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Born in 1967, still growing up: Slade Group celebrates 50 years

In the following article by Maggie Chen, which appeared in the Autumn 2017 edition of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce & Industry Business Excellence magazine, Slade Group Chairman Geoff Slade shares his story and the insights he has developed over decades in business, in an industry he is proud to be a part of.

Geoff Slade began GW Slade & Associates 50 years ago, in a small office in Melbourne’s CBD. Before that, he worked as an assistant HR manager at an oil refinery at Western Point Bay. After almost taking up a job in consulting, at the age of 21, he decided to start his own employment agency in 1967.

His father had doubts, but his mother took a leap of faith and lent him $300 – all the money she had in the bank. It just covered his first month’s rent. “I had to make a placement in the first month; otherwise I couldn’t have paid the second month’s rent,” Slade recalled.

That he did, and for about 21 years, he built the business – by then called Slade Consulting Group –  to be, by 1988, “the biggest executive recruitment company in the country”, spanning seven cities in Australia and New Zealand.

A UK-based multinational approached Geoff and bought the business from him. In 1989, he commenced a two-year stint as HR Director at Pacific Dunlop.

When the multinational exited the Australian market a few years later, Slade re-established Slade Group in 1992. This time, as a 43-year old with four kids, he decided he would only have offices in Melbourne and Sydney so that he could spend more time with his children and less on planes.

Starting from scratch again at Slade Group was “great”, he said. Pacific Dunlop, which at one stage had 45,000 employees, retained him as a preferred supplier for over 20 years.

Secrets to longevity

How did Slade manage to build and maintain such a successful recruitment company that has already outlived most businesses?

Building trust is crucial, according to Slade. “Companies don’t build long-term relationships with you unless they perceive you’re doing the right thing by them and they trust you,” he said. “The same goes with candidates. I’ve had candidates who I didn’t place, who came back to us to give us work when they were hiring, because we built a significant trusting relationship.”

Secondly, he suggests that persistence really does pay off. Recruitment is an industry with plenty of ups and downs. “When the economy’s going well, business can be very good. When it’s not going well, you can really struggle. And a lot of people bail out when things start to get tough.”

Thirdly, for a long-term business in HR, you need to really understand customer needs. “You have to understand what their culture is like to provide them with quality people that will fit into that culture,” said Slade.

Finally, for business sustainability, it’s important to stay in touch – and that means some ‘face time’. One issue Slade sees today is that young people tend to communicate by email or text and don’t actually go out to meet the customer and really get to know them.

The recruitment industry has faced some challenging times. Seek and LinkedIn both changed the game, as did the global financial crisis, said Slade. A lot of work went to internal recruitment teams. In the face of this, he set up a company with Julian Doherty called Yellow Folder Research, which sells information on talent.

Slade’s wife, Anita Ziemer, Executive Director of Slade Group, took over running the Slade business about five years ago, when Slade became Chairman of the group. He says this allowed him to spend more time developing Yellow Folder Research, which now provides research to public companies and multinationals around Australia. It has also freed him up to focus on the Slade Group-affiliated executive search practice TRANSEARCH International Australia, which is part of a global practice. Slade points out that particularly in the case of senior positions, you really need to understand your client and their needs, and the personalised filtering services that recruitment companies can provide can be invaluable.

Slade is keen to mention his wife and family. He “wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for them”, he said.

A healthier era

Slade has seen attitudes to health and wellbeing in the workplace change significantly over the decades. “As late as the 1980s, we would regularly walk into offices where there were ashtrays on desks, smoke in the air and meetings held amongst cigarette smoking executives,” he recalls. “Now, of course, you’ll be hung, drawn and quartered if you’re caught smoking on the forecourt.”

At Slade Group, there have been many individuals who have been proud and passionate about their sporting and athletic pursuits. And since early last year, they’ve been taking steps, led by General Manager Chris Cheesman, to create a company-wide healthy culture, Slade said. “We’ve had people in to give us talks and information emphasising a holistic approach: the value of good sleep, e-downtime, and agile work practices. We’ve introduced standing desks, removed the soft drink vending machine, encouraged walking meetings and provide bi-weekly healthy breakfasts.”

Finally, Slade adds, “A healthy workplace is more than just the physical and mental – it’s also the emotional connections and working relationships built on camaraderie.”

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‘Fame fades but influence leaves an indelible mark… that outlives those who influence.’

Have you ever stopped to think how much influence you have?

Recently, I was honoured to be named in the Financial Review’s Top 100 Women of Influence in Australia.

It was humbling because I first arrived with a backpack, $200 and one way ticket to a country that offers freedom of speech and countless opportunities for everyone to exude influence.

I first learned of the nomination weeks earlier when speaking in Rome at an international women’s conference. The news arrived on my phone just as others joined the breakfast table, so naturally I briefly shared the moment.

Shortly after, one handed me some tissues and two Disprin: “I am sorry about your influenza.” Smiling but not wanting to offend, I explained that I felt fine and must have spoken too quickly for her to confuse influence with influenza.

Her kindness was a catalyst for reflection… What is influence?

Our influence may be fleeting or lasting but we are all women – and men – of influence every day in every way. We can all influence a neighbour – or a nation; a person – or a planet; a friend or a foe. Will that influence be positive or negative? Constructive or destructive? Healing or hurting?

That spontaneous gesture from a stranger in Rome was indeed a positive influence in my world that morning.

Two days later, I arrived to speak at another conference in the Middle East. Ironically, I was unable to ‘influence’ the airline to deliver my suitcase to the same city! Luckily, most essentials were in carry-on luggage and a Filipino friend loaned me her abaya (floor length black dress) which reminded me of the universal nature of kindness.

Influence is the fingerprint we leave when offering a helping hand. It is the footprint as we walk in another’s shoes. Yet even with the best intentions, we inevitably point a finger wrongly or step on someone’s toes. But the footprint we ultimately leave – with even the smallest steps we take in the direction of courage and kindness, should hopefully leave the world a slightly better place than when we first learned to walk.

Our parents held our hand as we took those first tentative steps. Many other people who influenced me for the better will never be acknowledged publically – aunties, uncles, neighbours, teachers and role models in the world of work long before I knew that term even existed in the lexicon.

Who are you going to thank for being a positive influence in your life today?

Not everyone is in a position of power within their organisation – but we all have the power to influence. May we appreciate it – and use it – wisely during this frantic festive season as we head towards the New Year.

As William James once said: “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”

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The year of the long shot

2016 has been a year that turned the tables on all of the favourites. In sport we saw outside wins by the Western Bulldogs, the Cronulla Sharks, Leicester City and the Chicago Cubs. Ireland defeated the All Blacks. In hockey, the Argentina Men’s Olympic Hockey team and the Great Britain Women’s Hockey team triumphed. On a global scale, who could have predicted Brexit… and now President-elect Donald Trump!

Common to all of these examples are the inner beliefs among team members that led to each outstanding achievement – what separates the firsts from the also rans.

Throughout my time in professional sport and the world @work, I’m constantly amazed by long shots.

I’d like to share four traits I’ve observed in all successful teams, on or off the field, which resonate strongly with me:

  • Vision – a shared belief in a common goal
  • Leadership – taking ownership of individual and team responsibilities
  • Desire – a strong will to succeed
  • Selflessness – it’s not important who receives the accolades

I am working with a well-established group in the FMCG sector at the moment whose brands are well-known to Australian and international consumers. They are in the process of rebuilding their organisational culture with a clear vision, which exemplifies these traits. Focussing on their talent, they have assessed their current capabilities, as well as the leadership potential of candidates. They are investing heavily in people who can add strength to those four traits to accelerate performance.

It just goes to show that no matter what business you are in – anything is possible.

When the adrenaline pumps, a team motivated by a shared belief comes alive and propels its own success. Witnessing such achievement is inspiring to all involved. So when you’re looking for leaders to build you teams and organisation, keep a keen eye on those four traits. You could reveal a long shot.

What are the milestone events for your organisation in 2017? Do you have the people with the Vision, Leadership, Desire and Selflessness to achieve them?

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Hiring the whole person (not those gingerbread men or women)

“I recommend that you hire someone with a less-conventional story if you want the people on your team to innovate and collaborate in the way this new-millennium workplace requires.”

– Liz Ryan, Forbes.

Next time you’re hiring, challenge your thinking about who would be ‘right’ for the job by asking yourself a few simple questions:

  • Does the candidate really need a defined career history or specific qualifications?
  • Are their skills and capabilities more important than their attitudes and values?
  • Do they have valuable experience outside of work, such as involvement with community, sport, arts, family etc, which they could bring to role?

When looking for the ‘right’ candidate, hiring managers often take the cookie-cutter approach: they select an obvious match to the skills, experience and career path of the incumbent or job description. Liz Ryan, a former HR Senior Vice President in a Fortune 500 company, has written in Forbes about why this is a bad idea. “Cookie-cutter candidates who have the exact experience detailed in the job ad and who have perfectly linear, manicured and stepwise career paths are seldom the best hires, in my experience,” she says.

Working on a recent assignment got me thinking along the same lines: We need to look at the whole person, not a tick sheet of have they finished this, completed that, and moved from one role up the ladder to the next.

The role I was recruiting was for quite a traditional market, so I was pleasantly surprised when the employer hired the candidate who had a more varied background than other candidates. When providing feedback, the employer explained that their chosen candidate demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit and a growth mindset, which they valued highly in comparison with other candidates (who were all equally capable of doing the job).

Ryan’s advice rings true in this case, where more rounded life experience has paid dividends. Top candidates are also looking for employers who have an open-minded approach. Over the years in business I have observed successful leaders often held a variety of roles across different sectors. This has enabled them to take the best from each experience and contribute to their evolution as visionaries. LinkedIn has compiled some inspiring lists of its Top Voices, which include diverse examples of influencers, entrepreneurs, management and organisational culture experts, as well as those organisations who rank as Top Attractors for talented individuals.

Encouraging diversity within your team will help shake-up your current thinking, bring new dynamics, and offers a variety of perspectives – or as Ryan says, “When in doubt, hire the quirky candidate.”

Have you ditched the cookie-cutter? What are some of the innovative qualities you look for in candidates for when hiring?

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Why corporates should take leadership on social issues

One of the top international accounting firms hosts a networking event to facilitate a graduate mentoring program that supports aspiring LGBTI business professionals. The world’s strongest global law firm brand facilitates a panel discussion on how to progress marriage equality in Australia. A big four bank runs a major advertising campaign to address the gender salary gap and advocates equal pay for women. A major telco (along with another two major banks) introduces a hijab in company colours as part of their corporate uniform.

Why should the likes of EY, Baker & McKenzie, ANZ and Optus care about social issues? Plenty has been written about why a social conscience makes good business sense. You only have to look at the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Diversity and Inclusion policies of any these leading organisations to see they’ve taken a strong proactive stance. EY, for example, says, “Our focus on diversity and inclusiveness is integral to how we serve our clients, develop our people and play a leadership role in our communities. When we act on our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness, we maximise the power of our differences to achieve better business results, for ourselves and for our clients.”

It’s not just clever marketing. While there’s some risk for brands associating with politically sensitive subjects, the risk is far greater for organisations who shy away from taking the initiative on important issues. It is proven that organisations who show leadership on social issues:

  • Improve their public perception and increase their public profile
  • Attract, engage and retain the best employees
  • Appeal to a wider customer base and enjoy better relationships with customers

Professionals in private employment make up a significant proportion of the workforce. Our products and services have the potential to reach customers across the entire population. While arguably our views are represented at various levels of government by those representatives we’ve elected, I firmly believe there is an onus in the corporate sector to lead conversations that will shape the kind of world we’d like to work in, and live in.

What evidence have you seen of the commercial and social benefits of your organisation’s approach to corporate social responsibility? How has your organisation demonstrated leadership on a social issue or positively represented your Point of View?

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Teaching our students, schools and the Universities how to adapt with change

Have we made any progress in understanding the needs of graduates?

A growing development across the University sector has been the search for leaders who have the vision for an improved learning experience for students. From the start of their entry into university, through to graduation and beyond, there is finally a push for a greater understanding and acceptance of the importance of experiential learning within courses, for all students. This might be through effective internships and industry placements; we are now seeing many faculties and whole Universities searching for leaders who can develop and guide such programs.

Schools have recognised the benefits of a transdisciplinary approach, educating students across traditional faculty boundaries with what is known as project-based learning – learning that is based on real-world experiences. This education model encourages curiosity and creativity, while developing communication abilities.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, wrote an opinion piece in The Australian recently, suggesting that it is time society recognised “it is not a failure to progress to a job that has no obvious link to one’s degree”. Finkel said that it was our “capacity to pivot” that was probably the most reliable predictor of success in career development. Finkel described how he had successfully ‘pivoted’ professionally from one opportunity to the next on several occasions through his career. It was made possible through the mastery of multiple disciplines and drew on experience that went way beyond traditional industry sector boundaries.

Two leading school Principals, Allan Shaw at The Knox School in Melbourne, and Dr Paul Browning of St Paul’s School in Brisbane, have written about programs for entrepreneurial skills and business enterprise developed in their schools. These initiatives, and the practical skills students gain, extend well beyond the boundaries of a traditional discipline or subject area.

As Allan Shaw has reflected, the deep knowledge in a discipline developed through university education remains a significant component for career success. Nevertheless, it is increasingly being understood that there is so much more that is necessary to equip students with the skills for an ever changing future: complex problem-solving ability, critical thinking, communications skills, teamwork, people management and good decision-making are some of the key competencies.

Times are a-changin’ and the ability to pivot (ie. adapt to change) is increasingly important, not only for individuals, but for institutions as well.

Have you pivoted between industries or sector specialisations or adapted your technical skills to a different role during your career? What programs have you been involved with to address change in your world @work?

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A man’s world would be nothing without a woman or a girl

Celebrated journalist and high profile media personality Caroline Wilson says, “Sometimes it’s an asset not being part of the boy’s club.”

Last week I ventured out on a bleak, cold Melbourne night to Deakin Edge at Federation Square to hear Wilson talk about Tackling the Sport of Men. Unsurprisingly, the auditorium was packed. In light of recent comments from those water challenge incident commentators, Collingwood FC President Eddie McGuire, his Triple M co-hosts James Brayshaw and Danny Frawley, and Footy Show presenter Sam Newman, Wilson’s appearance at the David Parkin Oration for Sport and Social Change was highly anticipated…the event was booked out!

Hearing Wilson recall the old days of the AFL in the 1980s (then known as the VFL) when she was the first woman to cover footy full time as a young reporter (now almost 35 years ago), reminded me of my time as a player. Wilson describes the environment at the time as “a bastion of masculinity” – a sport for men, run by men, reported on by men, where what happened on the field stayed on the field. Sounds about right.

Speaking about her career as a sports journalist, Wilson noted she’d covered athletics, golf, even three Olympics, but was unaware her appointment by a maverick editor at The Herald would be controversial. It’s one that paid off, which would see her become Chief Football Writer at The Age, as well as many other newspaper, TV, radio and current affairs gigs and recognition though multiple Walkley Awards.

If sending a young female reporter to cover the footy was, in Wilson’s words, a “social experiment”, she certainly challenged it. Undeterred by being marched out of the players’ change rooms, being mistaken for a waitress back of house or seated with footballer’s wives at events, Wilson not only wrote about the game, but had a hand in changing attitudes. She says she learned more from the women in football who gave her the best stories, sharing their insights and analysis when none of the men were listening.

Wilson has paved the way for other women in the sports media and can now cite many more female colleagues reporting the game: Sam Lane, Chloe Saltau, Emma Quayle and Linda Pearce. She’s seen a slow changing of the guard over her time in football, culminating in the advent of the AFL Women’s League, to premiere next year. Wilson spruiked a genuine possibility that the next AFL Chair could be a woman. In a global context, she highlighted opportunities for women in critical leadership positions – Theresa May post Brexit and I’d wager Clinton over Trump.

As David Parkin reminded us, sport has a unique ability to cross barriers, influence communities and be a positive agent for change. Over the course of its evolution from a part-time localised sporting competition to a national league of full-time elite athletes, the AFL has also helped increase awareness and change attitudes on a range of social issues, such as violence against women, mental illness, same-sex marriage and diversity.

The business landscape in Australia has similarly undergone significant change over the past three decades. It would have been hard for me to imagine what the AFL would look like today as young recruit at Fitzroy in the 1980s. I’ve found being open to awareness, developing an understanding and mindfulness is a great start.

What mechanisms for change have you engaged in your world @work?

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4 ways an Olympic triumph translates into success at work

It’s a simple formula for athletes in elite sports: focus, preparation, practice and teamwork. Recently I attended a lunch with the Victorian Chamber featuring Australian Olympians Michael Klim, Nicole Livingstone, James Tomkins and Craig Mottram. For them, achieving a lifelong dream by representing Australia and competing at the Olympic Games was secondary to their gold medal winning performances. But the most interesting part of their stories was how they had found new passions post retirement outside of the sporting arena.

  1. Preparation and process

It is very important to keep an unwavering attention to detail during a time of high stress and pressure. Klim spoke of the 1998 Olympics in Atlanta, where he was favourite for the 200m freestyle event. He missed the bus on the way to the pool, couldn’t find his coach and was only able to complete a brief warm up swim – he didn’t qualify for the final. In business, it’s critically important during stressful times that we stick to our defined processes, don’t rush hires or deviate from the norm just to fill a gap.

  1. Challenge and stretch

Tomkins mentioned that he and the other members of the Oarsome Foursome constantly challenged each other to come up with new, innovative ideas that could separate them from the challengers. However it wasn’t up to the athletes alone. They challenged their coach, nutritionist and psychologist to always come up with new ideas. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh set of eyes on a project to change the delivery model, reworking a central piece to pull together all the essential elements of a project. Businesses shouldn’t be afraid to hire from outside their sector or industry if a candidate has an open mind. New talent may give your organisation a ‘shakeup’, offering innovative solutions with the potential to benefit all teams.

  1. Don’t settle

So what happens when you’ve realised the dream and the celebrations are over? Since hanging up his togs, Klim has created the men’s skincare range Milk (a clever anagram of his name) with his family company, Milk & Co. Livingstone has enjoyed a media career as a well-known television host and sports commentator. Mottram recently completed the London Marathon (the competitive bug still bites) and has started his own consultancy business, Elite Wellbeing. Tomkins has worked for nearly 30 years in Banking & Finance, a career he maintained alongside rowing.

  1. Conscientiousness beats lucky

We can all relate to thrill of a win or the inherent disappointment when we fail to reach our goals. Livingstone says athletes make good recruits because they are by nature hardworking, dedicated and committed. I think you’d agree those are common leadership traits too. It’s a buoyant time in the Victorian infrastructure market, so I’m championing the lessons of these Olympians in my approach to executive recruitment.

What have you learned from successful people in your industry? Do you have a success story you’d like to share?

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