Lose the crystal ball and reflect on what was
TQSolutions, like most businesses, has had a tumultuous 2020. However, it’s now December and we are still here. We got through the year, we survived.
The business is somewhat battered and bruised, and a little skinnier than it was in March. But it’s still standing thanks to the efforts of its wonderful TEaM, the partnerships and continued commitment from our clients as well as the significant financial support from our various State and Federal Governments.
TQ is known for its thought leadership and insights into the Talent & HR industry. At the end of this year, rather than gazing into the industry crystal ball , we thought it more pertinent to write a piece on ‘Leadership’, sharing our own business reflections, as well as those of some notable industry peers.
To do this I have asked a very special group of people to contribute to this article, sharing their personal reflections and journey in 2020. As some will be aware, TQSolutions was the major sponsor of the inaugural Internal Talent Awards, and I have asked the Finalists for the Talent Leader of the Year to join me in preparing this article.
Contributions have been gratefully received from:
- Nina Pollard, Coles (winner of The Talent Leader of the Year Award)
- Claire Planinsek, Australia Post
- David Meere, Life Without Barriers
- Derek Del Simone, Vet Partners
- Laura Paton, PaperCut Software
Thank you all for your support, now let’s turn our attention to our reflections and learnings from 2020.
From Heroic Frenzy to Disillusioned Slump
On a personal level life was going great in February, I had just returned from the US where I attended the Smartrecruiters Hiring Success conference in San Francisco, during which time I also met some amazing people and businesses in the Bay Area including Google, Atlassian and Uber. The TQ business was working on some great client projects and the TQ TEaM were highly active, engaged and looking forward to another record year.
At home, my son entered Year 11 and my daughter was super-excited about starting, and more importantly finishing, Year 12 with the big wide world ahead of her. As a family we had heaps to look forward to in 2020 and had ear-marked several trips including a much-longed-for family expedition to the Northern Territory.
In late February / early March, I was starting to read more about ‘the virus’ but was not letting it impact my trip to the UK to take care of a few family issues and to attend 3 industry events in London.
I departed Melbourne on Friday 13th March, the day after the global pandemic was announced. By the time I landed 2 of my events were cancelled, and the third in doubt, the day after I landed the US shut its borders to Europe and Singapore was starting to close its doors too. I ended up leaving London on Tuesday 17th March, thankfully arriving back into Melbourne on the 19th shortly before Australia closed its borders to international travel.
It ended up being the most expensive long weekend in Norfolk I have ever had, given the cost of my flight home! But I got to spend 48 hours with my Mother and could address some of the family matters that needed my attention.
The period that ensued was crazy. Borders closed, projects were cancelled, we all went virtual and the economy crashed. The pace of change was staggering and we were all in shock, contemplating what the future would bring.
Like all business owners, I trimmed whatever fixed costs I could, TQ instigated voluntary leave without pay, we had to stand down many of our casual workforce, and we closely monitored cash at bank and debtors with increasing scrutiny.
As a consulting and augmentation business, our revenue hit was significant, so we shored up existing projects and rapidly started to consider alternative service opportunities that were more relevant for our clients.
We also had the challenge of not being able to directly access our key buying audience (HR Leaders) who were in total crisis mode themselves, managing the shift to remote working for the majority of their workforces. More importantly, we had to keep on top of the personal and health impacts of our TEaM, many of whom had ageing parents and young children.
We were operating in a ‘heroic frenzy’ in response to the crisis. Adrenaline was flowing and we worked ourselves to the bone during this initial response phase.
However, during this time, and because of our significantly reduced workloads, we actually had some headspace to think. We considered our client work, the industry, and the likely impact of the crisis in the future, not only on the Talent Industry but more broadly across the ‘Future of Work’.
Looking back now, this period was incredibly innovative and creative for TQSolutions, more so than at other points in the past. I maintain that we developed more impactful and relevant IP and content in the past six months than we have done in the past six years.
However, the adrenaline tap is not a constant. When the second lockdown hit Melbourne, like a number of others, I hit the proverbial wall due to stress, long hours, and excessive adrenaline and cortisol levels.
I found the long Melbourne winter really hard and personally challenging. The lack of control, the uncertainty, and the strain of severe restrictions really took its toll. My mental health suffered and for the first time in years my productivity and motivation levels were impacted.
I kept going and got through this period with some daily structure, regular exercise, daily meditations and sharing some good quality red wine with my wife. I am incredibly grateful to friends and several industry contacts and clients who regularly checked in with me during this period.
I had hit the ‘disillusioned slump’ (Reference: Christine Armstrong, Future Talent Conference, Collective Emotional Trauma During Disasters) and needed to find my way out navigating a long and bumpy road. This was back in September / October and I am grateful to say my climb out is going well and I am recharged, more positive and energised about the future than I have been since before the crisis begun.
In the past few months I have shared my own emotional journey with the team at TQ and it’s fair to say many, if not all, have been through similar ups and downs. Whilst we have each had different challenges and experiences, the mental roller-coaster has been quite similar.
It appears we have experienced the collective emotional trauma of a disaster / crisis which has been well documented by academics and Health Departments. The good news is we are all on an upward trajectory of ‘rebuild’ as we move into 2021.
What did we loathe, love and learn?
I shared an exercise with my team this week on Loathe/Loved/Learn in order for us to take the best of 2020 with us into next year and leave the worst where it belongs, in the history books.
Here are some of our collective outputs:
- Desk bound, house bound, zoom bound (too much zoom !!)
- No balance, no fun, no adventure
- Isolation and lack of physical connection and engagement
- Always on, working crazy long hours
- Not knowing when it would end, the lack of control and inability to plan
- Working on the kitchen table – lost the home / work divide
- Support for each other, ability to prioritise life over work, supporting my family and personal needs
- Seeing everyone pulling together, getting the work done, delighting clients
- Developing new IP, new insights, loved the headspace and time to genuinely think (e.g., TEaM Model and Talent Maturity Model)
- Connectivity across the industry with events, webinars, sharing knowledge and IP
- More time with family, less travel and commuting
- Deeper personal connection with the TEaM
- Having the flexibility to work from home was fantastic (noting issues in loathed)
- Developing our global voice and point of view
- Need to build in more thinking time, less doing time
- Life balance has a significant impact on performance
- Need to set clear boundaries between work and life, manage workloads and diaries better
- Physical connection to others is a fundamental human need
- Amazing what can be achieved under challenging circumstances
- You can develop a global voice and have global relevance even as a SME in Australia
- Taking care of mental health is critical to success in life, family and work
- Criticality of personal reflection as a source of motivation
- Ability to say no more often
- Can strike a better balance between virtual and in-person resulting in less travel and less commuting
So we end this tumultuous year in good shape, having experienced and learned lots. This exercise of personal and TEaM reflection is invaluable and truly cathartic after what we have all endured in 2020.
The TQ TEaM is in the process of re-igniting its priorities for 2021 and ambitions for the near future. However, one thing is certain, we will always balance our commercial objectives for scale and growth with our family and lifestyle needs. We knew this before the crisis but 2020 has really shone a light on this personal and organisational need more than ever.
We have come out of this 9 months stronger, more purposeful and with greater intent. We urge you and your TEaM to also reflect on your journey and learnings too. With this in mind, let’s hear the thoughts of some of our own Industry Leaders.
Extracts from my interviews with the ITA Talent Leaders of the Year 2020:
1) Greatest Challenges in 2020:
“In many ways being so busy has been the best thing about 2020 but also the most challenging. Maintaining high performance when you are so busy and in the face of adversity is not an easy thing to do personally or when leading a team.”
“It’s often said that strength is built in adversity, and delivering a large-scale transformation, without significant investment, has forced us to be creative in our approach to problem solving and laser focused when it comes to cost/benefit analysis. To put it simply, we’ve had to become very good at doing more with less.
As we enter Australia Post’s busiest time of year, things show no sign of slowing down. This will be our busiest Christmas period yet, with an estimated additional 4,500 hands-on-deck needed to help keep our business delivering. And that’s in addition to 1,000+ permanent and fixed term vacancies to fill. It’s been an intense, challenging and fast paced year – and without a doubt, the most rewarding of my career.”
“Forecasting workforce requirements with any certainty. In the last 8 months we have had periods when we expected to require an emergency workforce of 20% of current FTE (In case Covid-19 really swept through Australia) to worrying that we might have too many staff in some locations, to unexpectantly doubling our normal recruitment numbers, completely unrelated to Covid.”
Derek Del Simone:
“Unfortunately, our university system is not producing enough graduates to deliver to current or future needs. Modelling from industry and government show that in Australia alone we would need 7000 additional new veterinarians over the next five years to handle the uptake of pet ownership and the subsequent veterinary medical services needed.
Domestic and international border closures have really impacted our ability to get short term locum coverage into our practices and hospitals that are stretched, to help with the demand and assist with the wellbeing of our teams.”
“The biggest challenge in 2020 was expanding our talent team a month before the pandemic hit. The team had been so under the pump, recruiting for our largest department here in Australia, that I decided to bring on an additional Talent Partner in Feb of this year. Less than a month later we were all working from home and decided to pause recruitment while we analysed what the impact the pandemic might have on our business.
Alongside the talent work, I also leaned in more to my additional role as People Operations Lead, which had been in the works prior to the pandemic. I took an active role in our response to COVID, including running multiple engagement surveys to understand how our people were coping and driving our return to the office. I was, of course, thrilled when recruitment recommenced in August and have enjoyed juggling both of my roles since then. It has been a very rewarding challenge.”
2) Significant Personal & Professional Learnings:
“This year I’ve noticed how important ‘down time’ is. In a year when it’s been all about numbers – case number in the pandemic, hiring numbers at work, vote numbers in the media coverage of the US election – I’ve seen the importance of stepping away and making time for other activities – exercise, baking at home with the kids or talking to family and friends on the phone. We’re so attached to our devices, and this year more so than ever before, deliberately taking time out has enabled me to re-energise and keep up positive momentum at work and home.
When has leadership been more important than in a year of unprecedented crisis and change? I’ve learnt the value of finding the fun at work – even when it’s super hard, even when we’re all coping with changing circumstances around us and especially when you’re leading a team to deliver a high volumes to support the business deliver for customers.
As a leader, making the distinct effort to find fun – whether it’s starting a meeting with a rock song, or doing a Kahoot! quiz together; you can keep a team engaged, focussed and delivering when you are deliberate and conscious about having fun. It may sound flippant, but I’ve seen this year how important it is for leadership to have a lighter side to keep teams engaged.”
“One of the lovely things about spending more time at home this year has been all the laughter and fun with my wife. It just reinforces to me what a great team we make.
This year, in many ways, I’ve actually enjoyed having a simpler life. For one thing, it’s been nice to go back to old-school methods of communication – there’s nothing quite like a good chat on the phone. Having to do more with less (or sometimes with nothing!) has also taught me to be more lateral in my thinking.
I have also learnt to appreciate working for an essential service, and it has also reinforced the importance of being gainfully employed as well as how imperative good health is.
Like everyone, I’ve missed connecting with people face to face, like the corridor chats you get to have with workmates when you’re in the office, seeing family and friends and so on.”
“I learnt much from having a professional childcare worker in my house, who looked after our boys so we could be productive with work. He taught me much about child led learning and that silliness is all important. I learnt that my wife does more of the heavy lifting at home than I would like to admit. I learnt that people like to buy dogs in lockdown. I will have more flexible days and weeks… traditional 9-5 days are over.
I’ve been managing large, geographically dispersed teams for many years… so it was a reminder as much as a learning: I know how to do this well and focusing on getting the basics right goes a long way. Working from home is not something I have done much of in the past… I learnt that I do not have the characteristics of a house cat. I had to learn to get my energy from within, whereas I have previously drawn energy from the collective when in person. I learnt that I will probably never wear a tie to work again and the quality of the cut of your suit does not have any impact on your ability to do something well.”
Derek Del Simone:
“I work in an industry were mental health affects one in four professionals. We need to remove the stigma attached to mental health. During the 2009 financial crisis I suffered depression. While it was a mild case, I only now feel comfortable talking about my experience. When we talk about our own mental health issues, it empowers others to be open about their own challenges and seek support.
Working through a pandemic that has created isolation, has made this even more relevant. Especially now when onboarding new talent, which more frequently is being done remotely and new recruits are not experiencing that direct human interaction and ability to build a cohesive relationships with direct colleagues.
We have a servant leadership culture at Vet Partners. This culture resonates with me and I have not experienced it in other companies. I’ve had two strong mentors in our former CEO and our Chief People Officer that have helped me rethink my thoughts on how to manage my team. Giving my team a purpose and taking them on a journey with me has increased cohesion.”
“I had to learn how to work from home effectively. It didn’t come naturally; I’ve always been a lover of the office environment. I gain so much of my energy throughout the day from connecting with others. For the first 6 weeks, I can say I was an absolute mess. I had no routine, I could barely focus and I was constantly beating myself up thinking my productivity had dropped significantly.
Adapting to this style of work has also meant my lifestyle has changed a lot – less commuting, less structure in my day (I’m able to work more to my energy levels), and less stress. I’m looking forward to balancing working from home and the office when we’re back open.”
I’ve really used this time to understand my skills and strengths on a deeper level and I feel as though my ability to think strategically has sharpened exponentially over this period. Going into 2021, I’m going to make a conscious effort to allow more time to plan, to just be and think and take that balcony view rather than being swept up on the dancefloor. That thinking time is critical in being able to take a holistic view and ensure our talent and employer branding strategy is in line with both our growth goals as a business and the external market forces.”
3) Predictions for Changes in the Talent Acquisition Industry in the Future:
“I’ll be interested to see how the medium-term change to work from anywhere changes how we source talent – where location was previously an important criteria, I’m curious to see if the seismic shift we’ve seen this year in where people work, changes the requirements on hiring talent and sourcing from much larger location pools.
With this shift, the technological enablers will continue to evolve, so there continues to be great opportunity in the tech space for the right technological solutions. In our industry we continue to see new ideas, new software and new enablers to support Talent Acquisition professionals deliver both better fit/quality hire and deliver faster for businesses.”
“Data and technology continue to move forward in leaps and bounds. High performing TA consultants will leverage this to their advantage, allowing them to focus more on stakeholder and candidate engagement. Hopefully this will see candidate experience continue to uplift across the industry. I still think there is a need for companies to continue to evaluate their technology and to invest in the solutions that will drive greater automation.
And one of the top priorities for investment needs to be an up to date Employee Value Proposition.
Lastly, I believe Talent Acquisition and Talent Capability teams should report into the same senior leader. This approach would address the “leaky bucket” syndrome, where companies often focus largely on recruiting to solve talent shortages, rather than developing that talent internally by addressing the systemic cultural issues that impact the retention and growth of their people.
In 2021 it is time to reduce the reliance on buy to solve business issue and invest more in build. The companies that build their internal talent and offer talent mobility solutions will be the most attractive. “
“[There will be a need for a more] Marketing-led approach [to recruitment].
No more anecdotal evidence…hard facts, numbers and data [will be required to] show the outcomes we achieved.”
Derek Del Simone:
“We need to move away from the concept of “talent acquisition”. My team builds long lasting relationships with candidates. When candidates become VetPartners employees, they stay in contact with their talent specialist. Their talent specialists may offer them future internal roles, which helps engagement and retention. Our job should not end at talent acquisition. We can also positively impact retention and engagement.
I have lost count how many responses we get weekly from applicants thanking us for letting them know they been unsuccessful, as so many of their applications go unanswered. How we treat unsuccessful applicants affects our brand. As an industry we need to be mindful that if someone has taken the time to apply for a role, we should take the time to respond, even if it’s a generic unsuccessful response.”
“We need to look beyond the recruitment of new talent into our businesses to make a bigger impact internally. Internal mobility and supporting hiring managers with their talent strategy focused on finding the talent internally first is the biggest way talent teams can impact turnover and employee engagement within their role. Talent teams need to be just as connected to your internal candidate market as you are to your external.
COVID will definitely impact our industry as we become much more open to remote work. The shift felt slow and steady prior to COVID but it is now rapid and unstoppable. Businesses and talent teams who fail to shift will lose the best talent out there. Your EVP and focus on candidate experience will need to shift to meet the new demands from the candidate market, especially in areas where there we typically experience a shortage of skilled workers in Australia.”
4) Priorities for 2021:
“We have a few key agendas for 2021; firstly, in our professional corporate and commercial areas we will focus on our strategic links to the talent agenda. Our TA leads are playing a much larger role in partnering with the business and working in the Talent and Succession forums. To do that, we need TA partnership capabilities – providing insights and knowing the discipline area inside-out.
In our volume hiring area, we will continue to pursue strategies that optimise how we find great, diverse talent for our stores around Australia. This is something that TA functions have been focussed on for many years and as technology continue to evolve and change, volume hiring continues to be an interesting space of innovation and new opportunity.”
“The key areas that will remain priority for my team heading into 2021 include:
Building on the great results we achieved recruiting diverse talent last financial year and continuing to work hard to build a business that represents the vibrant and varied communities we serve.
The ongoing development of our Employer Brand remaining key to supporting our People & Culture Future of Work Strategy. With over 200,000 people entering our recruitment process each year, candidate experiences will remain our key focus.”
“Once again, improve our marketing led approach [to recruitment].
Understand our true reasons for attrition in the frontline and how we can change our approach to recruitment to reduce this.
Improved [our] online assessments.”
Derek Del Simone:
“In 2021 I’m moving half my team into “Career Pathway Advisor” roles, to provide support and direction to new and existing employees on an individual one-on-one case management. This can be from new employment within a VetPartners hospital or transitioning through internal promotion or transfer to assist in broader retention of employees.
We are building out our specialist and emergency response services so will be looking to international recruitment to bring in much needed specialist skills into the country.”
“Our priorities for 2021 are likely to be similar to 2020. We don’t feel as though COVID will be a thing of the past for quite some time so our main focus will be on how to we recruit, onboard and support remote and hybrid environment (part-time office, part-time work from home) employees.
In 2020, we also focused on optimising our recruitment processes and upskilling our hiring teams and in 2021, the focus will shift to re-working and embedding our EVP and employer brand for the new world of work.”
The 2021 Priorities of our Talent Leaders map very well against those of TQSolutions’ other corporate clients and it’s really encouraging to see such a dramatic shift in focus towards Internal Mobility and Workforce Skill Development amongst this group. As Claire Planinsek stated, it’s time to ‘build’ more and ‘buy’ less and harness the significant talent opportunities that already exist in our organisations.
The ubiquity of data, the on-going investment in digitisation and technology enablement will be a given in the future and will present some wonderful opportunities to re-shape service models, enhance user experience and re-define the roles and careers in our Talent functions.
It is also encouraging to see the focus on marketing-led recruitment and the re-shaping of workforce value propositions, post-pandemic. Our talent markets may have increased in size with the adoption of more remote working, but they remain fiercely competitive in many labour market segments.
The time has come to significantly reduce reliance on ‘push’ sourcing strategies and adopt more sophisticated and effective ‘pull’ strategies harnessing the talent in your organisation as well as your broader Employment or Workforce Segment Brand.
Finally, we know the impacts of the 2020 pandemic have been seismic and will continue to affect our workforces, our leaders and our businesses for years to come. Through the hardships and suffering many have had to endure, it has been truly encouraging to see how quickly and ‘reasonably’ well the world of work can adapt to quantum change. Surely, this will be a constant in the years ahead.
All we can hope is that future change is not quite as stark and dramatic as it was in 2020.
Happy Holidays everyone. See you in 2021!