Kevin Green: The exit interview

Outgoing REC chief executive Kevin Green reflects on his time at the helm with Recruitment Matters editor Michael Oliver

Michael Oliver: After almost 10 years at the helm, why are you leaving? 

Kevin Green: I think there are two reasons really: one is personal and one about the REC. From my perspective, I’ve been doing the job 10 years, I’ve loved it, it’s been a great job, and I’ve enjoyed it every day. But I’m 55, and I want to do something else before I hang up my boots for good. I also think it’s the right time for the REC. We’ve hit our reserves policy, we’ve got a new chairman, we’ve got a new strategy defined over the next four years, so it’s a good time for somebody else to bring in a fresh perspective. 

MO: Let’s go back to before you joined. How did you become the chief executive?  

KG: I had just left Royal Mail. I had done five years there, and that was during a period of huge transformation. When I joined in 2003, the business was losing a million and a half pounds a day. We wanted to get it ready for privatisation and so we had to do huge amounts of change. So I went in there to manage the change programme across the whole business, which was a £9bn business employing 220,000 people. And then after about six months, I ended up being parachuted in to become the HR director of the biggest business, which is the letters business.

During my period, there we closed some factories, we changed the working environment, we had to do a big piece of negotiation with the trade unions, we lost 35,000 people in that time – a huge amount of change at a blistering pace. I was approached by a headhunter about a role at the REC and they described it as chief exec of a trade association, and I said ‘well I’m not sure that’s for me, really’. They then said, ‘well it’s in the HR space’. I knew the CIPD had just appointed a new chief exec, and what was an interesting starting point was that I hadn’t heard of the REC. I started to investigate the organisation, to build a picture of what was required. And I think because I was looking at other jobs and I wasn’t sure this was right for me, I was quite provocative, and what I said just resonated with the non-execs at that time.

I think they recognised that the REC needed to be modernised. They recognised that the organisation needed to become more responsive and agile to its members. It was a bit dusty, it was a bit cerebral, so I think I was a change agent and they saw that’s what was required at that time. That was hugely impacted by Lehman Brothers going down in September, and the recruitment industry’s response to the financial crisis. 

MO: That’s a baptism by fire by anyone’s definition. What was the process you went through to steady the ship? 

KG: It was a very difficult time. The industry went from a £27bn industry to under £20bn. That revenue disappeared within 18 months, so our members were going through a really tough time. The issue for the REC was one where we really had to think strategically about why we’re here, and what our purpose was. And actually, our members needed us more than ever – membership held up reasonably well. We normally get 90% of our members renew and it only went down to 85%. And then within about six months, I had to go to the REC’s council and say to them that we were going to make a significant loss in 2009 and that we had a choice. We took about 15% out of our running costs, which included making staff redundant, but we could have gone further. I could have got us back to break-even within the year, but to do that would have affected member services.

So the council agreed to my proposal, which was that we took some cost out, we used half of our reserves in 2009 and would be back to break-even in 2010. That’s exactly what we did. So we protected member services, we used about £550k of our reserves, which was about half, and then in 2010 we broke even. And since then every year we’ve put more and more money back, and I’m delighted to say that we have now achieved our reserves policy, so we’ve now got £1.7m behind us. The council took the right decision, we protected member services when it was needed most, and we delivered the plan as we defined it. It was a baptism of fire; it was very difficult circumstances for the organisation and the industry, but we got through it and we continued to fight the industry’s corner. 

MO: Leadership is something very close to your heart – what kind of person makes an effective leader in 2018? 

KG: I think leadership is an area where there is more thought needed really. A lot of people find themselves as leaders accidentally. For me, there are some golden rules. One is about painting a picture of the future, about the journey that the organisation is on. I think you need some logic when you’re managing people; they need to understand progression steps that need to be taken, but you also need to create a language and a narrative about why what we’re doing is important, and what it might be like if we work even better than we are today.

Secondly, it’s about communicating that consistently and effectively, so engaging people. I’m a great believer in that leadership is a two-way conversation. You need to listen as much as you talk, and I think sometimes that’s misunderstood. I think you then have to play a role where it’s about trying to create a leadership population and getting other people, so even if you’re the chief exec or MD, your leadership team all need to be leaders and all need to be able to engage their people and paint a picture. 

MO: And that ties in with performance and accountability? 

KG: Yes. You need to articulate to people what ‘great’ looks like in their job, so that people aspire to do it and so that you say ‘this is what great performance looks like’. And then your job is to support people, to develop them, to help them get there. I think that’s the second big area of leadership – painting a picture for every person within the organisation, showing if they did their job to the best of their ability, this is what it would look like. Then the other part of feedback is about helping people, giving them feedback.

We all have good days and bad days; we all come to work to do our best, and leadership is about recognising how to motivate and engage each individual. Sometimes it’s giving people some robust feedback and other times it’s putting your arm around someone. And that’s because you understand each individual. You know what they’re trying to achieve and you need to be a coach and a mentor to help them see things, to look at themselves differently, to go out and learn from other organisations, to seek advice and feedback so that they can get better. 

MO: What’s next? 

KG: I’ve been invited to chair the Good Recruitment Campaign for the next year, which I am delighted to continue to lead on behalf of the REC. And then what I’m also going to do is I’m putting together a portfolio of non-executive roles. So there will be four or five non-exec jobs, some in the HR space and some in the recruitment space, where I’m going to be helping fast-growing organisations grow and develop themselves. I’m still going to be involved in HR and recruitment. I’m sure I’ll still pop up on platforms and things and I’ll be keeping an eye on the REC and its progress as a supporter and as a champion, but hoping it goes on to even bigger and greater things.

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