Episode 8: Diary of a new MD – What am I personally doing to win the talent war?

THE HUMAN SOURCE — a podcast for tomorrow’s HR and Payroll professionals.

The talent shortage is a hot topic on every HR team’s lips at the moment. 

The record-breaking numbers of vacancies and increased demands from talent are making recruitment and retaining top employees more of a challenge each day.  

It’s time to rethink the process. 

In this episode, Steph talks frankly with Sara about her experiences as a new division Managing Director at IRIS Software Group and how she is addressing talent issues within the organisation. 

Stephanie Coward
Managing Director at IRIS Software Group

Sara Lewis
Head of Communications and Content at IRIS Software Group

Sara Lewis 00:07 

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the human source, a podcast for HR professionals and business owners interested in what’s going on in the world of people and culture. I’m Sara Lewis and I’m joined today by Steph Coward, who recently took over as Managing Director of IRIS’ Human Capital Management Division. Welcome, Steph. 

Stephanie Coward 00:29 

Oh, that’s fabulous. Thanks, Sara. Hello, everyone and a big thank you for me for taking time out of your day to listen to this podcast, really excited to share with you my experiences as a new MD and hope that you guys can take some learnings and some tips and ideas back into your own businesses. 

Sara Lewis 00:48 

Fantastic. Now today, I’m really delighted, I know that we’re going to be lifting the lid, sharing some insights, sharing some of those problems that you’ve had to overcome that are really similar to so many owners and HR professionals in today’s working world. 

Stephanie Coward 01:04 

Yeah, absolutely. So, although my business sits within the larger IRIS Group business, fundamentally, really, I run a small business of about 500 people. So, I absolutely want to share with you some of the successes, some of the things that have gone well, but also some of the things that haven’t gone quite so well. So hopefully, you’ll get some great insights, and some great ideas to be able to take back into your own business. 

Sara Lewis 01:28 

And you know that size of business in the UK, especially is particularly important, you know, within the last two years, you know, people have had time to reflect, time to change strategy, and also, many have taken that huge leap and actually started their own business. So, we’re in some really quite exciting times at the moment. So, you know, when it comes to starting and running a business, obviously, this comes with a great deal of responsibility, especially, you know, if you have people working for you. 

Stephanie Coward 01:57 

Absolutely, it’s really tough out there at the moment, and we all know that companies are, say, between 50 and 500 people, they’re the absolute backbone of the British economy. And we’ve seen those businesses grow. We hear a lot in the media about the very large businesses and you know, Microsoft, Workday, you know, just to name a few but to be fair, the main businesses that are out there, you know, struggling with these issues tend to be businesses like mine, like yours, that are the heart of the British economy. 

Sara Lewis 02:26 

And I think competition right now is so fierce for talent, isn’t it with, you know, many job roles not really being filled for extended periods and this actually, you know, the knock-on effect is the pressure that it has, you know, you’ve got somebody who’s had an amazing idea, they’ve got started to build, you know, that beautiful business, and, you know, all of a sudden, there’s a pressure in some way that they may have not experienced, you know, or foreseen, and so, what are you seeing in your role and what are we doing about it? 

Stephanie Coward 02:55 

So, talent acquisition is absolutely my number one priority at the moment. I think, like many businesses out there, when we came out of COVID, there was such a great change in the labour market, there’s a lot of confidence for employees to make a change, to try something different and there are a huge amount of vacancies out there.  

I saw some statistics just a couple of months ago to say that there were more vacancies now available than there were people unemployed. The ONS have reported that there are over 1.3 million job opportunities out there and so I think the market during COVID very much was an employer’s market with lots of people taking furlough uncertain about their future, and perhaps thinking, well, I’m going to stay with this business until I know a bit more.  

As we’ve come out of COVID, the world’s opened up and people are able to now really think about what they want and how they want to work, who do they want to be, lots of people have had, you know, up to two years to reflect on their work life balance, on what they want to achieve out of their careers. And so, for us, as employers, we really got to change our thinking about how do we go about now attracting those people who have changed the way they work and want to continue to change and don’t want to go back to the previous ways we did things. 

Sara Lewis 04:08 

Indeed, and I know that we were talking about this recently that, you know, from the outset, that employee experience, you know, from the very first moment they interact with you as a business, you know, what sort of experience are you giving them and actually, how does that flow then, from recruitment, you know, into that onboarding, and then through into, you know, employee engagement and throughout the whole of that life cycle?  

Stephanie Coward 04:32 

Definitely, I think that’s something we’ve probably learned the hard way, which is, you know, when we came back and we had a lot of vacancies, we were probably a little bit overly traditional. And the way we went about things, you know, we did the traditional job boards, you know, we did recruitment events, and I think we quickly realised that you know for employees, for potential employees when we spoke to them, they really wanted to feel a connection with their employer.  

It wasn’t so much about the pay and the benefits; it was about how that person would feel as part of your organisation. So, I think what we decided was perhaps what we need to do is we need to ensure that our potential employees and potential new talent into the business really understood who and what we’re about. What do we stand for and is there a palpable culture, that when they go through right from the start from the seeing an opportunity, either on a website, or through a recruiter that they could feel and see and understand what that culture of our organisation was going to be like.  

And then once we get people into the recruitment process, then we need to make sure that we’re consistent, and that the culture that we’re trying to show that we have, our potential employees feel an experience that right the way through the journey. 

I think one thing we also learned is that at the same time, employees potentially would have many different opportunities., so perhaps being courted by many different employers. So, when we also got to the end stages of the recruitment process, we learned that as well, as you know, we thought that perhaps the offer was the end of the process and we quite quickly realised the offer was just the start of the next phase. So, what we’ve been doing is, once we’ve made an offer, you know, typically people may have several months’ notice, we’ve been keeping in touch with those people over the time of their notice period, so they can feel, they can see what’s coming in, they can feel part of our company, even before they actually join us. 

Sara Lewis 06:25 

I think that’s so important, isn’t it, you know, making sure that actually people get to understand the values that they understand the journey and the opportunity that they’re actually going to have in the company that they’re joining. And I think that that’s kind of quite fair for, you know, any business out there that actually is recruiting at the moment, it’s making sure then, that they are kind of making them feel like they’re part of the business before they’ve arrived. 

Stephanie Coward 06:47 

Yeah, absolutely. So, we’ve really encouraged our hiring managers and their teams to try and you know, to connect with people that are joining, talk to people that are joining before they start so they can understand, you know, how it’s going to feel, they can see it, they can imagine it.  

I think the other big thing that we realised that alongside that on the recruitment process, was we really needed to be much more agile. We were too slow with our process, there were too many approval points, too many gates to get through, which meant that we were losing talent, not because that those people didn’t want to join our business, but we just weren’t fast enough to get our offers out there, because people wanted to go with a bird in the hand, you know, they’ve already been made an offer, they would tend to go with that.  

So, what we’ve done most recently is we’ve given a lot more autonomy to our hiring managers and we’ve also tried to shorten the process. So, we want to be really quick from the point of knowing and needing some talent in the business to the point of those people joining, we wanted to halve that the length of that time.  

And also, during that process, if we found that perhaps our idea of the offer, or idea of the candidate or idea of the experiences, we found there were other things out there that we didn’t know, then we could quickly change and not have to go through a really long approval loop to then be able to make a different offer or attract someone with different skills. 

Sara Lewis 08:05 

So I think then just you know, rounding that off in terms of the lovely listeners that we have on the podcast at the moment, there are kind of three areas that really stick out for me, you know, number one, is make sure that you are going out to market continuously, make sure that you are evangelising what the business does, and you know the reasons why you should work for that business. Number two, be agile with a recruitment process that you know, respond to market conditions; we know how quickly things are changing at the moment. And number three, bring that person into the business before they’ve even started working for you. Talk to them about the role, talk to them about the values of the business, so they feel part of that that family before they’ve actually joined.  

Stephanie Coward 08:45 

Yeah, that’s absolutely right and you know, I can tell you all out there, that that is the way you will differentiate yourself from what is a very competitive market. 

Sara Lewis 08:53 

Yeah, absolutely. And so, I think moving them on, you know, once they’ve actually joined the business, you know, moving on to that professional development, how have things changed and what things have you seen over the past few years in terms of what do employees want out of a role? 

Stephanie Coward 09:08 

But one really interesting thing that I’m keen that we progress with are onboarding interviews. So, we probably all very familiar with the idea of an exit interview to understand why an employee may want to leave a business. But we probably weren’t too good at doing that when employees joined us. So, I think what we try to do now is straight away as our new employees join us. We talk to them about what their reasons for joining and what they want to see in their career, and perhaps making it a bit more real, perhaps just talking about the next three months, the next six months, how in terms of what they want to get out of it, how they want to feel at the end of those six months, what they want to experience, and where they see they’re going to bring value into the company. And I think from my experience, it’s then about having that ongoing dialogue, that ongoing conversation with your employees so they can still feel connected.  

Like me when I actually joined IRIS, many of the people like me joined during COVID, so joined having never actually met anyone in person from the business. Now, here we are today with hybrid working, and it can often be many weeks in between people seeing their colleagues. I think one thing to consider as a manager for people who are new to the organisation, they’re not going to get the same networking opportunities as we used to in the past when we were all office-based, so, it’s important to try and recreate that opportunity, perhaps, with Team socials done remotely, or perhaps with opportunities to connect with other members of the team, perhaps in a location in the country that suits you both.  

Or one thing that we’re going to introduce are using our giving back days, we’re going to look at having a couple of charities and calendar events that will encourage all of our employees to sign up to and join into, which means that they’ve got an opportunity to get together, to get to know each other, to socialise, but at the same time, you know, do something that’s going to be worthwhile giving back to her a deserving cause. 

Sara Lewis 10:59 

That sounds amazing and yes, I’m certainly aware of the sorts of initiatives we have internally. I think for our listeners, you know, we’ve talked about kind of the, you know, some regular check ins, making sure that people are okay from a wellbeing perspective, are there any other kind of tips for our audience that, you know, you would give in terms of making sure that you keep on track of that professional development and continue to excite and enthuse? 

Stephanie Coward 11:22 

I’ll give you a really great example, actually. So, for the first time this year, in one part of my business we decided to take on a number of graduates. So, we brought in 24 graduates, you know, we were really keen to make sure they felt part of the business, we had an academy programme for them, and I think the biggest thing that I learned from it is that their expectations before they joined the business were very different to the reality of being in work; and although I’m talking about graduates, I think that’s probably true of many people, when they accept a role, albeit, you know, the fundamentals of the roll are what they thought, when you actually join a new company, it’s like joining a new family, that, you know, can be quite different to what you’re expected.  

So, one of the things we did with the graduates is we had regular check-ins, where we gave them the opportunity to talk to someone outside of the leadership team so they felt they could be really open and honest about the things that they thought, ‘yeah, that we really enjoyed this, this has gone really well’ and ‘actually, we think if you’re going to do this, again, we do this differently, we do something else differently’ – and we took onboard that feedback and we all went back and we were really thankful to them, because in our in our view feedback is a gift. And we were grateful for that gift from that group of people. And I would advise you all out there to do the same, you know, to really get a true transparent view because without that, you then will not be able to surface the things that are going really, really well that you want to continue to do and the things that are not going so well that you might want to stop. 

Sara Lewis 12:53 

I love that idea. You know, actually it’s keeping your feet on the ground, isn’t it? You know, from the perspective of a leader and certainly, you know, with the rate that businesses are growing at the moment, you know, it’s just keeping your feet on the ground and doing that check in every once in a while, and getting that anecdotal feedback that really helps you understand and get to grips with what the sense of feeling is. 

Stephanie Coward 13:16 

Yeah, it sounds really obvious and straightforward, but it’s one of those things that quite often we forget to do.  

Sara Lewis 13:21 

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that also flows up into, you know, those soft skills of managers as well, we talk a lot about emotional intelligence as a technology business, but actually, you know, it is looking at those softer skills and making sure that we’re mentoring, that we’re coaching those managers, to be able to kind of step up. 

Stephanie Coward 13:40 

Yeah, that’s a really great point action. By doing that is also a great development opportunity for managers and I would say not just for new managers, but for all of us, you know, even those of us that have been doing this for a long time.  

I think sometimes you can just forget the basics and for me, it’s all about communication and collaboration, understanding and being emotionally intelligent, are perhaps skills that are not always the easiest to find, but are probably nowadays, one of the top skills that a manager would need. 

Sara Lewis 14:10 

Yeah, absolutely. So, Steph, we’ve been talking a lot about the world of business owners and looking at how they recruit and so on. Obviously, technology has taken quite a turn over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a great deal of evolution. Where are your thoughts in terms of how technology is supporting managing directors today? 

Stephanie Coward 14:30 

I think technology plays an incredibly important part now. Just thinking about the recruitment journey and finding talent often called applicant tracking, I think absolutely, it’s very difficult to do that without the modern technologies that we’ve got today. I think in the past, you know, many businesses were able to use perhaps personal networks, the brand awareness but today it’s very difficult to do that to actually then source and find what can often be quite difficult talent to find.  

I think also as well, today you’re searching for talent and competing against so many other people looking for the same types of people. So, from our perspective, yeah, absolutely, we use technology as part of the end-to-end process, right the way from looking for talent in the first place. 

So, many will know of the different social media platforms that are out there; I’m sure most of you have heard of LinkedIn and use LinkedIn, but we’ve decided to try and be a bit more creative, perhaps, and extend to Instagram and Facebook. And I’d even say, if you’re trying to attract young talent into your organisation, just think what social media platforms do young talent look at? Well, TikTok, Snapchat, you know, so those are the mediums by which you need to be able to advertise and get to that talent.  

I heard a really great example the other day of someone who was talking about recruitment and trying to be creative by actually going to those people in the market that he called passives. So, these are people that are not actively looking for a new role. These are the people that you go to who you could convince, perhaps, explain and show how a new role might be something that they might want.  

So, they may be happily doing what they’re doing and in their current role, and not realising the opportunities that are out there. So, we often miss a trick by only going to the talent that we know are actively looking for work and technologies can really help you with trying to get to that passive group, who perhaps aren’t necessarily actively looking but would be interested in the right role if it came up.  

So, what I’d advise you all out there to do is to really make the best use of social media platforms, I’d advise you also to think about your own technology within your own HCM environment, that once you’ve attracted and found that talent, then how do you how do you connect to that talent? How do you get them involved in your recruitment process.  

I think that it’s quite important that you’ve got something that is pretty slick, I mean, again, you know, most people out there are used to that retail experience, you know, very simple, straightforward, easy to use technology to be able to show an interest, to upload a CV, to organise and manage interviews, and even nowadays, where interviews are conducted generally remotely, something very quick and simple to be able to facilitate that process, I would say is an absolute must have – its table stakes as far as I’m concerned. 

Sara Lewis 17:20 

Definitely, and actually hitting the passives as well is a really interesting view because you’re really building that relationship before anybody’s almost starting to look for a job or somebody may be piqued, you may have piqued their interest. 

Stephanie Coward 17:35 

Absolutely. I mean, you’ve got to think of this as a sales process. So, if you’re thinking of your sales team, you know, they will be talking to all sorts of different companies and customers who may not be in the market for whatever it is that you’re selling, but maybe in the future. So, by making those connections, nurturing those opportunities is exactly the same when it comes to candidate attraction. So, you know, even if the people you’re speaking to, your company is not right for them today, or you don’t have a role that’s right for them. I think if you’re looking for people who you can see will fit well in your organisation display the right values and behaviours, and I think it’s important to nurture those candidates, and technology gives you a great opportunity to be able to do that. 

Sara Lewis 18:16 

Yeah, absolutely. And I was just going to say the same thing in terms of nurturing as part of what we know is to just lead that sales process before you start nurturing. So, we’ve talked about then the use of technology within the recruitment phase of bringing an employee on board, what happens next with technology on that onboarding because it happens quite quickly doesn’t it? It needs to happen quickly in today’s environment. 

Stephanie Coward 18:36 

So, I talked just a little bit earlier about being agile, and that agile approach then continues right the way through that employee’s journey within your business. So, right from the point of engagement of offer acceptance, you know, the traditional process in recruitment and it’s really important than that seamless, whereas they come into your organisation, so everything from you know, just have they got a laptop or phone or, you know, pens and paper are probably a little bit old fashioned these days.  

But you know, the way that individual then is able to then become part of your business, part of your employee community. So I would suggest, when you considering technology; think about that step from the recruitment process into onboarding into your business, to become a member of your employee community, and how you can do that seamlessly so that all of the information that they’ve probably already given you throughout the recruitment process, they’re not then having to do all that again, that all that information is then taken and use then as part of that onboarding process. So that when those employees join the real value-added stuff off, you know, networking with other colleagues, understanding where they fit in the business and being able to quickly and easily use your remote technology, if it’s Teams or Zoom, to be able to quickly then be part of your environment, I think really is important and technology again, offers a great way for you to be able to do that.  

Sara Lewis 20:01 

Yeah, absolutely and actually, underpinning all of that, you know, really what you’re talking about is that trusted source of the truth, isn’t it, you know, if you’re inputting your details in only once, and they’re flowing all the way through to your payroll, then actually, it’s a real beautiful benefit for me as an employee because it’s a wonderful experience but on the other side of it, we’ve also saved our colleagues time in recruitment, in HR and in payroll. So, all of that automation is actually joined together and integrated and that makes a huge difference in the back-office as well. 

Stephanie Coward 20:33 

Absolutely right. And if you think of the basics of ensuring that somebody is paid accurately and on time, you’re going to have people joining your organisation at all times in the month at all times in your pay cycle. So again, ensuring that the data and information is provided, once you know means that that can quickly then be uploaded into your payrolls service, into your benefit solution. Ensuring that holidays are available there to book some of the basics means then as well, if it’s just done once, then you remove that opportunity for inaccuracies and delays within your business. And absolutely, then your employees that are in the HR and Payroll administration side of your business can focus on the value adds, which we talked about before, which is helping those employees connect and feel part of your business part of your world, 

Sara Lewis 21:22 

Then, of course, they’re there to help you grow. Absolutely. That nicely brings us back around to you know, actually the leading the business and actually growing it so and that’s what you want to do is that you want to be in that business. You want to drive that business, because it’s the stuff that you are feeling really passionate about.  

Stephanie Coward 21:39 

Yeah, absolutely. Now, you know, having spent a great amount of time and energy and bringing someone into your organisation, then it’s really important that they flourish, they grow and that feeds them back into your business achieving the ambitions that you’ve set for it.  

Sara Lewis 21:51 

Yeah, absolutely. Steph, thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciate you joining us on the podcast. And we will hope to see you again soon. Thank you very much.  

Stephanie Coward 22:00 

It’s absolutely been my pleasure. Thank you.