Stephen O’Donnell

Founder, NORA’s & RECex

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. 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.

3. 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. When I first got off the ferry, I literally went along the hotels one by one, asking for a job, and refined my pitch as I went. I was initially shocked at the party lifestyle of hotel staff in a holiday town, but realised I could reinvent myself, and fit right in. What you see now came directly from two full summers on that island in the Irish Sea.

PS. As a waiter, I learned to profoundly dislike tipping culture. I resented being assessed by customers on my work, and tipped accordingly. The tip reflected more on them, than on me. I would often find a way of repaying tips to those who really couldn’t afford to be giving me money.

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

I have recently learned a much fuller picture of how racism affects our society, and in many corrosive ways. I have also realised that slavery is fundamentally a commercial crime against society. The wealthy 1% have always taken full advantage of the power that gives them to bend laws to their benefit. Only wealthy people ever bought and sold slaves, going back thousands of years, and it was the wealthy who exploited Africans, abducted them, and sold them as goods in The Americas, and created a sugar and tobacco trade route that further exploited them. The poorest white people had no agency, and although technically free, were powerless to defy feudal aristocracies bent on subjugating anyone, in order to make more money. Modern Western racism originates here, and is as much a crime of commerce as it is ignorance. No poor white person ever owned or sold a slave.

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

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The beauty of this book lies in the translation from Spanish, as much as the original telling of the tale.  This story is fantastically engaging, with a perfect beginning and end, over a 100 year period.

White Tiger – Aravind Adiga.

The format of the writing here is so different to what any Western reader has come to expect, and the device used to tell the tale is unique. It’s a thriller, but also an education / procedural about rural Indian life, and then city Indian life.

Dean and Me – A Love Story, by Jerry Lewis.

I read a lot of biographies, and am fascinated by the road to success for comedians in particular. This is truly a love story from Lewis’s perspective, and is notable for its candour and detail of the most unlikely double acts.

7. If you wrote a ‘user manual’ for how people should interact with you, what would be the top three things they should know?

Ask about me. Ask for, and value, my opinion. Debate with me thoroughly, challenge me. I will change my mind, if you can convince me.

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

I have heard people say that I am arrogant, too assertive, and obdurate. They would be correct, and also incorrect. I do give the impression that my mind is made up, but I am actually open to persuasion on most subjects.

9. What is your untrainable superpower?

I am inordinately curious. I really want to know what the world looks like through the eyes of others.

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

I do believe that humour enables us to discuss topics which are otherwise seen as off-limits. Used responsibly, any topic is ripe for a joke, especially where it can puncture the forbidden-ness of those subjects. Joking about a topic is not the same as not taking the topic seriously.

11. 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?

I believe in the centre ground, in consensus, in collective decision-making. I am on the extreme wing of the Liberal Democrats, and have never voted for anyone else. I believe politicians should be earnest, boring, predictable, and make no sudden moves.  I believe everything should be done to encourage everyone to vote. I’d give a £10 note to everyone who voted.
I would also insist that prisoners vote by mail for the constituency where they come from.

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

I used to manage bands, so was literally the outsider in the group. I realised that the place I love being more than anywhere else, is in the wings when the show goes live. I don’t feel the need to be on stage, but love having a hand in making the show happen. I love having that access-all-areas, and insight to how it all works, plus I get to see the show.

For the past decade I have helped run a stand-up comedy awards event at the Edinburgh Festival, and also co-hosted late night live podcasts with comedians. I would never want to be a comedian, but love seeing into their world.

In work, and in life, I am drawn to this position too. I don’t need to be at the microphone, but am too curious to be an uninvolved member of the audience.

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

I have a bone-handled sheath knife, which i wore on my belt all through my membership of the Boy Scouts. It belonged to my uncle, and is now passed on to my eldest son. Being in the Scouts from 6 to 18 really formed my character – everything that is doable, can be done by me.

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

I would have a live music venue, with 2 fully cabled stages. As one band finished on stage 1, the next band would immediately start on stage 2. I used to manage bands, and cannot abide the time taken to re-jig the stage for the next band. The audience don’t want to see this. They just want to see musicians step on stage, and play straightaway.

15. 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?

Colonel Tom Parker – Elvis’s manager and mentor.  I am fascinated by the way he identified Presley, and managed to hang on to him through the maelstrom that followed.

Danny Kaye, the actor. He was the first civilian in the USA to hold a private jet pilot’s license. His biography is full of nuggets like this.

Piers Morgan. I despise Morgan, but he has somehow landed himself in the inner circles of so many world figures in the past 30 years. This I’d want to know more about.

16. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever been given?

Never waste a journey, and always pursue repeat business over new business.

Essentially these are the same thing. If you have already invested a lot of time in winning a new client, then the same effort to win more revenue from that client will bring greater returns than getting a new client.

If you’re going upstairs, take something with you, when you’re coming back down, bring the laundry.

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

I discovered that my business partner was trying to steal my share of our company. It got very fractious, and I employed lawyers, got a High Court injunction, and paid way too much to accountants to value my share. I only realised afterwards that there is no definitive way to determine value, other than how much he’d pay, and how much I’d accept. I should have dug in my heels, rather than walk away.

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

It truly scares me that there are so many amateur hiring managers out there, and they are literally making it up as they go along. The best way to improve the calibre of new hires, and retention of your best hires, is to train managers to do so in a fair, logical, and informed way.

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

Recruitment agencies shouldn’t really be necessary. All employers should know that in the coming year, they are likely to hire for x number of new roles, and x number to replace those leave, get fired or promoted. Spending large amounts on a distress purchase via an agency speaks to their lack of preparedness.

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

Employers should not always hire the best available candidate. They should instead hire the most appropriate candidate. Hiring only A-grade rockstars is unsustainable, and does not make for great teams.

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

If you want to be satisfied with what you do, stop working in service of other people’s dreams. Careers in other people’s companies are only rented, and you build up no usable equity. I tell my kids that they should only work for others for as long as it takes to gain the skills to do it for yourself.

Thank you to Stephen O’Donnell for taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune

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