Sam Newell

Founder, Alvarium Talent

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

Like a lot of us, I completely fell into recruitment. Honestly, I had never even heard of a ‘recruitment consultant’. I was in my early 20’s with no idea about what I wanted to do with my life. I’d somehow got myself a job sales selling hi-fi speakers – that tells you how old I am! The chap who was supposed to be training me on my first day, was in his last week in the job and told me he had a new job “working in IT recruitment”. I must have bought into his story because, as per his instruction, I went and bought an Evening Standard that Thursday, which was how you got recruitment jobs back in the day and started calling around. I spoke to someone who said I didn’t have enough sales experience, but if I could get myself some MORE sales experience, I would be a more attractive candidate. I took his advice and while I never planned for recruitment to be my long-term career, here we are 25 years later!

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

I became a dad in my early 20’s. I met a girl who already had a baby son. I was young and the relationship was not serious until her son started calling me dad. I had no plans to have children, I’d honestly not given it any thought at all, but it just happened and at that point I knew I had both a chance to do someone really good, to be someone to that boy and that I was going to have to try to grow up. Being a dad in your early 20’s is not easy and I got lots of things wrong as an inexperienced dad, but my son who is now in his mid 20’s is hard-working, a character and a dad himself.

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

I’ve become much better at balancing work and the important things at home. I own a small start up which can be hard work at times, but I have twins at home at pre-school age and that is hard work every single day and even harder work if mum or dad are busy with work. For me that means I try to be around for nursery drop-off and pick-up wherever possible, which has the added benefit of getting me out of my home office and into the fresh air. I was a dad in my early 20’s and the idea of taking time away from work to play an active role as a parent was almost the opposite of what was expected to be successful in agency recruitment. Thankfully times have changed, and I now get to be there for my children and my colleagues and clients.

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

I don’t get the chance to read much but I love an audiobook in the car. Admittedly, that means my choices are heavily influenced by the narrator they’ve chosen to read the book. If the narrator speaks too quickly, or slowly for example, I am unlikely to make it past chapter one!

Three audiobooks I would recommend listening to are:

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz – Ben is one of the most successful investors in Silicon Valley and he tells stories of leadership from sitting on the Board of some of the biggest successes and failures of the last 20 years. I love the concept of ‘peace time CEO’ and ‘war time CEO’ and how depending on the climate a completely different set of skills and behaviours is required to be successful.

Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? by Harriet Beveridge and Ben Hunt-Davis. This is the story of a rower trying to make it to an Olympics and ultimately gunning for gold. Interweaved are lessons for life and business and you are repeatedly challenged to ask yourself ‘will it make the boat go faster’ when it comes time to make a decision on whether or not to do something or not. It’s more interesting, than I’ve made it sound, I promise.

Barry Hearn: My Life: Knockouts, Snookers, Bullseyes, Tight Lines and Sweet Deals
by Barry Hearn – the most recent audiobook I’ve listened to. I knew of Barry Hearn as a famous boxing promoter from the 90’s, but I had no idea what a colourful life he has led. If you want to know why anyone would want to watch snooker or fishing on the TV, you’ve got Barry Hearn to blame. The whole thing is laced with stories of run-ins with Don King, his relationships with Chris Eubank, Prince Naseem and his best friend Steve Davis. If you like sport and business, you’ll like this book, and he does a good job of narrating it himself.

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

From a very early age I really enjoyed trying new sports, taking up new hobbies and generally just learning about new stuff. The bit I enjoy the most, is that early stage where you go from knowing nothing about something to being half decent at it. It’s the bit where the learning curve is the steepest. My tendency is to fully commit myself to the task of learning about this new thing for a while until I feel the learning starts to slow or the gains become more marginal. Then, I’ll go and do something else in search of the steep learning curve again. I guess this means that I now have very broad experience and I find that I can pick up most things quickly with a shorter learning curve than most. That said, people that don’t understand my approach have always referred to me as ‘faddy’ and talked about me not sticking to anything, not really understanding why my approach is different to theirs. I think the idea that sticking to one thing, whether it’s a sport, a musical instrument or a hobby is somehow better than getting broad experience is misplaced. Both have their place and both have merit. I spend what little free time I have currently practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as well as wrestling and judo. I’ve done Jiu Jitsu for ten years now and the learning curve today is still as steep as it was when I first started and that’s probably why I still love it.

6. What is your untrainable superpower?

Two things come to mind that in tandem work really well together, I am pretty resilient and I’m also a real optimist. I think my resilience is a product of my life so far. I grew up in East London and while I had an incredible family, I experienced lots of things that helped me to be mentally pretty tough. I can’t tell you where my optimism comes from, it’s always been there. I tend to look at the positives most of the time and I genuinely believe that with effort, things will turn out well. Most of the time I’ve been proved right I am pleased to say. I love being around positive people and I hope that sometimes I am able to give others some of that positivity.

7. What is that thing which is OK to ask you about, but which other people are wary to do so?

This one’s easy. I am a Grandad in his 40’s. People are always curious but often unsure whether they can ask. As you can probably tell from this interview, I am typically an open book and assuming you buy me a glass of wine first, I am usually happy to share!

8) What do you think is acceptable today but will become taboo tomorrow?

Great question. You can see the changes now in conversations around salary which I am fully supportive of. If we are to fix the gender pay gap and create a more equitable job market we need to stop basing job offers on current or previous salary otherwise those who are underpaid remain underpaid. The sooner recruiters stop asking about current salary the better, we need to take our internal clients on that journey too which I am pleased to say is happening, just not as quickly as I would like.

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

I bought myself a watch making kit before Christmas after seeing a random advert on instagram. I am not sure why I thought I might enjoy it but I thought the experience of making a watch might be relaxing in some way as I figured it must take some concentration. I’ve now made more than a dozen watches, including watches for family members and I have to say I’ve really enjoyed the process. I’ve become half-decent at it and I enjoy searching for the components and seeing an idea come together – I sound like such a geek. It’s a nice way to relax when the kids are in bed and I have time to wind down.

10) What’s your favourite meal? Can you say why?

As anyone who has worked with me in the last year or so will tell you, I am a huge fan of pasta. I was working with a strategy consulting client for much of the last year and they had a ‘guidos’ within walking distance and as I was only there one day a week, I pretty much only ever ate lunch there. I wasn’t always a big pasta fan. I found myself in Rome in a restaurant on my own early last year. I ordered some pasta thinking I was ordering something completely different and I was somewhat surprised when a bowl of pasta in a cheese sauce arrived. I ate it and fell in love with ‘cacio e pepe’ and I now make a mean ‘proper’ carbonara too.

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

I’ve thought about a similar question before, and this is where I think us recruiters might not be at our best. In my version of the question, I’m washed up on a desert island with a bunch of strangers introducing themselves as builders, chefs, plumbers and then they get to me and I tell them I work in talent acquisition! I think somehow I would end up leading this group of people who all clearly have far more practical skills than I do. I think I am pretty good at solving problems and something else I think I am good at is getting people behind an idea which means I can find myself in the role of leader even when others have far more useful or practical experience.

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

It’s got to be Darth Vadar, a promising apprentice who goes to work for the wrong firm and gets caught up in toxic workplace practices. He is clearly conflicted and wants to move to a firm with a better culture and benefits, but his controlling manager just won’t let him go without a fight. A story recruiters hear every day.

13. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received? Who gave it and when?

I originally planned to start Alvarium Talent a few years earlier than I did. I’d resigned from my role with a small management consultancy, and I was intending on setting up an embedded talent acquisition provider but I was in two minds about whether I should pitch our solution at the consulting industry where I had the most experience, or early stage tech. I ended up having a coffee with someone who had been my boss at the consulting firm for a while who gave me some insight into what the consulting firm valued in me as a Head of Talent and feedback that in his view, I should certainly focus Alvarium Talent on supporting the consulting industry. As it happens, fate had other ideas, my wife and I found out we were pregnant with twins just weeks afterwards and I ended up going to work for another consultancy in Heads of Talent and People roles for another 3 years before starting up on my own. I recall what my old boss said very well however, and it certainly helped me make up my mind to focus all our attention on supporting consulting clients. It was the right decision.

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

Yes, unfortunately. I was asked to deliver a piece of work by the CEO of a consultancy as a favour while we discussed a much larger piece of work. I’d worked with the CEO before as a colleague at another firm and as I was the person they picked the phone up to when they had a talent acquisition problem I wanted to help. Unfortunately, a difference of opinion at Board level resulted in a change of leadership and subsequent cancellation of the search we were delivering. When it came to getting paid, I realised that I’d dropped the ball and not chased the contract which remained unsigned and our invoice remains unpaid to this day. I’d been complacent given the CEO and I had a pre-existing relationship. I had never imagined they’d be gone before I’d get paid and I dropped the ball. We win most of our business based on pre-existing relationships or referrals. I’ve learned the hard way however that even if the buyer is someone you have a great relationship with, chase the contract!

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

I suppose some sort of reluctant leader often, at least in the early stages. I am perhaps not the most experienced manager, or the best at delivering something large or complex, but I can’t tolerate a leadership void so if nobody else is leading, more often than not, I will. I am also pretty good at getting things moving from a standing start. I suspect most of the time others on the team are pleased that someone has stepped in to lead, although I might not always be the most qualified so perhaps not the best long term option.

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

Yes, probably quite often actually. I’ve worked in some incredible consulting firms so I am often surrounded by people who are clearly much brighter than I am which can easily lead to imposter syndrome and impact your confidence if you’re not careful. My approach is to reflect on how lucky I am to be working with such great people and focus on the value I can add even if that might be outside my core areas of expertise. I see it as a compliment that I am there and an opportunity to learn. I was on the operating Board or Senior Leadership Team at my last consulting company which was a new experience for me. I’d been on HR and Talent leaderships teams before or brought into the leadership team meetings to talk talent before the topic changed and I exited stage left, but this time I had a seat at the table. I wasn’t always the most qualified when topics turned to financials form example, but I looked for ways to add value even though at first I felt out of my depth from time to time. I became the Ops Board Chair for a period of time and one of the projects I delivered was to benchmark and rebaseline our rate card for the UK and US. Not a project that you would see a Head of Talent delivering in most organisations, but I saw an opportunity to add value, so I took it.

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

The value of personality testing. I know this is a hugely divisive topic and there are business psychologists who will be spitting out their tea reading this. Personality tests are hugely influenced by the candidate’s level of self-awareness, their self-image and to some degree things like self-esteem. None of us have a truly accurate picture of how we behave in the workplace, if we did, feedback wouldn’t be as vital and valuable as it is. Watch one episode of the apprentice and you’ll see that there is difference between believing you are a leader and being a leader.

18. What is your biggest professional regret? What do you think might have happened otherwise?

That’s a really hard question to answer. I like The Story of the Chinese Farmer by Alan Watts, if you’re not familiar with it the moral is that it’s almost impossible to tell if something is good or bad fortune in the moment, and that it’s only possible to say whether you benefited from something sometime later by reflecting on what happened next. With that in mind, there are a bunch of things I could say to answer the question – Jobs I didn’t get or accept, clients I missed out on, hires I didn’t make, but right now I am running my own businesses, working with an amazing team of talent acquisition professionals that are on the journey with me and we have some great clients, so with Alan Watts in mind I shouldn’t look back with regret, should I?

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

What do you think the next big development in talent acquisition will be and why?

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

Michael Blakley, CEO of Equitas. He’s just raised a round for Equitas and they’ve just signed Michael Page as a client so they must be doing something right.

Thank you to Sam Newell for taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune. Make sure to follow Sam on LinkedIn.

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