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Ep 412: Scaling Recruiting


This year, scale and speed are an essential focus for many talent acquisition teams. But how do you scale recruiting and speed up hiring in an environment where recruiting recruiters is as tough as it is right now?

My guest this week is David Spencer-Percival, CEO of Life Science People and formerly the founder of high growth recruitment businesses Huntress and Spencer Ogden. David has decades of experience scaling up and recruiting recruiters in various markets. He has developed a tried and tested methodology that many talent acquisition teams can learn from

In the interview, we discuss:

• Recruiting, training and nurturing fantastic recruiters

• The academy model

• Selection

• Building the right culture of success and incentive

• The relentless pace of change

• Recruiting processes for a candidate driven market

• What are the most successful employers getting right?

• The role of technology

• Advice to TA leaders on building effective working partnerships with agencies

Listen to this podcast in Apple Podcasts.

Interview transcript:

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Matt Alder (1m 5s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to episode 412 of The Recruiting Future Podcast. This year, scale and speed are essential focuses for many talent acquisition teams, but how do you scale recruiting and speed up hiring in an environment where recruiting recruiters is as tough as it is right now? My guest this week is David Spencer Percival, CEO of Life Science People and formerly the founder of high-growth recruitment businesses, Huntress and Spencer Ogden. David has decades of experience scaling up and recruiting recruiters in various markets.

Matt Alder (1m 47s):
He has developed a tried and tested methodology that many talent acquisition teams can learn from. Hi, David and welcome to the podcast.

David Spencer Percival (1m 56s):
Hi, Matt. How are you doing?

Matt Alder (1m 58s):
Very well. Thank you. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Could you just introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

David Spencer Percival (2m 5s):
It’s a pleasure to be here, yes. My name is David Spencer Percival, and I am the CEO of Life Science People.

Matt Alder (2m 12s):
Fantastic. Now, lots of things I want to talk to you about, but I think we should probably start with setting the scene and you giving us a little bit of your backstory because you’ve had a fascinating career in recruitment and I think it would be really valuable for people to hear everything that you’ve achieved.

David Spencer Percival (2m 29s):
No problem at all. I’m very old so I started a long time ago. I started back in a small tech agency in ’97 I think it was. Very quickly became a big biller on contracts. I was billing a million a year, way back then, 25 years ago. I was a big biller in contracts. Then I met a guy and we decided to work together and we set up hung Huntress, which seven or eight years to get to a 100 million turnover and 27 offices, about 500 staff, 5,000 contractors and temps. We sold it to a Japanese bank just before the financial crash.

David Spencer Percival (3m 10s):
Actually, the timing was extraordinary. I did my early outs and then I set up another recruitment agency called Spencer Ogden with Sir Peter Ogden, my business partner. Again, huge growth, sanitize fast track seven times, Queen’s Award for international trade. It was an amazing business. We set up offices on just about every continent. Again, get to over a hundred million, 130 million turnovers. I left that business about three or four years ago. I’m still a shareholder. That business was sold two years ago this month, actually, to a private equity company. Again, 500 staff in energy and engineering.

David Spencer Percival (3m 54s):
Great business. Now, cut to just over a year and four months ago, set up Life Science People to focus on the life science industry. We’re up to about 90 people at the moment heading for about 150 this year. That’s my history.

Matt Alder (4m 13s):
Fantastic stuff and so much success. I think one of the things that I really wanted to talk to you about that I think would be very relevant to everyone who’s listening in, and obviously, the majority of people listening are corporate recruiters and talent acquisition teams, but all of them are trying to recruit recruiters at the moment. It’s a very, very difficult market to do that. You’ve had tremendous success across three businesses in terms of recruiting, training, and nurturing fantastic recruiters. Well, first of all, how did you do it and what would your advice be to people who are building out recruitment teams in this market?

David Spencer Percival (4m 53s):
It’s an interesting question, Matt, and it’s the secret weapon to any fast-growing recruitment business. I think we learned way back in the Huntress space that to find experienced people is difficult, expensive, and it’s a 50/50 chance they’re going to make it. I don’t think you can scale or build a business very quickly by doing it that way. We really fell upon this graduate academy model really, which is where you take home 10 to 15, some of them don’t necessarily have to be graduates, but certainly, first or second jobers, through a rather intense training program.

David Spencer Percival (5m 34s):
It’s a two-week classroom and then half months on the sales floor being tutored and then helped and trained. Then you end up, eventually, with a bunch of recruiters. It’s quite a tough thing to do. It’s expensive. It’s a quarter of a million pounds per academy. I think about going back to Spencer Ogden, which is a clearer view really not that long ago, hiring 10 to 15 people every quarter, then 10 to 15 people every two months, then every month, then every two weeks. Then I think in the end, by the time I left Spencer Ogden, we were hiring 15 to 20 people every week.

David Spencer Percival (6m 14s):
Somewhere in the world in some kind of academy, we had 15 trainers at the time. That really made up 80% of our headcount so peppered with experienced people in team leader management roles and billing roles. There’s no easy way to do it. I certainly don’t think you can do it with just experienced people. That, in a nutshell, is the model. It sounds so simple but fiendishly expensive, complicated, and, of course, you have leavers in there and you’re trying to get as many people as you can through the recruitment cycle.

Matt Alder (6m 51s):
What elements of it do you think made it successful? Is it the type of people or the type of recruitment that you do to get people in? Is it the training? Is it a combination of both? What’s the balance there?

David Spencer Percival (7m 5s):
It’s a combination of things. I don’t think there’s any silver bullet, unfortunately. The first thing is selection. The problem with certainly hiring graduates is all their CVs tend to look the same. They don’t have any experience in jobs and work other than stuff they’ve done outside of their degree. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who wants to work at the degree they finished. It’s almost a running joke having hired 5,000 graduates in the last 20 years. You got a degree in geology, why don’t you want to be a geologist? That kind of thing. Selection’s interesting. You get to 300 CVs, then you telephone or certainly try to speak to 60 or 70 of them.

David Spencer Percival (7m 49s):
Then you get 15 or 20 people in for an assessment day. Then from that assessment day, you’ll probably hire two to three people after a round of two or three interviews. What are you looking for? You’re looking for not necessarily academic ability. Some people could be street smart or particularly academic, but you’re certainly looking for people who want to be successful. I don’t think there’s anything better than trying to hire people who are ambitious and that’s the difficulty. Once you have those people, then you have to create culture. Training is relatively simple. It’s a set of processes recruitment.

David Spencer Percival (8m 29s):
It’s not overly complicated, but it has to be done in a certain order and all at the same time, but you can train that. You can’t train sales. Sales is a natural ability in my personal opinion. Then you create a culture so when these people are coming out onto these big open sales walls that we build, the culture of success and incentive needs to kick in. There are a lot of complexities and nuances and stuff. hen you put that all together, you can create a false growing recruitment company.

Matt Alder (9m 3s):
What surprised you most doing that? What’s the standout thing that you just weren’t expecting to happen?

David Spencer Percival (9m 10s):
I think the ability of some people to sit in front of you and say, “I really, really, really wants to do this,” and then six weeks in, they’re saying, “I just can’t do this job. It’s too difficult.” I think that’s probably the most surprising factor because we’ve been hiring people over a 20-year period and, things have changed a lot. Certainly in the last four or five years, and then the pandemic changed everything again. People, certainly, when I sat down and I want to as children. In the late eighties, you would talk to go out, be an entrepreneur, and find success, predominantly, monetarily. We would grind to be capitalists.

David Spencer Percival (9m 50s):
A lot has changed. People want jobs for different reasons now, not necessarily for financial gain. They want to know that the culture and the ethics are correct within a business. Also, this pandemic, this whole work-from-home culture, you can work from home in certain industries and sectors, but it’s incredibly difficult to train salespeople in a work-from-home environment. That, I think, is the biggest thing. It’s that change always surprises me. It shouldn’t because I know a startup business changes every three months. I’m used to the change, but culturally, things have changed when you’re hiring people. I think that’s a big surprise, I guess.

Matt Alder (10m 31s):
Obviously, you mentioned the pandemic there. You talk about recruitment processes and also, you’re running a business in a talent market where talent is hard o find. Lots of organizations are looking at their recruitment processes at the moment to respond to the very tough market conditions in terms of finding talent. Do you think it’s the key to success in the current markets that we find ourselves in?

David Spencer Percival (11m 3s):
It’s very interesting. I’ve worked in a candidate-driven market, which is almost certainly the market right now. We’re in life sciences, but you can almost apply that to any sector. I don’t know any successful company in the world that is not trying hard at the moment coming out of a pandemic. Candidate-driven markets are very, very different from client-driven markets. Client-driven markets are very much a case of you having the pick of many, many, many candidates, and you can get a bit tougher with your recruiting process. When you’re in a candidate-driver market, you have to change your processes. There’s wage inflation, there are counteroffers.

David Spencer Percival (11m 45s):
The candidate is in control and I’ll never forget this when we were hiring graduates at some point at Spencer Ogden. There were hundreds of thousands of graduates looking for jobs. When that market pool dries up, and then the candidate is in control, they ask you some very interesting questions like what is your work-from-home policy? What’s the coffee taste like? What’s the environment I’m going to be working in? How many days of holiday do I get? Right now, we’re moving very, very fast towards the candidate-driver market, you have to change the lens. The lens is very much you have to sell to that candidate, as opposed to that candidate has to sell to you.

David Spencer Percival (12m 29s):
Some companies just don’t get it. Also, speed at which you move has to increase, because if you are waiting for yes, another line manager, HR, or somebody to interview that candidate, the process takes too long, that candidate will find another job. The candidate will move with the fastest moving company with the best offer. That’s the big difference right now.

The Chad & Cheese Podcast (12m 47s):
Do you love news about LinkedIn, Indeed, Google, and just about every other recruitment tech company out there? Hell, yes. I’m Chad. I’m Cheese. We’re the Chad and Cheese podcast. All the latest recruiting news and insights are on our show, dripping in snark and attitude. Subscribe today, wherever you listen to your podcasts. We out.

Matt Alder (12m 47s):
What’d you think of the companies that are moving fast? What is it that they’re doing that enables them to do that and get the best talent?

David Spencer Percival (12m 47s):
Put quite simply, they’re selling their businesses to the candidates and they are certainly moving quickly. They’re the two key factors I think. We often get candidate feedback. We’re sending out a thousand CVs a week. We’re setting up three to 400 interviews every week at the moment. That will be 10 times that in two or three years. We get an awful lot of information and feedback, but I think the most successful companies hire good quality people at the right price, selling the place that they’re going to be working on, the projects that they’re working on, the culture, and the package. That’s just doing a really good job in hooking those candidates to come and work for them. They’re moving fast with offers and they’re keeping it quiet personal as opposed to lots and lots of emails going back and forth during the negotiation. It’s not rocket science, but you’d be amazed how many companies think that they are in the driving seat with the process when actually the candidate is, unfortunately, right now.

Matt Alder (12m 48s):
Yes, absolutely. You mentioned change and how much things have changed in recruiting over the last couple of decades. One of the big elements of that is technology, the evolution of the technology that we use, what’s possible, and what’s available. What’s your view on the role of technology in recruiting at the moment?

David Spencer Percival (12m 48s):
Interesting question. I was one of those individuals that were around before the internet and when it came along, I was the person in the corner with all the screeching noise trying to tell you how brilliant it was. Then suddenly, if you’re a taxi driver, Uber is eating your lunch. I think with recruitment, we’ve always had these threats of technology. LinkedIn was probably the biggest one. Any internal recruiter with a LinkedIn license can do the same job as a recruitment consultant at an agency. I don’t think there’s any doubt of that. The interesting thing about AI though is, that I think it’s very difficult to ride algorithms for human interaction. Until it can, I don’t see how the process can be removed from the individuals because you’re dealing with people and CVs can be written into an algorithm to produce the correct CVs, but fundamentally, it comes down to interviewing people. Then it comes down to a relatively delicate negotiation process. As I say, when you’re in a client-driven market, I would imagine it’d be much easier for tech to replace some of the things that are relatively complex in the process, but when it comes to a candidate-driven market, I don’t think it’s possible. The higher up you go with salary and experience, the more complex it gets. You could probably use technology to hire graduates because the CVs look the same, but there is a point when you want a personality match and yes, you can do some psychometric testing. You could do all sorts of things, but you are dealing with human beings and that’s an awfully difficult thing to bring tech into the policy with. As far as actually finding people, for sure, technology has taken over the world of recruitment better.

Matt Alder (12m 48s):
I suppose, leading on that, you mentioned in-house recruiters and LinkedIn, and obviously, we’ve seen massive growth in corporate talent acquisition, particularly the last 10 years, maybe the last 15 to 20 years. All of the people listening, I’m sure, however big that TA team is, will still be using agencies to a greater or lesser extent in different ways for different things. I would imagine that that’s going to continue. What would your advice be to the TA leaders that are listening in terms of working with agencies in the current environment and getting the best out of the partnerships that they have?

David Spencer Percival (12m 48s):
Well, just before we go to that, it’s an interesting point about the rise of the internal group recruitment market. There’s a wonderful story about BP oil. The chiefs of BP said, “Well, we’re spending far too much on agency fees.” They’re spending 10 million a year and I’m sure every internal recruitment team has heard this. “We need to hire more internal recruiters to get the agency fees down.” Then about four or five years later, the board looks at it and said, “Why have we got 200 internal recruiters? We’re not a recruitment agency. Why don’t we go back to using agencies? I think it would be cheaper.” I’ve seen the pendulum swing many, many times in companies when they do wake up sometimes and say, “I think we think we’re a recruiting company, but I don’t think we were getting much ROI on this.” I think where it settled, certainly in the last four or five years, is that it’s a balance really. I think internal recruitment teams are really important for companies and they do the candidate really, really good job as well, but there needs to be a balance of whether it’s 50/50, 70/30, 80/20 in favor of the internal recruitment team. Agencies find candidates that internal recruitment teams can’t. The only reason, very simple reason why is because they have other jobs to sell them. If you were working as an internal recruiter for BP, you only have BP to sell to a candidate, whereas a recruitment consultant has the market. They can have the five best jobs on the market and be able to sell you a candidate, those jobs. They have a choice, which is why candidates like to use agencies because they get more choice. Really, for any internal recruitment team, to get the best out of an agency is not overly complicated either. First of all, it is utterly pointless trying to negotiate the fees down to a point where the recruiter just simply won’t bother working. All the clients are graded ABC in our insider recruitment agency. If you are an A client with good fees, not crazy fees but good sensible fees, good recruiting processes, good interview processes, you just get the best candidates. If you’re sitting down there trying to crush the agency on fees, rebates, you’re slow, you’re really treating them as a necessary evil without communicating with them, you’re just not working with the agencies in the best way to find the best candidates. I think a good working relationship is we have a peer sale. We have four or five agencies we like working with. We pay them a decent fee and we get candidates that we can’t find. That’s probably the best relationship we can have.

Matt Alder (12m 49s):
Absolutely. As a final question, predicting the future, is it possible? We’ve certainly seen that in the last few years, but I would be really interested in your thoughts as to where recruitment’s heading. What will we be talking about in five years time if we have this conversation again?

David Spencer Percival (12m 49s):
I’m a traditionalist, Matt. I genuinely think that recruitment won’t change very much because of the set of processes that we do. I can honestly say in the last 20 years, the actual job hasn’t changed this technology bought-in, but fundamentally recruitment agencies have to pick up jobs, find candidates, set up interviews, and try to get people starting at work. It’s not changed much, really change in the next five years. My only thought on that would be I think the commoditized parts of the market where you don’t need an, I guess, I use graduates as an example, probably tech is a good example. A programmer. When I was working in tech recruitment, we weren’t particularly interested in the personality traits program as long as they could code. I think, probably, on more commoditized parts of the market, we’ll see a lot more tech coming in. I think the more sophisticated end of the market, certainly going into executive search, I don’t think there’d be any changes at all. If anything, it would become a much more skilled platform to work from. It’s a bit like retail, isn’t it? You have this commoditized end with supermarkets and then you have higher-end. If you’re caught in the middle, it’s the mid-market that gets destroyed in any tech-influenced world. I don’t see many changes other than the quality will be protected and the commoditized probably less so.

Matt Alder (12m 49s):
David, thank you very much for talking to me.

David Spencer Percival (12m 49s):
It’s been an absolute pleasure, Matt.

Matt Alder (12m 50s):
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 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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