Strivin & Thrivin – Ep.28 – Andrew Sully

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Today, Laura Johnson is joined by Andew Sully, Co-Founder & Co-CEO at Talenza.

Andrew is an experienced recruiter and business leader with an entrepreneurial attitude that has got him to where he is today. Championing change and going against the grain, Andrew explains how a rich career, working across multiple industries, has allowed him to perfect his customer service-centric business model. 

Andrew’s proactive, entrepreneurial flair was clear from his time at university, 20 years ago. Identifying an opportunity, Andrew and a friend set up a painting and decorating business to assist their landlord while they were at university. This is where Andrew’s entrepreneurial drive and ability to evolve in the professional world began. 

Andrew’s natural confidence with people led him to consider a range of careers from the police force to sales. Moving from Newport, Wales to Australia, Andrew secured a position at recruitment agency, SThree. Here, he was thrown in head first and exposed to invaluable experience, learning as he went along. As his time working at SThree drew to a close, Andrew admits that he knew he had to do something for himself, having learnt from the good, the bad and the ugly at this global business.

“They just lost their way around customer experience and what made them successful in the first place. They just didn’t change and pivot the business model enough.”

Andrew is a firm believer of evolving in business, continually stressing the importance of learning and growing. Rejecting the notion that revenue should prevent internal evaluation, he explains how he has learnt to prioritise customer satisfaction in order to help his own business, Talenza, thrive.

Setting up Talenza in 2016, Andrew pledged to place customer satisfaction, teamwork and values at the center of his business model. Andrew candidly explains how he was forced to reevaluate and analyse whether Talenza was staying true to these values when Covid-19 hit. Adopting a refreshingly optimistic take, he admits that this crisis allowed him to pivot and evolve.

“If you’re not learning, and you’re not growing and you’re not driving some sort of change in yourself, then you’ll never stay at the top of the game.”

To hear more from Andrew, including how he manages to escape from work, listen to the latest episode of Strivin and Thrivin now!  

FULL TRANSCIPT

Laura: I’m your host, Laura Johnson, and today I’m thrilled to be joined by Andrew Sully. 

To get us started, can you tell us a little bit about your career background and your current role?

Andrew: Career background. So actually, I started my career in Boots. As a novelty, fun start to this, I was pissing my parents off so much, my mum grabbed me, got in the car, and went, “You’re getting a job”. We literally stormed up and down the High Street in Newport in Wales, and we went into every retail shop until someone offered me a job, and it just happened to be in Boots. So I worked in a chemist, packing shelves with loads of old women. Was my first job.

I’d set up my own paint and decorating business seeing opportunities. I really didn’t know what I was going to do in my career. I actually thought I was going to be a policeman or something. Honestly, I had no clue what I was going to be. And just everyone said that I was good with people I should get into sales. And I literally remember it was pouring down with rain. I was in my Corsa – orange and a friend called me and said, “I just went to an interview with a company called S-Three. I’m shit scared. I’m not going to take it. It’s not for me, but it’s in recruitment. I think you should like call them”.

And that’s how then I got introduced to my career in recruitment and started with S-ThreeSo, went in there completely oblivious, started in recruitment, turned out I was all right at it. Day one, now my interview process was about 20 people in the room. And they sold how big of a dream and growth. And I turned up on day one in my job, and there was five people. And the guy that was interviewing me left set up his own agency and took all the people.

So, my initial start in recruitment was… I was very ignorant, maybe better companies out there because I was one of the experienced people in the room after about a month. So, we started out to train rookies even though I was a rookie myself. Looking back now it was an amazing experience like essentially helped return reign in office without really having any experience just got told, right, just call people, win jobs, fill jobs and just learn as you go. But they did have an amazing setup of training, which helped with some of that stuff.

So, started the recruitment and then come to Australia help set up that business in Australia, which is fairly settled. So, we got to about a hundred people, a couple hundred million revenue, but I knew my days in a global business were getting numbered. Maybe it was that business, but I just knew that I had to do something myself. So everything that I loved about recruitment and everything I loved about what they did and what good bits, but I learned from all the good and the bad and the ugly of the industry and what they did and what other people did and didn’t do. And then we set up Talenza and so we’re here today.

Laura: So were you just with that one recruitment agency for like that moment to here and then Talenza?

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. So I joined, they were a private business. It was very entrepreneurial, S-Three. So they set up it was like 87 or something or 1990s when they started exploding. So I think they went from within the first five years or so, they went from zero to 50, but they went to 50 to like a thousand really quick. So they floated the business in 2004, I think it was, or five and there was a hundred people in the room that turned millionaires on that particular day. And now there’s multi-brand approach I think in London at the time.

You can never do it now because the cost of hiring and all the rest of it, but they had this multi-brand approach and they, I think one of the fifth or sixth employee was going to leave and they said, “Don’t leave. We’ve just set up a competition.” That’s where S-Three was spawned. So then, they had these multi brands, Progressive, Huxley, things, and I think maybe had like 12 different competing technology recruitment businesses in London. So they like saturated the market through just building multi-brands competitions.

So, it was like an amazing business, but you turn up and there was every year, backseaters at this Christmas party and every brand turned up, but on the day, like on the battlefield, you like hate each other. You’re winning jobs off Computer Futures and no one talked, no one hung out with each other. You would like essentially be competitors. And then you had this Christmas party together. So it was like the funniest thing.

But the guys who set up the business, the four original founders, masterminds. All highly wealthy, successful people and drove an amazing business culture, global business, I think they just lost their way around customer experience or what made them successful in the first place. They just didn’t change and pivot the business model enough, I don’t think. Which is around, I don’t know they’d come through like so many booms that just everyone was hiring and any client would listen to you and they could dictate to clients because at the time they were one of the first recruitment agencies or the thought leaders.

And so they could like bully their way a little bit around stuff. But as competition grew, the market got more competitive. I don’t think they really understood they needed to change. And still to the day, I think they are very successful in America and Europe. They’re probably the two strongest businesses. And I think they actually operate differently than how the core British business operated, but that comes down to strength leadership that was sent to those countries at the time. I think.

Laura: So, I guess in terms of that then, what were the biggest lessons you think from there that you took into your own business?

Andrew: Customer experience. One of the first projects we implemented was customer satisfaction. So since day one, we’ve measured customer satisfaction and it was, kind of, I think the most simple thing as a business can do. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to implement, but I think you’ve really got to truly believe in why you’re doing it. And as an industry there’s a couple of different components here. One from an internal perspective, if you want to scale something outside of yourself, just some fun facts for you, like 91% of recruitment industry global is less than 10 employees.

So then, most businesses are run by a X top biller or somebody trying to do it by themselves for multiple reasons. But trying to tell a salesperson that they need to change and adapt their ways is generally tip for hire, right? You’re dealing with someone who thinks they know best, an ego-driven person. So, it is always quite hard to tell, especially the top people that maybe you could communicate better. Maybe you could be a bit more collaborative with your team. Maybe you could be a bit more responsive with the clients, whatever reason.

So for me, I wanted to always create a business that was bigger than ourselves. And part of that then was how do you drive a consistent culture and behavior that you don’t have to be mummy and daddy and sit there everyday for people to behave that way. So build it on values, measure your customer satisfaction based on your values and that should then in turn, drive your culture and what you expect, post just you doing it and showing everyone that you expect, what you expect.

So, customer satisfaction was that and then culture and driving behaviors. So do the right thing. And then the second thing was that what I learned over the years, people got away with murder because they’re a top biller, essentially they would say, “Well, I bill you lots of money. So piss off, I’m not changing my ways. I’m not doing that.” And so people were leaders, what I saw, were allowed people to behave in a particular way because they were too scared to lose that potential revenue. Because as soon as that person leaves, that money would leave with them. 

So I never wanted to be hung by that. And I wanted it, what’s more powerful than the customer saying to you, hey, so go up to people even today, we’ve never had any core issues with someone like that in our business, but implementing customer satisfaction is absolutely the biggest learn of how do you scale something bigger than yourself that has consistent behaviors, post just you and then catching that feedback from clients so early on that it doesn’t become part of your brand, because all it takes now actually people are always out watching for recruitment agencies to slip up.

They want you to make a mistake or their assumption is, well, you’re all like that. So as soon as something happens, they’re onto it as well as a client perspective. But there are a lot of people in the industry that have bad behaviors because they’ve never been addressed. So for me, it’s not my feedback. It’s what the clients are telling you, that you can be the best recruiter in the world, but if your client says to you that if you’ve got a consistent pattern of behavior, then change it. And for us then, if that pattern behavior doesn’t change and it’s impeding the business, then they got to go.

Laura: So I guess on that end, so we got up to you starting Talenza. How’s that journey gone so far?

Andrew: Yeah. Well, it’s kind of a long answer. I always hate talking about it. I actually find that we’ve done really, really bloody well. Right? We’ve achieved things that not many people have achieved in the timeframe that we’re going. And we tell people that we’d been around for four years and they’re like, “You’re here. And you’ve done that in that timeframe?” What we’re told is not many people have ever done that.

So, it was really like an amazing grounded feeling that we’ve actually achieved those things, which is pretty cool, but it’s always, I always find it hard to talk about it. Because we just do what we do well, and we just enjoy what we do, so we just carry on. Simple as that really. We’ve got like 40 people and probably got near like 50 million revenue now. So it’s been fun.

Laura: I guess you could say that… I know, sorry, that you have done amazing things and you’ve got an amazing team. But I think what about when you first started to now, do you think there’s anything that you wish you knew four years ago?

Andrew: COVID had come at a really good time for us.

Laura: Said no one ever.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, it was probably painful. Yeah. We probably should just send everyone for three months, but we really sat on our values and ways in doing and growing and things are going great. And it was aggressive head end growth, but I don’t think we were true to what we were saying in regards to the hiring around our values. I think we hire good people and people that have left us so nothing bad to say about them as an individual person. It was then we allowed things to slip into our business that we wouldn’t today.

And so the learn was we have COVID when you go through a crisis or that time period, what we thought we had and what we’ve always wanted was a business that was built on teamwork. People working together, customer first, team first and work together to be successful because that’s really what was making us successful. When the COVID hit, we soon saw people’s true colors to a certain degree. When your in a crisis, you know the person that’s going to put the handout to you or not. Right?

And then that allowed us to really assess what we were about and were we on track with being true to ourselves, what we were saying and the rest of it. So, maybe not like it’s more about through the experience of the last four years and having COVID has allowed us to really solidify this is who we are. We were bending ourselves more to trying to convince people. And that maybe lend itself that when you first setting up and no one knows who your brand is and you don’t have the recognition and you don’t have all the clients that we have today that we had then, you have to bend some of the things to get people in through the door. And that allowed us then.

So yeah, I think it was about July, August last year, we were like, “No, no. Do you know what, we’re a business. This is what we stand for. You either like it, or you don’t like it, you’re already on the bus or you’re not on the bus.” And that caused a few people to go, “Do you know what, maybe this is not for me. This is not right.” And we’re all friends still and talk and hang out. But it allowed us to be strong.

We were strong in the conviction of what we wanted. We were strong that we believed that we could succeed. And we were strong that we had a good platform that we could offer to people that were more aligned to what we wanted. And then from there we’ve doubled the business then. So we come up with one of those scary conversations, you’re like, “Can we deliver this. Everyone can just like pack up”. But we were confident they weren’t going to, but it was nervy times to deliver some of those messages. But we’ve been a stronger business from it, I think.

Laura: That’s awesome. Like the chance to just reset and reevaluate and then go this is what we do and what we wanted.

Andrew: Some of the things I learned at S-Three, they were so adamant about sticking to stuff that worked in the ’80s and ’90s and oh, we’ve done this for 20 years, we’re never going to… You’ve got to be able to pivot and change. And you also got to be strong to who you are. At SThree they were actually the upside, they were very strong and knew who they were. They just hadn’t evolved. I don’t think. But yeah, it’s been pretty cool to do that.

Laura: Yeah. I think that might be an understatement, but sure. We’re going to go back to you rather than the business. What do you think has been the best or worst career advice you received along the way?

Andrew: Again, this is having worked in multiple countries, having multiple leaders from S-Three . And even then a reflection as the industry, this is like partly here is how we’ve set the businesses and how we operate as an industry in recruitment, you work so hard to be a consultant and to be reputable and all the rest of it. And you become a leader. And then all of a sudden businesses force you internal. And all you do is end up just micromanaging.

This is world is it’s all numbers driven, like, why haven’t you done this? Why don’t you have this many calls? Why haven’t you generated this much business? And that was always the advice. I remember, I got a call. So I’d won Team of The Year, I’d won Director of The Year. Had the some of the best churn globally out of like 3000 people from a team and I won an award.

My direct boss said, “That’s all well and good. I wouldn’t have given it to you. I don’t think you’re around enough.” I said, “What’d you mean? He said, “You’re not in the office enough.” I was like, “Okay, can you quantify that?” And he’s like, “Well, you’re just not there enough. You’re just not in the office.” I’m like, “But that’s the person then.” I’m like, “Give me an example.” So he’s like, “You know, that guy over there he’s always around.” I’m like, “Well that guy’s got some of the worst results, some of the worst churn. I’m not sure what your point you’re getting at.”

But what they thought a successful leader was and what they were trying to force me to be was someone that sat in the office and just dictated and shouted at people all day to do their job. Whereas what I saw is like the externally, when I looked at who had been successful and understood what they did, they led from the front. I always looked at I don’t think a business could ever be like an EY or KPMG. But if you look outside the recruitment industry, the businesses that bloody successful are your large tech businesses, big consultant firms, from like chairman, partner, down they’re all externally facing. They’re all client facing. They’re all doing a job.

And from top down, they’re all helping each other to develop CBA or SAP. They’re out there together having peer-to-peer level conversations to develop the clients. And that’s what I was doing at the time. And that’s what was making us successful as a team. So, the worst advice was stop doing what you’re doing that’s working and do something that’s not working for 90% of the leaders of that business.

The best advice I think is just amalgamation of multiple snippets. I haven’t got one like unanimous moment where someone grabbed me and went…I see that. Do you know what, there is one snippet that stood out to me. So, I’d moved to Perth to set up a business for S-Three. I was only 25. And when you’re in a bigger office, you could be a bit of a larrikin and mess around. You’re just a high-performing team leader, junior manager, whatever. And you’ve got other maturer people with gray hair that do the important stuff.

And I got sat down and he was like, “You’re the gray head guy now.” And I was like, “Why, I haven’t got gray hair.” He said, “No, you need to be the gray head person. It needs to be, even though you’re not, you now need to be the gray head person. You need to realise you’ve got an accountability, responsibility for people, that’s bigger than you. So it’s not about you. It’s about everyone else. You’ve got other people’s lives, other people’s careers. So you can’t be an idiot.”

Basically, essentially. It was like, are you giving me a bit… Yeah. It was like, you can’t go and get drunk with the team. You can have drinks but you can’t get drunk with them. Yeah. You can take him out for a few beers. You can take him out for lunch, but you got learn to be a tap out. So it’s more of a growing up bit of advice, was just to realise the position that you’re in and the influence. And you got to be the person that you want people to look up to. That’s probably the thing that stuck out to me the most through the career.

Laura: You find out it’s not about you anymore, it’s about them. It’s kind of, yeah.

Andrew: Yeah.

Laura: And then I guess you’ve obviously been pretty successful throughout your career. What do you think has been the key to your success?

Andrew: Someone asked a similar question yesterday, internally, or it was like raised, there’s been people that have achieved far more than me as a recruiter and as a manager. There’s people out there that have built more money or have built more successful, bigger businesses. But I may try and track them down one day and try and beat them. But as it stands at the moment, there’s people out there that has achieved more than me in my career and our industry.

But are consistently performing at the level of over 18 years doing the job, I think it’s more like persistence and resilience of never giving up. And then definitely being able to change and pivot. One of my good friends is like, how… what was he saying? He’s like, “How do you do it? You’ve had to re-engineer yourself like five times”. And so I think the ability to know that you’re not always right.

And what you’re doing is not always working and understand the world around you is changing. And you’ve got to become a better version than you were last year or the year before that. And if you’re not learning, and you’re not growing and you’re not driving some sort of change in yourself, then you’ll never stay at the top of the game. So people that are just trying to do the same thing and be the same person will eventually just be like the blockbuster, right.

They didn’t want to change their model. They didn’t want to change their behaviors and they die. Don’t want to be those grapes that just die on the end of the vine. So yeah, that’s probably persistent, very resilient, never give up attitudes, good old gritty mongrels, couple of my friends might refer to me on the cycling, just caught the grit in me to make sure we’ll get it through, never give up attitudes.

Laura: Nice. And as you’ve touched on cycling, I know how much you love cycling. But what do you do to unplug and switch off?

Andrew: Yeah, that’s probably the only thing. I’ve had quite a few people point out to me that I’m not the best coach or mentor when it comes to switching off or leading by example of it. And I know it’s now a development for me because I love what I do. And I love growing this business and I do find it hard to switch off from work or my brain just always tinkering and thinking. But the cycling is the thing that keeps me healthy and honest. And it is even when I’m doing it, I know it’s bloody amazing for me, not just from physical, but mentally.

That and surfing is the only things where you completely… like there’s no digitals, your phone’s not going. You basically can’t grab a phone and be replying or thinking or reading an article. So mentally it’s one of the best things for me. So, I’m probably not the person that can be the biggest advocate for unplugging, but certainly for me cycling that’s the thing, cycling and surfing is one of the most tranquil things. You can either be like sat out on a surf for an hour and not caught a wave. Sometimes you can catch yourself just actually, I’m just completely switched off and I felt those moments and I’m like, “What?” It’s unreal.

And it feels amazing. And the same with cycling, you could’ve gone 20ks and you’re like, “How did I get here,” sometimes. The biggest stress relievers for me that is probably digitally, just completely switching off and disconnecting from the world. It could be anywhere in the world when I’m surfing or cycling.

Laura: Nice. All right. Last question, just looking at time. Who else would you like to hear from on this Strivin and Thrivin podcast?

Andrew: The Afterpay or Zip guys. Yeah, the Australian tech community, either the Atlassian guys, Zip or Afterpay, someone from that world just phenomenal success. They have changed how the Australian… even how investors look at Australia. They changed their world. Known because the products that they brought to the country and the world, but just how investors see Australia.

How they’re going to change economy, how they’ve created new jobs, how the way we think. They’re politically making waves. So I think they’ve got stories, they’re way in above someone like myself, but they’re people that I look up to and think that’s just unbelievable how they’ve done that.

Laura: Awesome. Cool. Thank you for that.

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