Walk into any recruitment business within the City of London and I am sure you will be greeted with a cacophony of frenetic noise; the sound of driven and determined individuals, making those all-important calls to both candidates and clients. They are frantically booking interviews and meetings in order to match the best possible candidates and clients, achieving mutually beneficial results that are reflected in their own personal billings. However, behind that front line of a buzzing sales floor sits a support function that facilitates and provides all of the necessary assistance for the sales team to consistently hit their billing targets. This team is often disregarded or not treated with the same level of adulation, partly for the simple and rather short-sighted accusation that ‘they aren’t making us money’, which is completely wrong and unfair.
To use a sporting analogy, any great sportsman, woman or team will have an array of specialist people behind them acting as the supporting cast in order to drive the performance of that particular individual or group, whether that be the coaching staff, physios, doctors or even sports scientists who are all there to harness, tweak or optimise the eventual outcome. For instance, Lewis Hamilton is renowned for having several hundred support staff, all of which play a key part in his success, whether that be in a hands on role within the pit lane or the voice in his ear as he drives, giving him strategic direction. Without any direction at all, Hamilton would just be reliant on talent and instinct, however, much more is required in order to take pole position. This is also the case within a recruitment business, as without any direction at all, consultants might not even know what their specialism is and which market they work in as niche experts. My point, therefore, is that a network of support and infrastructure staff is essential for achieving the best possible outcomes, whether this is in recruitment terms or sporting terms; two areas that draw close synergies because they are built on a burning aspiration to be successful. Success, however, is ultimately impossible without any prior planning or awareness of a strategy for how the desired result is going to be achieved, and this is extremely relevant within any recruitment company, whether a small start up or a large corporate.
Recruitment businesses are inherently spawned by good sales people who have grown through the ranks within their respective businesses and due to the rapid career progression opportunities afforded to individuals within the sector, many people become directors of companies relatively quickly. However, many organisations like this naturally reach a point in which they will need to develop their support infrastructure in order to continue to grow, because there is only so far you can go by just being good at selling. If the foundations are no longer strong enough to support your sales growth plans, then the wheels will inevitably come off and your progression as a business will stall. This is why having a strong support function is so essential and should be valued; not only as facilitators of growth, but as enhancers and strategists who can drive the business from an Operational perspective. Talent Acquisition, HR, Learning and Development, Marketing and IT are all key areas within a strong Operations team and also positive indicators of growth; value-adding components that will naturally enhance the scalability of the business. This creates a fantastic position of strength for a recruitment company, whereby they can ask the introspective question ‘how can we be better?’ The organisation can bring in specialists who can acquire talent, train and develop their staff internally, increase their market visibility or make their business run more systematically from an IT perspective.
All of these Operations specialists are geared towards allowing consultants to become better at what they do and raising the average performance, much like a sports coach who spends hours a day training his athlete. So why are individuals within support functions typically not afforded the acclaim, in general, of their counterparts, if this is such as a collaborative relationship? For me, it is incredibly important to acknowledge these people and recognise them as pivotal figures within any organisation, something that Sarah Mason, an HR figurehead within the recruitment sector, strongly encourages. Sarah feels that “if people feel that they are too transactional and don’t add value, then they will often be treated as second class citizens in recruitment firms, instead of being perceived as teams that are essential to the company’s success.” She also argues that “it is important that people understand the vision of the company, and have a clear understanding of what activities are important to support the strategic and commercial goals of the company, clarity on how to measure if those activities are successful, and enable good relationships with stakeholders by encouraging a supportive, collaborative environment.” That way, everyone knows and understands that they each play a key role in the journey of the business, and there is no segregation between those who make the placements and generate the turnover, and those who add value in other key strategic areas.
Top performing consultants will inevitably be rewarded in terms of commission, yet Ian Alexander, one of the founding directors of Alexander Ash, believes that it is key to recognise the part that support staff play in the larger picture, and that it is “important to understand what is important to them and how that might link to organisational goals.” The business, a leading provider of change and transformation resource for the financial services, technology and consulting sectors, is even starting to put bonus incentives in place based on measurable achievements that are dependent on the nature of the role, i.e. an incentive for their compliance team based on how many candidates are made legally compliant. This is clearly an example of how a key support member can be valued and considered integral to the overall aims of the business, whilst also being incentivised to safeguard the business against any liability.
Both Sarah and Ian’s feelings towards support staff are perhaps symbolic of a shift in attitude within the sector towards business enabling and infrastructure staff, a change in attitude that I would strongly endorse, because after all, without such individuals within recruitment businesses, much of the work we do on a daily basis would not be possible and certainly wouldn’t be as efficient in terms of strategic direction. Behind every great sales team is a great support cast, and hopefully in time an increasing amount of businesses will adopt the same sentiment.