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Executive Director James Milner: Surviving and thriving in a post-COVID world

over 1 year ago by James Kenealey

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Executive Director at The Bridge James Milner was invited to speak to ActionCOACH's Chris Fordy about the positives that have come out of a challenging 12 months for the recruitment industry.

How has the pandemic affected you personally and professionally?

"It was a mixed year for me. My wife and I had our second daughter during the lockdown, right at the very start. It was a real tricky one. I was sat at home; Boris was on the TV shutting the country down and our second daughter was due a few days after the announcement of the lockdown.
From a business point of view, it affected us a lot. A lot of our clients just stopped recruiting, several contractors we had out with customers, their contracts ended straight away. Several customers who had permanent staff waiting to start cancelled the offers too. We had to furlough some people quickly. All this stuff that was happening with the business was happening at the same time as I was wondering whether I’d even be able to go into hospital with my wife. It was hectic."

How did you turn this around?

"I was incredibly lucky that I’ve got a team of people within the business who are so good. I’ve got a team of directors who work underneath me and they did a fantastic job of running things when I was on paternity leave – even though I wasn’t really on paternity leave because I was still working and trying to sort everything out!
Over time things settled down. Unfortunately, we did have to let a few people go and we restructured. In our industry, it generally has weathered it well with people working from home. If businesses didn’t have their digital channels set up already then, they had to, and they do now.
I think what we learned is that customers need real added value from us and specialist people, and to serve that properly we need to make sure our proposition is a little more niche and specialist.
We’ve got some very good customers that have helped us weather the storm well. For example, we’ve some pharmaceutical clients who have really been going strong and that’s supported us."

How is the jobs market?

"You would think that having a lot of people who have been made redundant or in the jobs market it would be a good time to recruit, but in our case what we’ve seen is that a lot of our customers have come back in terms of needing people, but they’re needing something a little different.
Previously, if someone doesn’t have remote networking set up, they’re now looking at their networks and thinking, is this robust enough to have everyone working from home? Do they have the right technology in place like Cloud. They’ve been through those operating changes too.

The big thing in the candidate side is that there’s a lack of confidence in people moving. The overriding sentiment is that potentially if someone moves to a new job, they think, “well I might be the most recent person through the door, so if anything changes, I might be at risk again”. Also, we’ve all had a tough year and actually moving jobs is quite a big thing for people, so are they really up for it at the moment? Market confidence is lower than normal from a candidate point of view. This is specifically in IT, it’s different in other industries. But it’s getting better.

We’re seeing the type of jobs in our sectors change very quickly. They’re being pushed through a year or so quicker. There’s been a move towards working from home anyway, but this has just pushed it through a lot quicker."

How have you adapted in terms of leadership?

"My team isn’t massive, we’ve got around 30 people. There’s been a split of working from home and the office for those who want to, for mental health reasons or otherwise. We’ve had a relaxed policy of ‘do what’s right for you.’

I think I’ve improved in terms of communicating effectively. That’s one of the journeys I’ve been on, learning to communicate properly in terms of informing stakeholders on how the business is doing. Just trying to keep everyone involved in it. We’ve done a real mixture of things. In terms of directors, we have a catchup meeting once a week. All those individuals have meetings with their teams every week. We have lots of catchups and because there is only 30 of us I an get around to speaking to most people at least every couple of weeks.
We did social quizzes every week. We did an end of year Christmas do too, we’ve tried to have the work element and the social element too. It’s still difficult and it doesn’t replace having that interaction with people.
One of the things we’ve been trying to do is to create an adult-to-adult environment. Even if it’s bad news, they’d rather understand it and know about it rather than have things hidden away. Recruitment can be very KPI driven, and one of the reasons I came to The Bridge was that it was completely the opposite, treating people like adults and not micromanaging them. There are always things that you can work on though, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. Communication and transparency are a huge part of this."

What have you learned about yourself?

"I’m big on personal development. The more you learn, the more you realise there’s more to learn! I’ve also realised that you can be more resilient than you think, and that if you have a good team around you, you can cope with it and things will get better.
In our end of year reviews, I got feedback from someone that said I’d changed quite a lot in the last year, in a positive way.

One of the things I’m missing is meeting new people face to face. Recruitment is social, and I’m really missing that. I’m also a big snowboarder and skier and that has been frustrating!"

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