Lessons in Resilience

In this episode, AGS Senior Bid Manager Holly Gimenez sits down with Director of Business Development Steve Tolen to discuss how workforce and business leaders are taking the lessons on resilience they learned in 2020 and paying it forward with strategic workforce investments in 2021. Check it out!

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Frank Edge, Host: Thank you for joining us on this episode of Subject To Talent. I’m your host, Frank Edge.  

Today, we’re digging into a trending topic on the minds of workforce and business leaders and professionals alike – resilience – why it’s important, how we can cultivate it amongst ourselves and others, and how 2020’s legacy of learning to navigate uncertainty is shaping how organizations are hiring, planning and assessing talent moving forward.  

My colleague Holly Gimenez will be talking with Steve Tolen, Director of Business Development for Contingent Workforce Solutions for Allegis Global Solutions (AGS) in APAC. Steve brings 17 years of experience in recruiting and workforce solutions. In addition to sharing insights into the major shifts in mindsets happening across the industry now, he’ll share how the challenges of 2020 propelled him on a new personal journey in 2021.  

Let’s listen in. 

Holly Gimenez, Senior Bid Manager: Thank you for joining us today for Allegis Global Solutions’ (AGS) Subject to Talent podcast. Today, I'm here with Steve Tolen, or Stolen as we know him, business development director for AGS APAC. My name is Holly Gimenez, senior bid manager for AGS APAC. Steve, we like to start all our podcasts off by learning about how you got into this industry. What brought you to recruitment? 

Steve Tolen, Business Development Director: Hey Holly. Well, like most people, I didn't plan on getting into the industry. It wasn't planned at all and here I am in my 17th year. So I guess the phrase is, ‘once you're in there's no turning back,’ but I guess my story starts with I left school and started my career in a family-owned business, import and export of seafood, that was based out of my hometown in Liverpool in the UK. So I started running a business quite early in life, learned a lot about business developments, a lot about sales, building relationships and required a really hard work ethic. I was up early every morning and starting work at 6 am. In 2005, it was time for a change. And for a number of reasons, I subsequently left my hometown and decided to have a bit of a change of scene. 

So went and spent some time with my sister who lived in Southwest of England down in Devon. And one day I walked into the recruitment's office, a local office spoke of some casual work. I'd just written my first CV and they asked me if I'd ever considered recruitments. And I've got to be honest, I didn't know too much about the actual industry. All I heard was hard work, sales, build the relationships and the rest is history. So, a week turned into a month, a month into a couple of years, and my first job in recruitment so be driving in a minibus around the English Riviera as I was working as an account manager for a local council contract. So picking up everything from refuse loaders to litter pickers, et cetera. And I had to start at 4 a.m. in the morning to make sure everyone was down on site for 5:30 a.m. So that was my baptism of fire into the recruitment industry. 

HJ: Love it, Steve. So from my perspective, after uni, I did the traditional Australian thing of packing up and moving to London and living in the luxury of a multi-person share house. But I got a really interesting job working in the public grants sector, where my job was assessing funding applications for a wide variety of arts and science projects. I did that for a few years, and then returning to Sydney, I took some of the project management skills I'd learned from that and started working in the recruitment sector. But then we saw where my two skill sets of writing and project management could really come to the fore, and that was in bid management. And pretty much the rest is history. I'm 12 years into doing bids now. I joined AGS in 2017 and I've been fortunate enough to manage bids across nearly every aspect of the recruitment industry. So it's been a great ride so far. 

ST: Pleasure working with you. 

HJ: So Steve, 2020, how much did we love it? I'm kidding, obviously. Look, Australia's been really fortunate in managing our COVID numbers, but we also had to live through a number of snap lockdowns to get to this point. And so after the year that we've had, how has the pandemic impacted you personally? How did you cope? 

Yeah, it's a great question to kick off. I mean, the honest answer is it was tough to spend so much time at home with the family, homeschooling, lockdowns, etc. It was really tough. And I was really glad to see the end of the year for sure, as I'm sure many people were. I guess for us, we tried to give our daily routines as best we could, getting out and about, exercising where possible, but it was a very strange year. And, from a personal perspective being an extrovert, a people person, I found it really tough being away from friends, work colleagues, etc. So it was tough to get through the year. The one thing that I guess when I look back, we were holding on for the Christmas break, and just when we thought 2020, it's shown us everything, where I live in Sydney's Northern beaches, there was a little outbreak again on the December 17. 

So we ended up in a quick snap lockdown. And it wasn't a Christmas break that I'd expected. So it was a tough year and certainly tested many people mentally, resilience, etc. But on the flip side to that, I do consider myself quite fortunate to live in Australia. When I look at other parts of the world, we've come away in a really fortuitous position. So whilst we certainly had a rough 2020, I do consider myself again, quite fortunate to call Australia home. 

HJ: Absolutely. And I think, we've had to say how our personal lives have reacted to all this change, but also, the markets in the industry has gone through it along with everyone at the same time. Can you share some observations of how the markets have reacted and responded to everything that's happened in the last year? 

ST: Yeah, for sure. How I'd actually describe it is that the industry was shaken for both the clients and a supplier perspective, the uncertainty kicked in and that wasn't good for anybody. From a personal perspective, the key fundamentals of business development, meeting face-to-face, building relationships, building rapport and that just couldn't happen. So very quickly overnight, we all had to adapt to connect virtually, using Microsoft Teams, Skype meetings, Zooms, whatever it was to actually interact, and it happened literally overnight. So when you look at the recruitment requirements, we saw our hits on permanent volumes, probably no surprise in that one. Contractor spend remained fairly consistent. 

We didn't see growth in the contractor space, but what we did see was that many organizations still needed to function and with such a resilience or reliance, as you'd say, on contingent workforce. We saw the volumes remain quite steady, but there was always almost a freeze in many ways as the industry put the brakes on. And what we certainly saw moving into Q2 was that people were taking stock and really trying to figure out, whether we'd hit the peak, whether we were over the peak, and that was the uncertainty that was referenced earlier. So it was certainly a very interesting year and one that I hope we don't have to repeat. 

HJ: Absolutely. I think, as we've seen the pandemic unfold, it's accelerated transformation in the job landscape. We've gone places in six months that might previously have taken us three years. What I do think is interesting, is that Australia in the APAC region has had the opportunity to experience a glimpse of what normality or post-pandemic normal might look like give or take the odd lockdown here or there. Which I think gives our region a unique perspective on where client mindsets are, as they look at what their post-COVID operations are going to look like. So with that in mind, what do you think has been the biggest shift in the client's mindset from a pre- to a post-pandemic point of view? 

ST: What I've witnessed or how I would describe it is that, as we came out at 2020, there's a real curiosity from clients. It was such a turbulent year, that everyone is almost coming there with a renewed sense of optimism, but it's a case of, "Hey, that's got to make up for lost time." So what I mean by that kind of curiosity is, there's a lot of forward-thinking approaches. So what we're seeing is organizations saying, "Okay, let's not try and fix the here and now, but what do we need to do to be best in class? Let's really future-proof the business. So let's think about how we actually get there as opposed to solving the here and now." We've seen procurement, HR and CA stakeholders invited in for workshops. And this has been really interesting where it's a case of, "Hey, we've had a tough year, come in and tell us what the market's up to. Come in, we'll share some information with you around our current state. Advise us on things like technology, the current trends, et cetera, really come in and help us to get a roadmap together."  

Questions such as, how do we find the skills that we need when you're already in a talent short market is crucial. And that's probably the first question everyone asks. Questions such as, should we offshore for obvious reasons, cost saving benefits as a scale, or should we onshore? Should we bring jobs back in for where I am, to Australia, it's just been a complete kind of flipped question there in terms of what people are looking to do. Are we an employer of choice? 

If not, how do we get there? Who are the employers of choice? Again, all formed around the fact of how to attract the right talent. But another one which has been really specific to the pandemic, which I found quite interesting, was how do we manage a fully contingent workforce virtually? In a traditional market where people are in the buildings where you could visibly see them, et cetera, these were all questions that were just kind of thrown up and organizations had to adapt. 

HJ: Absolutely. That's really interesting insight. I think it's helpful for us to look at this from both angles. And how about the workforce? What are some of the major shifts in mindset you've seen from candidates in the job market this year? 

ST: So the sentiment, the behaviors that we're seeing early on is the 2021 is going to be a positive year. There is definitely a sense of optimism. We've seen an increase in some of the job postings based on the report and it's out. So, the early predictions are that it's going to be a positive year. And again, from a mindset perspective, let's be honest, everyone wanted to just see the back of 2020. I don't think there's any surprise there. No matter what location you're actually in, we've seen a renewed sense of purpose. Again, collectively everyone's experienced the disruption that COVID had, but organizations start to operate, and that's the key thing, they need to hire the right skills and the right talents. 

HJ: Absolutely. I think with what countries can see, how the pandemic is being managed with the onset of the vaccine rollout, there's a lot of is positivity in the air. Do you think that this resetting of mindsets is leading companies to review their hiring strategies and methodologies? 

ST: Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, what I'd say is that we're seeing a real dynamic shift towards how an organization will seek advice or support to solve their talent challenges. So based on some of the discussions that we've had with organizations, stakeholders across procurement, HR, talent acquisition, again, everyone's looking to really draw knowledge. What are you seeing across different sectors? What are the trends that we need to be aware of to really ensure that we're not behind the eight ball?  

And I guess on some of the examples of how I can articulate that is we've seen the old RFP process be re-evaluated. So, these big, chunky documents that could be 50 to 100 pages long, that would take you weeks and weeks to actually draw out, Holly, I'm sure you can resonate with that. Then it's drastically been reduced. So what we are seeing now, is clients bringing us in and saying, "Hey, here's a problem statement." Or, "Here's our current state, this is the volume." What we don't want is for you to say, "Here's a product." It's, "Go away, have a think, and come back and use all your IP, use all your smart people, technology, etc., all the IP that you have at your disposal and come back and tell us how we can do it better, more efficiently. And that's certainly been the trend that we've seen here. So most organizations, across banking, pharmaceutical, etc., technology specifically, this is the kind of the approach that they're taking: draw us in. So when you draw that back to what the outcomes or the benefits that they're looking to achieve, they're really going back to core fundamental benefits of cost reduction. Reducing implementation to go-live time, drastically, reducing everything, which is underpinned by the latest HR technology. 

HJ: Thanks for that. That's really helpful insight. So with all these changes to the modern workplace, where do you see the skill shortage is popping up? I think it's the buzzword at the moment: skill shortage. So if you look in your crystal ball, where do you see the biggest gaps? 

ST: Yeah, skill shortages. It's a great question, so I'm going to talk to our local market because, I can reference it and hopefully people can resonate with the example. So here in Australia, back in November, we hosted a webinar that was in conjunction with LinkedIn. So we had David Oda, we had Rebecca Horton from Bold HR, and we had our very own Bruce Morton. And it was entitled, The Reskill and Revolution. And some of the data that LinkedIn actually shared, it was so insightful that they predicted that by 2025, they were going to be 1 million new technology jobs in Australia alone. And in one specific category, there was less than a hundred thousand of the skilled candidates that were actually here available to actually pick up that role. That's a huge gap. And how do you actually combat that with challenges on, bringing people actually in and out of the country? 

It's a burning platform, so these are some of the things that we've actually been looking at. And I guess the questions that you should be asking internally are saying, "Okay, are we analyzing all our different avenues? All our different supply chains? What is our current model?" Take a look at your existing workforce as well. So, are there people there that might have, 40, 50% of the skills that are required and can actually be up-skilled? These are the challenges that were being thrown by organizations now, where they're saying, "Okay, look, we know that these skills aren't available. How can you help us?" So certainly, the technology sector is going to be the main one that people are really focusing on. And in certain, the skills there that are in demand, probably not a surprise to anyone, but, you know, software development, cloud and data roles, data analytics, and machine learning and AI. These are all top of the list. So, you know, people are really going to have to think outside the box.  

HJ: Absolutely. I think one of the biggest challenges we're going to be facing is the time it's going to take to source this talent. While upskilling is wonderful, if you have an immediate need, we previously looked to international travel and mobility to facilitate that gap. But with that being limited so much at the moment, what do organizations need to be focusing on in order to get access to the best talent? 

Well, simply the first thing you need to do is take stock of your current state. Is your solution fit for purpose? If not, seek advice, whether you've got an incumbent partner, looking at an external partner, but take advice around what the market's actually doing. That's a key thing, get a firm handle on the candidate market and the supply chain. An easy thing that we highlight is if you're only offering permanent employment, you are missing out on a massive candidate pool in the contract population. And as that starts to increase in utilization once again, you really are missing out on these key skills, so that is something that you can't ignore. And are you proactively identifying the skilled candidates that may be in your existing talent pools or your workforce that have got the ability to upskill? So these are some of the kind of the key things that you can focus on to really make a difference in the short term.  

HJ: Absolutely. I think, again, to look at it from the other side, technical skills are one thing. We know where those gaps are when they appear, but we also need people with the right behaviors, who can adapt to the changing circumstances that we live in. You can work from anywhere, but you still need visibility of your workforce and you need accountability within that workforce to get the work done. So how can organizations actively manage and motivate their workforce in a fully remote environment? 

ST: Yeah, well, I think what we learned from 2020 was that working remotely and working virtually works, and it had to happen and it had to work quite quickly. That's something there's no turning back. So, what we've seen in our organizations now looking and going, "Okay, that wasn't as painful as we thought and it happened. So again, there's no turning back. So what we've seen, organizations take very different approaches. So, some organizations saying, "Hey, stay at home permanently. Flexibility is there for you. We will work around your requirements. You can work from anywhere, which opens up different geographies." You know, these are all phrases that we become more and more accustomed to. There's no right or wrong. I think that's the key thing that you have to look at. 

It really is figure out what's best for you, your employees. And again, was hearing phrases such as hybrid models. So people returning to work on a couple of days, etc. All these things, you really have to adapt to, again, to meet the candidate demands. That's a key thing. What we also see from research is that, organizations that stipulate, "You must come back to the offices full time." They are going to be at a disadvantage. So again, candidates have got choice here, and flexibility is one of the key things that they're looking for. Another thing, which is quite simple, which is if you're managing a remote workforce is, stay connected. People want to talk to people. It's very easy to lose touch. So that's a key thing, you have to stay connected, particularly if you're operating as a virtual team. So that's where the tenacity, the grit, all really kind of comes into play, but as simple as picking up a phone. 

HJ: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. I think, what we have seen in the last 12 months is human connection is something we all need. And you can't really be replaced, and you need that resilience to get through these tough times, but not lose sight of that connection with one another. So I'm going to segue just slightly onto the topic of resilience. Steve, I heard you recently started on a personal journey for 2021. Could you please share what that is all about? 

ST: Yeah, for sure. So, as highlighted earlier, being completely transparent and honest, I didn't enjoy major parts of 2020. It was really tough. And as I came into 2021, I really wanted to do something to challenge me mentally, physically, and put me in the best shape that I've been in for a hell of a long time. So I've signed up to take part in the Corporate Fighter program. And for those that don't know what Corporate Fighter is. It's 12 weeks of intense boxing training, strict diet, no alcohol. Yes, seriously, for those who know me, and I'm already seven kilos, which is 15 pounds down now as we enter into a week four of the training. 

And so I'm pretty happy with where I am at the moment, but the big reason that I actually wanted to push myself on this journey was, it's all to raise funds for a very important charity. I'm doing this to raise awareness and funds for the Guns Out Foundation, which is a charity which is run by my friend Richard Toms, or Toms as he's known, who's a former Wallaby. Was a really tenacious player back in his time, but he suffered a life-changing injury in 2018. So now he channels all his energy into seeking a cure for spasticity. So I feel very proud that he allowed me to represent his charity, and I'm really looking forward to the rest of the journey. And he's still as resilient and tenacious as ever as he attends my training sessions. So that's what I've got in store. 

HJ: That's amazing. Fantastic. Can you just give me a bit more insight into what triggered you to start this journey, and why you decided to develop your resilience and tenacity around such a huge challenge? 

ST: When I came into 2021, I kind of felt like I needed a new purpose, outside of obviously work and family commitments, what was my goal? And this was something that I thought about and I thought, "Yeah, it's going to meet my goals," which were physical, mental fitness, for want of a better phrase, as well as the ability to do good and give back. So then after I decided that I was going to actually do it, it was really sign on the dotted line. And once I'd done that, there was no turning back. So, to give everyone a sense of the commitments, I train four nights a week, 8:30 p.m. at night, as well as Saturday mornings. So that's five times a week, that doesn't include my conditioning sessions, which are my own accountability. So it's pretty full on, but as I say, coming to the end of my third week, and looking at the results already, I'm pretty glad that I actually signed on the dotted line. 

HJ: Awesome. Sitting next to you, I can already see the change in wardrobe that's going to need to take place by the end of this. But I do think reflecting on what we discussed earlier around mindsets, how has this journey impacted you personally and professionally? 

ST: Yeah, it's a great question. Everything's interlinked, right? If you feel good about yourself, you feel positive, the way you carry yourself, your energy, it all translates, and you bring that positive energy into the workplace. So, for me, as I mentioned, I wanted to kick off the 2021 in the best version of myself, knowing that I'm meeting these targets and I'm on the way for the goal, it enables me to think a lot clearer and not stress so much about the things that are generally out of my control. I spent a lot of time last year thinking about 2020, and COVID when will this end? And it was a lot of negative energy. When I look at the goals that I've put in place for the first quarter of this year, I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to go out and start a 12 week boxing course, but set yourself some goals, because when you start to hit those milestones, your energy, your whole mood, your behavior, you know, really does lift. 

And for me, I can already feel it, the positivity, the productivity that I'm bringing back into the workplace, so I can't stress enough, go and pick a goal, and you get a good buzz when you start to meet those milestones. 

HJ: Absolutely, and I can vouch. I think it's lifted everybody in the office watching you on this journey as well. And we can see the impact having a tangible goal after a year of so much that's out of everyone's control can really have a positive impact on your life. So congratulations on taking up the challenge, Steve, we wish you all the best and we're going to be with you on this journey towards fight night. Thank you very much for taking the time to join me on the AGS Subject to Talent podcast today. It was a great chat. I've really enjoyed it. 

ST: Thank you very much. Absolute pleasure. And as always, I appreciate everything you do for me. So fingers crossed, who knows, we may get invited back to do another one soon, but thank you very much for your time and for speaking with me. 

HJ: Thank you. 

FE: Thank you for joining us today. A special thank you to Holly and Steve for sharing their insights on how organizations are shifting their approach to workforce management in 2021, and how the past year has taught us lessons on resilience that we can tap into to power momentum for the coming year.  

If you have any questions for Steve feel free to tweet us @allegisglobal with the #SubjectToTalent. Also, you can email us at SubjectToTalent@allegisglobalsolutions.com. If you enjoyed our podcast today, please subscribe, rate us and leave a review. Until next time! Cheers!