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Global Interview Series: Meet My Australian Friend, Robert Godden – CEO of Essence Talent

Posted on July 1, 2010
Filed Under Australia, Global Staffing Perspectives, Interviews | Comments Off on Global Interview Series: Meet My Australian Friend, Robert Godden – CEO of Essence Talent

By Dave Mendoza

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I take pride in featuring my friend and loyal fan of the mission statement of the “Six Degrees from Dave” audience to further the goodness that is “passing it forward” among fellow industry colleagues the world over. I can state that I hand picked him from the audience at the Austral-Asian Talent Conference to demonstrate the power of peer networking. I made a convert and a friend that day on the issue of open networking and he is today one of the most responsive colleagues – be it 15 flight hours away, I know we can always count on Robert as an enthusiast and a friend.

Q&A with Robert Godden

Six Degrees: Tell us of your home world.

Robert: I’ve been with Anne since we met in 1984. I know a good candidate when I see one! We’ve been married for 24 years this year. Our two boys have grown up and left home, so we share our house in Adelaide, South Australia with our dog and a stack of cats

When I’m not talking recruitment and HR, I’m talking tea. I’m obsessed with the stuff. I have a tea blog where I discuss ethics in the tea trade and a video blog where I explore different teas and tea issues. In fact, I dropped out of recruitment for a year in 08/09 to run a teashop with the family.

Anne and myself met when I joined her band as a bass player – she’s a wonderful singer and an impressive self-taught keyboard player so music always surrounds us, whether we are making it, listening to it or going to see it.

Six Degrees: How many years have you been in the staffing industry?

Robert: The pure answer to that is ten years, though the seven years before that were effectively training me and guiding me toward the industry as we had our own resume business.

Six Degrees: How did you get started as a recruiter?

Robert: I started in computer sales and by age 26, I’d worked up to a position of Marketing and Sales Manager for a small firm, and one of our specialties was Desktop Publishing. One day a guy came in and he’d made himself a brochure-style resumé, and I just fell in love with the concept. I quit my job, bought some desktop publishing equipment and started a resumé creation business with Anne.
From there, I was invited to teach resumé skills on a government program, then to help people create business plans, all the while building up skills.

One day I went for a job as a resourcing team leader, and the guy just liked me. I found myself in the corporate world for the first time in my thirties, and it was weird. Everyone was frightened of the next person up the chain. As I didn’t share that fear, I stood out, and six months later I was head of Research. The previous head had been promoted to head office in Holland, and the other researcher had left. So I was head of a department of one, and nobody had any idea what the job actually entailed. They just told me what they needed to know and I took it from there.

Six Degrees: What languages are you fluent in?

Robert: Only English and a sprinkling of Hindi

Six Degrees: What countries within your country are you accountable for?

Robert: AS CEO of Essence, my focus is executives across the board in Australia, but our main domain is emerging industries, such as green power or bio-tech. If you want to be a CFO or a Company Secretary in these industries, you can’t be a standard old-fashioned type – and that’s regardless of age. It’s more of a mindset. Bluntly, our candidates are people who are going places, and our clients are the people that want them. Also Anne runs employment programs and I try to assist with ideas for placements across Australia.

Six Degrees: How is culture a factor in the hiring practice different from other countries you recruit from?

Robert: I find that at an executive level, things are quite similar – people know the quality they want.

Robert: I think Australians as a whole see recruitment as quite simple, and they tend to shy away from any process that seems complex. It’s more obvious when I look at People Magic, where Anne is doing a lot of work with what Australia calls “Skilled Migrants” and the culture and the expectations can be quite tricky. Firstly the candidates have been told by migration agents they are coming to a land of milk and honey where their skills are in demand, but many don’t realize how insular Australia is. As an example, the first thing she advises clients from Kenya is to put near the top of their resumé that all business in that country is transacted in English. A simple step, but Australians as a whole are a little unaware of the world outside of Australia, the US and the UK.

We did recently have to let a candidate know that shouting at your subordinates is not usual work practice in Australia; He was simply from a place where that was expected! Giving people who are brave enough to move countries to make a better life for their children a fair go is something we are passionate about; we live in a country built by migrants

Six Degrees: Where is your country ahead of the USA in certain recruitment tactics?

Robert: I don’t think we are ahead of the US at all though It pains me to say it. I think the industrial relations environment is different between the two, and that means there’s less scope for flexibility or originality. I recently read that former senior managers in the US are now flipping burgers for a living. That’s wouldn’t happen in Australia; no employer or recruiter would hire someone that is “too good for the job” which sounds noble but isn’t what you want to hear if you’re a former exec trying to save your house after losing your job. That’s not to suggest that either system is better; they’re just different, and ours encourages employers and recruiters to look simply at the candidate that “ticks all the boxes” It makes those situations where you see creativity all the more interesting. I think we could learn from the US in candidate care and responsiveness, too.

Six Degrees: What networking groups are available and influential within Your Country as a whole and within your country in particular?

Robert: I started a networking group on LinkedIn the day after seeing Dave talk at the ATC in Sydney in 2008. The group has only three rules – live in Adelaide, be an open networker, and be prepared to meet occasionally in real life. The strength of that group is that every member is a good contact; it’s not full of network marketers from far away. I built that group because I thought it was important, not with any expectation of profit from it, and I think that has made it stand out. For me personally and unexpectedly, all of a sudden I’m “that guy who started that group ” and people are seeking me out. I’m also impressed by Ian Berry’s and some of the worldwide LinkedIn group, like the RecruitingBlogs one are pretty popular amongst my peers

Six Degrees: What types of training in sourcing/recruitment are available to you and have you taken advantage of?

Robert: Because I was self-taught and I had been head-hunted to set up an entire recruitment practice, I thought I knew it all. Then I spent three days in Sydney listening to Kevin Wheeler, Dave Mendoza, Shally Steckerl and others, and I realized I was a long way behind.

Ever since that, webinars have been my source of inspiration. At least one a week I find myself on-line at 3 or 4 in the morning listening to Shally, Kevin, Glenn Gutmacher, Donato Diorio or others. I also read many blogs, but the only non-missables for me are Six degrees, The Talent Buzz and Boolean Black Belt

Six Degrees: Do you recommend any specific books to gain a broader understanding of Australia’s Culture?

Robert: That’s a tough one. I think there are some similarities across Australia but also some regional differences, in the same way that Texans are different to New Yorkers. But I like to think we’ve all got a strong sense of the absurd, and we are quite egalitarian, but not in a grim way.

Here’s a great example – when we managed to spawn a racist, bigoted, ignorant politician a few years back, the reaction of most Australian was to just start incessantly making fun.
If you react with horror. You give them something to feed off of, if most people just get to a point where they laugh out loud at the mere mention of the person, then there’s no political power in that.

Visit Australia and be prepared to laugh at everything, including yourself, and you’ll get on just fine.

Six Degrees: Tell us about your broader involvement within the staffing industry:

Robert: I’ve tended to be more involved in development and avoided the political or ‘establishment’ side of the industry. For example, I’ve sat on focus groups and advisory bodies to on-line job boards and provided a lot of time and energy to people who were developing software for the recruitment industry in general. Sourcing as a specialty is so limited here that I’ve joined recruiters and then had to have their applicant tracking software modified to actually cope with my work.

Where I’ve made a broader contribution is through direct teaching of individuals around me or through articles, though I believe in “telling it like it is” so some of my articles have appalled my peers. For example, I made 120+ calls to recruiters posing as a candidate and then reported on the response rate, which was pretty bad. A stack of recruiters responded by contacting me and asking how they could improve, but another bunch attacked me and said either I didn’t know what I was talking about, or that they were perfect and everybody else was at fault. When you get a strong reaction, you know you’re onto something!

I’ve also got a deep interest in helping disadvantaged candidates to reach employment, which of course is what my wife Anne actually does, so I like to help out with referrals or ideas and advice. On the candidate theme, being made a Forum Editor of the CareerOne website, which is Australia’s most content-rich job site, gives me further opportunity to help candidates, and as well as being a chance to help, when you do that now it increases the talent pool down the track.

Six Degrees: Can you detail how the recession has affected your particular industry niche

Robert: My perspective is unique for two reasons. One is that I left the industry for a while just before the GFC hit. I actually bought a business with Anne, and our first day was the day Lehmann Brothers crashed. The business was a café/restaurant very much favored by recruiters for candidate meetings, and over the first couple of months we watched that side of the business dwindle. Then recruiters I knew were stopping by to tell me they were on the market, usually involuntarily.

Australia at that exact moment had transitioned from 11 years of a conservative Government to one that, on paper at least was a union-backed Labor one. The new government reacted with an odd plan and just gave everybody $900 as well as picking a few industries to pump billions into. Even though the planning was appalling and the targeting dreadful, it was one of those situations were poorly planned action was better than no action – technically Australia avoided recession. The extra money stimulated the economy enough so that unemployment didn’t go much over 5%, and in my home town in particular, the hard times were in general much shallower that in the rest of the world.

Pretty soon recruiters were hiring again, and a few careers have been reinvented, and a few recruiters have used this as an exercise to strengthen their teams.

Coming out of the downturn, I briefly joined Candle ICT, an IT recruiter with a very strong presence in the Government sector which gave them a steady stream of opportunity, even during the worst of the recession. I’m grateful to Candle, because the couple of months there really re-awakened my passion for recruitment, and while I was running around full of zeal, some venture capital guys met me, saw how I operated and offered to bankroll a new agency, partly to get first crack at the best candidates, so Essence was born. However, it’s sobering to think that In Australia there are 4000+ recruiters less that were in the industry two years ago.

Six Degrees: Aside from simply the generic term “Networking” what specific efforts have you made on your own behalf, or on behalf of colleagues to broaden your opportunities.

Robert: I’ve rarely done anything purely in the name of networking, except for the day when I saw Dave speak and went from a ‘closed” LinkedIn Networker to an open one. Within a week of making the Six Degrees Top Ten List I had increased by network by a factor of 15. At the time, I decided to create a networking group on LinkedIn purely for my home town, and for people who actually wanted to meet in person occasionally. Because I had virtually no Business Development responsibilities, I didn’t create it as a place to capture business, and I think that made it unique. It really is more of a support group.

At times, I questioned my efforts, as it seemed that plenty of others in the group were getting work, leads, even jobs and I was facilitating this as almost a free public service, but it enabled me to build up tremendous quantities of what my friend Kwan Yu calls ‘Social Capital”. The results are opportunities like my own small TV show and some other exposure-type stuff, and I’m now starting to see other good things come of it.

I’ve also always been keen to help others via things like LinkedIn answers, and I think this builds you as a person but also means that opportunity will find you. Lastly, my great hobby and passion, tea, has led to create my own blog on the tea industry and a series of videos about the stuff. I’m amazing how my work in that area is leading to opportunity within my professional life.

Six Degrees: Given your own Trial and Error experiences as a Networker, what advice do you have for your peers on what NOT to do?

Robert: Understand this- LinkedIn has 60 million people who joined to sell, and virtually none who joined to buy. Or consider a ‘networking function’ – again, mainly only people who are looking to sell something turn up, And it’s pretty obvious where that leads, with the succession of people who throw themselves enthusiastically into one form of networking or another, then vanish after a few engagements. I can’t suggest strongly enough to be a giver, not a taker. I’ve spent years connecting people with opportunity, and if it’s outside my field and it seems like a good match, then make that introduction or pass on that information. I find I don’t need to demand payback like I’ve seen some others do- people just love doing business with me. I’m not the sharpest dresser, the most highly qualified or the ‘old school tie’ choice, not the cheapest or the highest profile, I’m just the guy people trust to do a good job and treat them well. I tend to service a client base that doesn’t have job after job on offer – most of them one or two hires per year- yet I’m 100% confident in most cases that their first reaction to a need is to call me. And because of that, I can help them join in with my networks – even though there’s plenty of other good quality recruiters with those networks – knowing they will benefit, but remain loyal.

I do go back again though to my watershed moment – the afternoon in Sydney when Dave Mendoza explained clearly and simply why I should be an Open Networker. If you start with that as your base, you can make the right decisions going forward

Six Degrees: What single event had the most impact on your sourcing/recruiting career? What inspires You as a Recruiter?

Robert: In about my forth week in charge of a sourcing team – my first foray into the recruiting side of the fence – an outplacement consultant told me of an IT manager that had been treated in an incredibly shabby way and then fired. I met him, and two weeks later he was my first placement – at 30% more than the salary he had been on. The phone call I made – his wife answered, because he actually hadn’t arrived home from the interview by the time he won the job – has stayed permanently recorded in my head. Why would you want to work in any other field? I only really work with clients I respect and trust, and I’d never put forward someone that I didn’t think was a good person. The client wins, the candidate wins and how can anything be better than being paid to do that?


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