Interview by:

Lisa Scales is the new Head of Talent Acquisition (UK & Ireland) at Nestlé, and former Head of Resourcing and New Talent at Severn Trent, a leading UK utility and member of the FTSE100. As an essential service provider Severn Trent had not slowed down during the pandemic. Her teams at Severn Trent "attracted, selected and scheduled over 180 candidates for virtual interviews and assessment centres in 30 days of lock-down."

RNN caught up with Lisa shortly before she announced her new role publicly (RNN has updated this profile).

Tell me more about you - how’d you get where you are now? How did you get into your career?

So I suppose you could say, like many, I’ve taken the conventional route into recruitment which basically means I pretty much fell into it without consciousness back in the early 90’s.

I started my recruitment career by walking into an agency looking for temp work having only ever had experience of being a professional horse rider and riding instructor – my parents knowing that my real ambition was to run away to a ranch and be a cowgirl for the rest of my life wasn’t exactly what they had planned when they bought me a pony as a little girl and sent me to college to study Business alongside Equine Management which these days I am truly grateful for!

So Kelly Services saw some potential in me and asked if I fancied a job in recruitment. It was what I call a “yes moment” – I am a great believer in saying yes to pretty much anything that isn’t harmful to oneself or others and took the leap to become a recruitment consultant – I found my calling and this led to the next 15 years in various roles ranging from working in house for two city law firms, working agency side managing a Financial Services RPO contract recruiting 1000 permanent people a year and managing a region for a UK wide recruitment business. I then took a decision to go vendor side and founded and started the ATS TribePad from my kitchen table – fast forward a few years with a successful exit under my belt I joined Severn Trent plc, a FTSE 100 Utilities business in the heart of England. My role is broad with overall responsibility for our Early Careers, Experienced Hires and Executive Hiring & Talent.

We’re in some interesting times. How did Covid-19 impact how you’re approaching your role at Severn Trent?

So like anyone working in an organization which provides an essential service Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the business and my role within it making my role currently less about the TA piece (although recruitment continues albeit virtually and my teams have adapted beautifully to new ways of working) but more about standing up as a senior leader in the business and assisting with the “incident” so my role falls very much into the HR generalist role as the incident started and gained momentum through the peak time – the interesting thing about Covid is that this really falls into the bucket of “people incident” versus our usual incident management protocols around water supply - most organizations aren’t used to dealing with their whole populations like this and we are a tale of two halves where we have 3500 employees working so hard from their homes trying to juggle family life whilst contributing to keeping the water flowing and keeping our 8 million customers happy whilst on the other side we have 3000 amazing front line workers who are our key workers who are out and about every single day fixing water pipes, having to go into people’s homes to sort out problems and keep the water flowing. It is absolutely crucial for continuous supply at any time but more so when we are asking people to wash their hands with so much frequency and people are at home 24/7 using so much more water than ever before. We also have to be mindful of the huge amount of hospitals in our region which again we are providing an essential service to at a really critical time.

Looking forward, as we emerge from our various stay-at-home orders, do you plan to make any changes to how you will be recruiting in the future, based on what you’ve learned during this time?

Yes, most definitely – as I mentioned before we have “virtualized” our whole recruitment process right through to onboarding new people into the business. We are now undergoing an exercise of “what do we keep doing” “what is working well” and “what would we drop if we get back to any sort of norm” – my recruitment teams are enjoying the fact there is no scrambling around for room bookings and even at the most senior end our hires are so much more available to speak than ever before. We have to make some decisions going forward that will be future fit but I can definitely see us keeping some elements which hopefully will continue to give our candidates an optimal service and experience.

How is your team structured, and do you see that changing as our approach to working reacts to Covid-19?

I have a few different teams but if we talk about the experienced hire team I don’t see the structure changing too much given that over the course of the last two years we have been on a journey to really transform the team into a high performing TA function – we have a team of Recruitment Business Partners and a team of Resourcing Consultants who are aligned with the various business directorates and they all take on the role of Talent Adviser in the sense they look at the “recruitment question” from a solution based approach versus just fill a vacancy giving the hiring manager population a really consultative service and sometimes a different answer to the challenge they faced us with. We have seen our quality of hire increase through this approach and although a global pandemic will fundamentally change a lot of organizations and their structure I work on the mantra that although the tools and methods we adopt may change fundamentally we have a service offering that works.

Do you have a philosophy around talent acquisition and/ or HR? How can they better partner?

It always surprises me when I hear TA should sit nearer Marketing – this always makes me wonder if the person really understands the full TA life cycle and how organizations work – I don’t disagree an employer offering (I am not going down the EB/EVP rabbit hole) has to align with what a corporate offering is – it has to make sense but attraction is such a small part of what we do as TA professionals. I say to any new recruiter the best friend you can have in this business is your HR Business Partner – kill them with kindness and you will get it back triple fold at the stuff they can unlock which makes your life easy. To take it back to basics I talk about demand and supply side – the HRBP is your continual eyes and ears into your business areas – information and knowledge are absolute power and the HRBP can help to funnel that demand and you can supply in a timely fashion – not having to deal with 20 vacancies shooting out of nowhere all at once. We are now in a fantastic position where our HRBP’s see the RBP’s as the subject matter experts and are brought into talent/internal mobility/redeployment/change programs at the very beginning – this is where the magic and influence can happen – not trying to shut the door after the horse has bolted. The wonderful thing is when you see it click with the RBP that their HRBP really is the golden goose that relationship is unbreakable.

What sort of unique challenges have you faced in your career - and how have you overcome them?

I think one of the most unique challenges I have faced in my career was finally realizing how unhappy running my own business TribePad was making me – it took me winning a huge piece of business and literally feeling absolutely nothing other than exhaustion. So on the face of it I had founded and built a great business from scratch – I had a fantastic global client base whom I had brilliant relationships with, money in the bank and the freedom and flexibility to do what I pleased yet I was unhappy and definitely unfulfilled.

My advice to anyone in the situation where you look like you have it all but you remain unhappy and unfulfilled don’t wait for it to change – it won’t – make it happen for yourself and the relief upon exiting the business through the MBO was just amazing – immediately the weight lifted from my shoulders and my only regret was I should have done it sooner!

Would you recommend TA/ HR as a career for your children?

Yes, without a doubt – I do genuinely believe that you don’t have to be a doctor or a teacher to make a difference to people’s lives – someone living to an average age of 80 years will spend approximately 52 of those years at work –  as recruiters can you imagine how many times we could potentially impact someone’s life across those years? That to me is meaningful work and I believe this type of richness in one’s role will become really important factors for future generations.

Nine Questions

What question do your executives ask you the most, and why is this topic important to your business?

Executives in my organization are interested to understand what our talent resilience is from an internal and external view – they want to understand the external talent landscape in some highly competitive markets like engineering but also know that we have robust succession plans in place from an internal perspective. They know that having resilience across our talent landscape as well as our asset base is key to running a successful operation.

What is the most important quality/skill you look for when hiring a new recruiter for your team?  Why?

Intellectual horsepower and emotional intelligence – recruitment can be taught to anyone with these two qualities – being able to tap into cultural nuances and smooth navigation within an organization is key to being a great recruiter.

What do you wish vendors understood before they contact you?

I want them to understand just because they want to sell I may not be in the right buying cycle as them. I want them to understand me as a business and not just broad brush across me like I am no different to any other organization. I also want them to ask me how to build a relationship with me – not just choose to stalk me by phone every other day – build the relationship before you sell the product and I will be more open to listen.

What industry blogs and publications do you find most valuable?

I am a fan of Matt Alder’s Recruiting Future podcast as he has some interesting people on and it is a good companion in the car or when I am walking my dogs but other than that I tend to gain more value when I look at other industries as my source of thinking such as Pharma, Biotech, Agri-tech, Nano tech and I also love to read medical journals.

What do you think is the biggest threat facing the talent acquisition industry today?

I think given our current circumstances irrelevance is probably the greatest threat given that we are entering an employer led market – some of the best talent through no fault of their own will be available making the role of the TA professional a door opener and not someone seeking out the best talent. We are about to enter a deeper economic depression that I doubt we will recover from in a generation so the TA professionals role will become of lesser importance – that’s not to say that the TA professional won’t adapt their skills to become that internal talent person as organizations need to be leaner and really understand and utilize the skills base of their incumbent employee populations more efficiently.

Where do you see the talent acquisition industry in 5 years?

I probably described above a bit of a dramatic post-apocalyptic world of work but the reality is this will happen – not sure it will be 5 years but the economy will define how work is done going forward – the way someone works will start to change and layer over automation and more innovative technologies we are at the start of what I would describe as another industrial revolution – we are probably going to see less huge skyscraper offices with thousands of workers crammed in and more remote/flexi location working, the gig economy will start to flourish given the high costs of having permanent employees and all the benefits they receive so yes I can see the world of work changing –  5 years it may look different but I think in 10 years it will look AND feel different.

If your talent acquisition budget doubled tomorrow, how would you spend the additional funds?

I am really passionate about the work we do around Social Mobility and giving young people equal and fair opportunity in the world – the work we are doing around our apprentice population is fantastic but I would certainly use some of the budget to accelerate the work we are doing around outreach and schools engagement with young people from social mobility cold spots ensuring we are visible and accessible to those in society who would never think they could work for a FTSE 100 organization.

The other part of the budget would be used to try and remove the heavy lifting parts of the recruiters role through slick automation and proper integrations with light tech that can assist in making the role less admin heavy – this is difficult to cut through as I believe we have big vendors who essentially control the industry who halt/arrest/slow down these smaller more nimble innovators – the large vendors all talk about their wonderful partnerships, marketplaces and open API’s but we know the reality is very different and the losers are the end users in terms of platform experience but by then a 3 year deal is signed and the handcuffs are on. Then the vendors scratch their heads when people moan about their recruitment tech – go figure….

What is the most difficult role your team is recruiting for right now? What makes it difficult?

One of the biggest misconceptions about water production is that it falls from the sky and ends up in our taps? The reality is we supply 1.8bn litres of drinking water each day which is the equivalent of 720 Olympic-sized swimming pools! That’s also 75m litres of water every hour – this is a food grade manufactured product that most people don’t even consider when they fill their kettle or take a shower! This takes an army of highly skilled engineers, technicians and maintainers to just keep the water flowing. As a regional business the talent pool of these types of people is small – we have to do our best to attract and retain them but similarly we have a hugely diverse business where we put gas back into the grid from our food waste plants and need electricians who can operate food waste machinery, we have Farm Liaison Officers who work with our farmers to ensure that we aren’t polluting our rivers, we have teams of software developers ensuring our networks are monitored and we have our team of drone pilots who survey our estate of over 1000 different assets across the region – none of these skills are obvious to the target talent pool we are aiming at so we have to convince and persuade them to look in our direction to educate before we can convert them to apply.

How do you stay sane/ maintain balance?

You have to find what works for you an individual but also be disciplined with your time too – I exercise every day – I mark time in my diary to do it – I am fortunate to be a morning person so I am out with my dogs first thing and it sets me up for the day. I am a very typical introverted extrovert (ambivert) so I need to get my energy from others but conversely, I also sometimes need to be on my own with a good book and a sofa! Overall, I try to treat myself with care and kindness like I try to do with others too.