COVER STORY: The pursuit of fresh talent
Is possessing the magic black book of contacts any longer enough to be a stand-out candidate in wholesale? Alex Hawkes investigates the steep recruitment challenge facing the industry.
Business culture has been radically transformed over the last decade by the tech and digital space. But where creativity and youth is viewed as essential to drive growth, structure and experience remains the cornerstone of telecoms.
Described by one insider as an “old boys club”, the wholesale telecoms community in particular remains built on the foundations of old-fashioned networking.
It is an industry where connections mean everything. Business relationships are built up over a number of years, between senior professionals who often bring decades of network, service or product experience to the table.
But is this traditional approach to doing business becoming a barrier to letting new lifeblood into the industry? Particularly in an increasingly digital world and particularly when carriers are increasingly turning to innovation to drive new revenues?
According to recruitment agencies serving the market, there is a growing realisation from the carrier community that more needs to be done to attract a new breed of candidate in to the industry.
“The conversations I am having are about addressing this now before there becomes a shortage of talent in the market,” says Aidan Walker, CEO at Expand Executive Search.
Walker, who has been advising carriers on their recruitment strategies, says that the industry is undergoing a period of reviewing its recruitment policies and analysing how it can attract high-achieving talent.
“There has been a gap, for instance, in the past in succession planning. There has been a lot of restructuring in the market, and as a result an area like this can get overlooked. The consensus now is to be more proactive and I have seen strong interest in our succession planning product,” he adds.
Erin Callaghan, senior consultant of advanced technology, EMEA, at Futurestep has also spotted a shift in mentality when it comes to carrier recruitment. “At the more senior end of the scale you find that wholesale expertise, although very valuable, is not the only consideration when recruiting. Learning agility has been identified by Korn Ferry, Futurestep’s parent company, as one of the most critical success factors for managers and executives,” she says.
“To be effective, leaders have to demonstrate the flexibility and agility to adapt their behaviours as situations change. More and more, we see carriers looking to recruit leaders with high learning agility alongside or over and above their wholesale expertise.”
Broadening recruiting horizons
This pursuit of high-achieving talent is leading carriers to search outside of the traditional wholesale segment.
There are obvious corners of the telecoms and technology ecosystem that are proving fertile ground for unearthing new talent. The enterprise telecoms segment has always possessed obvious synergies with wholesale, and this has only increased further as carriers have broadened their service portfolios. In addition, hardware and software vendors, IT or technology consulting firms, OTT players and system integrators are becoming viewed as good recruitment fits for carriers. Outside of telecoms, organisations which are selling via a channel could also be considered.
“The downside is that these people won’t necessarily have the same connections, relationships and product knowledge as those within wholesale – these are very valuable traits. They may also have a longer ramp-up time,” concedes Callaghan. “That aside, the benefits are many.”
Attracting talent from these segments can help bring fresh perspective to carrier organisations: “If you want to promote change, innovation and pace, hire from outside of your immediate industry in order to drive these behaviours,” she says.
It can also help challenge the status quo within an organisation, leading new individuals to question processes or rationale and help implement change. A broader and more diverse talent pool also increases an organisation’s amount of choice as well as bringing different skills to the table.
The best practice for carriers focussed on traditional wholesale products might be to hire a candidate with the magic black book of contacts and relationships. But changing market dynamics are also forcing a shift in recruitment practices.
“Carriers are increasingly looking at ways to increase revenues, as their traditional margins are eroding. They are exploring how to bolt on more complex and sophisticated solutions, expanding into areas such as cloud, security and content delivery,” Walker says. “These value-added services are a real push for them now and that also opens up opportunities to tap into talent from these market areas.”
In the UK, TalkTalk Business is evidence of how a new breed of carrier is adopting an alternative approach to recruitment. The company operates one of the largest IP networks in the UK serving enterprises with a range of connectivity, networking and hosting solutions.
“The market shift we are seeing is into a wider portfolio of services as take-up of alternative data solutions and SIP services increases,” says Duncan Gooding, director of major accounts and carriers at TalkTalk Business.
Gooding says the company is reaping the benefits of forging relationships in these new service areas. As well as providing fresh opportunities, it is also helping the company adopt a more modern approach to doing business.
“There’s a drive to govern and align traditional practices into a more ‘PLC’ type contract,” he says. “There is a challenger position that says the ‘old school tie’ element of the wholesale market is a little antiquated, and thus not so healthy for organisations who are evolving and striving for both revenue and profit growth.”
As a result, its recruitment policy targets candidates according to customer engagement: “We review prospective employees with the view of total customer engagement rather than just wholesale knowledge. This requires a breadth of commercial acumen, an understanding of the wider telecoms market and general sales skills,” he says.
Three Wholesale provides another compelling recruitment example. As the business arm of Three UK – which carries over 45% of the UK’s mobile data – the organisation has developed a strong focus on supporting the growth of M2M and MVNOs in the UK.
As a result, the company is presently undergoing a major recruitment drive and its director Lynda Burton says she has encountered difficulties recruiting from other mobile operators: “We work at a much more rapid pace and with a much flexible creative environment – challenging how and why we work in a certain way,” she says. “While recruiting from the mobile operator pool can bring MVNO expertise, I have found these candidates take longer to adapt to the culture at Three.”
This has led Burton to recruit high-performance individuals internally – as they already have the “cultural alignment bit” – or turn to the end segment the business is targeting. “For example we have a strategy targeting embedded connectivity [in the M2M space], and going after candidates with experience in OEM provides us with an insight in to what OEMs require from a mobile operator,” she says.
Burton cites websites LinkedIn and Glassdoor as two valuable recruitment tools for both identifying high-achieving talent and gaining a deep understanding of the culture of the company that employs them.
Three Wholesale’s recruitment drive covers every facet of the business, from product management to marketing and commercial finance. Burton admits that she faces a stronger challenge recruiting for positions in business development and commercial modelling, as this is where telecoms experience becomes more essential and the talent pool is more limited.
Addressing the grass-roots issue
Attempts to broaden wholesale’s talent pool cannot begin and end at recruiting from other industries. More must be done at grass-roots levels to address the issue. Level 3 Communications has been particularly active in this space.
“Attracting the best talent means trying to attract more diverse talent. I don’t think the telecoms industry historically is known as a very diverse industry,” says Tim Passingham, SVP of enterprise business, EMEA, Level 3 Communications.
Passingham talks passionately about recruiting candidates with a “global mindset”. This has become of increasing importance to the organisation as it expands its operations worldwide. “Once I’ve expanded into a new market from a technical network perspective, do I have a diverse enough workforce to engage in that market?” he asks. “You have to get the people piece right.”
Level 3 Communications has taken a number of measures to ensure it gets the people piece right. First of all it restructured to ensure its HR organisation was more finely in tune with its marketing organisation: “We wanted to ensure you get the same look and feel for the brand across all areas of Level 3. That is really important and something not a lot of companies do well,” Passingham says.
Last year it also launched a series of academies for different areas of its workforces, designed to bring interns to the organisation. This included academies dedicated to operations, sales and technology. In the UK, this fell under the umbrella of the government’s apprenticeship scheme, with one of Level 3’s graduates coming third in a national competition.
“We are hopeful that all these programmes for new starters will attract a much better level of talent to the organisation, and provide them with a much better start to their career,” says Passingham.
It also spent six months developing a more sophisticated induction programme: “As you recruit a broader, more diverse workforce, you have to adapt your induction programme accordingly,” he says.
Time to act
Passingham does admit that telecoms experience remains a requisite at the very top of carrier organisation. In the long term, however, he envisions the industry having to adapt its workforce and business culture to meet its evolving customer base: “We have broad customers and if we can’t speak to them in a language they understand then that is a problem. In all respects – in terms of countries, cultures and backgrounds – we are going to need a much broader and capable workforce in the future,” says Passingham. “The competitive threats and opportunities in our industry are only going to increase.”
There appears to be a growing consensus in the market that recruitment should be prioritised now in order to prevent a greater skills shortage in the future: “There is a skills shortage in the wholesale market and this is an ongoing concern we hear from business leaders and HR alike. Without having a strategy to pipeline talent through the business and without attracting talent at entry level, growth and innovation is subsequently being impacted further down the line,” says Futurestep’s Callaghan.