Interview by:

Copenhagen based Petter Torgersen leads talent acquisition for Autonomous Intelligent Driving (AID), a German technology start-up. He's built a career driven by a relentless curiosity around the world of talent acquisition, leading massive teams at some of the world's leading brands before making the move into the start-up ecosystem. He holds an M.Sc. Economics and Business Administration from the Norwegian School of Economics (Norway), and served as a platoon leader for a team of soldiers in the Storm command based in Northern Norway, as well as acting as instructor in Arctic warfare for NATO forces. He is currently ranked Lieutenant.

Martin Burns caught up with Petter recently, to get his take on the current state of talent acquisition, and where he sees it heading next.

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

I certainly didn't know I was going to end up in the recruiting industry when I started out. I found the industry after a couple of years of working when I was looking for something that would fit my interests and would be a good cultural match. I am Norwegian and studied business and economics as my primary university degree but also did a foundation degree in psychology on the side. When deciding upon work after graduation I must admit I was very unsure about what I wanted to pursue. Eventually, I started with one of the “big five” consulting/accounting firms in Oslo in a “trainee” role as this would give me a wider business exposure.  It was a great learning experience, but one of the learnings was also that the work content and culture to some extent was not for me.  As I started to look for my next opportunity, I was interested in the technology industry and considered communication, marketing … and then stumbled upon a recruitment agency specializing in the technology sector looking for a researcher.  I really had no awareness of the “recruitment industry” back then but exploring the role, I discovered it was the perfect blend of business and psychology from my studies and jumped into it.  Being a researcher in the early 2000’s was certainly a great way to learn and I soon progressed to a consultant before we were acquired by a UK based HR consultancy and I was given the chance to transition to London.  This was the start of my international journey and I have yet to return to Norway.  As I developed, I became more interested in the broader topic of talent acquisition and wanted to challenge myself in an in-house environment so when Cisco was looking to rebuild its staffing function, I joined the team through industry contacts. Looking back this is where my career really accelerated as the team grew and I held a variety of different roles before moving into management. With strong traditions in distributed work, virtual management, and remote working (not surprising given the nature of the business) they supported me in moving to Copenhagen. Overall, Cisco was a great place for experimenting and learning and we introduced some really innovative solutions around internal mobility and differentiated services. I was fortunate to experience being “taken a chance on” as I was promoted to the Head of Staffing for EMEAR competing against external candidates with far more experience than me for the position – an experience that has stayed with me and helped inspire my focus on hiring for potential. The next chapter in my career was with Schneider Electric. Not the obvious company given my technology focus of the past, but I was intrigued by the challenge.  Being a large multi-national company of approx. 150,000 employees globally, they only had a very limited and inconsistent talent acquisition capability outside of North America. They were further embarking on a digital transformation of the company. I joined holding the talent acquisition remit across EMEAS (with the “S” being South America) and ultimately built a team of over 70 people across the region. I implemented processes, systems, and tools, as well as built out employer branding, early in career recruitment, and diversity and inclusion initiatives. A key moment came as I was attending a leadership program focusing on transformation. There was a strong focus on how industries and larger companies were being disrupted by startups, which were quicker and more innovative, and the concept of “pivoting”. Having most of my talent acquisition experience from working in larger companies I saw a true learning opportunity (on many levels) to test myself in a startup/scale-up environment and eventually joined Autonomous Intelligent Driving (AID) as the Head of Talent Acquisition. This took me from Copenhagen to Munich. For those of you not familiar with AID – which I guess would include most – we are developing solutions for fully autonomous driving in urban environments. Self-driving cars in other words. With the agility of a start-up and the support of Audi (VW Group), it is a great combination and an environment where talent acquisition takes center stage as we are scaling up the organization.  

We’re in some interesting times. How has Covid-19 impacted how you’re approaching your role?
It certainly is interesting times and it seems we are going through phases in how we are dealing with this. At first, it was more around how we practically organize ourselves including shifting to an all-virtual interviewing and onboarding process (upholding a positive candidate experience) and some operational improvement projects. As the depth and longevity of this crisis has become clearer my focus is now on business relevance and impact. This is of course not new but looking at this in light of the situation key focus areas are now on talent intelligence, pipelining, and nurturing – and opportunistic hiring.  Further, staying true to our values, ensuring we deliver an exceptional candidate experience now more than ever and overall help where we can.

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?
I do foresee changes related to distributed work and remote working, which will impact recruitment. In the technology sector, there are of course already great variations as to how this has been applied – and the crisis has already had a further impact here. We at AID have historically been focused on co-location and relocating candidates from all over the world to our office.  This is costly and reduces the available talent pool. I believe more candidates will be seeking the opportunity to be permanently working remotely. Being able to establish a working model enabling both remote and office-based work will have to be a focus moving forward – and if successful, will drive for talent opportunities. In this context, there will be a shift in required competencies, such as written communication, which will become increasingly important.  

How is your team structured, and do you see that changing as our approach to working reacts to Covid-19?
As we are a startup/scaleup company we have a smaller talent acquisition team which limits the degree of specialization within the team. It now consists of recruiters, talent sourcers and coordinators. We apply agile principles to how we work experimenting with a combination of scrum and kanban (or “scrum ban” as I like to call it ☺) for our operational work and projects. I do not see any immediate structural changes, but there will be a strong emphasis on being close to the business, understanding any impact and changing priorities, and staying close to the market, understanding the competitive landscape, and where there might be talent opportunities.  Candidate experience has always been a strong focus of ours and will remain a high priority.

What was your first job?
Not sure how far back to start here but earning my first dollar (or Norwegian crown in my case) delivering the evening newspapers before covering a Saturday morning mail delivery shift. So, I know my way around the city and suburbs of Oslo! The first full-time job was with the Norwegian Military. Pursuing my dream from when I was younger, I attended Officers School. After, I worked as a Platoon leader in the Army based in Northern Norway close to the Russian border. I participated in international NATO exercises and acted as an instructor in Arctic warfare for NATO forces. Certainly not your regular “9 to 5” and it gave me some invaluable learnings – both professionally and personally!

Do you have a philosophy around talent acquisition? How can they better partner across the organization?
My philosophy revolves around a few themes. First, business acumen. We have to truly understand the business in order to be relevant and perform. This includes strategy and operations. Second, candidate experience. I see many similarities between talent acquisition and sales/marketing. I see the candidate as our primary customer, so we have to deliver an exceptional candidate experience. Third, talent advisors. We have to act as true advisors with our stakeholders based on our understanding of the business, market, and being the custodian of the candidate. I believe this all together drives for better partnering and delivers more successful talent acquisition short and long term.

What sort of unique challenges have you faced in your career - and how have you overcome them?
I am not sure if I would define it as a challenge, but I have lived and worked in a number of different countries; from my very early years in the US, followed by work experience in Italy, Norway UK, Denmark, and now Germany. Besides the logistics, this has required quickly adapting to new cultures and environments.  This is something I have embraced and see as a learning opportunity both personally and professionally. It has further enhanced the importance I put on culture, diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

Would you recommend TA/ HR as a career for your children?
Yes!  Talent acquisition is still a very young profession and has evolved significantly since I started but has still not fully matured.  It is a critical and highly impactful function with complex work, offering a variety of challenges and requiring a range of different skillsets. At a higher level it will be very interesting to see how the future of work develops – and being part of this whole journey is something I would definitely recommend!

Nine Questions

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

More an ask than a question, the one topic that repeatedly comes up is ensuring we keep a high “quality bar”. As we have been scaling up the organization quickly, we have been very conscious of not prioritizing volume over quality. This has been supported by a strong focus on our assessment process from a technical perspective through to competencies, culture adds and gradually potential – and this has been a journey.

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

It is challenging to select just one here as there are a few high up on my list.  Having a growth mindset, being curious, and continuously looking to learn is incredibly important. Being a recruiter is a complex and evolving role, so it is important to be able to grow and develop with the function and role as well as with the business.   Communication and listening skills are also core as most of the work depends on being able to receive, translate, and convey messages with a range of people through a multitude of channels. Finally, I would say an ability to understand and translate data into meaningful actions and act as an advisor on the back of this.

What do you wish vendors understood before they contact you?

I would first and foremost always look for a thorough understanding of our industry, knowledge of our company, and how we as an internal talent acquisition function operate within this – and where they can bring value. I would be expecting a deep specialty on their end and a long-term partnership approach. Besides this timing is always a factor.

What industry blogs and publications do you find most valuable?

There are a lot of resources out there now and it can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming.  For this reason, I find “Recruiting Brainfood” very useful as it curates a lot of interesting talent-related news and content, summarized and shared on a weekly basis. For industry information "The Information" has come up as a great resource.  Otherwise various blogs, podcasts, and articles depending on the topic. I would have liked to attend more conferences and events – if not only for the networking and inspiration – but have struggled to find time.

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

We need to be able to embrace change. As the nature of work evolves, we need to anticipate the future and be able to clearly and continuously position ourselves, articulating the value we bring as a function. We need to be holistic in our approach and be able to craft and communicate long term strategies with a clear return on investment but equally be able to execute, iterate, and pivot in the short term.

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

Following up on the previous question, I see candidate experience as the core in the talent acquisition strategy. We have to be smart in how we leverage technologies and balance this with where we as recruiters operate. I believe we will see a far more nuanced and segmented approach to candidate experience and employer branding. We will have to take a more holistic approach to talent including internal mobility, external talent sharing concepts, and alumni management. From an assessment perspective, there will be an even greater emphasis on potential, enabled by a growth mindset and learning agility, combined with considerations around diversity, inclusion, belonging, and culture.

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

Under normal circumstances, I would look to add more resources and invest in automation. My focus would be on the top of the funnel and automation opportunities around talent engagement, pipeline generation, content creation, and nurturing campaigns (all with exceptional candidate experience in mind). Having said that, I am generally careful about adding tools or technologies without ensuring good alignment with the overall technology strategy and stack. Integration is critical. Jumping from one tool to another and manual data transfer drives for real inefficiencies.  

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

As we are mostly recruiting for software engineers to develop self-driving cars. I would argue it is all incredibly hard – and the deeper the domain expertise required the harder it gets. With very limited talent pools and fierce competition, we are looking for people to do something that has never been done before. Besides the challenges of engaging and attracting, we need to be able to successfully assess the potential to help solve the technical challenge within the context of our culture.

How do you stay sane/ maintain balance?

I am not sure if I am really succeeding here but my family is my great escape.  With a small baby and a toddler, it does not necessarily bring rest and relaxation but certainly offers something different from work. More than anything, my wife keeps me sane as we work in very different fields and are able to bring in different perspectives.  Music has always been important to me although I do not play any instruments (well) and love reading when I find the time.