I went to University around the same time as Charles, so I was pleasantly surprised to see – when I looked up his job title eight years later – that he was already “Managing Director – EMEA & APAC” for a significant recruiting firm. Charles’ rapid rise reflects his drive, his ambition, and – as he reveals below – his choice of industry.
I recently had a further call with Charles where he talked about his upcoming plans for a new venture. All I can say is: watch this space!
Jamie: What have you found most fulfilling about your career thus far?
Charles: I think that evolves as you go through different stages of your career. Obviously, in sales, the initial focus is to become good at your craft. I still enjoy the day-to-day of sales and get that feeling of satisfaction from big or complex deals, or a strong client relationship, but my role now has evolved into a wider role of building an organization also, and for me, that is even more fulfilling.
Jamie: What’s the best thing about being in sales generally?
Charles: I think it can vary significantly. I think in recruitment sales, it’s the autonomy that you have. And the opportunity you have from a relatively junior position. That would be the thing that stands out. I think some sales can be very different where if you’re doing some more corporate sales, that networking and the time to become autonomous and self-sufficient; that takes a long time. In recruitment, right from one year in, you can build your own business. That’s really the greatest thing about sales, particularly in the recruitment industry.
Jamie: What do you think is the key difference in the culture between an organization like yours, which is pure sales, compared to a bigger corporate?
Charles: I think that two criteria influence culture in a sales organization.
The first is how dominant the sales team is as part of the company identity. One of the easiest methods to measure this is to consider what percentage of employees are ‘Sales’ focused staff.
The great thing about recruitment is that you have a very early opportunity to run your own business. You don’t need much more than a computer and a phone to get going. In recruitment, unlike many sales roles, the sales professional is also the source of the product in that they identify both the candidate and the opportunity. It is that lean structure that enables people to found businesses with lower resource requirements than other industries.
Businesses with a high weighting of sales professionals as a percentage of employees, such as a lean recruitment business can have an aggressive sales culture. This can lead to a very typical sales culture – ‘laddy,’ ‘frat-y,’ ‘aggressive.’ Businesses with a larger, wider corporate employee team can dilute this sales culture.
The second consideration is how long or complex the sales cycle is. The shorter and less complex the company’s sales cycle is the higher likelihood that a higher weighting of the staff will be junior. This can also lead to an increased chance that culture will be more sales-y, driven by key performance activities, which are high energy. Young people like to go to the pub, bond and socialise more than an older workforce.
We are at the more complex end of the recruitment sales cycle working with a very corporate client base which influences our culture to the more sophisticated.
Jamie: What skills or personality traits you believe that someone should exhibit to want to go into sales?
Charles: I come from a world where people come into sales thinking that the most important thing is the “gift of the gab”. You get a lot of people who think they are really articulate. They can chat with the girls on nights out and therefore be great at sales. I’m sure there are roles with shorter deal cycles, where that works well, but in any role with a longer sales cycle, the more that organization and ability to structure becomes important.
I still think that ultimately, the person that can combine both gets into the top 5%. If you’re in a role with a longer sales cycle without that professionalism, you can’t get into the top 25% of performers.
Jamie: Can you just explore what you mean by professionalism there?
I think anyone can deliver in a short period. If there’s a short sale cycle, someone can focus for an hour, a day, a week, maybe even a month, and then move on. I think professionalism comes in if your sales cycle starts going up. If you have to stay structured for over 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, you have to be more formal or corporate in your communication.
Shorter sales cycles generally are a volume game – it is actually more important to manage your time carefully and if someone isn’t buying move on to a different prospect. In these situations, language is less important.
Jamie: Do you believe there’s a specific personality type that does better in sales?
Charles: I think there are definitely different personalities that do better in life. I feel that those personalities would do better in life in any particular sales job or answer any particular profession and not necessarily specifically sales.
Jamie: What personality traits specifically?
Charles: Accountability. Anyone can do well in anything if they make that happen. Lots of people want to make it happen, have good ideas, but the people that make it happen to stand out.
Jamie: Would you recommend anyone who goes into recruitment?
Charles: Not necessarily. The best thing about recruitment is that if you’re young and very successful, you can accelerate your career quickly and get ahead of your peers. The curve on responsibility, remuneration, and progression is front-ended.
I’ve talked about the ease to begin your own business in recruitment. You don’t need a long list of contacts for credibility. You can hustle. You can build a track record, and you can get quick momentum within the first five years of your career – more so than any other industry. You can have flexibility. You can do recruitment from the beach, you can do recruitment from the ski slopes if that’s what you want. Quite quickly, in 5 to 10 years, get yourself to a point where you have your own network, you have your own clients, and therefore you also have control over your career.
Unlike software or sales or pharmaceutical sales, where you’re very reliant on a product that probably costs quite a lot to set up, you can quickly run your own business without a lot of front-end costs. So that’s still the one differentiator about the recruitment industry. But if you don’t make the most of that, because you’re not that well-suited for the job, you would actually probably be better suited in a career that has a longer tail.
Like an accountant; ultimately, as you become a partner in an accounting firm, the role becomes a sales role. When we’re hiring, recruiting, the difficulty for us internally is that we have a long sales cycle, and so we need people who are organized and professional, but actually, some of those people would be better going to be an accountant. They can develop another skill, and in 20 years, when more experienced, they then would be better to start doing more on the sales front.
Jamie: In recruitment, is there any advantage in terms of age, gender, or physical appearance that you’re aware of?
Charles: It’s very influenced by the market you recruiting for. So really you need to fit with the people that you’re finding jobs for. It’s very reflective of the industry that you cover.
Jamie: What skills are needed to be developed to succeed in sales?
Charles: There are three things to lean in sales: systems, sales cycle, and network.
The first is basic, learning how to operate on the platform you are on, how do you run your day? How you run your week? In-house processes, how you run your CRM etc. This is probably a two- to three-month learning curve that you have to do whenever you change the platform.
The second is what you actually do, what your sales process is. In recruitment, that’s everything from originating mandates through to closing candidates and the technicalities in there. In my world where most sales cycles are 6 months, it probably takes about 18 months to see enough cycles to be proficient.
And thirdly network.
It probably takes 5 years to develop a network, to the position where you can become the number one or a top supplier or a top name in the market that you focus on.
The time that this takes comes down to the ever-present juggle between specialism and depth and focus. You can become a specialist in a smaller market much quicker. But then, of course, you risk focusing on too narrow a market and not having enough opportunities for sales.
There is no set answer on breadth – it depends on how active the market is. As the market grows, you need to become more specialist, and as the market shrinks, you need to a bit broader to make sure you’re still making money.
Jamie: What are the biggest challenges for you in winning business?
Charles: The great thing about recruitment is that, if you are a hustler, you can usually win business. You can proactively suggest profiles until you win structured engagements. And then you just have to execute it, and you win more business as you build a track record.
Jamie: An interesting dynamic in recruitment – you’re selling to individuals, and you’re also selling to businesses. Is that true in your case?
Charles: Yeah, very much so. In recruitment, you’ve got to negotiate to manage both sides because you’ve got humans as the commodities of both ends. So, there are added nuances.
Jamie: Which side do you find more difficult?
Charles: You’ll go from one to the other. It can be super easy here and then it’s completely the other way around. It’s always evolving.
Jamie: As a benchmarking exercise, can you give me an idea of how much you’ve made in your biggest year so far in recruitment? Your average year and how that compared to the industry average?
Charles: I think in my first year, I made £80,000 as a graduate in recruitment, and more recently as a Partner in the business I have taken much more. I recently just closed my biggest fee; it was £400,000 for two people.
In firms with longer and more complex sales cycles, the model is one that’s more akin to being in professional services. For the first five years of your role, you sit, and you follow senior recruitment consultants and do the execution for them as they originate. This limits your upside. In these instances, a junior would probably earn £40,000- £50,000, but there’s no way to earn more. I think you spend 10 years getting to maybe, but then you can start taking home £200k, £300k, £400k, £500k after that.
In a contingent seat where you are expected to originate from the start of your career, the earning potential is uncapped. I think people probably go through in like five years from earning, let’s call it £40k to £120k. Unless you can navigate your career to doing bigger fees, or build a team, your earnings will always be limited. Most contingent recruitment recruiters, unless they start building their own business, probably earn – post five years – £100k to £150k, and some a lot less. But then that’s probably the cap unless you build a big team and you’re making money off them, or you start growing the business.
Jamie: What percentage of that contingent recruiter would you expect to be in variable prospects conversation?
Charles: I would estimate that two to three times your basic pay would be variable.
Jamie: How does your industry, the recruitment industry, treat its recruiters?
Charles: Because it’s such a fragmented industry because of the ease of starting your own business, there is a wide variety. There are fewer industry standards, and that’s to the detriment of the industry. A lot of people just will go and start their own recruiting business. That’s the beauty of it. That’s why one of the reasons you would want to go into this industry because of the flexibility you have.
A lot of my competitors– one guy works from home. So how do you control standards as an industry? I don’t have much visibility on either end of the market, the large executive search firms, your hardships and struggles, and your ego, and of all the large contingent market; I don’t know. I’d be interested also to hear someone from that background how they view it. But I don’t have much visibility in that area in the middle, where it’s lots of small jobs.
Jamie: If you’re joining a smaller recruitment shop, what kind of things would you look for?
Charles: In any smaller business, the most important thing is the people that you are working with. Cultures are not diluted by hundreds of people from different backgrounds, so there can be more polarised environments.
If you are inexperienced and looking to build a career in recruitment, I think the most important consideration, whether you ultimately do well or not, is the market that you’re headhunting. We talked about this when we’re talking about the gender, race, age question – it’s about just finding something that suits you. As a graduate, when you don’t know all the different job markets out there, this can be very hard to find. Therefore, an important consideration is to try to make a conscious decision on deal cycle length; a lot of the people that we interview come into recruitment wouldn’t do well on our markets because they might be good on a short-term deal cycle, but probably wouldn’t do so well over a longer-term cycle.
Jamie: How do you go about getting into the recruitment industry?
Charles: [laughs] I’d say 90% of people don’t know anything about it. It’s becoming more known as a profession, but most people don’t go to university with plans to become a recruiter. Some people do study HR and things like that as part of management courses, but to go into in-house recruitment and HR, which is definitely a different job. I think most people fall into it.
Jamie: And what advice would you give to aspiring salespeople?
Charles: We know each other through the Southwestern program that takes people who have got no sales skills and teaches some of them to be very good at selling. The reason that works with people who are University graduates is that they’ve got a very clear structure that it gives those people to work around. If people were just told to go and sell books, they’ll be very few people who would end up being successful without that credibly refined process.
When you’re a young sales guy, you don’t realize how structure and sales process has been refined and improved and formalized over the years to create the right sales structure. Try to find a business where there’s a lot of structure so as a junior salesperson you can concentrate on what you’re selling, rather than how you’re selling it.
A strong structure generally helps experienced salespeople also. Some find it boring to be constrained by structure though and look for a role where they have cognitive workout; even at the expense of ultimate performance.
Jamie: What training would you recommend an aspiring salesperson look for?
Charles: This is an interesting one. I would say that for most salespeople training on sales structure, and product/market knowledge get better returns on their investment than technical sales tactics.
Make sure you understand your product and have a clear structure to your work habits.
Jamie: And Charles, if you were starting your sales career again, what would you do differently?
I would probably reflect that; actually, I am a more corporate guy than I thought. I would probably take the slightly longer option, in a bigger organization, at the start of my career. But you would have never convinced me to do that as a young guy coming out of university. I definitely thought I could run before I could walk, I thought life was short, and about getting it all done by the age of 25 was super important.
If you go down the route that I have done, I think you just have to make sure that you get it right. A risk to consider is that because it is less corporate, your skills are less transferable. If after 5 or 6 years of recruitment you haven’t made it work for you, it is a long road to do something else.
Jamie: Do you think that there are two distinct ways that a young salesperson can go, a more corporate longer-term career that ends with selling, or selling immediately?
Charles: Yes, exactly, and I think this is a very important point to consider. Clearly, if you join a sales team you are in a sales role, but you can also secure a role where you are a technical practitioner initially, but in due course, your role evolves into a sales role. For example, an accountant, a banker, a lawyer, a consultant; as you get more senior, your role becomes sales-focused because you sell to win business.
I started my career not knowing what I was going to do. I always thought I was good at sales, and so I went into a sales job. I didn’t know how many opportunities there were to do sales later in your career across all industries. Even things like engineering involve sales because you have to sell your project. If your skill-sets are a bit longer-term, then yeah, there’s a good opportunity there in other industries.
And there is an opportunity to do well if you like sales. A lot of people leave these industries because, they go into them to enjoy the technical elements, however, as they go through to Partner, the responsibilities become sales-focused. So, it’s a great training ground, but if you’re going into that and you don’t want to do sales, then you need to be thinking about where you’re going to go and do longer-term.
And ironically, the longer I am in my job, the fewer sales I do, as I inherit increased corporate responsibility.
Jamie: Can you tell me about a time when you failed to make a sale, but you learned something valuable?
Charles: The one that I’m thinking about at the moment has to do with understanding client expectations.
I just came off this really big project, a very formal recruitment search. It took 6 months. We interviewed everyone in the market, assessed them, took two references from third parties. It was a very structured, formal process, but I really enjoyed the complexity of the search and the depth of the research that we went into, and the background and context we could therefore supply our client with.
Then I had another search where it was very similar; a similar search in a slightly adjacent market. We still had to do a similar amount of work again, and we adopted the same methodology. And actually, the client really just didn’t want that. We were 5 weeks into our research, and they were like, “Someone applied to us through our network, and actually, we’re going to take them.” All that they wanted in that situation was 6 good people, and then they were going to interview them and hire the best one, and they’re going to take them on, basically.
I think understanding the different options, what different clients might want, and which one they’re actually aiming for, is all really important.
Jamie: Can you tell me, on the flip side a time when you succeeded recently, that shows all the skills that you have developed across your career?
Charles: As you get to know your market and as you become an expert, you build this recruiting business, and especially in our market it is really beneficial. It’s about finding people who have done the right deal, in the right market. And just occasionally you get a really good success where it comes down to something else, but usually, it’s about finding the right person to fit the right company. There are a couple of success stories every year where you’re doing a different search, but you meet someone, and you think, “I know this other firm, they’re not looking, but they actually would be a really good fit for this person.”
And you just do an interview. It works very quickly and just know your clients and know your market, and it pays off.
Connect with Charles on LINKEDIN