01 May 2009 6:03am
Despite starting out in the “poor cousin” sector of recruitment, Metier director Sally Paris now gives advice to top-level executives and says more recruiters should take an interest in broader business issues to better assist their clients.
Like many consultants, Paris “fell into” recruitment when, more than 10 years ago, she found herself seeking the services of an agency and ended up convincing the manager she could do a better job than its consultants.
Since then she has worked her way up to a general manager role at Julia Ross before deciding to start her own business with partner Neale Bettman in 2006. At office support specialist Metier, she manages a team of eight and continues to run her own desk looking after Metier’s top clients.
Paris says that as a small company without a huge marketing budget, Metier had to rely on the reputation she has built in the industry and carve out a niche via referrals from her clients – largely ASX100 executives, celebrities and high-net-worth individuals.
“A lot of my clients sit across different boards, charities, etc, and they often talk about their EAs and if they like them and don’t like them, and my name comes into the equation because I have changed their lives by finding them great people.”
The personality of a candidate can be much more important in an EA role than many others, she notes, because they have to work closely and in a more personal way with their boss. The difficulty of making this match is often compounded by the fact that HR usually shields top-level executives from recruiters, but she demands some face-to-face time before embarking on any assignment.
“I don’t work with anyone unless I’ve met them face-to-face. Even if they are someone who is travelling globally and only has 10 minutes to meet, that’s going to ensure the match of the assistant.”
One-on-one meetings also identify issues that HR departments often aren’t aware of, she says. “In one instance last year I met with a well known, highly regarded property identity. He couldn’t understand why he’d gone through so many EAs in the last 18 months, but [working it out] was just a matter of sitting down with him. He worked in the overseas markets and had a lot of success with EAs who he had long-term relationships with, but it came down to the fact that he wasn’t paying enough salary for what he expected, and the qualifications he needed from an EA. [He didn't know this because] his HR people were guarding him from meeting with agencies.”
Take an interest in business
When dealing with clients at this level, Paris says, it’s vital to have some business nous yourself and a strong understanding of what your clients do.
Office support is generally seen as “the poor cousin” in recruitment because of its high proportion of junior consultants, she notes, but to succeed in this sector consultants must take a genuine interest in business issues and stay up-to-date by keeping an eye on the stock market, and reading business news. The level of knowledge and business savvy required for successful EA recruiters takes some time to acquire, she says, and “that level of interest or consultant approach just doesn’t happen as much these days”.
Often, she says, “[consultants] come straight out of business college and when entrusted to recruit for an MD’s EA they just can’t understand what these guys do on a day-to-day basis.”
The most successful office support recruiters, she says, meet with executives to understand “their business, their schedule and what they do, so we can explain the position up front to the EA – a HR person who doesn’t work one-to-one with the executive can’t describe that”.
Among the challenges of EA recruitment are that executives can be difficult for assistants to get along with, and because EAs don’t necessarily require a specific set of qualifications, the success of a placement hinges on the personality fit, she says.
Paris consults to clients by recommending ways that they can help assess whether an EA is the right match. “I suggest tips, such as getting the EA at the end of the interview to compose a business letter, because that’s the only way that they’re going to see how they react on the spot.”
She also recommends that executives schedule a five- or 10-minute meeting throughout the day when they update the EA “on where they’re at and what really is important – those little things really make a difference.”
Responding to the GFC
Paris is aware she started her company in a more buoyant economy, but says that while some business plans have changed, “irrespective, recruitment methodologies stay the same.
“A focus on core business is key. We don’t try and be all things to all people but we’re seeing a lot of non-traditional office support players trying to encroach on our market segment and that’s obviously difficult for us as a business. At the end of the day those other businesses’ brands are going to be diluted. Candidates they don’t place are going to be disillusioned. Although this is a large industry, it’s small at same time and people talk – service is key.”
Staying true to a brand, and resisting the temptation to branch into other areas can be hard in this market, she says.
She points out that a long-term client who, due to the downturn, hadn’t been able to give the company much work lately asked if it would recruit outside of its speciality – a clinical manager position – but Paris turned the role down. “We said no to that because we didn’t have expertise in the office to understand exactly what that client wanted, nor a pool of candidates ready to go. You may be able to list an ad, [but] … out of 10 people you’ve spoken to and interviewed, only one of them’s going to get the job and you’re not going to be able to place [the rest], and I think that can get frustrating for the candidates.”
Focusing efforts on the likelier wins is a strategy that flows through to other areas of the business. Despite being a small company, Metier has won several preferred supplier contracts with ASX 100 companies, but Paris says she only tenders when she knows the company has already proven itself to the client.
“I don’t think any agencies ever really win PSAs or normal business agreements unless they’ve demonstrated a track record with that client.”
Time-poor consultants can’t neglect candidates
Among the core tenets of the business are the need to “treat others as you would yourselves – little things that may seem a bit idealistic or old fashioned”, Paris says.
“We’re seeing a lot of candidates being treated poorly in the market because agencies are time-robbed of their core duties with the influx of candidates… so it’s about doing things that people remember. We have to take time out; more than ever we have to become the counsellors in our industry because there are people turning up on our door who’ve been made redundant, they might be in tears. We can’t turn those people away even if we’re in a staff meeting or were really busy; we have to pull out all stops.
“If you have a difficult person on the phone, they might not be someone that we can necessarily help but take a deep breath and think, ‘what would I be doing if I were in their shoes, how would I like to be treated?’”
The recruiters who survive and thrive through the downturn, she says, will be the ones who love recruitment and love people. “This market can get anyone down – can get really good recruiters down – but you can’t mope around, you’re only one person; you’re not going to change what’s happening in the global economy just on your own, so you have to adjust to the circumstances and fire up. And you can be successful in good times and bad times, I firmly believe that.”
If you’re not seeing success at the moment, “take stock – listen to your peers, watch what goes around your office and take your time with things”, she advises. “The little things that make a difference are getting back to people, being honest with clients, and being honest with candidates. Nothing that I say is rocket science, it’s all the same principles that are tried and tested in the industry.”