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In mid-November last year, one week after the equivalent Australian awards, Seek announced the winners of the New Zealand SARAs. The winner of the Recruitment Leader of the Year was Randstad’s Brien Keegan.

After completing his undergraduate degree at Massey University in 2001, Brien worked at Telecom New Zealand for just over 18 months before he commenced his recruitment career. Having left New Zealand in mid 2006, Brien subsequently worked in various Randstad’s businesses in Melbourne, Vancouver and Hong Kong.

Brien’s current role is Country Manager for Randstad New Zealand, based in Auckland. Randstad New Zealand offers specialist recruitment services in Construction & Engineering,  Accounting, Banking & Financial Services,  Education (child care teachers),  Technologies (ICT professionals including sales & marketing),  Call Centre, Assessment Centre & Business Support and  Government, in addition to a suite of HR products and services. Randstad New Zealand operates from four locations.

Brien kindly agreed to answer my interview questions just after he returned from this Christmas/New Year break.

Ross: What was your background prior to becoming a recruiter and how did you come to choose recruitment as a career?  

Brien: I’m perhaps the first person to ever say this, but as a young person I wanted to look at a career in recruitment. I believe it is an excellent industry to have a positive impact on individuals’ lives and also to help organisation’s grow and prosper. I am really interested in people and in business, so it is a great match.

What aspects of recruitment did you find the most challenging when you started?

Just managing time and ensuring you meet and exceed expectations, of our clients and candidates. Too often we get criticised as an industry for being underwhelming in our customer experience, for me it all starts with the basics of follow up; doing what you say you will do.

How long did it take working as a recruiter before you were offered your first leadership role? Tell me a little about that role.  

I started in the industry in January 2004 and led my first recruitment team (accounting and business support) from October 2005 (with Drake in New Zealand). I was asked to take on a team that had not been profitable for a number of years and had been through various leaders, so it was a great challenge. We were able to turn the business around, which was hugely rewarding.

Funnily enough (and this is not a paid editorial!), I was fortunate to attend one of your training sessions for new leaders and to this day, I still heed the advice you gave me in terms of what to look for in new recruits to our industry – thank you!

What did you find to be the biggest challenges in moving from a consulting role into a leadership role?  

Just managing the balance between the organisational requirements of a leadership role (i.e forecasting, budgets, planning, hiring etc), but not losing sight of the fact that the reason you are a leader is due to your ability to connect to people; not just your team, but also your clients and candidates.

I am passionate about being in front of our customers as well as still helping our team source and fill the occasional position myself. Tell me a little about the opportunities Randstad provided to you to work in both the Canadian and Hong Kong markets. How did those opportunities arise and what were the most important things you learned in each of those markets?

A huge advantage in working for Randstad is the potential to work in other markets. I was lucky enough to get support from Randstad to work for the Canadian business, rather than having to work on ski slopes, when I wanted to visit Canada. It also enabled me to learn more about IT recruitment through the strategic sourcing role I had with Randstad Technologies.

Hong Kong was an unbelievable experience. We grew the team from 13 to 50 in my time there and the learnings were massive both professionally and personally. In many ways there are many differences in working in Hong Kong, but it cemented to me that no matter where in the world you are recruiting, it is about your ability to connect with people. The better you connect, the more successful you will be.

What sort of formal and informal leadership development have you experienced in your time at Randstad?  

I have been very lucky to have had significant leadership development opportunities both locally in New Zealand and Australia, but further afield in Asia and Europe. I have been fortunate to be involved in leadership development programs, visits to other locations to learn best practice, structured training on both hard and soft skills of management/leadership and in addition to that have been supported by some amazing mentors right across the Randstad world. The development, learning path and career opportunities that Randstad provided me, has been what has set Randstad apart for me personally.

What books, blogs, podcasts, websites or other external resources have you gained the most from in terms of developing your leadership skills?  

I have read numerous leadership books and watched various TED Talks. I am a big fan of Simon Sinek’s, ‘starting with why’, as I think it is important to understand motivations deeply in this industry. I follow the Harvard Business Review, as well as McKinsey. I also like to keep up with those blogging in our industry as well.

I am currently looking into information, reading and support available around developing mental skills. I think resilience, or a lack of it, is one of the biggest reasons that individuals do not progress in our industry, which is a real shame. If you think about the All Blacks, they are not only highly skilled athletes, but they spend a lot of time on their state of mind and mental wellness. If anyone else is looking into this in our industry, I would love to connect and understand your learning and viewpoint (Ross’s note: Both, Paul Lyons, co-founder of Ambition, and, Rob Collins, former Clarius CEO, have both pursued this area since leaving their respective executive roles).

What sort of statistics or KPIs do you rely on, and how do you use them, to effectively manage the leaders who report to you?

You can usually tell, when you walk into an office, whether a team is successful, which is why I don’t think you can only rely on KPIs and statistics. They are perhaps an indicator, but rather than using them as a tool to ‘manage’ people, I believe they are best utilised as a starter for coaching. I have eleven direct reports, all focused on different areas, so largely it is ensuring that I am setting clear expectations on what needs to be achieved and then hold the team accountable to that.Back to KPIs; I truly believe the parameters you put around people drive their behaviour. I remember being aware of an agency that the consultants had to do 50 ‘dials’ each day which makes it really hard to deliver quality calls. In the end the consultants were calling local supermarkets to get to their ‘dial’ number towards the end of each day.

What do you attribute your win in SARA 2016 Recruitment Leader of the Year (NZ) to?   

I expect it’s due to the fact that I genuinely care about the success of every individual in our team. In the last 12 months we have spent a lot of time focusing the business, adjusting our structure and pushing ourselves to be better. In doing this, we have maintained high levels of engagement, so I am hoping that this is a sign that we are communicating effectively as a leadership team across the country. I am very enthusiastic about 2017 for our team in New Zealand as we have a great team in place and we are fortunate that the market conditions here are strong.

What are the most important things that a recruitment agency leader should focus on to build a team with strong morale, excellent skills and outstanding results?  

Ensuring that all the basics are in place around setting a vision, creating a strategy to deliver that and then ensure that you have your team structured in the right areas to execute. Beyond that, it is important to ensure that there is a clear purpose in place, so that everyone is connected to where the organisation is going. At a more cultural level, creating a fun environment, not taking yourself too seriously, treating your team as individuals and setting very clear expectations, are all very important.

What personal philosophies drive you each day in your job?

To not get tied down by emails – if you aren’t in front of the team, your clients or candidates, then I think you may be in the wrong job.

Go to every meeting as though it was your last, I truly believe we can get stuck into routine, both in our internal and external conversations, so always to be in a position where you have perhaps made an individual think differently before they leave the room.

What’s something about yourself that very few people, who know you professionally, would know about you?

I tend to hit an awful slice off the first tee. In general, my golf could be a lot better; love the game though.

What advice would you give to a recruiter who has leadership ambitions?

Lead away from the desk, get in front of clients, candidates and network with your team. The challenge can be in leading through the economic cycles and as such I think the saying that the real test of leadership occurs in the worst of times, not the best of times, is very accurate. In those tough times, don’t completely change who you are; be consistent and your team will respect you for that.


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Very nice experience and the way he handled this interview. Best line – "In many ways there are many differences in working in Hong Kong, but it cemented to me that no matter where in the world you are recruiting, it is about your ability to connect with people. The better you connect, the more successful you will be."

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