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Many new start-ups over the last 18 months have been done so with the desire to be a lifestyle business of 1-3 consultants who just want to focus on billings. Secondly, and in part linked to the first point, but a lack of a clear career development plan.

Content Insights

Leadership and management are not the same thing.
The fear of your best leaders leaving to become a competitor is a challenge facing business leaders.
The second big challenge that leaders face is leading in a hybrid environment.

Table of Contents





Debbie Walton

Editor at TALiNT Partners


Mike Whatman

Director at Mike Whatman Consulting

TALiNT International spoke to Mike Whatman, Director of Whatman Consulting. Mike is a leadership coach, strategic advisor and has worked with a number of TIARA Award winners. We talked about challenges leaders are facing in the current economy and investors value engaged, capable management teams.

TI: What are the leadership and management skills needed to succeed in recruitment as it evolves and transforms at a rapid pace? 

MW: The first thing to clarify in this question is that leadership and management are not the same thing. They are of equal importance and the narrative that is sometimes created around “be a leader, not a manager” has been misleading. My simple differentiation between the two is that you lead people, and you manage processes. Leadership is behavioural, it is the way that you influence those around you and enable them to achieve their potential. However, if a leader focuses too much on leadership without having some clear processes in place that they manage then it can have a detrimental impact. In terms of leadership skills, I think the ability to coach sits at the top in the current market. In the current market where businesses are having to adapt to meet customer needs, we need to make sure that all the customer facing consultants can think. It might sound simple, but being able to think on their feet, adapt their value propositi on so it meets the customer where they are at, will be the difference between success and failure. If you and the other leaders within your business try and take control and tell your people what to say and what to do, then the ceiling of your teams will be lower as you become the bottleneck if everything must come through you to be executed. In terms of management, I think there are two key processes now that leaders need to have nailed, they are: the hiring process and the process for managing underperformance. Getting both of these right are hugely important when it comes to achieving your business objectives. The opportunity cost of investing time into people that eventually go, who were always going to eventually, is one of the most damaging wastes of time for any leader. Without a clear and objective performance management process, it is challenging for leaders to not let emotions cloud their judgement and we end up keeping hold of people for longer than needed.

TI: What can leaders do to retain and develop growth leaders who have tended to leave and start their businesses?

MW: Due to the low barriers to entry when setting up a recruitment business, the fear of your best leaders leaving to become a competitor is a challenge facing many business leaders. In my experience, there are a few reasons as to why people leave a business to set up on their own; firstly, they were pushed into a role that they didn’t want to do, potentially to go fully hands off and more operational, when their true passion remained billing. Leaders need to be in regular communication with their top billers and best performing leaders to ensure that their own personal career goals are met or at least plans are in place to allow them to achieve them.

Many new start-ups over the last 18 months have been done so with the desire to be a lifestyle business of 1-3 consultants who just want to focus on billings. Secondly, and in part linked to the first point, but a lack of a clear career development plan. It is very hard for anyone to remain motivated if they do not know where they are going, how they can get there and if they have no control on that outcome. It is important that leaders can clearly explain how these individuals can progress throughout the business and develop their careers. Lastly, some people have always wanted to run their own business and nothing you did would have stopped them from doing so. We need to sometimes just accept that. If someone does leave and ends up creating their own successful business, then it is a reflection on the quality of you as a leader. We should not hold things back from people or delay the exposure they get “just in case they decide to go alone”. Instead, create an environment where they feel empowered, listened to and that this is in fact the best place for them to achieve their personal career objectives.

TI: Why do PE investors value engaged, motivated, incentivised and capable management teams?

MW: We know that PE investors look at things like recurring revenue, exclusive agreements, market share amongst other things whilst they are trying to test the future proofing of their investment. If all those arrangements, recurring revenues and customer relationships are all held by the business owner being bought out, then that value is being taken away when they leave. The leadership team that is left behind post acquisition is really the future proofing that PE investors are looking for. It is the knowledge, experience and influence of that secondary level of leadership within a business that the investment is being made in. If you have invested in your leadership team, both from a professional development perspective but also from a personal perspective and they are tied in so that they create their value only if the company does, gives investors’ confidence that they aren’t going to follow you out the business when you leave. This tie in can form part of the valuation process of the business and the final package that is presented, either in the form of profit shares, pension packages, equity etc. When going through the sale process, especially if you are going through an earn out, you want to think about how you can incentivise those left behind to ensure that your forecasted revenues that generated the valuation are met. If they feel that you have looked aft er them, then they will look after you and you earn out! Investing in your leaders is not just of short-term benefit, but also in the long run should you look to take the business to an event.

The legacy of any leader is the number of good leaders that you have created and left behind

TI: Please share some of your successes.

MW: I am incredibly lucky because I am one of those people who genuinely love what they do. I don’t see it as a job or work at all because I get to work with some of the most incredible businesses in our industry, who are shaping the advances in technology, medicine and sustainability. Becoming part of the journey with a business is what motivates me and being able to look back at some, six years on who started in the usual broom cupboard who are now an award-winning business with 150 employees across three international offices generating £20 million in revenues, obviously gives me a huge amount of pride. But equally seeing a recruitment start up I work with be able to generate £1.5 million in revenues within their first 12 months provides just as much satisfaction even though the numbers are smaller. One of the real markers of success for me when I look at the work I do with businesses is their position in their market as a result. Are they one of the most recognised or attractive businesses to work for within their specialism. Seeing a lot of the businesses I work with winning TIARAs each year matters just as much!

TI: What are the biggest challenges leaders face in the current climate?

MW: Being able to maintain productivity levels and engagement in a market period where a large proportion of the workforce have not got experience of. Over the past few years, thousands of people have started their careers in recruitment and built their own narratives of the industry during one of the biggest boom periods seen in many years. The conditions that we find ourselves in now, with regards to job vacancies, retraction of client spend etc seem catastrophic to some, because they have nothing else to compare it to. Trying to engage a workforce that is fuelled by instant gratification and expect overnight success is a real challenge. How long can we say “keep going” for before it becomes white noise?

Like anything “new” that we are exposed to in life, we have 2 options; we can either bury our head in the sand and be left behind, or we can embrace it

Using tools around gamification of activity, investing in developing their staff as well as celebrating smaller wins are examples of how leaders can create greater levels of engagement whilst processes are slower. The second big challenge that leaders face is leading in a hybrid environment.

This is not the platform to start the WFH vs office debate, mainly because I don’t believe that there is a one size fits all solution here, but leaders who offered the flexibility to enable the growth are now left with the predicament of performance dropping and so do we remove that flexibility to get people back on track? As I said, I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach here, however I do think that flexibility should be earned rather than guaranteed and that is coming purely from a talent development and generating best practice perspective.

TI: Business strategies are clearly having to forward plan and pivot drastically with the arrival of AI. How can leaders and top tier management prepare themselves for this massive shift in business?

MW: Like anything “new” that we are exposed to in life, we have 2 options; we can either bury our head in the sand and be left behind, or we can embrace it and do a deep knowledge dive on it to ensure that we know as much as possible to make a truly informed opinion. I believe as AI becomes more mainstream and readily available it will continue to be a facilitator, rather than a differentiator. AI will enable recruiters to do more of the “human” activities rather than losing time on administrative tasks. My advice to leaders is to embrace it and understand how you can use it within your internal processes to enable your consultants to do more. Knowledge is power, so the more you can educate yourself on its applications, integrations and functionalities then the better chance of successful implementation you will have which will keep your team in line with your competition. Whether it was the iPod, driver-less vehicles or air fryers, there is always going to be something that will revolutionise the way that we experience different elements of our lives, AI is the next one on that list and leaders should embrace it or there is a potential to be left way behind.