Laura: I’m your host, Laura Johnson. And today I’m lucky enough to have Hope Dawson as my wonderful co-host. Our first guest today is Neil Gunning, Talent Acquisition Leader and Coffee Connoisseur.
Can you tell us a little bit about your career background on your career?
Neil: So, current roles, so this is probably year 17 stroke 18 for me in Talent Acquisition Recruitment, so, People Ops in general. The first half of that staff was of in agency in the UK and a really good place to learn and train and so on. You ended up having to learn a lot about having fire in the belly and a lot of hustle and get up and go.
Halfway through, I decided I want to be a bit more strategic with it. Moved internal, always loved tech. So, the internal to tech Scale-ups. And as of today, I’m on, I don’t know, number seven or eight tech Scale-ups.
And yeah, it’s just been cool joining businesses at different phases of their life. You know, the problems are different. The complexities are different, the challenges are different, and the way in which you have to approach them anyway. And that was sort of a learning journey, I was intentionally going on, I wanted to join businesses where I was having to stretch myself, I guess.
And today two contracts in parallel, two consulting roles in parallel, one for NextGen.Net and one for Frollo. Very, very different. One of them for Frollo is early stage business that are about to scale. It’s basically everything from execution through to helping them set up processes, to their framework’s capability.
And NextGen.Net, that’s more of a coaching and advisory role. So, running both of those in parallel. On the side of that, the Director of Tech Life Sydney, which is an employer branding as a service platform.
And I’m also the owner of a coffee business, bit a passion project that I set up and started in the last couple of months, but that’s been going really well. It’s been a lot of fun. So, touch wood, that will all goes well.
So that’s probably a big one nutshell, but there we are.
Laura: Okay. I’ve been following the coffee business online. I quite like the updated branding.
Neil: Yeah. It’s a bit… The updated branding has a new Fletch & Bob logo.
Neil: That’s pretty good, yeah?
Neil: And you know where the name of the business came from yeah?
Laura: Your son, right?
Neil: Yeah, Fletcher’s my son, and Bob’s the dog. So the business is Fletch & Bob, and people are loving the name. They go, “Oh, where’d you get the name from?” And my father-in-law, who’s running business number one. And he’s been loving telling everyone and he’s like, “It’s my grandson and his dog”. It’s awesome.
Laura: That’s a really cute story.
Neil: Yeah. He’s he’s like repping his grandson, it’s cool, and now I’m just worried about when he grows up, if he’s going to want royalties, because his name’s on the brand.
Laura: Absolutely. And the dog, what’s the dog getting for Christmas?
Neil: They’ll get social love. They’ll get, social loving and lunch table. He’s covered. He’s good.
Laura: So, I guess then, with your two roles that you’ve got at the moment, what’s an average working day looking like?
Neil: I sense that it’s such a cliche and I’m trying to avoid saying it, but there isn’t an average day. You know, for example, this week has been… Because one of the roles, I’m basically the Head of People for them.
So, it’s broader than just TA, it’s taken on every single one of the more HR side of things as well. So, there’s been some HR things, there’s been Talent Acquisition process, there have been workshops. I’ve just rolled out a new onboarding workshop for Frollo. And we’re about to roll out… We’ve developed an interview methodology for them. That’s fit for purpose for them, and we’re about to roll that out. And of course, all of this underpinned by the BAU stuff, they’re putting the right bums on the right seats, and so on and so forth.
On NGN site it’s coaching. So, it could be anything from around… So, you know, process efficiency, where is the low-value activity, how can we optimise? How can we get the biggest return on investment for what you’re currently doing? How can we add investment to that to get up, yet not to have a multiplier effect. It’s… Yeah.
So, both of them very different, and to be honest, that’s why I’m enjoying both of them because there’s a small amount of BAU that underpins everything. But yeah, the majority of it is project-based, which is keeping it really interesting,
Laura: I guess, with the project-based stuff and kind of going from onboarding to TA to kind of be a new stuff. How do you stay on top of like, what’s happening? Like the newest trends or tech?
Neil: I generally have always taken the approach of it’s up to each of us individually to do that. I don’t think that is something you can do in work time. You have to be executing and actually functionally applying what you’re learning.
Of course, you’re learning on the job as well, but I take it upon myself to be as active as I can online, offline, events, meetups, even just interacting with other people. I try and be as generous as I can with my time. If people ask for catch-ups to discuss what they’re about to do, how they’re about to do it and so on.
But it’s a two-way thing when I’m catching up to try and help someone or, I’m getting a lot back as well. So,t I’m hearing what other people are doing, how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it. And then obviously I can apply that in my context.
So, whether it be me actively going and learning, I mean, I look at I’ll be quite frank, I do geek out on people reading, like Dr. Frank Shaun at hiring studies, 86 pages of like data on why assessment methods are… What assessment methods have all been debunked and so on. I love that stuff.
So, I geek out on that, but at the same time… and I take that on myself as I need to be constantly learning, otherwise, you know, my skills become… They start to become not as fresh, I guess, but you’re constantly learning.
As long as you’re keeping what you’re doing broad, you know, you’ve got your stuff you do day-to-day and your full-time role, and you’re always learning from different interactions and so on and so forth. But outside of that, then you do have to make a concerted effort to try and stay on top of things and make sure that the advice you’re giving his advice that’s forward-thinking and not just, for that day.
Try and find a blend of working in the businesses and working on the businesses. And the only way I’m going to know how to work on them for future, is staying across these things. So, it’s a conscious effort. It’s not… It’s something that the majority of the time it can’t happen by just day-to-day, but it’s a concerted, ongoing effort to stay on top.
Hope: Are there any podcasts or anything that you could recommend today that like, even just top three, that’s really helped you over the last couple of years that you listen to, or even books?
Neil: Books? I mean, I, so what’s, where was the most recent… Laura actually recommended a few to me recently that I’ve not managed to dig into yet. What was the one that you and I spoke about, Laura?
Laura: I think they’re all leadership-based, so probably ‘Unleashed’, because that’s my new fave.
Neil: Was that the one that… I think that was the one I actually said, I’m going to check out.
What were the most recent books… Conscious Capitalism was an interesting one. That was actually off the back of a recent founder of a business that I worked in the last few years and the founder of that business recommended it.
And it’s basically… I like to go for books that aren’t just… That isn’t a lot of hype around them, and try to find the hidden gems. So, for example, that, ‘How Not to Give Up Beep’, I can’t remember what it’s called, but How Not To Give Up, or whatever. That, I just thought was a bit blah, whereas ‘Conscious Capitalism’, it challenges your thinking. People think capitalism, they think negativity, they think money-making elite. They think things like that. Whereas ‘Conscious Capitalism’ basically turns that on its head and gives real-life examples of where conscious capitalism can be applied in the right way.
So basically, for example, the whole purpose of ‘Conscious Capitalism’ being that the more successful you are and the more money you can make that, just by nature of the beast, the bigger your blast radius becomes, the bigger the positive impact you can have, because of the footprint that you’re leaning in the business role.
Lots and lots of examples and individual sort of learnings from that, but as an overall concept, that was quite good. So, it challenged my thinking on capitalism as a whole, by just putting it in a bit of a different light. So that was a good one. What else?
I need to come back to that? I’m trying to think of the ones that actually jumped out. I don’t want to just ream off books just for the sake of it, but I’ll have a bit of a think on that and I’ll come back to a couple of others.
Hope: Yeah, amazing. Thank you.
Laura: All right. Going back to your career then, how do you set expectations at work?
Neil: Communication. I mean, it’s the weirdest thing. Communication is almost going to be the answer to half the things that we do. I over-communicate, and I’ll happily over-communicate. And I’ll own the fact that I over-communicate. I’d much prefer that if someone’s going to… And they’re always on, right now, for example. There has been examples where there might have been expectations set on turnaround teams for execution on a particular task and taking people on about that, and unlearn and relearn work, like an education journey.
Well, in actual fact, if you do it this way, and then this will happen, and if you have this happen, this will be the outcome. And then you supply the data, you supply your experiential information and as long as you can back your assertions and you can communicate it well, eloquently, get across, and if you can do it with, I guess, some gravitas. I mean, thankfully having, having the experience that I’ve had over my career so far, I’m relatively… if I’m going to back something I’m relatively confident in backing it, and I’ll be able to back it to anyone and supply the rationale and the why behind the how.
And I think a lot of it may come down to having that, maybe that substance so that gravitas and the willingness to back to yourself that way. So, some of that will come to just come down to your confidence levels and backing yourself. But a lot of the time it’s just, taking people on an unlearn and relearn route, and educate the education process by ongoing communication.
And that can be anything from… It can be something as high level as developing a new strategy. You know, the world of the TA seems to be this little black box, that from an executive level, they just think is putting bums on seats.
But when they really pull it apart and tell the different factors involved, and you can start speaking to a high level, the why’s behind why you’re going to take a certain approach with things on, and the data you can bring to back it, the projections you’re going to make on the costs, on the benefits.
And when you start breaking that down you can start to take a business on an education journey, and it can. So, it can happen up here, but it can also happen at a really tactical and execution level as well.
Laura: I think the backing yourself point’s really important. I was talking to someone the other day. And I think when they were talking about it, I think your question was around, like, “What’s one of your biggest regrets?”, or “What’s one of the things you wish you knew earlier?”
And I think it was just back yourself. I can, I think that’s one of those things that for me anyways, come with age, almost?
Neil: Yeah. I think everyone early in their career, they think there’s like a secret sauce behind why their manager or their manager’s manager looks so confident and so on. And there isn’t. Just that they get a bit hardened through their career and they, they learn to back themselves better.
Of course, at the end of the day, you do have to be really conscious of… If you’re going to back yourself, make sure that what you’re saying is backable. You have to put in the work to make sure that what you’re suggesting, or your approach has rigor, has integrity to it.
But then, after you’ve run that race a few times, you just start to just gain confidence, and be like, “I can back this and know that it’s actually going to reap the rewards that I’ve seen being reaped elsewhere”.
So, yeah, I think, people, their confidence levels… Obviously there’s the balance. You don’t want to be the overconfident, bordering on a little bit more than that, but at the same time, if you’re, especially, if you’re in a leadership role, you’re there to have an opinion. You’re there to bring your experience and bring your lens to whatever context you’re working in. And if you’re not going to back yourself, why would anyone else?
Laura: That’s a very good point.
Laura: I’ll remember that one next time I’m having a moment. Channel the Neil.
Then, I guess on that then, so career advice-wise, what’s the best and worst career advice that you’ve received over the years?
Neil: It was actually that. It was years ago, and it was just to back myself. So, I had a manager really early in my career who I… His feedback to me was that at the time I need to brush up on some functional elements. He was that kind of manager that gave proper feedback. And I loved critique, harsh feedback. I’ve got a thick skin and I can take that stuff on the chin. And I do genuinely take that as a learning opportunity, which, even earlier in my life.
And he used to tell me all these amazing things but then to always balanced up and swipe me down at the knees as well, towards the end of any feedback sessions. And one of the best of feedback was that, yes, I could brush up on some functional elements and things that I needed to learn about the on-the-job stuff, but that my ethics and my moral compass were always right. And that when my gut was telling me, I should be backing something, and he’d realised over a period of time that he started to believe in my gut, equally.
So, his advice to me back then was to back myself. And as long as I’m actually bringing some rigor to that, as long as I’m not just keeping it anecdotal and everything qualitative, and, if I can actually… If I can sort of blend the data-driven and the qualitative stuff, and then just bring my own gut, and my confidence to that, that he suggest I do need to back myself, regardless of my at the time seniority. This might have been over a decade ago. So still relatively early in my career, but really, really good feedback from someone that I had a lot of respect for, and that stuck with me.
So that was one of the best bits of feedback I’ve ever received.
Laura: I think that’s great feedback and feedback’s a whole different topic that we keep playing around with as well, because I think it might end up being a whole subject in itself and just in terms of how you handle it, how you give it, what you do with it.
Neil: Yeah. I think it all just comes to… as a whole separate topic, going down a rabbit hole with it, but it all just comes down to intent. How you give feedback, if your intent is positive and the person trusts you enough to know you’re intent’s positive, it gives you a lot more of a buffer.
If someone… If there isn’t a trust there, then feedback will quite often be received wrong. Whereas if you are someone who’s known to the receiver, and a respected person to the receiver, it gives yourself a lot more of a buffer too, to give real feedback and they will take it as they will take it as critique they’ll take it as, “Okay, he’s doing this to help me to try and get me to try and support me”, as opposed to, “Oh, he’s saying that in a negative way”.
Laura: I think my favourite part about feedback, it was one at the marketing academy. They’re like, “Feedback as a gift. Just sometimes it’s a really shitty gift”.
And I think like, you’ve just got to accept it and you might not like it sometimes, but know, like you say, if it came with the right intent, it was still a gift, just, it might take you a while to get there.
Neil: “A really shitty gift”. I like that. Look, it is and at the end of the day. It’s hindsight is 20/20 vision. So, when you’re getting it sometimes… I mean, again, I’ve got a thick skin and I know I’ve got thick skin. However, I’ve had some feedback where I’ve been like, “Wow!”, I felt that big.
And, you just, at the time, you try and rationalise it, you try and break it apart, reverse-engineer where that came from, see if you can figure out the point that I’m making. And a lot of the things you just can’t, and it takes another year or so before, and then you reflect back on it and you go, “Oh yeah”, you know?
So yeah, sometimes, at the time I agree, it can feel really shitty, but as long as again, if you’re seeking feedback from the people that you trust enough to take it on board. I mean, I won’t go and seek feedback from everyone. I would try and learn from everyone, but I won’t seek feedback from everyone, unless I trust that the feedback I’ll get, good and bad, is going to be valuable and I trust that the person is going forward with positive intent.
Laura: Yeah, and I think it’s about the intent.
Hope: So, I guess we could just link that to seeing the value of mentoring others, then. Are you a mentor yourself in the current job? Obviously, you’re a consultant, but do you mentor anyone out of the workplace? Are there others asking you for your advice and how do you go about that?
Neil: Yeah. I mean, look, like I think I mentioned earlier, I try and be as, what’s the word? I’m generous with my time, as I can be. I’ve got quite a few, I guess, obligations and stuff, day to day and week to week, but whenever I can catch up with someone for a coffee or a lunch or a brekkie, whatever, to talk something over, or even just phone calls or Zoom calls, I’m generally happy to.
And I think, I tried to be as active as I can, in the TA and the people community. So, you tend to just… Maybe people just get to know what you do while you’re gone, or where you’ve been, and if they are looking to solve a similar problem, they’ll reach out.
So, I do have a few mentor, sorry, mentees that are, I guess in quotation marks, ‘mentees’. They’ve actually asked, and we catch up on a regular basis, semi-regular basis. And then, yeah, throughout the community though, I think there’ll be quite a few people that I could comfortably say that we’ve caught up several times, a bit more ad hoc. And they’ll, they’ll give me a call. If they’re tackling something they’ve not done before.
Sometimes it can be a bit more formal than others. Like I say, the mentees we’ll catch up on a quarterly basis and we’ll either have dinner or lunch or breakfast. And we’ll actually through that quarter, there’ll be compelling questions and things that they want to ask and how to approach it and, what could grow with and what pathways could be in front of them. It could be anything.
And so that’s a bit more of a… I don’t like using the term, “formalised”, because, it’s over dinner or lunch or something, they’re never arduous, but there are specific timings and so on and so forth. Whereas on other occasions, it’s just, people will reach out and say, “Hey, do you mind if I pick your brain?”.
And I’m like, “Sure” and, “Jump on”. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are in our industry. It’s the world of your heuristics, but in the people profession. So even with 17, 18 years of experience, I know this much of something that’s this big.
But if any of that can be useful to someone else, then great. Happy to help.
Laura: I love that. I guess, just in terms of… Obviously you’ve got like a few different types of mentoring in there, have you got any tips around how people could get the best out of their mentor sessions? So, when they’re coming in best way to prep or what to do afterwards?
Neil: Yeah, maybe I can speak to that. I’ve got two mentors myself, so maybe I can speak to that. I mean, because I like to think it, yeah, get a lot out of them. And you have to be quite discerning, you have to make sure you are… You have not just find someone that you like having a chat with and ask them to be a mentor.
You know, you have to be quite, “Okay, what do I want to be learning? What are things going to be important for my growth, moving forward”, then, and select your mentor accordingly. Of course, you do have to have respect for that person and get on really well with that person. But you need to know that if it’s going to be a professional mentor, you need to know that you’re actually going to be able to learn from them.
So, in my occasion, I’ve got two, sorry, in my case, I’ve got two mentors. One of them is… Both of them are my ex-managers. And one of them is as an executive from the people space. And to be quite frank, functionally, he is extraordinary. He’s encyclopedic with his level of knowledge. And I can constantly learn from that. As a human being I’ve watched them to deal with situations that are incredibly complex from a political, behavioural perspective and deal with it with the kind of finesse that I just wouldn’t be nowhere near yet.
And so basically I’ve watched, this person and thought, “Okay I can learn a lot from that person”, and it’s within my functional area. So that was someone who I asked to be my mentor off the back of the site that I knew that I can continue to learn and deepen my knowledge in my fields, you know, seeking excellence in what we do should be something we’re all striving to achieve.
So, when I continue to learn, and so I can learn from him, but then also given the arena that he’s used to operating in, plus the organisations that he’s worked in before, in terms of how to approach, the boardroom, how to approach executives… I mean, most of the work I’ve been doing over the last couple of years, it’s been, it’s been going in, it’s strategy-related and being able to present to our board, to get them on board with the journey, to get a mandate, to know that you’re going to go and execute on something. The ability and the confidence to do that as entirely come from learning from him and know that I’m speaking to the right things. I know about positioning it the right way, and so on and so forth.
He’s someone who I… Whenever we catch up, we catch up quite regularly. Whenever we catch up, I go and of course we’ve become good friends over the years as well. I’ll go in with lots of questions and lots of… And some of those might be really tactical, but some of them might be, “Hey, so this is the pathway I envisage for myself moving forward. When you were at this phase, how did you approach this?”. So, it’s some of it’s the day-to-day stuff, “Hey, this happened last month. Would you have dealt with it differently? And be honest, tell me, what I could’ve done differently?”, etc, etc.
So, it can be… that’s the way I approach it. I actually go in with some questions based on the last events over the last quarter, couple months, whatever. And then I’ll also be thinking bigger and broader in terms of where do I want to go? How can I elicit information to help with that?
The second mentor is not in the people space and he’s was in law firms before moving into technology and illegal, again, another excellent leader, but from a legal background and purposefully. I knew that I wanted to broaden up beyond people. If I’m going to be able to be empathetic to people in the business and outside of a people function, I have to have a much broader lens than just what’s going on in the people function.
So as far as I was concerned, I felt like, okay, yeah, legal, whether we want it or not, they have a say and a place in every single part of a business. They have a broad view across the business because they may have to deal with things across the business, coupled with the fact that they’d like to have that big commerciality that comes from that. I like the fact that legal and tech, like this person, that comes with introductions around the IPOs, M&A and VCs and so on and so forth.
So, it still played into my… Not the people world, but the tech world. And basically, I just saw it as a really good way of me broadening up my knowledge. And again, I’ve, having worked with this person, reported into this person, I was just incredibly impressed.
Entirely, couldn’t be on the other end of the spectrum from mentor number one, on purpose, where one of them would be more of the reserved, balanced, communicative type. The other one is quite happy to go toe-to-toe with a boardroom, with a CEO, with a founder and know that they can back themselves.
And there’s always a happy medium of course, but yeah, I felt, “Okay, this is someone who is very different to mentor number one, but again, I can broaden on my knowledge and learn”.
And again, when I go to catch up with mentor number two, same thing, I’ll be asking questions. And a lot of the time I’ll ask the same questions that I’ve asked number one, and I’ll ask number two, because I know that the perspective is going to be different, and there’s always the happy medium in those perspectives and allows me to then apply my thoughts of the top of it and find where the sweet spot is for me.
So, that’s how I approach mentors.
Laura: I love the idea of comparing perspectives and just kind of making sure, I think that goes… yeah.
Neil: Yeah. I mean, look the end of the day, we’re all human, we’re fellow beasts. We all have our own opinions and they’re not always right. They’re just that, they’re opinions, they’re subjective.
So, and I’m very conscious that my mentors, although I hold them on the highest regard and I have all the respect in the world for them, a lot of the time it’s their opinion, too. And they are fallible too. So, I think by finding, or by getting a couple of different data points from a few different lenses and vantage points, it just allows you to find where the middle ground is and go forward based on that.
Laura: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, just looking at time, we’re going to do two more questions and then we’re going to let you go.
Hope: There’s one question that I feel like… Obviously thank you so much for going through all your career with us. But is there anything that’s not on your LinkedIn profile or your resume that you can share with us, any work experience, any life experience, something that could, you know, that might have helped you get to where you’ve, where you are as well?
Neil: Ooh, tough one.
Hope: I know, we like to end with the tough questions. That’s the way we roll.
Neil: Life experience. Life experience that’s not on my LinkedIn. Volunteering? I mean, I spent quite a few years in the rural fire service and that again, that was just in the vein of community-minded, giving back, trying to not just be putting all my effort into what was going into my bank account and instead trying to think bigger, broader, wider than just the professional stuff and look, beyond that, I mean, to be honest, they’re the biggest thing of recent times, anyway, that’s not on my LinkedIn is that I’m a learner dad.
I mean, I’ve got a two-year-old son, though, so it should be pretty good at it but yeah, dad life is epic and that’s been the biggest focus for me outside of professional pursuits of recent years and apart from anything, the reason why I mentioned that is that, I can hand on heart say that, and I’m not just saying it to be the gushy guy, I’ve learned more in the last two years as a dad than I did in the 30-something years prior to that. You learn so freaking much about yourself as a dad, it’s not funny.
And a lot of that is actually patience, too. I’ve come from a background in calling a spade a spade, being not really sugar coating, etc. And knowing that that was something I did and being okay with it. But already learning patience as a dad and approaching things in a different way, and so on.
Oddly, as crazy as it sounds, I do think there’s crossover in terms of how you behave and how you act and how you approach things in a working life as well. So, volunteer stuff, rural fire service, and dad life, re probably two life experiences that maybe impact professional that aren’t on my LinkedIn.
Laura: And then last question, which is a lot easier than Hope’s question.
Neil: Thank you.
Hope: I’m silent but violent. Just pop in every now and again with that last question.
Laura: Who else from the HR or TA space, would you really like us to interview, or you’d like to hear from in this forum?
Neil: Oh, that’s a good one. Are we talking anything inside that space, whether it be corporate or non-corporate and so on? That’s a really good one. Stanny is definitely one that I’ve always got time for, and I love his perspectives on things Stanley Rolf.
And if you interview him and get his perspective on how the work that you do for example, when he was basically one of the pioneers around Virtual Reality and Talent Acquisition, that was really cool.
And someone who is on the sort of the vendor, sort of agency sides, but who does it his own way and is completely not their standard chip off the agency block, is Troy Hammond from New Zealand. So Troy runs and owns Talent Army. He’s an enigma unto himself. Big personality. His… You may have to beep this, but one of his old sayings was, “No fucks given”.
He’s the kind of person that is a very, very straight down the line. And look, he’s a great guy too, many is very well known for the quality of his work and how he goes about doing what he does. So that’d be a good one for energy and personality and colour.
Is this global, or is this in Australia?
Laura: No, global. You go for it.
Neil: Cor, geez
Laura: Not saying any of them are going to want to talk to me, but you throw names out there.
Neil: Okay. So, who from… I mean, you’ve got to the people that everyone loves to hear from all the time. You’ve got the Bill Boorman families and so on. Shane McCusker was someone, I was super impressed with.
Shane McCusker, his data-driven approach to all things TA and his tech-driven approach to all things TA is awesome. Shane McCusker was the founder of Intelligence Search, which when Facebook enabled graph searching, he built a tool that was free for the Global Talent Acquisition community to use. And he became the authority on using Facebook to find people. But he’s also just a lovely chap.
Billy McDiarmid from Scotland, a fellow Scot, he’s got a much broader accent than me, so you might struggle. Just have subtitles at the bottom, but Billy McDiarmid ‘s ex CandidID, marketing manager for talent, or for agencies, and so on. He’s been entrenched in the Global TA speaking circuit in the world for a long time. Lovely chap, very knowledgeable, very data driven as well.
Laura: That’s a pretty good list.
Neil: Yeah. I could keep going
Laura: Cool. Thank you so much for your time this morning. Really appreciate it.
Neil: Anytime at all. Thank you.