The world of investing has taken serious note of the human capital industry. So serious that a rapidly growing number of private equity firms now have staffing companies in their portfolios. These investments are a clear signal of confidence from the marketplace that staffing firms can deliver strong returns. It’s an exciting trend, but it is also generating an interesting leadership conundrum for the human capital industry — an industry firmly grounded in people and their success.
Can a thoroughly people-centric business be led by executives from outside the industry?
It’s Not Rocket Science, Right?
Talented leaders have a gift for adaptation and learning that allows them to rapidly grow and succeed in new and challenging roles. The right CEO can learn, lead and succeed at the head of a staffing firm, no matter the sector they come from. Staffing, after all, is not rocket science. We have all heard that one before.
But, let me play devil’s advocate for a second and say this: Culture in the human capital industry has more sway over bottom-line success than in it does in many businesses. And that is not just because people are both the deliverable — the resources clients are paying for — as well as a group of customers who procure staffing services in order to find work. Culture matters in staffing because filling jobs is very hard work. It’s not complicated, but it is a deadline-driven, competitive push that requires endurance, spirit and passion for getting the right people in place.
The Force of the Staffing Front Line
On the front lines of the human capital industry, where field officers and recruiters race to find talent and fill jobs at great speed, senior-level leadership plays a big role. The cultural tone of a staffing firm echoes from the top down and shapes how people work. Think of Joyce Russell, president of Adecco Staffing US, who was newly named to SIA’s Staffing Industry Hall of Fame. This 25-year veteran of the staffing industry is known for her upbeat and can-do personality, which reflects the get-up-and-go she expects and elicits from her teams.
Can an executive who has never received a Friday night call from a client who needs 10 people for a Monday start understand what it takes to deliver in staffing? If you have never endlessly hunted job boards, job fairs, alumni networks and contacted endless candidates just to fill one challenging role, will you know how much effort goes into a great hire?
Again, I believe it’s possible for a great business leader to learn, but I would advise any organization seeking staffing industry leadership to make keen cultural insight a litmus test for any C-level appointment. Does the potential CEO appreciate the value of the recruiters and account executives who toil on the front lines? Will they have the ability to inspire loyalty, hard work and a vision for success that goes beyond profit margins and shareholder returns? The very best leaders in human capital have the cultural understanding and charisma that reaches down to those essential front-line workers who make successful human capital connections. They are the people of the people industry, and a staffing leader who can’t connect with them has a tough cultural stumbling block right in front of them.
How Do You Screen for Cultural Know-How?
The next question has to be, how can you screen for an emotional intelligence quotient like cultural insight? The good news is there are certain personal traits that align with cultural insight and certain ones that don’t. Here are three culture-focused traits to look for in a c-level staffing executive:
To understand working on the front lines, you have to have experienced it and learned what it’s like to be the bottom dog rather than the top dog. Humility is a leadership asset in the human capital industry where arrogance can be a setback.
Lots of information flows in from the field, the clients and the consultants in the human capital industry. Good leaders will know the value of the insights staffing’s many constituents can offer and how important it is for them to be heard. Decisiveness is always important in a leader, but will the leader be willing to take into consideration perspectives from the front lines as part of their decision making?
In an industry of people, mistakes will happen. Strong leaders in staffing understand the value of accepting ownership of the good and the bad and are great at communicating the ups and downs of the staffing industry life cycle.
When employees have a greater sense of connectivity to the organization in which they work, the culture thrives. Human capital businesses rely on the strength of that cultural connectivity to fuel people-driven work. It’s a leadership X factor for the staffing industry and one way to know whether a company has the assets needed to achieve its full potential.