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Ep 404: The Great Opportunity


It’s only January, and it’s already clear that the Great resignation will continue to be a huge talking point in 2022 as companies fight for the talent and skills they need. However, some employers are already reframing this challenge as a fantastic opportunity to attract talented people they might not have previously persuaded to move roles.

This isn’t easy, and obviously, employer brand and employee experience are huge factors. However, there is a lot that talent acquisition teams can be doing to stand out from the crowd by focusing on the areas within their control that make a real difference.

My guest this week is Maggie Spong, VP of Talent Acquisition at AstraZeneca. AstraZeneca has certainly been thrust into the spotlight by the pandemic, but they have also spent the last few years developing several initiatives to differentiate themselves in their talent markets. In our conversation, Maggie shares a number of these, including their talent scout programme, building a personalised and inclusive candidate experience, and focusing on training and development for their talent acquisition team.

In the interview, we discuss:

• How Talent Acquisition is evolving at AstraZeneca

• Using Talent Scouts to build external talent pipelines for hard to fill roles and where there are gaps in internal succession planning

• Building a personalised and inclusive candidate experience.

• Giving feedback to all interviewed candidates

• The challenges of the pandemic

• Encouraging candidate self-selection by showcasing the authentic employee experience

• Turning The Great Resignation into The Great Opportunity

• The role of technology

• Employer brand advocacy

• Investing in development and the Talent Acquisition Academy

• AstraZeneca’s focus for 2022

Listen to this podcast in Apple Podcasts.

Interview transcript:

Paradox: The AI assistant for recruiting (0s):
Support for this podcast is provided by paradox, the conversational AI company, helping global talent acquisition teams at Unilever, McDonald’s, and CVS health get recruiting work done faster. Let’s face it, talent acquisition is full of boring administrative tasks that drag the hiring process down and create frustrating experiences for everyone. Paradox’s AI assistant, Olivia, is shaking up that paradigm. Automating things like applicant screening, interview scheduling, and candidate Q&A. So recruiters can spend more time with people, not software.

Paradox: The AI assistant for recruiting (40s):
Curious how Olivia can work for your team? Then visit to learn more. [Music Intro]

Matt Alder (1m 5s):
Hi, everyone. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to episode 404 of The Recruiting Future Podcast. It’s only January and it’s already clear that The Great Resignation will continue to be a huge talking point in 2022, as companies fight for the talent and skills they need. However, some employers are already reframing this challenge as a fantastic opportunity to attract talented people, they might not have previously persuaded to move roles. This isn’t easy. And obviously employer brand and employee experience are huge factors. However, there is a lot that talent acquisition teams can be doing to stand out from the crowd by focusing on the areas within their control, that make a real difference.

Matt Alder (1m 53s):
My guest this week is Maggie Spong, VP of Talent Acquisition at AstraZeneca. AstraZeneca has certainly been thrust into the spotlight by the pandemic, but they have also spent the last few years developing several initiatives to differentiate themselves in their talent markets. In our conversation, Maggie shares a number of these, including their talent scout program, building a personalized and inclusive candidate experience, and focusing on training and development for their talent acquisition team. Hi, Maggie. And welcome to the podcast.

Maggie Spong (2m 28s):
Hi, Matt.

Matt Alder (2m 30s):
It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Could you just introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Maggie Spong (2m 34s):
Right. Thank you. Yeah, really good to be here. So my name is Maggie Spong. And I’m the VP of AstraZeneca for talent acquisition. And I’ve been at AstraZeneca for about five and a half years. And I’m responsible from sourcing all the way through to onboarding. So that’s including employer branding, including candidate experience for talent acquisition at AstraZeneca globally. So, you know, really trying to embed standards, raise standards and, you know, create a great candidate experience through that process.

Matt Alder (3m 10s):
Absolutely. Now, well I know that over the last few years there must’ve been a huge amount of change and evolution in terms of what you do. Talk us through how talent acquisition has evolved at AstraZeneca. Where did you start from and where have you gotten to now?

Maggie Spong (3m 28s):
Yes. So during those five and a half years, and I’m sure everybody listening will understand this, it’s definitely been a journey. And when I joined in 2016, I would be, you know, fair to say recruitment wasn’t in a good place. So, you know, it was basically around 10,000 hires that we were doing, but we were doing them mainly through third parties, through agencies, and headhunters. And so basically I’ve come in and I’ve moved that model with a great team around me to an in-house model, where we are doing the majority of the recruitment, you know.

Maggie Spong (4m 9s):
So it’s taken five years to build recruitment up into a really good place. And that’s, you know, almost saying, describing that as professional recruitment in-house. And our goals are that we want to be a world-class talent acquisition function, partnering with the business. That’s the most important thing that we need to add value to the business. And by doing that, we deliver the right hire, in the right place, at the right time, and at the right cost. So, you know, from 2016 making 10,000 hires to 2021, we’re up to about 24,000 hires now. And of course, we wouldn’t be able to have done that as efficiently or effectively as we have now if we had had the same model, we had five and a half years ago.

Maggie Spong (4m 59s):
So, you know, it’s been a really amazing journey, but with some great people on the team to help deliver that.

Matt Alder (5m 7s):
And what do you see yourselves doing that is sort of different in talent acquisition? How are you kind of really standing out?

Maggie Spong (5m 13s):
Yeah. So I do think we are doing some things differently, but of course, recruitment is recruitment. So you have to go through a process which all of us have to do. But I would say, what is different about us and what is leading edge is around our use of talent scouts. So like I said, in 2016, we were 90% dependent on external headhunters and agencies. And today we have a target of being 10% or less dependent and we are achieving that. So, I mean, you can imagine with that comes huge cost savings. So that’s the right cost piece of our mantra, you know, right hire, right time, right place, right cost.

Maggie Spong (5m 56s):
That really supports that piece of our ambition. But our talent scouts, they really, they rebalanced the reliance on external headhunters or search companies and they’re employed by AstraZeneca. So they have a deep understanding of our business needs. And, you know, they’re committed to just AstraZeneca, which is very different, you know. If we’re using headhunters and agencies, they’re obviously working for our competitors as well, but they focus on building the external pipelines where there are gaps of internal succession planning and that’s for the critical roles, but it’s also for roles, you know, roles that are hard to fill.

Maggie Spong (6m 38s):
So they focus on all of that. And I would add that we still value our partners, our head hunters, and our agencies because we do still need them. And we don’t claim to be able to do everything ourselves. So we have much fewer partners to work with now. And that was another huge part of the journey, but we really value them. You know, we don’t want to make that feel like we don’t need them. We do still need them. But just as an example, our talent scouts probably hired about 160 people during 2020, as an example. And that saves about 16-17 million.

Maggie Spong (7m 19s):
You know, it’s amazing the amount of money that, that can save. So just the other thing that I really think we are aiming to do differently, and I think we do a good job, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m just so passionate about giving every candidate a great experience. And that is whether they’re successful or not. So obviously we don’t, we’re not able to hire all the people that apply to us, but we want to be respectful and we want to give them a really good experience. So we commit to creating an authentic, personalized, and inclusive candidate experience.

Maggie Spong (7m 59s):
And I think a lot of people will agree with me. In recruitment, we don’t always do a good enough job about this. And I say to my team and every global call that I do, and every opportunity I get, put yourselves in the shoes of the candidate. How would you feel if it was you going through a process and nobody’s keeping you up to date, you know, you don’t know if you’ve got an interview or not. So I really drive that very strongly across our company. And I do know that people appreciate that.

Matt Alder (8m 35s):
Can we just dig into that, a little bit deeper? Tell us about some aspects of that candidate experience. How do you, what is it that you do that ensures people have that great experience when they apply for a job with you?

Maggie Spong (8m 48s):
Yeah. So first of all, it’s really about, we have minimum standards across our process. So if somebody applies to us, we have a timeline of when we will get back to them. So obviously everybody gets an automatic reply when they apply to our systems, but we will review the information and we will go back to them with a response, you know, within five days. So that is to say, we’ve got your application, we’re either still reviewing it, or we would like to invite you for an interview or a phone screen, et cetera. So we have minimum standards along the process. So another one would be at the interview, we commit to giving people feedback if they have had an interview with us.

Maggie Spong (9m 35s):
And that is either from the person who’s interviewed them, the leading interviewer, or we do that. Because we feel it helps people if they get the feedback about what they could have maybe done differently or why they may not be going through to the next stage or even if they are going through to the next stage. So really, what we commit to is these minimum standards along the whole process, where we are communicating and keeping in touch. And it doesn’t sound a lot, but actually, that’s one of the most important things about the candidate experience. Just going back a step, we did a huge survey out to around 20,000 candidates and this is last year.

Maggie Spong (10m 17s):
And we asked them where things were going well and where they weren’t going well. And they gave us all that feedback. And that is what we have incorporated into our minimum standards. So it isn’t just us coming up with this. We have asked the candidates where they felt we weren’t doing a good enough job.

Matt Alder (10m 37s):
Now, it’s obviously been a very challenging couple of years for everyone, for employers in lots of industries. But I would imagine that for AstraZeneca, there have been some unique challenges over the last sort of 18 months to two years. Talk us through the challenges that you faced and the challenges that you’re facing and where you see the opportunities.

Maggie Spong (10m 59s):
Of course. I mean, it’s not been an easy time for everyone. Has it? It’s been a really difficult few years, but I would say as an industry, I think recruitment, the challenge, first of all, was that we weren’t able to do face-to-face interviews, but everybody pivoted so well to, you know, doing virtual interviewing, virtual onboarding. So I think that was a challenge, but I believe as an industry and as a company, AstraZeneca, we pivoted to that literally overnight. So I think a challenge turns into quite an opportunity because actually it’s made the process quite a lot better in many respects as well.

Maggie Spong (11m 42s):
But, you know, I think we’ve got a lot of challenges in terms of we do now attract a lot of people. So our attraction rate, which is a positive, has gone up by about 20% over the last year, because AstraZeneca’s name is much more known now, whereas before we weren’t so publicly known. We were more known for our oncology or our cardiovascular areas. But so it has created a challenge because actually we’re not necessarily attracting the right people now. So it’s, we’ve increased that, but we need to now look at that differently to say, right, we need to do a precision targeting approach because actually having 450,000 applications is amazing, but it creates a massive amount of work.

Maggie Spong (12m 38s):
So, you know, we are trying to say, we need to help the candidates self select themselves out, if the job isn’t right for them. So we really are looking at things like our job descriptions so that people can really understand if that’s the right role for them. And then focus on being transparent through the process to give candidates that authentic experience. So, you know, we want them to really know what it’s like to work for us because it won’t be for everyone, but, you know, we need people who want to come in and join us in our mission. So we hire great people, but also, we expect great things from them.

Maggie Spong (13m 18s):
So I would say that’s one challenge, but we also need to look at that as an opportunity. The Great Resignation, I think everyone will have heard of this and it’s, you know, it’s all over. It’s a hot topic currently, but as well as constantly shifting trends as the world continues to navigate the COVID19 pandemic, I see this as an opportunity. So if everybody’s resigning, then we’ve got the opportunity to attract them and hire them. So, you know, obviously, people have made life-changing decisions during this difficult time and they won’t all want to come back into the world of work. But I think a significant number of people are just looking for a change.

Maggie Spong (14m 1s):
And so we will be there ready to target those people that are right for us and want to come and join AstraZeneca. I think the fact that we’ve hired 24,000 people so far this year, it does show that we are an employer of choice as well. [Bubble sounds]

Matt Alder (14m 24s):
It’s been a massive workload for your team to be able to deal with that. And what role has technology played in terms of sort of helping you with those challenges?

Maggie Spong (14m 35s):
Yeah, so obviously we definitely use technology throughout our processes. You know, we’re always trying to look for ways to improve. So we have the Workday Recruiting System and the Workday HR System. So we optimize that at every step. We also have other tools that help us. And this is all part of us, you know, trying to give our own recruiters a good experience and giving them the right tools to enable them to do a great job for AstraZeneca and for our patients. So yeah, we have other tools like Beamery, which is the tool that we use to have candidate pools. And that is working really well. You know, we actually are just about to look at launching paradox for our interview scheduling, but you know, there’s a whole list of technology that we use and it helps us in our day-to-day jobs.

Matt Alder (15m 28s):
Obviously one of the big focuses for many, many employers has been, you know, really looking very carefully at diversity and inclusion. How are you approaching diversity and inclusion?

Maggie Spong (15m 39s):
Yes. And this is a really important topic for us. And it has been for years. It isn’t that it’s only just come onto the agenda, but obviously, I think it’s really a massive priority now. So what we’ve done with inclusion and diversity is we’ve embedded it into every step of our process again. So, you know, the same as we’ve looked at the candidate experience, we’ve embedded I & D. So we make sure that our adverts are written in the right way so that we use Textio so that we make sure that the language isn’t male-dominated or female-dominated, that we make sure that that is the right language.

Maggie Spong (16m 22s):
When people come through the process, when they’re interviewed, we make sure that there’s a diversity in the interview panel. It isn’t all-women. It isn’t all men. There are different ethnicities. And we have like a saying, which is in our standards, interview with someone not like you. So, people are really conscious that they shouldn’t just be in interviews with the same kind of person. They need to be making sure they’re interviewing with somebody, not like them. So that’s some examples, but it goes all the way through our process. We have also invested, and this was in 2019, we’ve invested in a dedicated I & D [inaudible] center of expertise.

Maggie Spong (17m 8s):
So we have somebody who oversees a small team. She has three people on that team, but she is dedicated to I & D and making sure that the processes, the standards, people are trained in talent acquisition and in the business. And we align with our central I & D team to make sure that we are embedding anything that recruitment can help with. So, you know, we really have that into our ways of work here. We monitor that. And we have targets that we monitor as well. So, you know, we really are paying a lot of attention to this.

Matt Alder (17m 45s):
And what more opportunities do you see in brand advocacy?

Maggie Spong (17m 49s):
Yeah, this is really an exciting area. So we tap into our employees as brand advocates. So that they can help us attract even more great talent. And you know, more than a third of our hires come through our referral program, which I think is really impressive. When a candidate is referred through that employee referral program, the time taken to fill a role is 20% shorter versus other forms of recruitment. So obviously it also adds this huge benefit to the business in terms of that shorter time to hire. We’ve achieved awards in this referral program. We got a Brilliance in the recruitment and retention award at the HR Brilliance Awards.

Maggie Spong (18m 34s):
And our refer referral programs encourage our employees to focus on their social media networks because that is a naturally more diverse talent pool. It is not a friends and family referral scheme. You know, it really is about tapping into your social networks, not your, you know, it’s not just your friends and family, and obviously, we’re asking them to help us scout for those potential recruits and it’s working really well.

Matt Alder (19m 4s):
Final question. What does the future look like for AstraZeneca? What’s your focus for 2022? What do you hope is going to happen in the next 12 months?

Maggie Spong (19m 14s):
Yes. Well, the landscape is changing constantly, isn’t it? And we’ve talked about the pandemic. And I don’t think that’s going away too quickly, unfortunately. We’ve also covered The Great Resignation. And I’ve mentioned how passionate I am about delivering a constant, consistently great candidate experience. And that’s something that, you know, I would say that all talent acquisition functions in every industry could do better on and focus on. But as AstraZeneca, we will continue to focus on that candidate experience. You know, even things like data quality. It sounds basic, but unless we have the basics, right, we really can’t be predictive.

Maggie Spong (19m 55s):
So, you know, we are focusing on those things and obviously, our focus is to create a great candidate story and an employee value proposition, target and attract the right people to our business, hire them, onboard them really well, retain them and then, you know, that will make sure that we are continuing to hire the great people that can support our great business and deliver to our patients. So just one other thing that we do focus on is about developing our own TAC teams. And this is something again, really important to us that we are hard to get into from a TAC perspective.

Maggie Spong (20m 37s):
You know, the people that come to us, we put them through rigorous assessment and process to hire them, but we want really great people in our teams to deliver for AstraZeneca. And so what I’m really proud of is that we have a fantastic onboarding program for them. And we have a TAC academy, where we are training our TAC partners to be really efficient, effective, apply those minimum standards all through the process. And you know, what I feel passionate about is that we are developing the next recruitment leaders through these teams. And that means this standard of recruitment will continue.

Maggie Spong (21m 18s):
You know, ideally, they stay with us, but if they go out into other industries and companies, I think that’s also still a great thing.

Matt Alder (21m 26s):
Just to give people a perspective of how big is your tactician team?

Maggie Spong (21m 32s):
Yeah. So we have probably about 300 people that are reporting to me around the world. And then we have, obviously, we have extra people that help with the administration side, but again, that’s pretty automated and people that support that are in places like Poland and Guadalajara. So yeah, it is, you know, it’s quite a big team, but obviously we also have some of the smaller countries where they wouldn’t necessarily be reporting to me or up into me. They’ll still be doing their recruitment, but that just gives you a bit of a flavor of the size of that.

Matt Alder (22m 4s):
Maggie, thank you very much for talking to me.

Maggie Spong (22m 8s):
You’re welcome. Thank you for speaking to me.

Matt Alder (22m 12s):
My thanks to Maggie. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple podcasts, on Spotify or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search for all the past episodes at On that site you can also subscribe to the mailing list. To get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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