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Underwood Executive (L to R):  Vanessa Jones, Nikki Hentschke, Nicole Underwood, Eloise Nicholson.


HR Director magazine has announced its winners of their 2019 Australian Recruiter of the Year awards.

The winners are decided by respondents (internal recruiters and relevant HR professionals) nominating the best recruitment agency, from their dealings with external recruiters over the preceding 12 months. Categories of assessment include; candidate care, cost, quality of hire, time to hire and the overall level of service. The survey was conducted across March and April this year. The publication acknowledged the first three placegetters (Gold/Silver/Bronze) in nine specialist areas and the company who received the most number of votes cast was awarded the title of HRD’s Recruiter of the Year.

Two agencies clearly outperformed everybody else: the second-largest recruitment agency in the world; Randstad who were awarded 4 Gold, including overall  Recruiter of the Year, 1 Silver and 3 Bronze and a tiny Adelaide-based search firm; Underwood Executive (Gold in the Executive and Sales & Marketing categories, Bronze in the Banking & Financial, Public Sector & Government and Professional Services categories and Silver in the overall Recruiter of the Year.

Consider that Underwood Executive operates from a single location containing founder and Managing Director, Nicole Underwood and her three employees. Clearly Underwood Executive is doing something truly extraordinary in delivering a recruitment service that clients love when it beats all-comers bar one in a huge and highly competitive field of global and national recruitment agencies.

I first met founder, Nicole Underwood, in November 1998 when I landed in Adelaide in an attempt to hire recruiters for the soon-to-be-opening Adelaide office for my then-employer, Recruitment Solutions. The University of South Australia graduate from the Barossa Valley was easily the best candidate I interviewed. Subsequently Nicole became my first local hire. I was surprised to later discover that Nicole had just turned 21, as she had the presence and maturity of somebody much older.

On the desk Nicole quickly demonstrated the strengths that have been characteristic of her career trajectory (although we did have our moments during my time running the Adelaide business; inevitable when an ENTJ reports to another ENTJ!).

After I moved back to Sydney in late 2000 Nicole was promoted to run the office before being headhunted by Mark Hender to establish Entrée Recruitment, the mid-market brand of Hender Consulting. Nicole resigned in 2011, after ten years as GM of Entree, to establish her own business, which opened in August 2011.

Nicole kindly agreed to answer my questions about her company’s multiple successes in HRD’s 2019 Recruiter of the Year awards.

Ross: Congratulations, Nicole, on your company’s multiple wins in the HRD Recruiter of the Year. What was your first reaction when you heard the news?

Nicole: I was extremely surprised that we had won a medal in so many categories (being national awards) and then to be the overall Silver winner was a very exciting, humbling and a proud moment. I couldn’t wait to share the news with the Underwood Executive team. They were over the moon!

It really is a David and Goliath story; a four person agency in Adelaide beats the multi-national agencies with their accompanying deep client lists and vast marketing resources – how did you it?

With dedication, discipline and consistency. The team at UE are united, with team goals, aligned values and a high care factor about what we deliver. We are very clear about who we will and won’t do business with – there has to be an alignment in terms of people, culture and leadership. We choose to work with organisations who are dedicated to getting this formula right. When you know what you stand for, it makes it much easier to say no. From day one, I have held an unwavering dedication to building this business with that mindset; with the discipline to consistently have a ‘high touch’ relationship service with C-suite level decision makers.

Let’s go back to the beginning – what was your background prior to setting up your own business?  

I first joined the recruitment industry in the late 90s when, after finishing my marketing degree, I was interviewed by a recruiter for an Account Manager role with Arnott’s. It’s how I have subsequently sourced many other consultants; ”you know you’d be really good at recruitment!”. I subsequently joined Recruitment Solutions where I learnt the art of selling client paid advertising and running a combined temp and perm desk. My big break came as the founding General Manager of Adelaide-based Entrée Recruitment. This was a rare and fortunate opportunity to launch a new business. I spent the next 10 years of my career learning the commercial side of recruitment and how to run and lead a profitable recruitment business. One of my biggest learnings and achievements was hiring consultants for culture fit which led to consultant retention sky rocketing.

Why did you launch your own agency?

I wanted to start my own consultancy to have creative control over the direction of the business and to ultimately offer an executive search service and brand I would be proud of. It was also a desire to capitalise on my networks built over many years.

Seven years in, I thrive on being the creator of my own destiny and being able to build a culture, client base and service offering where consultants are achieving high levels of job satisfaction, flexibility and ownership.  I wake up every day passionate about what I do. I am still motivated to achieve results and continue my development as both a consultant and as a business owner.

What service offerings did you start with and what are they now?

When I started in late 2011, we offered permanent recruitment services and career coaching. This has evolved into executive search for c-suite, leadership and hard to fill roles, as well as executive coaching and retention services.

What’s a recent example of an assignment you have completed that best typifies the Underwood Executive approach to recruitment and the value that you deliver for your clients?

Recently we conducted a national search for a Group Executive role based in Adelaide. The client, a large multi-national, had previously engaged a global recruiter under a contingent methodology. The agency had twice completed a recruitment process for the role, leading to failed hires both times. It was fair to say the client was feeling frustrated and unsure that the right candidate even existed. They were referred to us by a third party who had experienced our search methodology.

The CEO was determined not to get it wrong again and committed to partnering with us through the whole process. Our approach was to spend time on site with the key stakeholders to gain an organisation-wide understanding of the role, the culture and what hadn’t worked in the past. We were up-front with the client about what we had learned and what we were going to do differently.

This assignment required us to be bold and assertive. We were clear in our expectations of what was necessary for the process to be a success; access to the CEO, responsiveness, transparency and momentum. Our approach involved mapping the market then engaging with passive and high performing talent to actively sell the opportunity.

The value we delivered for the client included not only presenting a shortlist of highly suitable candidates (they struggled to choose between the final two candidates), but being an advisor on everything from interview panel member, to challenging assumptions, background checking, psychological testing, counter offer management and salary recommendation. This level of input and partnership is where the relationship is built, trust is gained and the best hiring decisions are made.

What are the two or three most important competencies a recruiter must have to be successful at Underwood Executive and why are these competencies so important?

Coachability: It doesn’t matter how experienced or inexperienced in recruitment, HR or consulting someone is, they must be coachable if they are going to succeed at UE. I invest in the team’s ongoing learning, growth and self-development therefore one of the key measures of consultant success at UE is how open you are to being coached, your ability to listen to feedback and then being able take action based on that feedback.

Achievement drive (or your “care factor”): I define this as those people who like success and delivering high levels of service to achieve an outcome, rather than an ambition to climb a corporate ladder or have an impressive job title. That desire to reach high standards and always be improving ensures we are top of our game; complacency is not acceptable in our team.

Teamwork: Being a small team with clear goals, I look for people who have successfully worked with others to achieve results. Yes, there is a level of autonomy to run your own day and to prioritise assignments, but at UE there are no individual KPIs or revenue targets. Our focus is on quality outcomes where every team member plays a part.

No ego: The other thing I look for in a new consultant is authenticity and humility. There are no dominating personalities or egos that need to be stroked at UE. We gain our satisfaction and recognition from the results we deliver. We don’t make big statements about who we are – we let our results speak for themselves.

You started your recruitment career just as the Internet era was ramping up – what role does technology play in the success of your business compared to the role of core recruiter ‘human skills’? How do you envisage that balance changing over the next decade, if at all? 

The role of technology plays a significant part in our business through tracking, CRM, research, building pipelines and the identification and access to global talent. However, I believe the ultimate success of the results we deliver comes down to the human skills and the relationships we develop. These core recruitment skills of engagement, influence, negotiation and trust can’t be replaced by a machine, formula or code. In our business, we combine the best of both worlds to find the best talent and then deliver an efficient and effective search service and I don’t see the balance changing much in the future.

What practises or activities have been most helpful in your own professional development?

This certainly changes and is dependent on where I am at a particular point in time. In the early days of my leadership career, it was one-on-one coaching, which was what I needed to develop my self-awareness and improve my leadership on a practical level. I continue engaging coaches on an ad-hoc basis. I have also adopted a self-meditation practise which has helped with creating calm and perspective. In addition, I subscribe to blogs and podcasts and attend a minimum of one conference or external seminar per year. I also spend a lot of time listening and learning from clients, informal mentors and my team. That is the one of the things I love about my business and this industry; I am always learning.

What personal philosophies drive you each day in your job?

To take accountability for my choices, results and learnings. From the moment I entered the workforce, it’s been my belief that working hard delivers success and results. You need to take more action than the norm to achieve.  It must be my country upbringing and my parents’ strong work ethic rubbing off!

What do you do to switch off from the pressures of running a successful business?

Time with my children (Charlie, 12 and William, 9) and all the activities they bring. As mentioned earlier, I try a slower pace with mindfulness meditation and Pilates. I also love to travel, which I do schedule regularly to recharge. I have also taken an avid interest in hiking.

How will you celebrate Underwood Executive’s numerous wins in HRD’s Recruiter of the Year awards?We have booked a team dinner to ensure that we reflect on the awards, what it means to us and how we can continue to learn from it.

Finally, what are your top three tips for recruitment agency owners who have just started their own business?

1. Don’t hire too soon – spend at least 12 months on your own becoming clear on your service offering and competitive advantage. Having to run all aspects of your business gives clarity in knowing how you want things done and understanding how everything works from start to finish.

2. Say no to those clients or assignments that don’t fit your target market. In the early days I said no more than I said yes, which is hard when you are trying to make an income. The long term pay-off means you build a solid reputation in the market you have chosen. Focus on being the best in your space and hold firm on the value you deliver.

3. Build your brand – invest in your own brand to build credibility and respect. Be generous with your time, content and knowledge. People will see what you stand for and be more willing to pay for your expertise.

Thanks Nicole, and congratulations again. Your business is a shining example of the incredible value that a recruitment agency can deliver to clients and candidates, alike.


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