Thom Staight

Director of Global Talent Engineering,EMEA, Microsoft

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 know I am lucky to be able to say that I had a happy childhood, I grew up in rural East Anglia in a small village where every boy of the same age were friends and all played together. I have always been obsessed with sport and playing for the village football team was basically the highlight of mine – and all my friends – lives. I must have played for the village team for about 5 or 6 years (mostly as a pretty average defender) and in that time I only scored one goal…and it was an absolute belter. It had a touch of the Tony Yeboah about it, hit first time on the half volley from outside the area and it nearly took the roof of the net off. The team and crowd all went mental – I think I was the only player to not have scored a goal in the entire time the team had been running. To this day (I still try and play football every week), I haven’t scored a better goal.

2. When did you first stand up to your parents, what was the issue and were you right?

I was raised in a Catholic family, I was an Altar boy when I was young – and even thought I wanted to be a priest as a boy. Yet by the time I was going through Confirmation (for any non-Catholics, this is the key moment when as an adult you are initiated into the Catholic church. As a baby you are baptised into the church, but that’s not your choice, as an adult you choose to do it via Confirmation.) when I was about 13 or 14 I was fairly clear I didn’t really buy it all, but it took some time to have the courage of my convictions and discuss it with my parents. I was terrified, they were (and still are) very religious people, both are very active in their Church community, so I was worried about their reaction and also just about upsetting them.
As it was they were totally cool about it – we talked about it (more than once) – but they made it clear it was my own decision and they wouldn’t put any pressure on me either way. So, fortunately, it was a bit of an anti-climax. For years I think they hoped I would change my mind (mention of the prodigal son would be dropped into conversation), but over the years I became more certain that it was the right decision. Although I still don’t buy religion on any level personally – I still recognise the enormous benefit it can bring to people. There’s been lots written on this, but I especially like Stephen Amos’s Why we need Religion. As someone who saw the positive side of a church community it really captures the benefits it is possible to find in religion.

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

After university I moved to London and lived with a group of mates in a series of house shares across North London. They were GREAT times, we all had decent jobs (so had money to spend), and we had a brilliant time. We went out all the time, all had the same interests. Music, clubbing, football (we all played together) all came first and work came second. My first job out of Uni was on an Insurance company grad scheme, it was awful and like lots of people I landed in recruitment as an escape route while trying to work out what to do with my life. But I realised during my first year in recruitment that actually I was pretty good at it – and for the first time I enjoyed going to work. Around the same time, my girlfriend (now wife) was leaving her house share and the question of moving in together came up. That was the moment I decided that actually it was time to stop going clubbing on a Tuesday night and to start making some different priorities. 20 years later we are married with 2 kids and I’m still in recruitment, so it was probably the right call.

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

I love books – both fiction and non-fiction – and try and read every day. I really wanted to give a considered and inspirational answer here, but a bit like choosing top 5 records or movies, it’s impossible. So instead 3 fiction books I have read recently that I would recommend are;

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn.

I know that’s not one book so it’s a bit of a cheat, but they’re all quite short. I have been delaying reading the last in the series as I don’t want to be at the point where there are none left to read. I sometimes struggle with novels where the protagonist is unlikeable – in these books Melrose is a horrific person and behaves horrendously to everyone around him, but partly because you know his back story (and partly because they are so well written), you still root for him all the way through. They are also hilarious.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

aA really interesting idea done really well. This is a story of a woman who struggles to interact with ‘normal’ society (We are never told – or she is never diagnosed – with a named condition), who is happiest working in the very structured world of a convenience store. I won’t say any more in case you read it, but I loved it and couldn’t put it down.

Life & Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee.

This isn’t a recent novel, but I only read it recently. It’s an amazing story, set in a historical (fictional?) South Africa. Coetzee is South African and regarded as one of the ‘great’ literary figures of the last 50 years, but I knew nothing about him until I read a couple of his novels after reading an article about him. I would highly recommend his novels, the world he creates is totally immersive and you are fully inside Michael K’s head as his world unravels.

Only as I re-read this do I realise I have been reading books about people who are separate from society – or regarded as outsiders. I don’t think this reflects my lifetime of reading – or me as a person – but maybe there is something about 2020 which has made me choose these or made them stick with me.

5. Name a well-know person you admire and explain why you hold them in high esteem?

Thierry Henry.

He is everything I want to be and never was! I had an Arsenal season ticket at Highbury for the Wenger glory years a, so had the joy of watching him at his absolute peak. Not only was he one of the best footballers ever to play, but he made it look so graceful and elegant. He is also (still) achingly cool. It’s a shallow choice, but it’s important to acknowledge what are actually the important things in life.

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

Give me the goal or the idea first – then talk about everything else. I really struggle to motivate myself if I don’t know the context and the goal. I think this is why I work well in companies and teams with a clear mission, I really want to be able to tie what I do back to that main goal. Without that it’s hard to find any sense of purpose.

7. Imagine if we were to go to people who don’t think highly of you, what do you think they would say about you?

So much to say, I am actually not sure when to start. Definitely the habit of making bad jokes during the boring parts of a meeting – even I find that annoying.

8. 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?

Definitely not is the short answer, but there is not one event that was significant in itself – it’s been an evolution which is still happening. I grew up in a rural area which was conservative with a small and big C, this accurately described my family as well. Until I went to university I probably didn’t really challenge the received wisdom I grew up with on any significant political topic. But as with lots of people – especially those who grow up in rural areas or small towns – university exposes you to people with life experiences different to your own for the first time – it also exposed me to a level of privilege I had never really seen up close before. Although I came from an economically comfortable family background – and most of my friends growing up would have felt the same way – it isn’t until you start to get to know people from either end of the economic spectrum that you recognise the degree of difference and the impact it has on attitudes and opportunity.

None of the difference in economic background stopped people being friends in a university environment, although it was often noticeable who came back from Christmas holidays with a suspiciously Caribbean tan. But as we left university what become clear was that ability wasn’t the key differentiator on who would get what opportunity, but it was knowledge of and access to different worlds (Finance and media especially) that would make a difference. The kids from ‘middle class’ metropolitan families had a level of knowledge and connection the rest of us didn’t. That turned into internships, interviews and jobs that others didn’t get access to. In the first ten years of my career I became increasingly frustrated with the number of people in jobs beyond their capability, largely as a result of networks and schools. If you live in the UK we have a public life dominated by the 7% of people lucky enough to have a private education, to the exclusion of anyone else. This is especially true in politics & the media and I don’t believe it serves anyone well. Working in recruitment means that you get to meet people from a real cross section of society, the more I interviewed candidates coming from less privileged (and even outright deprived backgrounds) and you learn how much harder it has been for them to reach each successive step in their career, the more clear the level of inequity is that is built into the system. Access to certain industries and jobs is becoming more, rather than less restricted, especially when you overlay other factors, on top of income and class such as race, geography, disability.

My wife and I are both lucky enough to have had decent careers, so can afford to live in a textbook home counties commuter town. Becoming a parent and witnessing the kind of behaviour that happens when jostling for primary and secondary school places are up for grabs, has served to make me only more radical. As a white man from an economically secure family, I had a high level of privilege relative to the vast majority of people. My kids will have an even higher level of privilege then I did, as a parent I struggle with the conflict between wanting to provide the best opportunities for my kids and wanting to level the playing field for everyone – not to do something for my kids that displaces a deserving kid from a less privileged background. I don’t have a solution for this – but getting rid of all private education and investing hugely in education and early years childcare would be a good start.

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

I bought a cheese subscription during Lockdown part 1. Each month I now get a box of cheese delivered. It is probably the highlight of my month.

10. Cheese or chocolate?

Cheese obvs.

11. If you were a giant mega monster what city would you rampage first? Why?

I love London, so I would travel very carefully across the city, being careful not to damage anything – until I reached Tottenham. At which point I would take enormous pleasure in taking down the football stadium.

12. Which fictional villain do you find yourself sympathising with and why?

I loved Black Panther, but I remember feeling sorry for Michael B Jordan’s character who actually was the one asking most of the interesting questions; why didn’t Wakanda do more to help people (especially black people) outside Wakanda? Why hide that technology from the rest of humanity – and also why accept an inherited and absolute monarchy!? Don’t get me wrong – he was obviously a bad guy – but I thought he was given a raw deal. He was asking fair questions, but he just got his ass kicked.

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

One of my first managers told me that if I had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right, it probably wasn’t. So don’t ignore that feeling and dig into the detail to find out what’s going on. I must have shared that a thousand times since, it’s a 100% true.

14. What decision makes you say ‘What was I thinking?’ when you look back on your career?

I worked for one company for 15 years, for most of the last 5 years there I was massively frustrated, for lots of reasons the company was increasingly not a great fit for me. But despite chances to leave I stayed for far too long. I learnt more in the first 12 months after I left, then in the five previous years, so no doubt not moving sooner remains a big mistake. This isn’t to say it was a bad company, just that the time when it was a good company for me had long since passed.

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

Totally – on more than one occasion. When I first joined Microsoft I realised I knew way less than I thought I did and I leaned heavily on people around me to learn, I have always thought of myself as a good collaborator but I had to really change the way I worked with people. What I did realise was that I had been hired not because I knew everything, but I did bring some knowledge which my boss and the team wanted. So I tried to focus on what I could bring to the team and then relied on learning (fast) to keep up.

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

There’s so much hope placed on AI solving everything in recruitment and automation replacing Recruiters, I think the promises are outstripping the capability of the technology in the short term. Working with AI engineers at Microsoft and witnessing the problems in trying to create effective and fair models and finding the right data to train them, makes me realise the complexity of the human interactions and judgements required in recruitment. While automation and AI will undoubtedly change a recruiter’s role, the idea that we can replace recruiters any time soon is dangerous and will likely bring unfairness into recruitment processes.

17. Who will be the winners and losers in our industry post Covid19 world?

We have all shifted to operating in a fully virtual way, both internally in how we operate our teams and how we run processes for candidates and hiring managers. I think on both sides the winners will be the companies most comfortable culturally with operating in a virtual way. For some organisations it has been a more difficult shift then others; teams that didn’t already place trust and autonomy in the individual’s own hands, have struggled when teams are fully remote and employees have to balance work with a far greater set of personal pressures. Some organisation’s existing cultures made this easy for employees and their managers – and this has even enabled bonds to strengthen within teams as they support each other effectively. Others have adapted their culture to a new reality very effectively, but those who have not adapted and are expecting to immediately switch back to old ways of working are struggling and will continue to. I don’t think it is realistic – or fair to employees – to think anyone will or should accept the inflexibility of a fully office culture.

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

No not really. Work hard and be nice to people.

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

How have the events of 2020 changed the unwritten contract between employee and employer and what impact will that have on how we recruit in the next 5 years?

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

Brett Baumoel, VP TA Engineering, Microsoft, Paul McNamara, Partner, Eton Bridge or Martin Haywood, TA Manager, Amazon

Thank you to Thom Staight for taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune.

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