An Inch Wide and a Mile Deep = Recruitment Gold

John Wallace (1)

Guest Blog: John Wallace in-house recruitment, John Wallace, Hire Power...

John Wallace is an impressive Northern Irishman who, amongst other things, has been Head of Resourcing for Tesco Bank and RBS. He’s the author of Hire Power, a great read based on his personal experiences in finance recruitment, and he is a regular speaker on the recruitment circuit in the UK and abroad.  He kindly gave up some of his time to chat about his experiences in hiring for accountancy and finance professionals.

A simple question to start!  Is it easy or difficult to recruit finance professionals? 

“Well, that depends on the type of finance professionals!   In my corporate life, we’d recruit at all levels, often looking not just for CAs but also for Management Accountants, especially those with experience from other industries, to improve our “gene pool.”  It was/is usually relatively straightforward at a more junior level where you want to hire recently qualified or part-qualifieds.  These people are generally fairly easy to identify and we knew where they’d look for jobs, so we’d advertise in those places.

“However, a bit further up the chain it is more difficult.  The finance/accountancy world can be a bit of an established network, so often we would make the decision to engage with executive search firms.  We actually often did have a problem in getting accountants and related finance professionals with leadership qualities; seemingly more so in accountancy than in other technical specialist areas.  One of the recurring problems was that the hiring managers, in finance (and all other areas), tended to recruit for technical rather than soft skills.

“For example, I remember we had to recruit three Finance Directors in a short space of time for a well known bank. For an in-house recruiter this level of appointment can be tricky because your own accountants just look at the professional skills on offer, whereas, while we obviously needed those, what we really needed were leadership skills. FD candidates must be commercially sound, really practical and able to build relationships upwards with the Senior Management Team while also being able to relate well to the rest of the people in the business, both within and outside of their own department.  This is where a good headhunter can really make a difference and earn their money, and that’s why we went down that route for these jobs.”

As a Head of Resourcing what would you look for in a recruiter of finance professionals? 

“I look for a number of things. For a start, agencies/headhunters need to be specialists and experts in this field, and they must be networked up to the hilt.  They must not be led by the client’s hiring manager down the rabbit hole of focusing solely on the technical aspects of the job.

“The really smart agencies can search an inch wide and mile deep and they build relationships for the long-term. In niche markets the fee shouldn’t be the primary driver – you can save money elsewhere, but there is a premium for real niche activity. Where the market is one that my team can access then I really wouldn’t want to spend on a supplier. For those real niche and networked areas, where small number of suppliers know the market better than we ever could (say, Treasury Specialists), I’m happy to pay because we will often struggle to find the right quality in the time required. The right suppliers have a depth of experience and the web of connections that shorten the process and make the chances of getting to really good candidates less risky.

“Mind you, sometimes the headhunters get a win over the in-house team. I recall an incident (funny now but not at the time - for me at least) when I was sitting with a headhunter and a CFO discussing an FD job. I’d just spent a lot of time briefing the recruiter one-to-one, telling him all the things we needed - project management, conversation outcomes, real governance and “none of your black book nonsense”. Then when we sat with the CFO, the recruiter said, “I am thinking X would be good for this role,” and the CFO said, “yes, that’s a great shout, I wondered what he was doing.”  For us, as the in-house recruiter, it was (lots) of money for only a few minutes work by the external recruiter, all because the CFO hadn’t identified this person to my team, otherwise we would have approached him directly!”.

What’s coming next in the finance field?

“I talk to the heads of many rec-cons as I travel round the country. They are always interested in my perspective as a former leader of big in-house teams and when I tell them “your biggest competitor is the in-house recruitment team” they all nod politely and say it makes perfect sense.  In London the market is super hot just now but when the economy turns in the next few years there will be a reckoning and the less good recruiters will struggle.  At that point, “successful finance recruiters will be the ones who have good, long-term relationships with in-house teams as well as their direct clients.” These are not my words, but those of an Investment Bank’s in-house team of recruiters in London. And as I said previously, those who can search an inch wide and a mile deep will be the pure gold in the market.

“The good agency recruiters will always survive because when you build an in-house team you don’t build it for maximum capacity.  Demand obviously fluctuates throughout the year and this means there are peaks and troughs in activity. In my experience this leads to in-house teams trying to run too fast, which has an impact on the quality of hires.  It’s at this point that there is the opportunity for good recruitment consultants to act as a pressure valve and when you are recruiting for really specialist positions, they are usually the first port of call.

“Just to illustrate this, at one time in my career I looked after recruitment for WorldPay.  There is only a small number of tech specialists in payment systems so I went to the go-to guys in the rec-con world. They knew everyone.  The choice was between getting one of my in-house guys to bust a gut and probably fail, or to pick up the phone and get an expert with connections on the case and direct my team to the activity that was more likely to yield a direct sourcing result for us.  No brainer really!

“This, of course, works in reverse, so to speak. In many markets, the really good agencies are known not just to their clients and in-house teams, but of course to the candidates as well. For the reasons I’ve given above, for those rec-cons that have the right relationships at both ends of the market, the future will continue to be secure, even through the next downturn. I have met many recruiters over the years, who build successful recruitment businesses in downturns because they recognise that developing real relationships with the candidate market and client market is the only way to sustain your business - and it sets them up perfectly for the good times as well. Those that see only the opportunity of a market high on vacancies and operate in a transactional way will be severely challenged when things start to go sour.”

John Wallace will be speaking at the forum for in-house recruitment managers on 21st November in Leeds.  His book, Hire Power, is available from Amazon.