The Last Word July/August 2023: Gavin Sharpe

Recruitment leadership – how to survive today’s turmoil

Recruitment is a funny old game. It seems like only yesterday recruiters were popping champagne corks and celebrating their return to form. They had not only survived a global pandemic, but were riding high, as acknowledged by this publication.

As the global macroeconomic climate darkens, the party may be over. Deal activity is weak. Investment banks, global law firms and big tech companies are scaling down. It is little wonder candidate and client confidence is fragile. 

So what kind of leadership style will best serve recruitment companies during these volatile and uncertain times? A traditional, authoritarian command and control style or something more transformational and inclusive? In other words, do you want Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey at the helm of your team or company?

When Marshall Goldsmith famously declared “What got you here won’t get you there”, he was onto something. Leaders who look backwards for the answers are not well placed to move forwards.

Leaders who are thoughtful and able to calmly consider their current external challenges rather than dwell on their past successes are well placed to create plans to move forward. 

The Harvard Business Review recently called for today’s leaders to be versatile, defined as “the ability to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills and behaviours”. I refer to it as having a thoughtful sense of urgency. There’s a fine line between headless chicken and thoughtful urgency.

In my work as a leadership and performance coach, one of the first things I assess is an individual’s capacity for self-reflection. Know thyself is coaching lesson 101. If your team leader or company boss doesn’t have that skill, they might be better off in politics rather than recruitment.

As the market pivots and turns, it follows that recruitment companies will require leaders with a thoughtful sense of urgency and with the resourcefulness to meet the constantly changing demands being made of them. That resourcefulness is firmly rooted in one’s EQ. What if they don’t have those skills? Coach the heck out of them until they do or promote the rising stars with high EQ.

Organisations transition sometimes from external stimuli. This crisis (global macro-uncertainty) looks different to the last crisis (the pandemic), which by the way is different to the crisis that preceded it (global recession). That is another reason why leaders can’t rely on their “proven” leadership style and should not be promoted solely on that metric. 

For a decade, I ran one of the UK’s most profitable recruitment companies, as consistently ranked by Recruiter’s HOT 100. I am not sure I had the thoughtful sense of urgency that is called for now. I might have dismissed such self-reflection as unnecessary navel-gazing.

I was reminded of the powerful and relevant quote by holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Recruitment companies most likely to emerge stronger from this hiatus will be led by self-aware and emotionally intelligent leaders who act with intentionality. Put another way, expect to see more Oprahs and less Steve Jobs.

Gavin Sharpe runs his own coaching and leadership consultancy. He is also on the judging panel of the Recruiter Awards 2023.

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