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Leadership best practices: Navigating four years of change


Four years ago, Leah McKelvey, SVP of Corporate Development and Enterprise Strategy at Bullhorn, interviewed three leaders from global recruitment consultancy Robert Walters who are all working towards Robert Walters’ mission of “powering people and organisations to fulfill their unique potential.”

Now, four years and a global pandemic later, in honour of International Women’s Day 2022, Leah reconnected with Özlem Simsek (Managing Director, Belgium), Louise Campbell (Head of Learning Development, EMEAA), and Sinead Hourigan (Global Head of Customer Experience) from Robert Walters to learn how they’ve navigated change, stepped into new leadership roles, how their organisation is approaching DEI initiatives, and how they, as leaders, are planning to #BreaktheBias this year and beyond.

Leading during the turbulance and unknowns of a global pandemic

RIX: Are there any new leadership lessons learned compared to the past turbulence within the industry, like the recession of 2008?

Özlem Simsek: Leading an organisation in a pandemic required skills that I feel lucky to have, such as determination and decisiveness. Because we’re in a jobs business, everything stopped at the pandemic’s start. Hiring was put on hold, and placements were paused. Our income week-over-week went down 50%, but we still had to pay our teams. Luckily, the government in Belgium put a program in place to offer unemployment to those who needed it. Everyone was afraid of losing their job, but Robert Walters assured us that we were a stable company. We were open and honest in our communications, comforting our teams and offering empathy.

Sinead Hourigan: Firstly, the need to immediately mobilise the entire business to a work-from-home environment, including our valued contractors, was top-of-mind. The communication and continuous adaptation of processes was a massive test for me as a leader and the business.

The fear that people experienced in the early days of the pandemic was very different from anything we have previously experienced. This was a new layer of fear that I had never experienced before. Ensuring that we were considering a much broader range of social and personal anxiety in the workforce was critical to get people through as best we could.

Unfortunately, we did have some people who had to leave our business in the early stages of the pandemic. Having those conversations with people remotely is probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to do as a leader and will stay with me forever. Clarity of messaging was so crucial in those times as you couldn’t rely at all on being able to portray a message through engagement or emotional connection, and that was very challenging.

Louise Campbell: It was more important than ever to ensure communication remained constant with all staff members throughout the pandemic. Weekly and daily check-ins regarding emotional health and well-being were more important than before. The concept of “empathetic leadership” was often spoken about, and this was put to the test over the past two years. Managers who relied on dictatorial leadership styles struggled to retain staff, and those who did not foster a culture of trust were immediately at a disadvantage.

RIX: Were there any tested leadership approaches you had to call on more during this time? 

Özlem Simsek: I focused on talking with everyone very openly. I asked my direct reports for their insight and made the best decisions for my people and the business. That’s the most important thing. I have shareholders that I am responsible for, and the government was changing its stance often, so there were many moving parts.

I also think this experience brought us closer together in a way that aligned with my approach of being transparent as a leader. Now, everyone was at home, and you saw a different side of people than you do in the office. Animals and kids were popping onto calls. You were seeing more of people’s home environment. My team knows me even better now. It’s not just the person at work anymore, and it brought a new way to know each other, which has made us stronger.

Sinead Hourigan: Relentless, clear, and concise communication was one of the primary factors that had to be utilised effectively. For any significant messages that we had to share, I made sure to share those with everyone and asked people to reach out to ensure clarity.

Even when you didn’t feel like it, it was necessary to remember how the teams were feeling and ensure that you kept some energy in reserve to have some fun on a Friday afternoon to try and keep the mood as high as possible. The team responds directly to how the leader is acting, so if I were displaying signs of despondency, it would quickly disseminate, which would not help anyone.

Louise Campbell: Creating a culture of trust and empowerment was crucial. Typically, a recruitment environment thrives when people work together and share ideas. Teamwork is part of our DNA. Our challenge was to overcome the lack of physical community by ensuring people felt part of a team and benefited from our collective knowledge. Management needed to become less about the process and more about galvanising a team and inspiring them to create results.

Stepping into a new role after proven and sustained success

Since the discussion with Leah four years ago, summarized in this RIX article, Sinead stepped into the role of Global Head of Customer Experience from Managing Director, while Louise moved from Managing Director, Ireland, to Head of Learning Development, EMEAA.

RIX: Why did you step out of your comfort zone?

Sinead Hourigan: I was well-established with a great team, and the market was one of the best I have ever seen in the context of growth opportunities. But I knew something wasn’t quite right for me. I have always said that I will check in on myself every year, and if I don’t feel that I am continuing to add value to the team and continuing to feel value in the role, I will transition into something else. I had open and honest conversations with my direct boss, and he was highly supportive in discussing options with me. I had no expectations that the business could deliver something for me that would work, but I couldn’t be more pleased that they did!

Louise Campbell: I started my recruitment career in 1997 and have had a fantastic career working in Sydney, London, and Dublin since 2003. There were several reasons why I decided to step out of my comfort zone at this stage of my career:

  1. I was in a fortunate position to have a very obvious successor. Developing talent underneath me has always been a focus of mine. I now was at the stage where I had somebody ready to step into my role, and I didn’t want to act as a blocker to their career.
  2. Throughout the pandemic, I worked closely with L&D to provide opportunities for employees to get together for training, to discuss challenges, and to upskill in critical parts of our role. It was a great opportunity to take some time out of relentless days, focus on yourself as an individual, and brush up on your skills. It was also the perfect opportunity to bring people together who were potentially feeling isolated and/or disengaged from the business because of working remotely.

I saw the difference it made to people to come together and converse. We covered various topics from mental health and well-being to time management, recruitment skills, and coaching. I was inspired by the value of what we were creating. Not only were people improving their skills, but I saw the potential value in how we can shape the culture within an organisation. I have always loved training and developing others, and I felt that everything had aligned to let me take this to the next level for my development.

RIX: How did you know that the timing was right for you? Was there anything that nearly stopped you from taking the role? 

Sinead Hourigan: I’ve been running a health check on my engagement and value in my role every 12 months since I commenced many years ago, and this particular time things didn’t feel quite the same. There are always doubts and fears associated with shifting roles, and we experience this with candidates every day, but if you can’t practice what you preach as a recruiter and take a leap of faith every now and then, I don’t think you are truly able to add value to your stakeholders.

Louise Campbell: It was nerve-wracking to leave a role I had done for 20 years and move to another part of the business. I have always been a revenue generator, and every year this would form a large part of how I would measure how successful I had been. Moving to a non-revenue-generating role is a bit daunting, but I was very clear on the business’s expectations, what I needed to do, and the support structure I have internally.

Not being client-facing was something I was concerned about, as it is a part of the job that I love. I still have clients call me to discuss business needs, and it still gives me the thrill to be able to pass the business on to others. My stakeholders are now across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the US, and LATAM, so my network has expanded.

RIX: Was confidence an issue at your level? How do you stay confident when making a significant change and build confidence in others?

Sinead Hourigan: I think confidence is always a big issue, and I definitely have fear every day. When you come from a position of being so comfortable in a role and so sure that you are making decisions from a place of knowledge, it’s a huge step to transition into something else. I’ve also moved from the revenue-generating side of the business to the business partner functions, which is a massive and steep learning curve. I think the only way you can build confidence in a new role is listening and learning, and that’s what I’ve been doing so far and intend to continue.

Louise Campbell: Confidence in my ability is something I continuously question, particularly in an industry where you are as good as your last month/quarter. People who love the recruitment industry love to be constantly challenged. You never get to rest and take your foot off the gas, and there is always a voice in your head wondering if you are talented or just lucky. I think it is probably a combination of both; you need to put in the work to see the results.

My new role involves taking everything I have learned and sharing it with the rest of the business. I feel I have a story to tell and experiences that reflect my stakeholders’ needs. Hopefully, I’ll be able to impart knowledge with a level of humility and humour.

RIX: How did you lean on others during this transition?

Sinead Hourigan: I don’t comfortably ask for help, as my psyche has always been that I don’t want to be a burden on others and should be able to figure things out independently. However, I have become better at asking for advice and feedback from subject matter experts around me to ensure that I’m heading in the right direction.

Louise Campbell: I spoke in-depth with my previous CEO, Chris Hickey, who has been wonderful. He is someone who has always been a great advocate for me, and I value his opinion greatly.

I also spoke at length to our Global CEO, Toby Fowlston, and our Global Head of HR, Indy Lachhar, both of whom gave me great insight into the potential of this role, the impact it will have on the business, and the support structure in place to help make it happen. These insights gave me a great level of comfort and took away any misgivings I had about making a move.

Interational Women's Day 2022: Breaking the bias 

The 2022 theme for IWD is #BreakTheBias, committing to calling out bias, smashing stereotypes, breaking inequality, and rejecting discrimination.

RIX: Has the topic of bias (both conscious and unconscious) been more prevalent since we spoke about leading within recruitment four years ago?

Sinead Hourigan: Absolutely, and I couldn’t be prouder of where we are as a business in this regard. A few years ago, Robert Walters engaged an external partner to conduct a global audit on our business to assess where we were sitting in the context of diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI). This was a major project, and we held a broad number of workshops, surveys, and focus groups to ensure that we achieved the deepest level of information. This progressed to sharing those findings globally and establishing DEI Councils in each region. We have just completed rolling out our first global training initiative on DEI for the entire business.

This is so important for a range of reasons. It’s critical because we have so many cultural differences around our business, and these need to be recognised and valued in all of our interactions. It’s also critical for the relationships between our consulting teams and our business partner functions to ensure that everyone feels valued in our business. And finally, it’s imperative to ensure that our consultants deeply understand the concepts of conscious and unconscious bias. We have such an excellent opportunity to work closely with our clients to ensure that our valued candidates are not being excluded from career opportunities.  

I think everyone in the business has recognised the effort and the shift we are making. We have very open and constructive conversations to ensure that we do our part to break any bias we see.

Louise Campbell: It was prevalent when we spoke four years ago, but our journey has certainly continued at pace since then. We have produced an extensive research library for our internal staff and clients and use market-leading technology to ensure our clients are presented with diverse shortlists. We have developed an inclusive leadership program internally for all staff – and specific training for managers – to ensure that we are driving the DEI agenda daily both internally and with our clients and candidates.

RIX: Do you have specific plans or initiatives (individually or as part of your broader organisation) to #BreakTheBias as you think about the coming year? 

Özlem Simsek:  Our leadership team is primarily men, so I really want to diversify the team. Robert Walters has very high retention rates, which is positive, but it also limits the new people we can bring in. The business sees there’s a huge female population, even under my wings, that are eager to grow. My focus for the moment is to ensure there are more female leaders. We have to make sure we have more role models.

I also challenge the women on my team and have honest conversations about their career opportunities and how they can continue to develop. Women often make many assumptions about themselves, thinking they can’t combine a career with family. I always ask first: what does your partner think about this? If they support you 200%, you are lucky and will make it. If they do not support you, then there are other decisions to be made. However, I see these conversations as an opportunity to ask people about their choices and think more about what’s possible for them.

Sinead Hourigan: We built a calendar of events last year to establish our commitment to DEI across our business in the four pillars of Ability, Gender, LGBTQ+, and Ethnicity. Each month, we host an event to recognise one of these pillars, ensuring the whole business gets insight into the four pillars’ importance and receives practical tips on how they can better support others.

Louise Campbell:  It makes me so proud to see how far we have come and the changes we are making in the past number of years, from updating our benefits policies to be more inclusive, launching Global Employee Engagement surveys, and setting up the DEI Global Council. Our primary focus has been ensuring that all employees receive DEI training within the last year. To create real value for our clients, stakeholders, and communities, we must employ and source diverse talent and advise our clients accordingly.


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