Spotlight on Leadership: Interview with Stuart Britton – SEC Recruitment

Staff engagement and retention is a huge issue for the clinical research industry.  To help celebrate the launch of our 2017 campaign “Year of Engagement” we wanted to kick-off Spotlight On Leadership with an interview with someone that’s truly walking the walk when it comes to staff engagement and creating a fantastic place to work.

Thank you Stuart for sharing your thoughts on working with a millennial workforce, changing the perception of the recruitment industry and what clinical research could learn from other industries (amongst other things). Stuart has been CEO of SEC Recruitment for six years and explains in a little more detail what he thinks are the secrets of the organization’s success…

What words would you / your team use to describe you?

I would describe myself as honest, trustworthy, caring and generous.

I think my team would say I am caring, trusting, honest, have integrity and commitment.

What do you most enjoy about working at SEC?

I am exceptionally lucky to lead an extremely diverse team of highly-talented people – the team at SEC speaks 21 core languages and 27 dialectics. I love watching people make their first client call, securing their first deal and the genuine belief that, in our very small way, we are contributing our small piece of the puzzle to create the drugs that are changing lives. That can’t be taken lightly.

What is the most challenging aspect of your role?

Two elements : the people and the perception of the recruitment industry.

As we are a people organization it is essential that we support our people at all levels in our organization – this means a lot of time investment. There are occasions when individuals don’t fit into our organization due to the culture. However, we always strive to treat people well and provide a highly motivating workplace with good rewards and support.

The second element, is the perception of the recruitment industry. The industry in general has a bit of a tarnished reputation in some corners of the world.  Not all, but some.  So the question is how we can elevate ourselves? As a team we are always challenging ourselves : How can we support organizations with workforce planning?  How can we strategically help our clients? How can we help our clients to create longer-term solutions?

What is the most rewarding aspect of your role?

When you are the leader of a people business the asset really is your people – whether they are the candidates we place, freelancers, or our team.  For me the reward is seeing people succeed – people within our organization and people we’re dealing with outside of our organization.  Just seeing the success, the happiness, the fun, the engagement and the challenges that they have faced and overcome.

I am probably one of the luckiest people alive because I get to deal with people in every aspect of my life!

How did you become CEO of SEC – what career path did you take?

In essence, I was the first ever year of GCSEs and then went on to do A Levels, but let’s just say that whilst a lot of people rebel at 13, I decided to rebel at 17.  I spent a couple of years in the wilderness not finishing my A Levels and not going to university unlike my now wife (we met when we were 18) and all my friends did.

It was at the point when they came out with really good grad jobs that I thought I should grow up a bit and get a real job. I applied for 135 jobs with 135 handwritten application letters, got 3 interviews and 1 job offer – it was in a food service company. I had done so much research on the company that when the interviewer asked me “what do you know about the company” he stopped me after 15 minutes and said “OK I’ll stop you there, you’ve clearly done your research”. I got the job and started in a field sales role.

After doing various field sales roles over a number of years I saw an advert for an IT recruitment company based in London. It talked about big opportunities and big rewards.  At the time I was working 15 hours a day and doing thousands of miles so I decided joining the recruitment industry was a good option.

It was in that role that I learnt a lot about delivery and was eventually headhunted to join RDL Corporation Limited, now known as SEC. In 2003 I became Operations Managing Director and over the next seven years a multi-brand structure was brought under my umbrella and emerged as the SEC we are known as today.

We grew organically and through a merger of existing brands. In 2008 the previous owners wanted to exit and we decided to do a management buyout during the biggest recession the world has ever known. We secured one investment partner who said if we grew in 2009 they would back us, which we did and the rest is history.  We’ve been through some milestone changes and SEC is now up to 75 people working in the organization.

How long has SEC worked in the clinical research industry?

We made our first placements in 2000/2001 and were initially focused in the biometrics area, particularly with statisticians and SAS programmers. We had noticed we were supplying the finance and marketing industries amongst others, but candidates in the life sciences space didn’t leave the life science space and nobody migrated into the life science space. It appeared that most joined the industry as grads. We found what we do for a living so rewarding and we recognized that in order to increase our exposure in the data analytics space we would need to break into the pharma industry so that’s what we did.

How has the industry changed since you started out on your career?

There have been a number of key changes from our perspective:

  • Monumental shifts from sponsor to commercial mentality (I don’t just mean from a financial viewpoint).
  • Growth of the CRO market – outsourcing puts different financial challenges on organizations.
  • Recruitment has become a candidate-driven market because the skills are not in the market place.
  • Impact from other industries e.g. due to oil and gas prices collapses we’ve experienced increased competition from other recruitment companies moving into the life sciences space.
  • The industry has become more formal and there are now more industry processes when working with suppliers.

What are your thoughts on attracting new talent to the clinical research industry?

84% of our team are millennials – we are told millennials need a mission and a tangible goal and the clinical research industry can certainly offer this! By working in the clinical research industry people can really make a difference by helping to create new treatments – no matter what their role, they are playing an important part.

As an industry we need to consider what we can do to provide a more agile working model.  There is a monumental shift in the world of work – we need to foster trust and focus on productivity. We need to look at how we can provide flexibility that can enables greater work-life blend.

For people entering this industry the opportunities to further their career are endless.  Clinical research is an exciting place to work.

What could the clinical research industry learn from other industries in terms of talent development?

Many clinical research companies invest heavily in their people, however it’s surprising in an industry so regulated that commercial companies are able to self-endorse their employees simply by confirming that they have been trained. Other industries have professional standards which are formal standards of measurement – look at the accountancy industry for example. You might have a degree in accountancy or have been trained by your company, but you still have to pass a recognized professional qualification and work to a competency standard. Professional qualifications enable new talent to be on-boarded in a structured and effective way. We need to look to other industries for best practice.

From my point of view our whole industry has to shift to quality of tenure from quantity of tenure. We have all been to school with kids that are fantastic at sport, or musically or mathematically brilliant and it wasn’t time that gave them that. Conversely, we can all think of examples of people that have done a job for a number of years, but aren’t particularly good at it so it really doesn’t make sense to use length of service as a measurement of quality.

The TalkTalk scenario (where they were hacked by a 15 year old from his bedroom) provides a great example of a clever and talented individually not being put to great use. The boy is obviously highly intelligent, but doesn’t have a degree. By employing the boy on an apprenticeship basis the company could utilize his intelligence to their advantage – helping them to ensure their systems are better protected. He may go on to gain years’ of experience or go to university and do a masters in computer science – who knows, but he has the talent now.

There is a golden pot of talented people that don’t go to university – not because they don’t have the ability, but maybe because they don’t choose to go, or they don’t have the opportunity to go, or any other reason.  However, they could be trained to do a great job if supported in the right way.  In England and Wales the Apprenticeship Levy is coming into place this year. This could present a great opportunity for employers to on-board new talent.

If your organization is interested in clinical research apprenticeships email IAOCR.

If you want to improve employee retention, you need to invest in people.  As Richard Branson famously said “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

What is SEC doing to improve the perception of the recruitment industry?

Over the last few years we have been investing heavily in a “good to great” program – making sure what we have internally is fit for purpose, using a number of external suppliers to qualify the quality of our people.

We are using the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) to train our management team, we are coaching our senior leadership team, we are working with IAOCR on the Workforce Quality Accreditation program. We are also ensuring that we have all the systems and processes in place using state of the art CRM systems like Bullhorn. We are also investing in employing highly-skilled talent from the industry and have just appointed a Strategic Key Account Director with a life science background onto the SEC board – we’ll be announcing who the person is in February!

We are doing a lot of thought leadership on values and investment, trying to address what the industry needs are and leading from the front. We are putting a huge amount of investment in place so we can go out and talk to the market, but more importantly we want to understand the industry’s challenges so that we can work collaboratively on programs that will provide solutions.

What first impressed you about IAOCR?

There is a real principle behind what IAOCR does that absolutely stands for quality – this has not always been the case in the industry. SEC’s goal is to be a key advisor and one of the reasons we support IAOCR is that we absolutely understand what they are trying to do and what they stand for.

Everyone at IAOCR is sensible and has a common sense approach when looking at the talent of the life science industry. They are extremely knowledgeable and have an absolute clear understanding of the market, processes and the complication of clinical trials from all elements not just the talent piece – and they are pretty nice people as well!

What do you think the top 3 challenges will be for the industry in the next few years?

Talent development, talent quality and cyber security.

Margin pressures will always be there as well as other financial elements, but it’s essential that the industry develops early talent strategies to ensure that there is a pipeline of talent to meet the needs of the drug development pipeline.  Working in recruitment we see the talent piece very clearly – the same jobs coming around every day from the same people.  The pressure brought on by lack of talent needs to be addressed as a whole industry, sponsor through to supply chain.

Whilst inroads are being made into early talent development across a lot of organizations, tenure of service is a barrier for the industry.  To ensure good quality clinical trials the focus needs to be on quality of talent – not length of service.  Accreditation of the competence naturally leads to a better retention of talent because you are making that investment in that talent.

The security of clinical trial data due to cyber issues – potentially this could be a huge issue in the future.

About SEC

SEC is one of Europe’s leading providers of recruitment and talent acquisition services in the Life Sciences / Pharma and IT sectors. We cover permanent as well as contract / freelance positions, in addition we also offer Payroll Process Outsource services to a number of our clients.

Established in 1987, we have developed a unique team of over 65 highly skilled, multi-lingual consultants, who collectively speak 21 languages.  We provide successful and innovative recruitment solutions to clients ranging from start-ups to FTSE 100 companies throughout Europe.  Click here to visit our website.

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