicated. And those kinds of systems that businesses put in…… I remember years ago working with a big telco who, one of the first to put a portal in place where you have to, you know, for those who don’t work in the industry, you stick your cvs into the portal and hope for the very best. And if does feel a lot like that rather than ringing up the hiring manager and saying, look, I’ve got somebody great here, I’d love to have a chat with you about. That friction makes it difficult for the recruiter. It also makes it difficult for the hiring manager, but for some reason the corporate think, you know, it’s wonderful cause they’re managing to automate a little bit. And I think it’s, I don’t know about Steve, I’m hoping it goes out of fashion again.
Steve Leebrook: 27:52 Yeah. It depends on your business model. I think, you know, there’s some recruitment companies that are set up very well for that and accept that that’s where their value is. You know, you’re at the end of the big funnel and you’re kind of playing roulette, putting cvs into a bit of a black hole on a portal, it might or might not get reviewed by the hiring manager, depending what mood the kind of the person selecting them is on a particular day. I think, you know, we’ve been, and I think this is a good message, you know, you have to be brave enough to kind of walk away from clients and that may sound insane, but if you are not able to deliver value to a client and therefore you’re not able to leverage the fees that you think your business is worth or the, or the value of those fees that the business is worth and then find a business that does, I think, you know, perhaps something that we’ve reflected on long and hard. There’s some super global brands out there that anyone would love a testimonial from on their website. But if it’s not a good business and there’s no reciprocal value in it, then I questioned the value of, of having that relationship is what, well, first it was risky and it was a departure from our model, but with hindsight was absolutely the right thing to do.
James Nathan: 29:07 I don’t think I could agree with you more. I think that, you know, people are very scared to sack clients, which is kind of funny way of talking about it, but, actually it’s important that you work with the right people, the people who fit your business and you do a much better job for them. You know, I remember thinking back to one of my clients who was working with a big beauty business, huge business. And when they worked it all out, they were making so little money for such hassle. When you say to them why you’re doing it, oh well, they’re a big name. So what. There’s lots of great companies about there who you know, who are are big names as well or not big names, but they’re great businesses to work with and we do a great job for them. Steve, before we finish, because I’m conscious that you are about to probably need to find another visa or pack a suitcase or something, what’s your big thing. I’d love for you to leave sort of one idea, one golden nugget. What one thing you think people could take away that can help them make their businesses better today and for the future?
Steve Leebrook: 30:13 Wow. One thing, I think you have to have a passion for it. You know, you need to be really genuine and really authentic. Don’t, don’t play at good service because if you do, you’ll get found out. And I’l probably leave you on a horrible cliche actually, but it kind of works. It’s under promising and over delivering. If you do that, I don’t think you’ll go far wrong.
James Nathan: 30:39 Fantastic. Steve, thank you so much for all your time and lots and lots of great things there for people to think about. Lovely to have you on
Steve Leebrook: 30:47 James. My pleasure. Great talking to you. Thanks for inviting me.