Top-ten recruitment tips

Successful business leaders know how to pick winners when recruiting staff. Edwin Smith asks ten of the best for their top tips


So much talk in the last five years has been about toughing it out during barren times. But rapid growth raises different challenges, not least the task of assembling a group of people capable of keeping pace once momentum has kicked in.

What kind of people should you hire? How to train them? And what’s the best way to get them all pulling in the same direction? Executives at ten high-growth businesses from different industries – and ranging from start-ups to multi-billion-dollar corporates – tell how they make their workforce fit for purpose.

1. PEER PRESSURE IS GOOD

The stellar business performers of the 21st century all have one thing in common, according to Ajaz Ahmed, who founded digital advertising agency AKQA at the age of 21 and now presides over 1,500 staff in 12 offices around the world. “They all excel by cultivating internal working cultures that reiterate the message, from the very top down, that doing just enough is never enough,” he says. “But getting to that level of application, dedication and eagerness to learn new skills is not about creating a climate of fear. It’s about inculcating a sense of pride – peer pressure of the right kind.”

2. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Location is really important for Andy Harter, chief executive of RealVNC, a recent recipient of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert Award. “We are based in Cambridge. The university produces a pool of incredibly bright and talented people, but it’s not just about academic ability,” says Dr Harter. “Then there’s the ‘Cambridge phenomenon’, the high-tech business cluster which has sprung up in Cambridge over the last 50 years. It’s highly connected, so the experience or advice you need is never more than one introduction away.”

3. CREATE WIN-WIN RELATIONSHIPS

“It’s the talent of the talent that matters,” says Phil Smith, chief executive of Cisco UK & Ireland. “Despite a tough economy, most younger employees are not looking for a traditional job for life. They expect a win-win relationship with their employer, and they’re not afraid to walk away if they don’t feel inspired to stay and grow. We use our own video and WebEx conference technology to help people achieve a balance. Cisco people can choose to work remotely when needed.”

I want people who are not just looking to fulfil a current role, but to help grow the company alongside me

4. GIVE YOUTH A CHANCE

Digital direct marketing agency AIS London has introduced a scheme called Fresh Perspectives, which sees junior staff sit with the board each month and give their thoughts on the business. “It enables us to keep re-evaluating and adapting how we’re working, which is crucial during rapid growth periods,” says managing partner Steven Watford. “Harnessing young talent ensures we’re paving the way for the next generation, who will be responsible for maintaining further growth of both the individual business and the industry as a whole.”

5. THINK SMALL, GROW BIG

“Each of our global offices is run as a ‘grown-up start-up’,” says Camilla Harrison, chief operating officer of M&C Saatchi. The ad agency has 31 offices around the world and is opening new outposts at a rate of three a year. “It gives our workforce the opportunity to instil their own entrepreneurial spirit into the work we do,” she says. “Our business model is underpinned by the idea that men and women work better if they have control over their own destinies. And where people own meaningful equity in the business, they work harder, work better and enjoy it more.”

6. GROW YOUR OWN

When investment management firm BNY Mellon set up an office in Manchester, there was a shortage of workers with the specialist skills for the required roles. “We needed to look beyond recruitment,” explains Steve Hayes-Allen, regional head. “We needed to develop a programme that would provide long-term career development and support our future in the city.” The company now offers a range of courses including advanced apprenticeships and a custom-designed undergraduate degree with Manchester Metropolitan University. The headcount in the Manchester office has increased from 50 in 2005 to 1,100.

7. EMPLOY ENTREPRENEURS

“The key for me has been hiring individuals who are truly entrepreneurial in their approach,” says Jessica Rose, who founded the London Jewellery School in 2009 with just £5,000 savings. “I want people who are not just looking to fulfil a current role, but to help grow the company alongside me. Finding these gems can be difficult, but often they turn out to be previous students or tutors at the school – people who really understand our ethos, who our customers are and what we are about.”

8. LET YOUR REPUTATION PRECEDE YOU

According to Jason Stockwood, chief executive of Simply Business, the business-to-business (B2B) insurer has worked hard to build a reputation as an innovator in the industry. “This has made recruitment easier and eliminated the need for recruitment agencies,” he says. “For example, we ran a company hackathon, designed to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship, and boost engagement and motivation among employees. It resulted in two products being developed for the business and has already helped boost recruitment.”

9. MUCK IN

“To lead is to serve,” says James Petter, formerly a captain in the Royal Green Jackets, who completed officer training at the world-famous Royal Military Academy, Sandhust. “In the Army there are no private offices or ivory towers; an officer must take on the same challenges as his men. That’s why soldiers come to trust the decisions their leader makes and follow their orders.” Mr Petter, who is now UK managing director at £13-billion American technology giant EMC, says he makes a point of regularly pitching in with cold-calling in order to support the sales staff.

10. PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS

For Nick Tolley, chief executive of the rapidly expanding coffee-shop chain Harris + Hoole, strengths are more important than more conventional criteria such as skills or experience’. “A ‘strength’ is something that drives and motivates you,” he explains. “And because it’s something you love doing, you’re often pretty good at it. By building ‘strengths profiles’ for each of our roles and recruiting candidates accordingly, we’ve been able to build a business full of people who are not only naturally great at their jobs, but also look forward to coming to work every day.”