Marcus Sawyerr

EQ Community Founder Marcus Sawyerr

Marcus SawyerrFounder and CEO

With experience working for the likes of CareerBuilder and The Adecco Group, Marcus Sawyerr is now the founder and CEO of EQ Community, a private member’s network that connects professionals to opportunity. Today he joins us to discuss all things talent and the types of challenges currently coming up when he talks to clients. Marcus sheds light on why he founded EQ Community and some of his goals for the company before discussing the importance of DEI and the gap between the well-meaning folks talking about it and the reality of the market. You’ll also hear about how EQ Community is adding value in the counseling it offers to talent to companies who are trying to build a more representative workforce. To hear more about the importance of retention in a climate where companies are scaling back on hiring, what Marcus learned about HR tech when he worked for The Adecco Group, some profound insight into developing inclusive culture in terms of DEI, and so much more, tune in today!

Episode Transcript

[INTRODUCTION]

[00:00:05] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me, a podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the front lines of modern recruitment.

[00:00:12] FEMALE: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life. We want to understand how they make decisions, where they’re willing to take risks, and what it looks when they fail.

[00:00:22] RS: No holds-barred, completely off-the-cuff interviews with directors of recruitment, VPs of global talent, CHROs, and everyone in between.

[00:00:31] FEMALE: Once I went through the classes and the trainings and got the certifications through diversity inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.

[00:00:39] MALE: Talent Acquisition. It’s a fantastic career. You are trusted by the organization. You get to work with the C-suite and the security at the front desk, and everybody in between, and everybody knows you.

[00:00:52] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson, and you’re about to hear the best in the biz. Talk Talent To Me.

[INTERVIEW]

[00:00:58] RS: Here with me today, on Talk Talent To Me is a man who has had a storied background in HR tech, shall we say. I’m excited to hear all about it. Most recently, he is the Founder and CEO of EQ Community, Marcus Sawyerr. Welcome to the podcast. How are you today?

[00:01:12] MS: Doing fantastic, Rob. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

[00:01:15] RS: Really pleased to have you. What’s going on for you this week? What’s keeping you up at night from a talent perspective, anyway?

[00:01:22] MS: This week, I had a few meetings in person, which is, I suppose that’s more of a treat than something that I used to do every single day. I went and met some customers and learn a little bit about what they’re thinking around the next phase of hiring. Also connected with some partners and yeah, it’s been a full and productive week so far as we get to the tail end.

[00:01:50] RS: When you speak to clients, what challenges are coming up? Are there common things you’re hearing out there or is it varied?

[00:01:57] MS: I think for clients at the moment, they’re a little bit in flux. The market has somewhat responded to inflation, basically, at large. So companies today are trying to be thoughtful about their next hires and also ensure that they get the best talent, but we’re seeing a mixture of some companies downsizing, as well as bringing in new talent to support them on their next phase. I think you’re seeing a lot of “fat being cut out” of organizations and companies are trying to become more lean, so they’re fighting weak, so to speak. They can embark on the current initiatives that they have and getting ready for the next year, 2023.

[00:02:44] RS: Does that make you nervous on the hiring front, that if companies are going to be more lean that maybe they scale back hiring efforts?

[00:02:50] MS: I think companies need to do what’s right for themselves. I’ve been around for a little while in the recruiting industry in particular, in 2008, I was at a company called CareerBuilder. A lot of companies started claiming back then. What I learned from that time is that, it’s not the same for all verticals in all positions. If you’re in a space, where you’re supporting organizations and hiring talent, you have different options, especially if you have a wide portfolio of services.

I think for us, in particular, we focus on the hiring piece, but we also focus on the retention part. I think it’s companies get their employees in the right positions and get their ducks in a row, so to speak, retaining that top talent that’s going to become more and more important. We’ll probably see a little shift in the type of business that we do with organizations moving forward.

[00:03:46] RS: Playing defense on your own employee base, I think has always been somewhat important. Just the conversation about retention, perhaps is more prevalent. Is there an increasing need to focus on retention with employees having more access to opportunity, or with remote work they can have, easier time drumming up new jobs? Do you think retention is more important now than it has been previously?

[00:04:10] MS: Yeah. I think when we’ve seen a lot of the movement during the great resignation. People really trying to figure out firstly, what is their role inside of an organization that might have transformed a little bit more rapidly than they thought? Then, as an individual that where do I want to live? Do I need to live right next to the office, anymore? If not, then what are the options? I think people personally have been looking at that. Then after that, then companies have some of retracted statements around remote work and now you’ve got to come in and I think people still have a choice in the area of knowledge work as far as the organizations they go to.

I think you’ll see it with a lot of the bigger organizations, they are maybe making some hard stances. Then you have to find the companies that match with your personal culture. How do you like to work? What do you want to do? Where would you like to see yourself moving forward? Do you want to be in the office? Is that convenient for your lifestyle? I think people are still figuring that out, as we speak.

[00:05:20] RS: Is that profile, let’s call it of yourself as an employee and the relationship you have with your employer, do you think that’s becoming more fleshed out? When you think of, oh, does this align with my values? Is there room above me? Who’s my boss going to be? Have some of those always been considerations or do you find that talent is generally more thoughtful now?

[00:05:42] MS: These are the things that I think talent really values from the conversations I’ve had and just being in a space for a while. I think people want to get compensated fairly, but also accordingly for the level of responsibility they have. I think that still plays a big part. I think people want to be respected, just generally for the type of work that they deliver. Then I think that I think goes to what are you working on, that’s interesting and exciting that you can share with those that are nearest and dearest to you. When you’re eating dinner with your family, or you’re out a bar, having a conversation, what’s your personal brand?

I think if companies focus in on those areas, but maybe double click on a few like the piece of being respected. What does that mean? Does that mean that the culture evolves, around the individuals? Or do you have a culture that is pretty rigid and people have to fit into that and now are you taking people’s point of view.

An organization is an ever developing organism. Due to that fact, it’s constantly changing, and reason it’s changing as it has these if you think of it cells, which are these people that are constantly evolving, and constantly developing, and changing. The organization at some point has to make a decision on who they want to be. Yeah. I think that those kinds of three main areas are key to how you decide on what’s important to you and your work life.

[00:07:14] RS: For you and your organization, understanding this mentality talent tends to have, this is a key part of EQ Community. Would you mind sharing a little bit about what led you to found the company and then what are the goals?

[00:07:29] MS: Yeah, sure. I’d spent, I’m going to say best part of 18 years in HR tech, as I alluded to earlier, I started a company called CareerBuilder. I started on inside sales. I was basically making hundreds of calls every single day. Then we’ve got to a point where I got promoted every single year. After that, decided to leave and come back side, a little bit of an entrepreneurial spill. As you set up a Vegas concierge business, believe it or not. Then went back into the HR tech landscape and then I got promoted. I was running a staff and recruiting group across Europe.

From that, one of my customers was a company called the Adecco Group. I had an opportunity to lead and start the digital transformation there. I became the Global Head of digital and innovation for the Adecco Group, which meant that I was buying, building and investing in HR tech companies and scanning the market for opportunities. Companies that people would be familiar with like hired.com. That was last transaction I was involved in, but then we bought Vettery and we bought a few other organizations around the world. When I was in that space, I had a lot of fun. On one year. I traveled to a 107 flights, and I only that, because I had to jot it down for tax purposes.

Yeah. So a lot of the world, but I noticed there was less and less people that I suppose look like me when I got to, “top” and thought, If I don’t set something up to empower people to get access to these opportunities, and these experiences I’ve had, I’d be missing an opportunity myself, but also for individuals. I decided to set up an organization that focuses in on really giving people what I call the four C’s, which is that community support that you need to be successful, the connections, access to careers, which leads to capital.

Then we found companies that said, “Hey, we want to do something around DEI, but we don’t really know how.” After consultants and organizations, we help them get access to talent. That’s mid to senior level roles over 100k that are meaningful and can really change the dynamic of your family. Then we also work with on the retention side, which I alluded to earlier on that really providing information courses knowledge that can help companies figure out how they develop an inclusive culture and keep that talent longer term.

[00:09:54] RS: At this time, when you took 100, was it a 102, 107 flights, and you’re seeing lots of companies interfacing with leadership, noticing that there’s not as much representation as you should like to see. At the same time, you’re also very involved with HR tech companies who are making lots of noise about the importance of diversity hiring, right? There must then have been a gap between what companies were saying about DEI and what was actually happening that led you to decide to found this company, right? How would you explain the gap between the well-meaning folks talking about DEI and the reality of the market?

[00:10:34] MS: Yeah. I think at that time, there wasn’t actually, in fact, especially in Europe, and we had teams in Asia as well, there wasn’t that much conversation around DEI at time. That was about when I say it was right at the start of that, that was about six years ago, five, six years. I was actually talking to one of the companies that had helped with my transition into the Adecco Group and support on that. They were saying, yeah. It was a little bit of a different era in Europe in particular, but I started to see some things that were bubbling up in the US. George Floyd was obviously a big part of that and a lot of the movements that took place.

You started to notice more, some of the larger organizations making these pledges and saying that they were going to do things around DEI and then the smaller medium and midsize companies more instruction, I think, from the groups that own them. So the holding companies to VCs, to PE, knew that they needed to do something, otherwise they were going to come under fire. But the individual companies that really just set up their businesses to say, “Hey, this is what we’re building. That’s what we’re focused on.” There’s not really a thought around DEI, because we don’t have time.

Part of what we’ve spent time on our spend time is really changing that narrative and not having DEI is something that’s nice to have, something to help people, but really is a superpower to drive performance inside of organizations. There was a big, to your point, there was a gap there. I think geography wise it really depends on what you’re focused on.

I was talking to my cousin awhile back, and he’s got a search firm. He’s out in Japan. He was like, “Look, the number one narrative around DEI in Japan, is really been around getting more women into opportunity.” That’s just like the main thing, because I haven’t had too many women that has been in the workplace. So geography wise, it was very different.

[00:12:25] RS: Then is EQ Community offering counseling to talent, as well as consultation to companies who are trying to build a more representative workforce or where are you adding value?

[00:12:35] MS: Yeah. There’s really two main areas for the different types of folks that we’re working with. For the individuals, we’re providing them access to connections, and we also host events where they can meet people and just be open and have a safe space to really see what’s going on in their day-to-day worlds, as well. An example would be the platforms very much focused on being interest based. It could be everything from arts and culture to DEI, all the way through to crypto. So just things that you want to talk about in a professional/business casual setting, so that’s part one. Then you get access to some of the careers and opportunities as they come up as well.

To the organization’s we’ll help them with some of their DEI strategy, but also ensuring that the onboarding is smooth, they have the right processes in place to welcome people into the company. If they would like to, they can go a little bit deeper on some of the courses that we provide and information that we provide in terms of curriculum and insights that will help that company to develop an inclusive culture. That’s around that employee resource groups ERGs, things that we’ve learned by developing a community.

[00:13:52] RS: Why is it critical to focus on the onboarding part of the process in particular?

[00:13:59] MS: Yeah. I think that there’s a few different types of companies. There are some that are, I suppose there’s not really doing anything about DEI. Some of the, maybe have tokenized it a little bit, or a lot. Some of them really want to drive transformation and believe that this is something that can help their organization and they just need some support. We try and focus on the last category first. The reason being, we want to make sure that when we’re connecting our members to these organizations, we have clarity on how they’re going to be treated and what the experience is like.

There’s an onboarding size as far as the experience for the members. Then there’s also an onboarding for their companies to help them really figure out like how do they not only ensure they attract diverse talent, because that’s what help them do. Once they get them into the process, how do they get them through the process quick enough, because there’s also a lot of demand for this type of talent, as well, and by pushing that talent directly into your ATS may be a not flagging that becomes like, really difficult experience for the talent, but also for that individual to get access to diverse talent that they’re recruiting for internally.

[00:15:16] RS: Got it. What does that look like? Can you lay out what a seamless or meaningful onboarding process would look like?

[00:15:23] RS: Yeah. Firstly, we would start with identifying the role or the roles that the organization has, really ensuring that we understand the requirements as far as more around the capabilities that are required, not always necessarily the experience, but the capacity and capabilities and ability of that individual. Then we start to match talent with that organization to give them a feel for the access that we have, and the referrals that we can generate, and get some feedback. Then once we’ve done that, we can then hone in on to really what makes sense for the organization, as well as the talent that we have access to. A lot of the onboarding is really ensuring that we get clarity on what the organization is looking to do, and what the expectation is of the market. If we feel we’re a good fit to be a partner with them, initially. Yeah.

[00:16:19] RS: Under what circumstance would you not be a good fit?

[00:16:22] MS: Well, there’s a couple of circumstances, actually. I can think of one in particular, where there was an organization that was really you could tell from some of the conversations and I think the team, it bubbled it up, that just wanted us to just drive traffic. That’s not really what we do. We provide introductions. Then it’s driving traffic to the ATS, but not with a direct, because you can have an integration, not within direct integration. So the questions that we had was like, how are you going to ensure that that individual is identified and they go through the process? Because we’re not a job board per se, so we can’t just drive traffic, and then you can’t hear from the individual. I think that if you’re not providing the right experience, or when I say more of a red carpet experience internally for the talent that we’re delivering, it’s probably not a good fit.

[00:17:19] RS: Yeah. That’s what I wanted to pull out, or what are these signals that people can look for, either on the candidate side, when they themselves are interviewing to understand if this company they’re speaking with is a place where they can thrive and where they’ll be appreciated? Then, conversely, what can they look for in their own organizations to make sure that they’re working in a place where that is the case, too? When you say that you want this red carpet experience, could you give some examples of what that might look and sound like?

[00:17:49] MS: Yeah. There’s a couple of things you can look for, as an individual. Are you having conversations directly with the hiring manager? Or are you having conversations with somebody else that wants to screen you again? We’ve provide a script of a screening service, so you should be able to have conversation not all the time, because sometimes people have a process internally, and they’ve got a panel that they want people to go through and we’re clear on what that is, by having clarity on what the next steps are. Are you speaking to those that are making the decisions? I think that’s clear, because a lot of the best hires still to this day for companies they believe, and there’s some truth in it, get hired via referral. So we act as the third referral for an organization. How are you being treated, or you’ve been treated like a referral, or just a number? That’s once you have that interaction.

Prior to that, it’s still pretty hard for the individual to tell, because you haven’t necessarily met that person. I think the other flags are, if you have a scheduled meeting, how many times that get moved, if you’ve got an interview? Maybe it’s happens once or twice, because if it happens more than once, it’s probably a bit of a flag, as well. Some of those things, but as far as the inclusivity piece, there’s a lot of information out there today and you can see the composition of potentially leadership team, you can see if they’ve got any public pledges, you can also ask people and that’s the main benefit. One of the main benefits to community is they can ask us or they can ask them the community members that are referred in of what is this company really like?

[00:19:21] RS: I’m glad you called out that point about referrals where employers in some cases accurately believe that referrals are the best source of hire. Those candidates get treated with more of his white glove approach. I’ve heard that advice offered as well like, “Hey, these are people who are attached to the networks of your existing employees. You need to treat them extra well, right, you need to give them that white glove treatment.” As supposed to what? Like to me that just makes it sound like there’s some ranking of candidates source and you will be treated in accordance with how high up you are that ranking, which seems terrible to me. It seems like, shouldn’t you strive for this experience for all of your candidates, is that not realistic or is that the goal?

[00:20:04] MS: I think people are made up of in the workplace like the information they know, the experiences they’ve had, and then their network. If you refer somebody to me, and we’ve had a conversation and I value my network, that’s going to reflect badly on our relationship if I don’t respond. There’s almost a connective tissue between your employees and that network. Now the problem is, you can have that connective tissue, but you might be creating an echo chamber for the same type of talent coming in.

Yeah, I agree like everybody wants an amazing experience with companies prioritize. If it’s a little bit more manual to have that conversation, I’ll put people in there. They may not be able to provide the optimal level of experience, so I don’t really see that changing anytime soon to be really transparent. But what I do see changing is being able us as EQ, almost being able to break into those networks for individuals, so they can come in as a referred candidate.

[00:21:10] RS: Yeah. That makes sense. I understand why people maybe take referrals with more of a tailored approach, just because there’s social capital at stake, right, and you want that source of referrals to keep coming, if this person has a bad experience, they report it to your employee. Now that’s the last referral your employees ever going to make. There’s more at stake there. Also, as you call out, homogeneity begets homogeneity, and people’s networks tend to look like them. Yeah, your referrals might close faster, and they might stick around longer, but guess what? They look exactly like the employees you have. So if you haven’t nailed diversity early on, then this is just a great way to not ever solve that indexing only on referrals. I guess is what I’m saying.

Yeah. I think you’re right, as unfortunate people are unlikely to just change that reality about the way we interact with our own networks, but I do think it’s important to try to strive for that candidate experience in every interaction, because otherwise, you’re just going to lose people and you’ll never solve your diversity problem if your employees aren’t referring those folks in. That I think is an important call out.

[00:22:11] MS: Just to add to that candidate experience piece, just a little bit. I think that you can absolutely with technology today enhance the candidate experience from a standpoint of communication. Because part of it is letting people know where they are in the process. We see that with some of the great consumer apps, whether that’s ordering a taxi, or that’s ordering a pizza, right? You know where you are in a process and that just helps you, because you want to be informed.

Now, is that a white glove experience? Maybe, maybe not, right? It depends on how you perceive it. I think that conversation of everybody being able to check in with each person and call on each person, that’s time consuming. So you’re not always going to get that from a non-referral. I think there are tools and ways to improve your candidate experience right now from a communication standpoint, but scaling, that white glove is a challenge, because that includes a human interaction.

[00:23:06] RS: Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. I love to ask you, Marcus about your time in a Adecco, because you were in this position where you saw a lot of HR technology, you interface with leadership, and you’ve had this bird’s eye view of the marketplace in a way. I’m curious in that role, when you were evaluating companies or how innovative they were, or for what was the state of the technology, what were some signals for you? What to you would stand out about any of the HR tech companies you might evaluate?

[00:23:38] MS: I’ll answer that question, but I’ll take a slightly different approach in terms of the patterns that I saw and what I noticed. After evaluating a lot of organizations, I think our group where the group would Adecco Group X are about 1,600 companies in one year at one point, and they’re all HR tech. What the startups were starving for at the time were two things. If you had a software that you were delivering to make processes more efficient, you were struggling for the two D’s, data and distribution. That was really what I’d noticed that the startups didn’t have access to. Then by plugging into a larger organization, you’re able to distribute your product, get access to more information and train your models if you had an AI driven organization or included some part of it. Yeah. I think those are the two main areas.

[00:24:34] RS: By distribution. Do you mean marketing? What does that refer to?

[00:24:37] MS: Yes, selling your product. I think at the time we had 5000 branches, but 30,000 employees. We have access to Fortune 500 customers. As a start, that’s hard to do. You’re building a product, build a product and run a sales organization at the same time is hard. If you do that you need capital to do both of those things. So as far as companies, they had to make a decision on, do you want to be a platform or your point solution? If you’re a point solution, you’re impacting one problem really deeply, you’re going deep into that area. If you’re a platform, then you start competing with the “bigger folks.” When you do that, it’s harder for you to maybe get acquired in those areas.

There were a lot of exits, actually, but they all went under the radar, because they were strategic exits versus IPOs. I think the reason that they weren’t necessarily IPOs is in order for you to have a successful IPO, you have to be a platform something that the public understands and wants to invest in. In the B2B world, that’s quite hard for the public to get and understand. Market is probably a bit easier, because you see whether or not you can make sales or not. You might be a small business owner. It’s just hard to get your head around, because IPO is a public offering. What you’re offering the public, in order for that to happen?

[00:25:59] RS: Besides an opportunity to do a lot of research on something they’ve never heard or thought about before. Yeah, yeah. That makes sense.

[00:26:06] MS: Right. It’s not that it’s not industries that do that, but the ones that you see go public, or the ones we hear about, and we use it every day, and we know.

[00:26:13] RS: Exactly right. Yeah. Interesting. You found that the HR tech struggled not necessarily with innovation, or meaningful, useful solutions, but rather with some of the standard things that every company builder struggles with?

[00:26:26] MS: Yeah. You can’t forget the fundamentals, which is how you’re going to sell your product, the distribution, and what information you’re going to use to change your model. I think there was definitely a lot of innovation than there still is. Finding the right home for that innovation was sometimes challenging. Is that home a strategic, like in Adecco at the time? Or is that home in another industry, outside of HR tech, which they might then take that product on and try and distribute and sell it? Maybe it’s one of the consulting organizations as well. Or to the original point, is it an exit? I think, if you’re seeing, looking at the exits, what you’ll notice is a lot of them will be platforms.

[00:27:10] RS: I see. Yeah, that makes sense. Well, Marcus, I could definitely stand to hear more. we are creeping up on optimal podcast length here. At this point, I want to just say, thank you for being here, man. You’re doing awesome work over there at EQ Community. The mission is really honorable, and it sounds like you are setting people up to really engage with companies that can make meaningful changes for them. Well done you, and thank you so much for being here. I’ve loved chatting.

[00:27:31] MS: Rob, again, really appreciate the time and yeah, enjoyed the conversation. Thanks so much.

[OUTRO]

[00:27:40] RS: Talk Talent To Me, is brought to you by Hired. Hired empowers connections by matching the world’s most innovative companies with ambitious tech and sales candidates. With Hired, candidates and companies have visibility into salary offers, competing opportunities, and job details. Hired’s unique offering includes customized assessments, and salary bias alerts to help remove unconscious bias when hiring. By combining technology and human touch, our goal is to provide transparency in the recruiting process and empower each of our partners to employ their potential and keep their talent pipeline full.

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