Leading Through COVID-19: 10 Leadership Lessons from Recruitment Industry Leaders


Having had the privilege of working in the recruitment industry for the past two decades, not only have I seen huge amounts of entrepreneurialism, innovation, and passion, which has helped the industry get to where it is today, but I’ve also seen firsthand the ingenuity and resilience of recruiters, leaders, and their businesses. The past 12 years in particular have not been easy; the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit, IR35, and now COVID-19 have challenged the industry in inconceivable ways.

During times of crisis, leaders often look back to previous experience to help navigate the way forward. The COVID-19 crisis has been like none other, which has meant that leaders have had to get comfortable with making decisions based on instinct and rapid scenario planning to shape their organization’s response to the crisis.

Over the past 10 months, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to senior leaders in the recruitment industry from the likes of HaysReedPage GroupSThreeRandstadThe Adecco Group, and Robert Walters Group to understand how they’ve navigated their organizations through the global pandemic. Combined with my own personal experience, in this article, I aim to summarise the top 10 lessons learned from COVID-19 that will be beneficial to recruiters and recruitment leaders as we transition into 2021, and to the next generation of leaders to come. I hope this collective memory benefits many. 

1. In times of crisis, decisive action is needed

At the start of the global pandemic, I read an article where Albert Ellis, the former CEO of Harvey Nash who led the organization through the 2008 financial crisis, described COVID-19 as “apocalyptic” and warned that knee-jerk reactions if made would be unhelpful in retrospect. However, the very nature of the global pandemic has forced leaders to make decisions at a pace, and decisive action has been crucial. Alex Fleming, President and Head of Country at The Adecco Group, shared, “People really respect definitive leadership at a time like this, and I’ve learned there are times to seek counsel, and there are times you need to make a decision.” Furthermore, Robert Walters, CEO of the Robert Walters Group, also said, “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.”

2. It’s ok to not have all the answers

When things are outside of your control, it’s ok not having all the answers. Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays, captured it nicely when he said, “When a massively destructive event like this happens, and people are worried, anxious and scared, they look upwards to the leader of the business for answers - answers we, as leaders, don’t always have.” With no rulebook to navigate this crisis, many leaders have had to rely on gut instinct and personal resilience to get them through. Research from LinkedIn finds that more than two-thirds (69%) of C-level executives across Europe say that leading their organizations through COVID-19 has been the most challenging experience of their career, with many at times doubting their ability to lead. Adaptability has been essential. Mark Dorman, CEO of SThree, highlighted the importance of working with the “knowable” versus the “unknowables”. Creating these distinctions to understand what you can and can’t impact or influence enables greater focus. This ultimately leads to more effective decision-making and greater impact.

3. Vulnerability shows that you’re human

Everyone has responded to COVID-19 differently, but one common trait I’ve found amongst my team is that there’s been a shared feeling of anxiety during this period. As a leader, showing strength and resilience is important, but so is flexing your leadership style to demonstrate essential skills such as openness, compassion, empathy, and understanding. Vulnerability in a crisis is crucial to earning the trust of employees and taking them on a journey with you. These softer skills are what make us human and help us communicate in a way that is highly personable, authentic, and genuine. Alex Fleming at The Adecco Group, summed it up nicely when she said: “In these uncertain times, it’s important that I continue to talk to the business regularly, and we’re keeping lines of communication open for people to ask any questions. If we’re unsure what the next step is, that’s okay. We aren’t perfect, we’ve never been in this situation before. People just need to see that the leadership team is in control – even if they don’t have all the answers.”

4. People value honesty over corporate polish

With regular communication being critical during the pandemic to ensure staff was set-up for success working remotely, and clear on how the business would operate during this time, there has been little time for overthinking internal communication. With businesses typically striving for polish when it comes to employee engagement, companies haven’t always had the luxury of time. Instead, employees are likely to have seen leaders in a different light —speaking openly and honestly about the situation at hand. This is something that Ian Nicholas, Global Managing Director at Reed, aimed to do. Coming from a background in HR taught him that being honest and upfront is usually what people want, and it’s these tenets that have had an influential and lasting impact on his personal leadership style.

5. Being visible and accessible is crucial to making people feel connected

Working remotely has brought new challenges when it comes to connecting with teams. For instance, my team has gone from seeing me in the office every day to meeting me virtually during scheduled meeting times. For some, it’s too infrequent. An idea I had at the start of the pandemic was to unblock chunks of my diary for the virtual drop-in sessions. Anyone could come and open my virtual door and get immediate face time. I wanted people to know that I’m accessible and never too busy to listen to their questions or challenges, no matter how big or small. I think it’s helped people feel connected and supported during this time. Steve Ingham, CEO at Page Group, also reiterated how important it is to be visible: “From the start, it was important for us to stay connected with our people, giving them clear and consistent messages to communicate on what they should do, letting them know the business was secure, and supporting them with needs like stress and loneliness. We also held live Q&A events where I would take anonymous questions from employees around the world.”

6. Courage is needed to make transformational business changes

COVID-19 has been an accelerant for digital transformation. While many companies were already on their digitization journeys long before the pandemic, it has certainly forced the tempo of change as employees needed to be equipped with the technology and tools to work remotely. As Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, recently said, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”. Many recruitment firms have quickly shown clients that they can conduct the entire recruitment process, from screening to remote onboarding, seamlessly which has been impressive. Glen Cathey, Head of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Randstad, said that when lockdowns were instituted, he was impressed at how the company’s previous investments in cloud technologies allowed them to switch the business from in-person to digital interactions almost immediately. While many firms have not been so fortunate, they have now activated something that they have long needed to do. They quickly made change happen. Necessity can drive innovation, but courage can too.

7. The vision to rebuild career confidence is a uniting force

With COVID-19 challenging the lives and livelihoods of people in every industry, recruiters will play a crucial role in getting people back to work, reigniting career confidence and the economy. This sense of shared purpose can be a motivating force that unites recruiters and levels the industry. Steve Ingham at Page Group, reiterated to me that the role of his organization is to change lives and create an opportunity for people to reach their potential. A similar sentiment was echoed by Alistair Cox at Hays who said that recruiters have a role in society to help people deliver their potential. With such an important role to play in helping people rebuild their careers and confidence, particularly if they’ve been made redundant or furloughed, recruiters should feel immense pride in the impact they’re having on people’s lives.

8. Learning opportunities key to employee engagement

Working remotely due to COVID-19 has been easier for some more than others. For younger generations in the early stages of their careers, in particular, the global pandemic has been disorientating and challenging. Learning by osmosis is tough to do remotely, and leaders are thinking about the type of experiences they need to deliver to ensure they can continue giving their employees the accelerated learning experiences that they expect. This means considering how to create a culture of continuous learning virtually and creating more rigor around best practice sharing. This will help fuel an engaged and motivated workforce, and ensure everyone has an opportunity to reach their potential. This was front of mind for Alistair Cox at Hays, who said: “We need to facilitate our employee’s lifelong learning, wherever they are based, and however they are working.” He also reiterated the importance of micro-learning and the value of staying current when it comes to skills development.

9. Data literacy is critical to building trusted client relationships

Clients are going to need more help from recruiters now than ever before. As companies change their workforce policies and talent needs, they’re looking to recruiters to help advise them on their evolving workforce landscapeIan Nicholas at Reed highlighted how data and insights will be even more crucial to all businesses going forward, and how recruiters will need to be able to interpret data to identify where demand patterns are and what roles and skills are available. This is essential to matching supply with demand. While data and analytics have become increasingly important to the industry during the past several years, ensuring employees are well versed in data literacy across all levels of the business is integral to building trusted client relationships and future-proofing business.

10. It’s time for a new trust contract

Leaders recognize that they need to give their employees greater flexibility over when, where, and how they work. This is particularly pertinent to the Recruitment industry where for many years culture, to a degree, has been underpinned by presenteeism. COVID-19 has proved that recruiters can work productively and efficiently from home, and there is now a desire for more choice as to how they get their jobs done. Flexible working benefits employee wellbeing, recruitment, and retention. A new trust contract between employers and employees is needed. This is an exciting time for companies to consider new ways of working to unlock higher levels of employee efficiency, engagement, and satisfaction while demonstrating to employees that they are trusted to do their best work however they deem best. Recruitment businesses that are able to formulate the perfect balanced trust contract with employees will thrive.

In addition to flexible working, we also need to fundamentally reconsider the make-up of our workforce. LinkedIn research finds that a third of C-level executives across Europe want to improve the diversity of their workforce, and 64% want to create a fairer and more equitable workplace. COVID-19 has undoubtedly been a catalyst for change and recruitment leaders now have an opportunity to consider the type of businesses they want to rebuild.

I hope these insights offer a glimpse into what’s top of mind for industry leaders as we go into next year, and the takeaways help those at any point in their career. With so much change ahead, for client organizations and recruitment firms, there’s never been a more exciting time to work in the industry at this crucial point in its evolution. I look forward to seeing how these leaders progress with their plans and learnings over the next year.

This post was republished from LinkedIn.

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