Stephen O'Donnell
Chairman, National Online Recruitment Awards

1. Do you remember a time when you were happiest as a child? Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing?

I always loved making things, and showing what I’d made. I grew up with meccano engineering sets, and would mostly be found behind the couch building cranes, tanks, and trucks. In the Boy Scouts, I’d be the one putting up rope swings, building fires, and working out maps. From electronics to carpentry, to DIY, I have always taken things apart and put them back together. Never sporty, never the leader, but always the person who could work things out.

2. Did you have a favourite teacher at school? Who was that person and what did they teach you?

I only vaguely remember individual teachers, so that’s a no. I do remember working much harder for a particular female chemistry teacher, but I suspect all the boys in that class did the same.

3. If you could write a brief note to your 13 year old self, what advice would you impart in it?

If anything can be done by anyone, it can be done by you. Practise more on your drums, as that will be a great investment.

4. What seemed like an inconsequential decision at the time, but in hindsight turned out to fundamentally reshape your life?

I built my first website in 1998, for fun, and for my business. I’ve been doing it ever since. I initially found that with Microsoft Frontpage, I could download the website of a recruitment agency in Fresno, change the logos and some text, and then upload it to my own web domain. Looking for an online directory of recruitment agency websites in 1999, I realised there wasn’t one, so decided to build This was a directory of every agency, job board, employer and publication in the UK with a website, and led directly to establishing the National Online Recruitment Awards in 2001.

5. At what age did you become an adult? What happened, and how did you know?

Immediately after school, aged 17, I went to work the summer season on the Isle of Man. It changed my entire personality. I distinctly remember the change in me after 1 week.

6. What habit or behaviour or belief have you recently acquired? Why is it now in your life?

I do high cognition work in the morning – sometimes as early as 5 am – and do calls, and meetings and lower cognition work in the afternoon. It’s in my life because I don’t have to commute any more and I get a good 8 hours of quality deep work before the rest of the working day begins.

7. What do you think is true that most people think is false? What do you think is false, that most people think is true?

I think it’s true that people can work together without a manager and be self-managed and equal. That we’re only motivated by money.

8. When was the last time you changed your mind about something really important? What was it and what lead you to change your view?

I changed my mind about the BBC having unbiased reporting. Brexit and election coverage let me down and changed my views on this institution’s impartiality.

9. What are the three books that you would unhesitatingly recommend to others? Why?

It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson

10. Name a well-known person you admire and explain why you hold them high esteem?

Rutger Bregman – who is calling out everyone from billionaires and politicians to economists and business leaders for their part in the growing wealth divide.

11. If you wrote a ‘user manual’ for how people should interact with you, what would be the top three things that would be useful for them to know?

Have dreams and share them with me as enthusiastically as you like; Go deeply into things – no superficiality or surface level only; and Be prepared for my disdain of the word – can’t.

12. If we were to go and speak to people who don't think very highly of you, what do you think they would say?

That I’m naive, fixated on work, that I try and hold too many relationships at any given time and don’t have enough credibility in my professional field.

13. What’s one misconception people generally have about you?

That I need to be around people all the time. I don’t. I love solitude.

14. What personality trait has got you in the most trouble? What kind of trouble does it get you in?

My interest in people. Misunderstanding of motives. Openness mistaken for over-familiarity. People think I have ulterior motives.

15. What is your untrainable superpower?

Lifting others.

16. On what topic would you never make a joke?

Someone’s heritage. They can’t choose that and it’s probably a huge part of their identity and beliefs system.

17. Have you always had the same political beliefs? If so, why do you think you have held them so long? If not, what event caused you to change your view?

Yes. I believe in a state system that protects the vulnerable and equalises everyone’s chance to succeed in life. Built on the pillars of free education; healthcare and justice. Call it left, socialist if you like. I call it humanist.

18. In the last few days, what news has given you most cause for alarm? In the last few days, what news has given you most cause for celebration?

The murder of George Floyd shocked me into a state of near trauma. So much so that I haven’t found the words to describe what I am feeling yet.

19. When was the last time you felt like an outsider in a group? What did you learn from the experience?

I have often been an outsider. People would assume I’m always at the heart of everything but I’ve been very callously cast aside by many groups and people. It appears I can be ‘too much’ for people at times. There was a group of ‘Social HR’ practitioners I was a big part of in 2010-2016. Around 6 or 7 of that group very deliberately turned their backs on me and whilst it bothered me for some time, it taught me a LOT about how fickle people can be. I haven’t lost anything by not being in their clique anymore, and it strengthened how much I value those who’ve stuck by me.

20. What do you think is acceptable today but will become taboo tomorrow?

I think it’s acceptable to not let on to your colleagues how much you earn that will be taboo tomorrow with radical transparency and value add in the open.

21. What app or tech product have you most recently fallen in love with?

My Google Pixel Phone. Best phone ever.

22. What’s your desktop/mobile screensaver? Take a screenshot and attach it to your answer!

An artistic shot of a Lambretta scooter.

23. What is the best purchase you’ve made recently? Why?

A spongy footrest to sit under my home office desk. Support my posture and feels quite therapeutic that something so supportive is also so soft and comforting.

24. What is your most prized possession? What’s the story behind it?

My most prized possession is my house. I still can’t believe that a council house boy could live in the 3-bed detached house I live in.

25. Cheese or Chocolate? What kind?

Vegan Chocolate – because I don’t do animal products.

26. If you were to own a bar, and you could design it how you wanted, what would it look like?

A 1930s Jazz Joint. Like the Cotton Club.

27. If you were a giant mega Monster, what city would you rampage first? Why?

Milton Keynes. A truly soulless place.

28. If you were to survive the zombie apocalypse, what role would you play in the new society that would follow?

Design what work is needed to stay alive and by whom.

29. Which fictional villain do you find yourself sympathising with most? Why?

King Kong. A big guy who it turns out, just likes to protect his girl.

30. If you could invite any 3 people - living or dead - to your final dinner party before the end of the world, who would they be and why?

Berry Gordy Jnr; Jacinda Ardern; Martin Luther King Jnr

31. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?

Never sell. Always have a genuine interest conversation and be prepared to walk away with nothing more than a nice exchange with another human being.

32. Can you give a work example of a lesson you had to learn the hard way?

I was overworked, I desperately wanted to try and put together a leadership event to symbolise ‘I got this’ I booked the venue got the trainer; and when no delegates came, I was faced with a £14k loss. Because of my keenness. I had a lot of humble pie to eat on that one. Never again put myself in that situation.

33. What's a skill that isn’t on your resume, but your former bosses would recognize as one of the reasons you are successful?

Ability to connect other people.

34. What decision makes you say, “What was I thinking??” when you look back on your career?

Deciding to undertake a consultation/awareness roadshow on my own visiting 200+ offices over a period of 4 months. I was exhausted.

35. Tell me about that one project that was a total off-the-rails disaster? What was your role in that shitshow?

I undertook a work-based accreditation programme that sounded great but was full of bureaucracy – and whilst a good idea, I under-scoped it totally. As I came to the end of my last corporate role, this was one reason why I had to leave. And a couple of other things I did and didn’t do.

36. What’s the one bad quality you don't mind in a colleague? Why?

Pushing things to the last minute. I do it too.

37. Who was the best person you ever hired? Why were they so good?

The current team are the best I couldn’t single one of them out. So I’ll say the best person I ever hired is Jessica-Kirsten-Crystal-Broch-Catalina-Clare-Emily.

38. Who is the best co-workers or collaborator you’ve ever worked with? Now is the moment to give them a shout out - who were they and why were they so good?

Simon Lancaster and I built a Language of Leadership course for my senior leaders at the time. My goodness that man knows about the power of speech and we built a brilliant course that a very choosy leader said was the best thing she’d EVER been on.

39. What hiring heuristic do you generally go with?

Do you want the same things the company stands for?

40. Have you ever been the weakest member of a team? What was the situation?

Yes. I was the newest and most naive of Heads of L&D. I just fessed up and worked with my peers and eventually became the one to throw in the ‘creative’ curve balls. I couldn’t pretend so I was honest.

41. When it comes to our work and industry: what scares you most?

The amount of mediocre professionals who think it’s ok to practice as if it were the 1980s or 1990s.

42. What’s one industry challenge you don’t actually think will ever get solved?

Toxic leadership – some people are just happy being assholes.

43. What common wisdom in our industry needs to be debunked?

Recruitment can be outsourced. The most important decision you make is who is invited into your company and you’d trust someone other than your own people? You need someone who loves your organisation’s purpose and reason for being to make that call.

44. What changes to our industry would you like to see post-Covid19? What changes do you think we will see?

End commutes. Only work from a place if you absolutely have to. What will we see? More shit leadership and people stuck in the 1990s.

45. Who will be the winners & losers in our industry in the post-Covid19 world?

Winners – soulful organisations who make products and deliver services people genuinely need and give a shit about. Losers – people who don’t add value to the world but think they do.

46. Do you have a secret tip, tool or trick that’s contributed to your success?

When you don’t know the answer, be nice.

47. Aside from your parents, name one person who has had an extraordinary impact on your career. What did they do and what did you learn from that person?

A former HR Director who agreed to mentor me and helped me get into HR. I owe her so much for that amazing turn of events to a profession I absolutely love being part of.

48. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions With … ?

C-J Green

49. What’s the one question that I should’ve asked you, but wasn’t on this list?

What’s the phrase I live my live by. And it’s this The measure of who we are; is what we do, with what we have. Vince Lombardi – Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers.

50. Name one person who would you like to read these answers

Siobhan Sheridan

Thanks to Perry Timms, for contributing to The Recruiters Tribune. Connect with Perry on LinkedIn and Twitter

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