The DNA of Success! Powering the World of Work

This article appears in our Q1 2022 issue of Finance Transformation Magazine. To download the issue, click here

Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays joins us to provide a 'View from the Boardroom' explaining what has enabled Hays to emerge from the Pandemic stronger, busier, and better positioned than ever before. Alistair talks about the 'DNA of Success' powering Hays forward.

The key elements of success have been long debated and plenty of research exists suggesting the secret sauce. Having spent the last 14 years of my career as Chief Executive at Hays, I have formed my own views based on the twists and turns I've seen over that time.

Ours is a business sitting right at the heart of the world's skilled labour market, and that makes us highly sensitive to the vagaries of our global and local economic backdrops. In my tenure we have weathered the storms of the global financial crisis, the Euro crisis, Brexit, trade wars and most recently the Covid pandemic.

While each of these events arrived unanticipated, they all brought major disruption and upheaval, yet we did not just survive through them, we emerged stronger in so many ways. Maybe on occasion smaller as a result of market declines, but more resilient, more focused, better positioned and with a platform from which we could rebound quickly.

Never has that been more true than today as we emerge from Covid with a business busier than ever, better positioned than ever, with financial results rapidly approaching our record highs, so something is working right. So the question is, what have we done to enable that, as opposed to merely floating on the economic tide.

At the heart of any successful business is its culture. Management teams come and go, customers come and go and products or services come and go. What remains through all this is the culture and a culture is something to be both specifically built, but then nurtured and evolved as the world changes.

In our culture in Hays, we cherish values such as being ambitious, innovative, facing up to the brutal facts, leaning on data for insights instead of anecdotal opinions, continually trying and learning new things, freeing our people to take risks and make an impact etc. It's a long list, but our 'ways of being' encapsulate that most amorphous of things, our culture. And in times of dislocation and stress, our culture comes to the fore as it frees us up to take brave or difficult decisions.

Without those ties that bind us, we would be a collection of individuals doing our best. But those ties and the values we share as a team gives us a collective strength of will and capability that is far greater than the sum of the parts. It was that strength that gave us the conviction to commence our largest ever investment program in May 2020, right in the depths of the Covid crisis.

It was contrarian, but we knew it was the right thing to do to best position our business for whenever the world started to stabilise, and it has been fundamental in putting us into the enviable position we find ourselves today. Fail to build your culture at your peril - but fail to evolve it as your business grows and matures at your peril too as a culture is like an organism. It needs nurturing and evolving as without that, it will stagnate and die, taking your business with it.

Culture sets the tone and the mindset and how people 'are'. But that alone will not deliver you what you need. You need a 'North Star' describing what you are seeking to do and where you want to get to. As the economic and market storms blow you off course, and they will come from the most unexpected angles, your North Star should remain.

You may need a different route to get there, but the destination has not changed. Without that guiding light, you will take short-term expedient decisions to get through the latest challenges. But just when you thought things were resolved, a new and unexpected challenge will appear and you'll change direction yet again. You've no idea where you are headed and why, you're just trying to get by.

That's no way to build a world leading business. I'm not saying things are set in stone. Quite the opposite as if you have an inquisitive, open-minded and learning-focussed culture, you will try many different things to achieve your goal. But you'll always know what your goal is. So, what's your North Star and why is that a meaningful destination in the first place.

Finally, you've got the approach, behaviours, style, destination, and a strategy of what actions are needed to get there. But you'll only arrive if you've got the right people. Be very careful, thoughtful and rigorous on that selection. An acceptance of mediocrity is the death knell to a high-performing aspiration.

Look for potential as well as capability. Look for mindset and approach as well as technical skills. Everybody who is currently in a senior and powerful position today is there because someone at some stage spotted something about that individual and took a risk on them. They gave them a job that stretched them or invested in their development. They did not get there by chance, it was a conscious decision taken by someone.

So, who will you back to deliver for you, in a way you want things delivering? If they cannot, why not? Is it their skillset or their mindset that's stopping them achieving and can you fix the issue?

I've always been amazed by what talented people can actually produce if you're crystal clear about your objectives and give them the freedom to then go and make it happen. Of course, mistakes get made along the way. But nothing was ever achieved without trying. Trying does not guarantee success, but it does guarantee valuable lessons, so learn from them.

But equally, if you are willing to accept mediocrity in your team, be ready for a mediocre result as surely as night follows day. No great business was ever built by a machine or an algorithm. Every great business was built by people, so make sure you've got the right ones!

About the author: Alistair Cox

Alistair is Chief Executive of Hays plc, the global recruitment agency, since 2007. He is a Chartered Engineer, having graduated in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Salford and holds an MBA from Stanford University. He has held Executive and Non-Executive roles at Blue Circle Industries, Xansa plc, 3i and Just Eat.