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ALISTAIR COX, Chief Executive, Hays

Last summer, I had a great conversation with Head of Search & Staffing at LinkedIn, Adam Hawkins, about our first response to the pandemic. Speaking to Adam again in January this year, I realised just how much progress we have made in just a few short months.

Having identified lifelong learning as the linchpin that will keep our industry on track in the months and years ahead, we have invested heavily in this area – offering an astonishing breadth of courses and modules to help talent sidestep the ‘talent mismatch’ we often speak about and close the gap between the skills they have and the skills industry needs.

Our mission hasn’t shifted, but our approach has. We want to help people and organisations leverage talent to realise their full potential. This takes not just data, but real insight – and it’s this renewed focus on balancing information with intuition that is helping us build resilience and reimagine our business.

Alistair, we last spoke back in June 2020. Let’s start with a bit of reflection. If you had to give your synopsis of 2020 in one word –

Challenging. We’ve learned an awful lot, and without the extreme challenges that we’ve had to deal with in the past 12 months, we might never have had the opportunity to find out what was working and what wasn’t. We now understand our resilience in terms of the biggest economic and social shock we could possibly have imagined. Now we have to decide what we are going to do with that new knowledge.

At Hays, we hope to build a business that is better in the future than it has ever been in the past. As a result of the pandemic, some things have changed permanently. It’s our task as business leaders to make sure that they have changed for the better, whatever that means.

Back in the summer, we spoke about the role the industry and organisations like Hays have in helping people and businesses through this moment. How does where you are now compare to where you were six months ago?

Our big news is that we recently launched our largest ever investment programme in the business, which is strange when you consider that a lot of organisations are tightening their belts. But these times will inevitably pass, and we want to build something worthwhile for the future.

In a way, this crisis has given us the chance to reset. We’re asking ourselves, “What can we put in place now that will help us when the health, social and economic issues have faded into history?”. It’s challenging, but it’s also exciting having that freedom to reimagine what our business is going to look like and what our proposition is going to be for our employees as well as the wider marketplace when the dust settles.

As to where you are now, has the current situation fundamentally changed your mission and vision in any way? Or have the changes been more around the tactics and the approach needed to get to that vision?

I’d say a bit of both. We want to help people realise their full potential through their career journey and help organisations realise their full potential by tapping into the talent that they need. That will remain at the core of our purpose. But how we’re getting there has changed.

We’ve set our vision and our aspirations even higher. There’s so much dislocation out there, so many people who are looking for guidance. pandemic has been a destroyer, but it has also been an accelerator. I believe it’s moved our industry on by at least five years. We’ve all had to get creative, thinking, “What do I need – not just to operate day-to-day – but to be successful as we go forward?”. We’re also coming at it from an employability angle: What does the world need in terms of skills? What does the supply of those skills look like? How do we help people on their personal journey to become ever more relevant and employable? We’re researching what we call the ‘talent mismatch’ and we know that pandemic has widened the skills gap even more.

So, we need to work even more closely with candidates, creating a road map to bridge the gap between the skills they have and the skills the market needs. The onus is then on the individual and their own learning.

Last summer, you told me that Hays was already well-equipped from a tech standpoint to mobilise a fully remote workforce and work towards a new hybrid model in the long term. How has the developing situation impacted your own people? Have you had any further reflections on what work might look like when the world is vaccinated?

I firmly believe that we’re going to see a more flexible, hybrid way of working for many companies – after all, many were trialling it before. Where are we on our journey? It sometimes feels a little bit like the hokey cokey; one minute you’re in, the next you’re out – with different rules for different markets.

But as global vaccination programmes start to take effect, a hybrid working approach is one we’ll be taking, whilst of course being mindful of the needs of our people. As part of that, we’ll need to ask ourselves: “What makes one environment more suitable for certain kinds of work than others?”. We’ll then need to craft a working week around that.

Let’s talk culture. How have you and your people been coping without those valuable face-to-face interactions we all rely on so much?

An organisation’s culture is the most important thing it has got. It’s like an organism; it lives, it evolves, it grows, it develops. If you don’t look after it, it withers away. People may come and go – but a strong culture will remain, so it’s up to leaders to make sure it’s the right sort of culture, Zoom or no Zoom. So, it’s been a huge focus of ours.

There are some enormous challenges for people which can be intensified if they feel disconnected. Keeping people together is a huge part of my role. We’ve kept lines of communication open throughout, reassuring people that we have a plan and guiding them. You can never over-communicate.

This has been a real bonding experience. We’re all human and we’ve got to get through this together. People have been mutually supporting each other in a fantastic way – it’s extraordinarily powerful and long may it continue.

Moving away from the pandemic for a moment, the past year has brought an array of other challenges, from Brexit, to the US election and the very distressing circumstances that prompted the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m interested to hear – has the racial diversity conversation changed or intensified within your business?

It has certainly intensified the conversation. The Black Lives Matter movement and what happened in America in the summer rippled around the world, putting a spotlight on the inequality that exists and saying, “enough is enough”. Now that spotlight has been switched on, it can’t be switched off – nor should it be. We have the brutal facts, it’s time to ask ourselves what we are going to do about it. Change starts at the top.

At Hays, we’re in a perfect position to help individuals access the right opportunities. We’ve always believed that operating in a fair, inclusive, diverse environment is simply the right thing to do. And let’s be frank, there is a business benefit as well. When looking at a set of data, if everyone sat around the table has the same life experience, they are all going to come to broadly the same conclusion. You all agree, “Clearly the answer must be X”. You’re completely missing any diversity of thought – no one is challenging you. If you start to convince yourself you’ve got the monopoly on all knowledge and all insight, then you do yourself a disservice. We want to encourage diversity in all its forms – life is better when people feel as though they can bring their whole selves to work. This is something that is very important, especially with new generations of employees entering the workforce – research tells us that this authenticity is something they value most.

Last time we spoke, we touched on the subject of lifelong learning. I’ve been hearing a lot about internal mobility as well – with many focusing less on title, more on skills and experiences. What does upskilling and reskilling look like at Hays? Has there been any acceleration?

Academics have been talking about this idea for a while, but it’s just started to go mainstream. In partnership with different organisations, we’ve curated a huge number of modules around specific granular content which has now amounted to over 26 million minutes of learning consumed.

If you think about the jigsaw of employability, in the past the skills we have needed have been quite static, defined by the jobs we do. But things change. The supply base has got lots of these skills, but nobody wants to use them anymore. We’ve now been able to join the dots in a way that has not really been possible until this point.

It’s not about saying, “I’m an engineer struggling to find work – I think I’ll retrain as a doctor.” It’s more about understanding the skillset as legacy. That engineer could take on two or three learning modules, on say new programming languages, and become instantly relevant and employable again. We’ve gone live with this curated programme over the last few months, and I must say it’s been a phenomenal success. A quarter of a million UK teachers have been actively using this online tool to improve themselves. If that’s not doing something useful for society, I don’t know what is.

It’s really impressive that you are underpinning everything that you’re doing with data and insight. I know you have vast experience in the area, but, of course, in our most challenging moments, we don’t always have the luxury of the full data set to make decisions. I think there is a phase of your business already being automated, but it’s the ability to use and interpret that data that counts. How is this area of your business evolving?

What we’ve learned is it’s not data for data’s sake, it’s about drawing insights from that data. Our industry is like flying a plane. In the old days, we would run our business by looking out the front window and judging ourselves if we seem to be going a bit fast, a bit high, or if we are in a nosedive. Now we have a really good instrument panel to help us see what’s coming next. Just as aircraft needed more sophisticated instruments to help them fly at night or in the fog. So, we’re using our data to build a dashboard which helps our people to navigate an ever more complex and challenging business environment.

Data science and the human factor reinforce each other – gut feeling alone doesn’t tell us where the useful parts of the market are, where to focus, or if our product (millions of amazing individuals, each with specific expertise) fits the market at any given time. There’s no point having lots of wonderful jobs that we’re trying to fill if we don’t know any people with the skills to fill them, so we’re using data to build healthy and engaged talent pools and grow our market share. At the same time, human intuition is critical in navigating uncharted situations where our dashboards could give an incomplete reading, just like pilots need to take control through a storm.

To come back to that plane analogy, we’ve now got a really good instrument panel, and the pilots of our business are using it to move faster, manoeuvre with more agility and precision, and, just like the captain of an Airbus or Boeing, get tens of thousands of people to where they’re needed, or where they want to be.

Whenever we’ve spoken, you’re always smiling, always looking for the next opportunity. You’ve always been very candid about the fact that you are an optimist. What are you most excited about in in the coming year – both personally and professionally?

How many successful CEOs are there that are pessimists? Probably not many – I think having the impulse to think onwards and upwards is part and parcel of the job. What am I looking forward to? We’ve learned so many valuable lessons. It’s incredibly exciting to say, “what are we going to do with that?”. 

I’ve found ways of carving out a lot more time to think deeply about the bigger, long-term, important issues. I’d like to hope that I can continue to maintain that carved out time, because at the end of the day, that is a huge part of my job. We now have the freedom to consider when we are at our most creative. Personally, I do my most creative thinking when I’m away from my desk, exercising for example. A year ago, people might have said that sounds at best visionary, at worst, a bit barmy. Now we’re just doing it. When you’re effectively offline, you can protect and guard that space, which seems to be invaluable.

As a leader, the challenge now is to make sure we get the best of both worlds – all the creative thought we’ve unleashed balanced with community energy. We have the opportunity to create the lives we want. I think that’s pretty cool.

This blog was originally published as a LinkedIn Influencer blog.


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Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America. He completed his MBA (Stanford University, California) in 1991 and returned to the UK as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. His experience at McKinsey & Co covered a number of sectors including energy, consumer goods and manufacturing.

He moved to Blue Circle Industries in 1994 as Group Strategy Director, responsible for all aspects of strategic planning and international investments for the group. During this time, Blue Circle re-focused its business upon heavy building material in a number of new markets and in 1998, Alistair assumed the role of Regional Director responsible for Blue Circle’s operations in Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He was responsible for businesses in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Subsequent to the acquisition of Blue Circle by Lafarge in 2001, he also assumed responsibility for Lafarge’s operations in the region as Regional President for Asia.

In 2002, Alistair returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.



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