Giles Lewis

Talent Acquisition & Exec Search Leader, Open for Work

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

Without a doubt, it would be choosing to move to South Korea and teach English to pre-schoolers after finishing my Masters. At the time I was running the graphic novel section in a bookshop on my way to doing a PhD in Film, but the decision to live overseas, and especially in that part of the world, fundamentally changed everything for me. It opened up my mind, awakened my sense of adventure, broke the parochial mindset I’d picked up through osmosis growing up in England. This decision changed my life, not just introducing me to a place that would go on to be a significant part of my life even now, but also giving me the tools, confidence, and openness for the very global nature of the work I do. I’d never have had the amazing opportunities I’ve enjoyed in either my work or personal life if I hadn’t made that decision.

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

I don’t know how to answer this question. Life is a continuum and not distinct phases. Sometimes I behave very much as an adult and sometimes like a child. As a young teen in some ways I felt I was very adult in the way I lived and how I saw the world, and as an adult I’ve often felt very much like a child- unable to understand a situation, a person, or how to feel or act. Maybe some of that is anxiety, imposter syndrome, or depression- all of which are big parts of my life- and can manifest at work in feeling like a child, especially in my line of work where I’m often dealing with very senior leaders and it’s easy to feel underconfident, confused, vulnerable. Having said all this, I remember feeling like an adult watching Alien for the first time as a kid, or surreptitiously getting drunk for the first time, or living independently for the first time. Was I an adult doing any of those things? Probably not. How do you define being a kid or being an adult other than by age? I’m definitely not an adult sometimes even now, and I’m 42!

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

Actually, there are 7 habits that I’ve acquired in the past decade that have really changed my life, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I did a week long course on this whilst living in Saudi Arabia working for Aramco and I found it transformative then at a time when I really needed it, and I strive to take the teachings into my personal and professional life now, some eight years later. These are habits that can be so usefully applied to all areas of life and work- promoting proactivity, positivity, planning, listening skills, working well with others, and keeping personal development firmly in mind.

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

I’m going to suggest a few, because I love reading and I think we’re all guilty of not reading enough!

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. A transformative approach to living your life and work that can benefit anyone, anywhere.

The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. It’s critical to learn and build more understanding of how different peoples and cultures operate. There is no ‘norm’ and for me it’s always important to battle the parochialism that we tend to fall back to. And a life without curiosity and seeking to understand each other is a life wasted.

A Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan. Not really a book about music at all- this is a series of essays about life, humanity, history, and all sorts of other things besides. It’s a frequently astonishing read and one which we can learn something from, both about ourselves and about the world.

Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis & Quincy Troupe. Not an easy read, but Miles is one of the most important figures of any kind of music over the past 100 years and he left behind such a rich and varied catalogue of the most amazing music. A complicated human being, but we all are. I’d like to see more love for jazz in the world.

The Iliad by Homer. No explanation needed. We should all have read this. Ditto Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy.

Almost anything by J G Ballard. We should all be reading more Ballard, as often it seems to me the world we’re living in increasingly resembles one of his!

5. If you wrote a ‘user manual’ for how people should interact with you, what would be the most important point in the manual?

Be respectful, which to me also means be kind, which also means be forgiving. There’s not enough of this in the world and there should be more.

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

Because I can be quiet, maybe they think I’m less capable than I am and I don’t have an opinion. I prefer to stay quiet, observe, and say something when I feel it adds some value or interest. So maybe I’ve become more of a wallflower as I’ve got older, but you underestimate me at your peril! Ha

7. What is the number one thing you would recommend every person in the world to practice from now on in order to increase their happiness and wellbeing?

Listen to more albums end to end. Don’t stream them. Go to a record store and buy them and then be very intentional with your music. Sit down for an hour and play something end to end and really engage with it. Streaming is turning music into a utility, a background activity, content to be passively consumed. I guarantee if you make music more central to your life and you listen, I mean really listen, to more albums end to end then it will improve your happiness and wellbeing massively!
Here’s three recommendations of fantastic end to end albums off the top of my head:

Gaucho by Steely Dan

Nefertiti by Miles Davis

Crash by Charli XCX

8. When was the last time you felt like an outsider in a group? What/How did you learn?

I feel like an outsider all the time. I don’t think I ever feel not an outsider, and that’s got more pronounced as I’ve got older. I know I’m a weirdo and I’ve become happy with that. On the one hand it keeps me sharp and I follow my own path; it helps me keep an open mind. I like to figure things out for myself; I’m naturally skeptical when I’m being told something. It’s useful in the work environment because it often means I approach things differently, come up with ideas, question why we’re doing it this way, and really try and understand. That’s good in my line of work.

On the other hand, being on the outside is a lonely place sometimes. It means that I struggle to engage with others sometimes because my interests are so esoteric. If I find someone who wants to talk travel, music, watches, sneakers or film then I can go on forever. I can tell you how a spring drive watch works or bore people to tears about the perfect Manhattan but try and talk to me about football or TV or celebrities and I’m useless because I genuinely have no clue what you’re going on about.

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

My mother died unexpectedly just after Covid, and in October last year I took her place on a cruise she and my father had booked around Japan. It had been delayed a few times due to Covid and so when we finally were able to go it came freighted with emotion and significance for us both. I wanted to buy something on this trip that would be a powerful connection with the trip, something of value that would outlast me and that I’d hand down, but also something artistic and beautiful that I knew my mum would approve of.

I bought a Grand Seiko spring drive watch, the ‘Skyflake’, from the store in Ginza, the flagship store with a lot of Seiko history tied up in it. The dial was inspired by the snowy mountains around the Shinshu area in Nagano, which was somewhere we went on the trip that was an amazing day for me. Apart from Spring Drive being a technological marvel born in Shinshu, it’s also a very beautiful watch and every time I look at it it will stir memories and associations within me. The smooth sweep of the seconds hand is a powerful reminder that time moves on, no matter what we’re going through it will end, and we should make the most of the time we have. Also it won’t end up being obsolete in 5 years like a smartwatch!

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

My CD collection.

I’ve been buying CDs regularly since 1992, beginning with Automatic for the People. I used to not eat lunch at school so I could buy an album every week or so. Even when I lived in Saudi I had albums delivered to me every few weeks, and this collection has really built up over time, including music from all over the world and in all different genres. My son did a quick rough count and thinks I’ve got somewhere over 3500 now. The collection fills a whole room. My CDs are a massive part of my life- music can bring you out of yourself and back to specific moments in your life. There are a lot of memories on those shelves. And now my kids are of the age where they’re starting to look through the shelves and pick out things they’d like to listen to, just like I used to do with my dad’s record collection when I was a kid. I’m looking forward to the day when they introduce me to something they like. If I lost my collection I’d be absolutely gutted. Not sure life could go on after that!

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

I’d love to have a bar. In fact, it was a long held dream of mine for some time. It would probably be weird. Definitely a basement bar in a cool city, limited signage so you have to seek it out. Interesting lighting and quirky lights, music posters on the wall, lots of cool colours, some kind of performance element to it- and definitely it would have a music venue in there. I like the idea of clear floors with some sort of living artwork installed underneath, or something for comic effect. It would be called ‘You’ve Ruined My Nite’ and the staff would always ask you ‘How can I ruin your nite?’

Also: table service. Buzzers on the tables please. I don’t want to have to fight my way to the bar like you have to in the UK.

12. If you could witness one moment in history which one would it be and why?

Beginning of the universe. That would be so amazing, just to see everything begin…. probably it wouldn’t be as spectacular as I imagine….. but I’m a big sci-fi nut so I’d like to think it would be dramatic and colourful and have a cool soundtrack. I might even get to glimpse whatever we think of as God, which would be something to tell the grandkids.

13. Can you give an example of a time when you had to learn the lesson the hard way?

In one of my roles there was an incident that happened which meant that we had to exit a couple of team members for some inappropriate behaviour. I stood up for one of them, who was young in their career and I felt had a good road ahead of them at the company and who could contribute something great to what we were trying to build; I was saying we should give this person another chance. For reasons I still don’t understand, that came back to hurt me. This person then made my life very difficult. I was going through some difficult family issues at the time as well, and ultimately this was a major factor in me deciding the time was right to leave.

I lost a lot of confidence as a result of this person’s actions, and it’s still something I ruminate on and try to extract some learning from years later. I learned the hard way that time that you can’t always give people the benefit of the doubt, and that I need to be tougher sometimes, less trusting; people can act in unfathomable ways and you need to pay attention to that. I also learned that I should have stood up for myself and countered the effects of this person more quickly and more effectively than I did. The fact I let it become so personally damaging and damaging to my position in the team was ultimately my fault and I definitely learned that the very hard way.

I’d love to go back to that time and tackle it differently. I think I would now be able to turn it into a more positive situation for both myself and the person involved.

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

Early on in my career I quit for a few months to do a PGCE and train to be a teacher. Naively I thought I could recapture the very positive experience I’d had teaching preschool in Korea. But being a teacher in the UK is very different, and not something I’m suited to at all. I very much admire people that are teachers and I think they’re often criminally undervalued, but I was terrible at it, and hated both the job and the politicised environment of it. And so I went back to recruitment, working in the same agency I left to pursue the PGCE. I’m still close with my boss at the time and forever grateful he took me back. I needed to try it to get it out of my system, and understand that I’m 100% committed to my life in talent acquisition, but at the time it felt like I’d lost my mind- especially since I had a very young son back then!

15. What role do you find yourself playing when you join a newly formed team? Can you explain why this happens?

Often a mentorship or leadership role. I’ve got a broad swathe of experience at this point, including a lot of international experience, and I’ve seen a lot. So I tend to put myself into a position of helping to impart some of that experience and fit it into the context of this new environment. I also really like helping others, so I’m always very keen to do so if I can. That said, my style is also about stepping back and letting others figure things out- I’m there if needed but I don’t want to dictate anything to anyone, and I wouldn’t like someone dictating to me either.

16. Have you ever been the weakest member of a team? How did you handle it?

I don’t like to think any of us in the team are the weakest. We all come with different levels and types of experience, different ways of living, working, communicating, different opinions. None of that makes any of us weaker- we just have to figure out how to bring that to bear in the team in the best way. I’m less good at some things but better at others, and that often changes depending on the context- and also across cultures strengths and weaknesses are different. What can be a strength in a Silicon Valley tech culture might not be such a strength in a huge corporation in the Middle East for example, but there will surely be aspects of it that are.

I’m quite a mild ego I think, and so I probably underestimate my own strengths sometimes, but I try hard not to think of people as being strongest or weakest. We’re just different, and none of us is finished, and none of us is perfect. That’s part of the interest of life.

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

That everyone needs to be producing content all the time. Linkedin seems to have become full of noise, people pontificating, giving often fairly banal advice, boasting, finger pointing, endless selfies. I really don’t believe in telling people what to do, but it’s a long scroll sometimes to get to the value I used to see on my timeline. It makes me long for the halcyon days of everyone posting the same Steve Jobs quotes. We really don’t all need to be creating content- it’s OK not to do that and you can be perfectly successful and happy without doing it. And I do wish people would stop trying to encourage everyone to create stuff and making us feel bad for not doing it. I get why they do that and I’m sure they feel they’re being helpful, but the world is noisy. Sssssh!

Oh and I’d also really like to escape this constant friction between in-house and agency recruitment. I find it so… Depressing. You hear it less now, but you still do hear that in-house recruiters are failed agency recruiters and agency recruiters are just sales cowboys. That’s definitely not the case on either side and I’d really like this animosity to go away. They’re really different roles and environments, and I don’t think that’s well understood- probably more on the agency side. When I’m in-house I firmly believe that agencies and search firms can be a great channel to use- they’re not always the one you need, but sometimes they are. You pick the right channel mix for what you need at a particular moment in time and a good, trusted partner is often a key part of that mix.

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

I think it’s humility and always wanting to learn, inquisitiveness. You need that in this job and it keeps things interesting. I’ve worked across a number of industries (financial services, healthcare, oil and gas, industrial, energy, tech, retail) and across a number of geographies and cultures and it’s the constant learning that keeps it interesting. We’re really lucky in this line of work that we have the opportunity to have such flexibility and work in different companies, industry sectors, and countries. The opportunities are vast.

I think of myself as very unfinished and always open to learning new things. I think that, coupled with my quieter, humble, empathetic approach has stood me in good stead. And patience- you need a lot of patience! Endless patience really. Maybe I mean resilience…..

19. If you could add a question for the next person to answer, what would it be?

“What keeps you in talent acquisition? Why? ”

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

Hmmm. I’m not sure!

Thank you to Giles Lewis or taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune. Make sure to follow Giles on LinkedIn




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