08 April 2014

Ten years of success: The Six Degrees Executive journey

Six Degrees Directors (L to R)
 David Braham, Paul Hallam
and Nick Hindhaugh
celebrate an early success,
July 2004
I love recruitment done well and I especially love agency recruitment done well.

One of the stars of the Australian recruitment agency world over recent times has been Six Degrees Executive (SDE). SDE was started in Melbourne by three ex-Michael Page recruiters, Paul Hallam, David Braham and Nick Hindhaugh in March 2004.

Since then the business has grown to around 40 staff and a Sydney office. SDE has been a recipient of various awards over its ten years including current SARA Legend status.

Earlier this month SDE Director Nick Hindhaugh kindly agreed to answer my questions about the birth, growth and future of Six Degrees Executive.

Ross: What were your original goals for SDE and have you accomplished these goals?
Nick: We were pretty methodical with our planning from day one including managing costs, revenue, profitability, key clients, people and building a great culture. We did set some fairly ambitious goals to begin including revenue and people, as well as defining our position early as a ‘go to’ specialist in several key areas of the market. We entered the recruitment market in 2004 which was probably one of the best periods we have seen and will ever see, and that looks very different to today from an economic and general business perspective, and as a result the growth and success we had in our first three years was easily achieved.

Ross: In the early days was there any particular moment that had you think that SDE was definitely heading in the direction that you had envisaged when you started SDE?
Nick: I think as a partnership we have rarely stopped and looked at the successes along the way, and probably focussed more on the next goal or growth opportunity. In the first year (when PSA’s meant something) we won some ongoing business with some key businesses such as Kraft and Nestle that guaranteed us a great revenue stream and put us on the map with senior candidates in our space. Outgrowing our first office in the first 15 months was probably a tell tale sign things were going in the right direction.

Ross: What service offerings did SDE start with 2004 and how have these evolved over the subsequent ten years?
Nick: Our service offering looks similar today compared to ten years ago in that our core business has always been specialist creative recruitment across the permanent and contracting market. However, in the last few years we have taken on more consulting projects and providing hybrid type solutions to the traditional RPO model. Over time we have evolved our offering, for example bolstering our research capability, but essentially we have remained focused on what we know how to do best.

Ross: What did you do in 2004 to define and create a distinct SDE culture and how has this evolved over the subsequent ten years?
Nick: In 2004 we worked hard at bedding down the systems and processes and a culture of quality in terms of how we managed information and dealt with candidates and clients, and importantly the recruitment process. We saw this as a differentiator in the industry and when new people joined the business we trained them on this and embedded it into their everyday. In the early days we also worked very hard at ensuring there was a culture of fun and celebrating the wins. Over time this hasn’t changed although as many of us have grown older and had families, the extent to the celebrations has probably tamed. What has definitely remained is a high performance culture with an emphasis on team, health & wellness and a high level of hands-on support from the leadership group to the rest of the business.

Ross: What are the most important parts of your own recruitment process in ensuring that SDE hires consultants who have a high likelihood of succeeding at SDE?
Nick: There are a number of parts to our process that involve not just looking for clones, or people with existing recruitment industry experience, but being open minded to strong industry experience as well. Some of our best talent has come from non recruitment roles. For us, energy, reliance, learning agility and ‘fit’ are equally important but it’s also crucial that new hires are passionate and high performers in whatever they do. We are reasonably robust in the recruitment process which involves several in depth interviews, testing, a presentation and socialisation to assess team fit. The keys though to success have been a well structured induction and training program in the first 6 months as well as ongoing training post this.

Ross: Tell me a little about the role played by each of the SDE Directors in 2014 and how you complement each other’s strengths and personalities
Nick: Our roles today are very much about driving the strategy, improving process, driving capability and we are still very hands on from a client development and recruitment perspective, still working on a number of executive assignments. We believe the days of non-billing managers in recruitment firms are a thing of the past. One of the keys for us is having a shared vision and allowing each other to play to their strengths.

Ross: What professional development does a typical SDE consultant undertake during the year and how does SDE use this development to provide a career path for its employees?
Nick: Each consultant who joins the business has a fairly rigorous induction program in their first twelve months that is tailored depending on their level of experience. This involves a four day internal training program delivered by the leadership group as well as regular company training sessions. There are a variety of external trainers we use on an ongoing basis as well as suppliers such as LinkedIn to keep us at the forefront. Our leadership group has ongoing internal and external development including mentors, DISC profiling, 360 degree feedback etc. We have also recognised that not all senior consultants are looking for a traditional path into management and have developed other career options and programs for high potential talent within the business. Being so focused on employee development is one of the reasons for keeping our employee turnover lower than industry standards.

Ross: What are the key activity and result metrics within SDE and how is accountability maintained on these metrics?
Nick: Whilst we manage the revenue number closely and are very transparent internally about what our targets are and how we are tracking, we’ve never had a culture of hard core activity management (e.g. numbers of business development calls, interviews, floats etc.). We have found hiring the right people and supporting them with a clear vision, great infrastructure, support, training and one-on-one development has led to us achieving our goals. However, in terms of KPIs aligned to a review process, one metric internally that is a non negotiable are people’s quality scores. We’ve developed a quality program for each consultant internally that looks at all facets of the recruitment process and ensures accountability for the way we interact with candidates and clients and manage a process. Teamwork and sharing information is also another.

Ross: What are you most proud to have accomplished at SDE?
Nick: We are extremely proud about the people who work at Six Degrees and to have seen so many individuals grow both professionally, but importantly personally, throughout their career here. We do have a low staff turnover (under 20%) and many examples of people who have left us to pursue other careers and then re-joined us, and we feel it is indicative of the culture, environment and being a part of the Six Degrees family. We also have an exceptional leadership group who give us stability and a platform to continue to grow from. Some of these individuals have bought equity/shares in the business and we are very excited about their continued involvement.

Ross: What changes, if any, do you think the recruitment industry needs to make to its traditional business model (perm and temp contingent recruitment) in order to remain relevant to its customers over the next decade?
Nick: What we believe is important to remain relevant to customers, are recruitment offerings that involve deep specialisation, and this will only continue into the future. We also believe that more robust techniques to source passive talent are key to survival. We have invested over the last several years in talent engagement specialists and researchers who are able to develop ongoing talent pools, and ultimately win the race for talent and be ahead of the curve (especially the curve of internal recruitment teams). We are also embracing social media and recognise that sourcing talent is becoming more of an ongoing organic process, and the days of posting an advertisement and waiting for a response have well and truly gone.

Ross: What are the SDE goals for the next five years?
Nick: Our goals are to be leaders in our areas of specialisation and continue to invest in the business to allow consultants to be ahead of the curve, whilst providing resources around smarter talent acquisition, such as talent engagement and research. We are also growing new divisions with high growth potential and specialist needs, such as our recently launched Health and Digital divisions. Our footprint will continue to be the eastern seaboard of Australia, although we see great opportunity to expand into Asia.

Ross: How is SDE celebrating its ten year anniversary?
Nick: We will be running a number of initiatives internally and externally including a black tie function to thank our staff and their partners, as well as some key suppliers and people who have helped us along the journey. We will also hold an intimate client function with those who have worked with us for the last ten years. Having clients with this level of partnership over such a long period of time is worthy of a celebration.

Ross: Thanks Nick, I greatly appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions.

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