Stephen Martin, Director at Next Ventures, has more than twenty years of first-hand experience in the recruitment industry, rising from the ranks of top producer to a top executive of an award-winning global firm. Throughout his career, he’s taken careful stock of what makes a successful leader – and what makes one a failure. The difference, he argues, lies in emotional and social intelligence.
In this Q&A, Steve shares the philosophy of “work hard, be successful, and be nice” and explains why an emphasis on diversity and transparent management approach are critical leadership elements.
RIX: You’re a few months into your role as Director at Next Ventures. What’s your top focus area?
SM: I’m focused on growth of course, but my real focus is on people. That’s where every recruitment firm should concentrate. There are lots of recruiters in a saturated marketplace, which often leads to an element of desperation and aggression. This, in turn, leads to driving activities and trying to control behaviors rather than giving consultants the autonomy, respect, and mentorship they require.
RIX: What impact can a good—or bad—leader have on the business?
SM: Leadership is key, especially in a business that wants to grow, rather than one that’s just being babysat or perhaps a lifestyle business. A lot of recruitment firms treat their workers in a ‘battery hen’ style purely measuring on KPIs and watching to make sure they do what they’re supposed to do.
You can get away with having a bad leader in a business, but if you want to grow year-on-year then you need a mix of analytical and emotionally-led leadership. The best leaders have emotional and social intelligence, and the bad ones clearly don’t. As a society, we are becoming more aware of this, and there is a clearer divide between managers who lead through fear and anger and those who understand, care, coach, and facilitate.
RIX: What are the benefits of emotional intelligence in a leader?
SM: People have moods. It takes emotional intelligence to understand that. It’s not a weakness to be understanding —it’s a massive strength. People are too savvy and becoming too independent to be pushed around and bullied by managers. Good CEOs and business leaders no longer sit in an office, they sit on the sales floor where everything happens – and that’s exactly what we implement at Next Ventures.
A lot of managers, especially new ones, fall down by creating a parent/child relationship, or they try to be friends with their team. I take an interest in what my employees are doing socially, however, I also know when and how to manage people.
RIX: Are good leaders born or created?
SM: I personally believe that we’re products of our environment. You can’t get your emotional intelligence from someone else. I don’t replicate not losing my temper from somebody else. You have to keep your emotions in check and lead by example. Charisma is also a key attribute. Reading spreadsheets, analyzing data is fine; however, motivating, coaching, and being a trusted advisor is more important. You also need to possess the flexibility to work with each individual and team differently and this comes from what you have experienced and learned behaviors.
RIX: Have leadership styles changed over the years?
SM: Not really. People are just more aware of bad leaders, and it’s also a lot more noticeable when the leader is good.
RIX: What about personal experience in the business? Do you have to be a top biller to make a good manager?
SM: You don’t, but it helps. Although the days of people being promoted to leadership purely on billings are gone, in my mind, leading is easier if you’ve been a successful recruiter. My 20 odd years of leadership experience gives me so much of an advantage when handling problems, driving growth, and helping the careers of our people.
I made the switch to 100% leadership because I enjoy coaching and mentoring. It’s also empowering to be part of the strategy. But it’s not for everyone. A lot of recruiters feel they have to be a leader and it’s the natural progression, however, they’ll often take a reduction in earnings and also find that managing is tough work and more draining than being a biller. At NV, our commission structure and incentives are so good that the jump into leadership is not a priority.
RIX: In terms of retention, what are the other options for billers if management isn’t for them?
SM: Great question—it all depends on the drivers of the individual. In every single appraisal, we drill down on what motivates the employee. We ask ‘What do you want? Are you happy? Do you want to lead?’ If they want money and incentives, that’s easier to facilitate. If it’s career progression, it depends on the organization structure. Promotion to senior or principal consultant still offers an element of management. The key is to get them involved in training, mentorship, and decision-making – and always ask for their opinions.
RIX: So how do you find the next leaders in a business?
SM: We don’t have to. Leaders grasp leadership opportunities. They don’t wait to be found and they do the job before officially being given it. Personally, I have never interviewed for a promotion and I certainly have never asked for one.
RIX: How do you ensure that you’re hiring the right people in the first place?
SM: We hire about 10% of the people we interview. Our leadership team has to be unanimous in our decisions; we don’t hire someone if we’re not all in agreement. It’s massively difficult to get into to NV, and our retention is fantastic. There’s no reason to leave Next Ventures to go to another recruitment firm.
RIX: Let’s talk about the agency’s growth goals. What components are required for a sound growth strategy?
SM: No surprise here. People, people, people….and not just that, but different types of people, with different cultures and languages. In Next Ventures’ London office alone, we have 14 different nationalities represented, which helps us cover every single inch of the candidate and client market within our 5 key practices. So many recruitment firms only want to hire an exclusive type of background, however, for us diversity is key.
RIX: How do you decide what the targets should be?
SM: Targets need to be set properly and collaboratively. We start by sitting down with everyone and asking them what they think their targets should be. Too many recruitment leaders simply add on 20% from the previous year…or work out a complicated formula based on run rate and analytics. These work to a point; however, a massive part of setting motivating targets comes from market knowledge and emotional intelligence – and buy-in from the consultants. Trust is a massive part of this.
RIX: What can be done if the plan isn’t working?
SM: When closing a deal and the process isn’t working, then I always suggest going back to the beginning and stripping back to the basics. There is always a reason it’s not working. If that reason’s inside your control, you can change it or find a workaround. If it’s outside your control then I still expect you to come to me with an attempt at a solution. Admitting there is a problem rather than repeating the same processes.
RIX: Next Ventures is known for its fantastic incentive programs, including gift vouchers and quarterly trips exotic locations. What’s the philosophy behind those programs?
SM: There’s absolutely no reason everyone shouldn’t be on those trips. We will charter a flight if we need to and that would be an absolute dream for us. With every competition we run, there’s complete clarity about what’s required and transparency about results. There’s constant communication throughout so at the end everyone knows where they stand. Building a culture of trust and transparency is the meaningful difference that NV gives.
RIX: Do you have advice for individuals trying to build their recruitment careers?
SM: I’ve got loads of advice! People think they have to be hard and aggressive in tough situations, but the nicer you are, the better chance you have to rectify a problem. An old mentor of mine used to say “work hard, be successful, be nice” – and it’s this that has proved effective for me all these years!