Kate Duchene, the CEO of RGP, is here to discuss the new, modern way of matching and connecting professional work to talent. By describing her consultative approach, Kate helps us understand how to break talent into operational and transformational needs in order to ensure efficiency and better outcomes. With her passion for problem-solving and innate curiosity, Kate has built an employee-focused business that is based on project-based hiring and insourcing skillsets to meet shared needs and values. Plus, Kate discusses the work-from-home life model, the importance of letting go, how to move past failure, human competencies, and more!
[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.
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[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.
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[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.
[00:00:58] RS: Here with me today on Talk Talent To Me is the CEO and Chief Brand Believer over at RGP, Kate Duchene. Kate, welcome to the podcast. How are you today?
[00:01:08] KD: I’m fine. Thanks, Rob. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:10] RS: So pleased to have you. Lots for us to talk about. First, though, I feel like our audience will probably be familiar with RGP at least a little bit. Would you mind sharing a little background about the company, how you provide capital and talent management advice to companies, and what it is exactly I’ll do over there?
[00:01:29] KD: The simplest way to think about what we do is that we’re really a modern professional services firm. What do I mean by that? We focus on matching experienced expert talent to client initiatives. Our talent is expert in really five areas of competency, our heritage was finance and accounting. We provide experts in project and change management, a category that we call people experience, and I can speak more about that in a little bit. We also have supply chain expertise, digital transformation expertise, and risk and compliance. What our company allows professionals to do is really pick the projects that they want to work on. We don’t run a bench model, meaning we don’t assign projects to people without their choice and consent. It’s a more modern way of matching professional work and the talent who wants to engage in it.
[00:02:34] RS: I see. So it sounds like it’s a more consultative approach, as supposed to, we have this one offering either you need it or you don’t. When you sit down with these CHROs or VPs of talent, whomever the companies you’ll work with, what are those early conversations look like while you’re discovering if it makes sense to work together?
[00:02:51] KD: We engage with clients in two ways. I like to call it, run these place activities, where companies have change initiatives or transformation initiatives related to operations. Think of automating a process flow or bringing in a new software product. Those are operational improvements that can happen in a company. Often the company doesn’t have the right expertise or the bandwidth to accomplish that all on its own. When we sit down with a client and talk about what’s on their agenda, it’s operational needs that they have, and also transformational needs. Maybe they’re launching a new business, maybe they are divesting a piece of business. So there are all sorts of talent needs that go toward transformation projects.
What’s different about our RGP is that we find you exactly the talent you need for that initiative. It’s not like we look around and who’s not busy and assign them that project. We really scope the needs with a client. Understand both hard ft skills that are required to make that project successful. Then we bring that talent to match to the project’s needs. What’s different in today’s environment is that more and more clients want to own their own project execution, they don’t want to outsource it and keep that work more at arm’s length. They really want a partner that will go shoulder to shoulder, lock arms, and drive to the results with more efficiency and better outcomes. That’s what we do, because we bring experienced expert diverse talent to the project needs of our clients.
[00:04:36] RS: When you consider any commonalities across your clients in terms of the challenges they’re facing, what are people coming up against? Are there any trends you’re noticing or things that are surprising that oh, this is a common challenge being faced across the board?
[00:04:49] KD: Well, in today’s environment coming out of the global pandemic, we’re all dealing with the war for talent and the great realignment or assessment, resignation, whatever word you want to use, but what does that mean in real terms? There are talent gaps, not only for ongoing run this place type of work, but talent gaps, as clients are trying to move their transformation or innovation agendas forward faster. So really what’s common across all of our clients is that they need a partner to help them fill those gaps. We’re a great partner for some of the world’s best brands because we really understand how to find talent, and how to match them. Our approach to both recruitment and Talent Management is we really take a listening approach.
What does talent want to do? Because gone are the days that you can just direct talent. I’m a baby boomer. So the relationship between employer and employee or work in life has changed dramatically over the years, and certainly, I think changed dramatically coming out of a global pandemic. So really listening to what talent wants becomes very important, and taking into account a broader array of needs and wants. Whether we like it or not, I believe it’s here to stay. Those companies that are going to thrive, keeping the best talent, attracting and retaining the best talent are those that are really listening and helping talent achieve their objectives. Some of them are work-related, some of them are more personal. It’s really finding the right balance.
[00:06:42] RS: Do you see a willingness to adapt to the way people are expecting to do work? Because I wonder if that’s the case, or if we are building towards a time when the decision makers, the C-level, the executives are just going to put their foot down and say, “Look, back in my day, you came into the office at nine and you’re left at five and goddamnit, that’s what we’re going to again.” Is it both or what’s your experience there?
[00:07:06] KD: Well, I think the pendulum does swing back and forth. So I think that certain CEOs have taken the stance that everybody’s back in the office, and I don’t care what you want, this is what we want as an enterprise, so you need to adhere. I think there have been many false starts coming out of the global pandemic, that that approach isn’t working. I think we are all going to learn whether that point of view moderates as we approach a recession and if the economy gets more difficult for the labor market, does the labor market then need to change again and adjust?
My belief is that we’re going to end up with some balance. I think more flexibility, remote work, working at different hours, and having more choice in assignments. I think all of those influences around control, choice, flexibility, and agility are here to stay. Maybe not full-time anymore, but certainly part of the time. If you spend any time with the younger demographics of talent, they are willing to make choices that are different what we made 30 to 40 years ago. So I think that both leaders of organizations and talent will have to balance the needs and wants going forward. I think we’ll end up with more flexibility than we ever had 30 years ago.
[00:08:38] RS: Yeah. I tend to agree with you. You’re not going to get published in Business Insider saying it, but I think it’s the truth, which is that it depends. It’s going to be a bit of both. It’s going to be neither. Oh, we’re never going back to work, or, oh, we’re biding our time until everyone’s back in the office. It’s just like it wasn’t 2019. Flexibility will probably win, whether it’s sometimes you’re in the office or some hires are remote, some are not. I do wonder though, as an individual, do you think you sacrifice anything being a fully remote worker?
[00:09:09] KD: I do think that you sacrifice aspects of relationship building, trust building. I think trust is a very important factor in today’s work environment. I think you sacrifice some spontaneous learning opportunities. That’s not to say that you can’t have those if you’re working remotely, but you have to work harder at finding those connections and those moments. We are mostly an experienced hire organization, meaning our talent comes to us with years of experience in their professional careers. So our dynamic is a little different than if you’re just starting out. I think what the research tells you is those that are early in their career are missing more learning opportunities, if they are not in person, at least part of the time. We don’t have that pressure necessarily, because our workforce is an experienced higher workforce, but that’s not to say that in-person collaboration moments are not important for all of us. Frankly, I think that most of us are social beings. We miss that connectivity, the social aspect, and the relationship building. Professional services are about relationship building. It’s about earning the trust of colleagues and your clients. That is definitely improved with some in-person connection. We can’t do absolutely everything through technology.
[00:10:48] RS: Yeah. I hear that for the middle level and up, you maybe risk a little less, because you’re a little more established, you have a little more sense of how to build relationships even in a remote capacity, but when I think back to my early career, I could have done that job fully remote, it did not do regard to do so, but I probably could have. However, the office was a huge perk for me, right? Living in an expensive city with a ton of roommates in a janky apartment, going into an office and being fed, and having actual person-to-person interactions with co-workers made a, I think, a positive difference in my life and career. It’s something to think about for the younger folks, certainly.
We’ve jumped into the deep end here with trends, Kate, but I want to make sure we get to speak about you a little bit, because you’ve had such an interesting journey. You spent a long time in your career on the low side. You were on the legal team for RGP. Then you made a shift to basically run the HR show. I would just love to know a little bit about that change, that pivot for you. One, where did the opportunity to become EVP of HR come from? Two, how did you want to move away from the legal side into the HR side of the house?
[00:11:56] KD: Sure. I’ll tell you a little bit about my journey. I started at a large law firm. I was a litigator focused on labor and employment matters. That tells you a little something about me, I’ve always been interested in people, and people management issues, and dispute resolution amongst human capital. I mean, at the end of the day. So I had an opportunity, I had two young children. I was working a lot of hours. I had the opportunity to meet the founder of RGP when he was looking for, actually, he was looking for an HR person ahead of a lawyer, because the organization had spun out of Deloitte, and was looking to build its own infrastructure.
When the organization spun out of Deloitte, we had about an 18 month transition services agreement, during which the organization had to build its own HR department, its own legal department, its own IT department, its own real estate approach, etc. this was really a build opportunity. While I thought I was going to stay at the law firm, I joined forever, I met this founder, and I was really intrigued by the firm he was building, which in the simplest terms was he really wanted to build a professional services business that gave more control to employees, and hired the best but allow them to have more of a say, on their career development.
It was really the people I met that cemented my interest of moving away from the lawn into a business. What I liked about it, it was very much an employee-focused, human capital-focused business, which is always been my passion. I’m definitely a people person. It was the ability to really build something and have an impact at the ground floor. As I said, he hired me more to help build an HR department than hire a lawyer. So I said to him, if I come, I want both jobs. He said, fine. I started as the company’s first lawyer, but also the executive in charge of building our own HR, infrastructure, processes, technology, etc.
That was an exciting time to really build what you wanted the way you wanted it. Those opportunities don’t come around every day. Frankly, once I made the move, I never looked back. I have been incredibly grateful that I found a firm filled with people that I greatly respect, people who are passionate about problem-solving. That’s something that I really draw on from my legal background is really how to solve problems, how to learn about different problems and challenges and then how you solve them. So while the pivot may have seemed larger than it really was, it really goes down to problem-solving. If you’re passionate about it, this made all the sense in the world, as a career progression for me.
[00:15:13] RS: It sounds like you had two very visible high responsibility roles at the same time, is that something you would do again? Would you recommend someone take on that challenge?
[00:15:23] KD: In a startup environment, and when I joined RGP, we were less than 100 million, probably less than 50 million. We were not a public company. In a startup environment, you often wear many hats. I think the challenge as an organization grows, is when do you start creating more defined roles so that you can achieve the focus and the impact you need. So every organization as it grows, matures, becomes more sophisticated, has to go through that rite of passage. For me in the early days, it was fantastic, because I was drinking from the firehose, and I was learning about areas of responsibility that I hadn’t done before. I think a trait that we all need as executives in today’s environment is curiosity. I had a lot of curiosity about building a business and really becoming part of running a business, so it was fantastic for me. Now, we’re at a completely different inflection point in terms of size and maturity. So having roles that are very focused to deliver impact is important to us now.
[00:16:42] RS: Yeah. Specialization seems to be important, if not inevitable. What did it look like for you? Did you have that conversation and take action internally to decide, okay, at a certain point, I can’t do it all. I want to specialize. I know you ended up becoming CEO, spoiler alert, so maybe you kept on taking these things, but what did that internal reflection sound like for you?
[00:17:03] KD: Well, it’s a debate. I’m not the best example of following that advice, because my curiosity really led me to keep several balls in the air as my career progressed. I did some work with our marketing group, over the years. I also sold our legal services business, so I had some client-facing responsibilities as my career progressed. All of those were stepping stones in order to get the breadth I think of experience and skills acquisition that I needed to move into the CEO role, because you have to know a little about a lot of things in this role.
What I’ve learned is, I don’t have to be an expert. I have others to be the expert. Having had a lot of diversity and roles and responsibilities, I think helped groom me for this role and prepare me for this role, because I have a lot more empathy, too, to different tasks or challenges in our company, having faced some of them myself. Again, I’m very driven by curiosity, by problem solving. I naturally dipped my toe in a lot of waters, because of that.
[00:18:28] RS: The importance of letting go, of needing to be an expert in any given topic. I think that is evergreen advice for any leadership level, whether it’s CEO, or your very first promotion that has a manager in the title. Now you have direct reports.
[00:18:42] KD: Yup.
[00:18:43] RS: This need to understand that it’s not your job to do those things, that you were so good at anymore, maybe, or you don’t need to re-educate yourself on any given thing. Is that been an ongoing thing? I’m sure it wasn’t new to you to become CEO, right?
[00:18:57] KD: It wasn’t, but it really was one of the best pieces of advice I got when I came to the firm, having been a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to know the answer to every question. You don’t ask a question, you don’t know the answer to. You’re used to being the smartest one in the room on a particular topic. When I became an executive, it wasn’t when I became CEO, but when I became an executive at this firm, a wise mentor said to me, “Kate, you have to let that go, because you need to rely on others who will be more expert and that’s okay.” That’s definitely a great piece of advice I got earlier in my career, and it comes back to me regularly that that is so important, and you hire great people and you want – it’s my job now to nurture the greatness out of others. I think in this CEO role, it’s not about me anymore. It’s about the enterprise. It’s about the talent that I’m developing around me and us and making sure that I help them be as successful as possible.
The other great piece of advice I got is, “Don’t let perfect get in the way of very good.” In business, we’ve heard that it can be so hard to let go of that as you progress in your career, but it’s excellent advice because very rarely do you get to perfect and most times very good is exactly what you need. It drives the right efficiencies, outcomes, etc., but early in your career, I think it’s hard to accept that, you think, “Oh, no, that applies to everybody else, but me.” Then you mature and you learn that that’s very good advice.
[00:20:42] RS: Definitely. Nothing kills momentum, not shipping, and the interest of just like, “No, it’s not perfect. I have to wait.” I’ve received that advice, too. It’s been helpful to me. Also, just this notion of letting go for you seems it was very antithetical to your instincts, right? As a lawyer, you had this expectation and experience knowing everything down to the last detail. I think it’s the case for lots of leaders too, though, because oftentimes, you get so good at your function as an individual contributor. Okay, now you are elevated, and now it’s your job to oversee other people, but the being very good at a function and overseeing others is a different skill set. Do you think that selection for managers is fraught in that way? Or is that still the best way to find your new leadership is to get the people who are really good ICs?
[00:21:30] KD: I think it’s a combination, actually. As you learn to manage people, sometimes you have to let them fail. Even if you once held that responsibility, and may have solved that question or the problem a little bit differently. I think it’s part of managing and building competency throughout the organization is you sometimes have to let people fail. I think back on my journey, some of the times I had my most incredible learning moments or when I failed at something. That really has helped me in my career. We all will have those moments. I think as you mature as a leader, you have to understand, it’s not, unlike parenting, where you have to let your kids fall sometimes or it’s their homework, not yours. I used to always say that to my kids. Your teacher doesn’t want to know how smart I am. Your teacher wants to know how smart you are.
That is failure, learning to deal with failure, understanding what you can learn from failure, and then moving forward is a skill that we all need in today’s environment, especially because business is so disrupted today. Businesses operating at such a high pace of change, that we all need that muscle and helping develop it and others around you will make the whole enterprise much stronger.
[00:22:59] RS: I wish that attitude towards homework had been the case in my household growing up, because I want to save some tears at the dinner table. I’ll tell you that, but I think you’re absolutely right, you learn much more from failing as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t have massive ripples or implications. I think that’s a sign of a good leader to understand when someone can learn from their own mistakes a little bit.
[00:23:20] KD: One thing I always say in our business, too. People remember you when you work through challenges. Take a client situation. Occasionally you’ll make a misstep on a client engagement. Clients really remember how you work through adversity or challenge together. I often tell people that’s really what the clients remember more, we forget when everything’s going swimmingly, but when you have a partner that will acknowledge something isn’t moving forward, meeting expectations, and how you address it together can often build much deeper trust and understanding in a relationship, whether we’re talking about employer, employee, or client and professional services provider. I often think that you should look at those kinds of challenges really as opportunities to get it right and to build even more trust with the other party.
[00:24:17] RS: That makes a lot of sense. If you are able to help someone through adversity, they remember you as the person who may be saved their ass a little bit, as opposed to when everything was green, it was easy to make money in a bull market, right? But when things are a lot tougher, that’s when you can distinguish yourself. I think that makes sense. I do want to ask you, Kate about just the hiring you’re doing internally, because you were providing clients with this consultative approach to up leveling their own talent operations. When you think about internally RGP, what is the approach you take to hiring and uh, well, I guess what are the hiring goals and needs at this moment?
[00:24:51] KD: We’re growing. We’ve had a fantastic year and I really chalk that up to not only a lot of work we’ve done to transform the business over the last five years to become that irresistible organization. We’re also benefited by the secular trends. What I mean by that is talent is really taking a stand as we’ve moved through an era of reevaluation to say, this is what I want for my career. This is what I want from work and life. I want to look for an employer who can match both my values and my sense of purpose. We’ve spent a lot of time coming out of COVID. We really started this before the global pandemic is to really understand, what’s our reason for being? What’s our purpose as an organization? What values are we built on? Making sure that we’re recruiting not just anyone, but those folks that do align to our purpose and share our values.
Then we can build a more successful business together. That is highly relevant in today’s environment, where really talented skilled people understand they have lots of choices. One of the choices is to take a more non-traditional career path and join a firm like ours, where you build your career based on projects. You may have heard, that there’s a lot of discussion happening, that the bulk of the economic activity today will happen with a project orientation, meaning the pace of change and disruption is happening. So the talent that an organization needs, full time is evolving.
What clients are understanding, more and more is that they need to insource particular skill sets, for particular projects that have a finite lifespan and as long as those clients can align with a trusted partner, who really knows how to attract and manage that agile talent, we’re a perfect solution for many clients in today’s environment. Mostly, we look for shared purpose, shared values, certainly the right substantive skill sets for the kind of consulting we do. We hire to for what we call the power of human competencies, which is adaptability, curiosity, problem-solving, flexibility, and empathy. Those are all attributes that create a better experience, both for talent delivering work, but also for clients who are engaging in the work with us, and trying to drive to more efficient and better outcomes.
[00:27:44] RS: When you say there’s this push toward project-based hiring, that is not necessarily short-term hiring. The idea is that you will now make hires with the expectation that they can shift from project to project more seamlessly.
[00:27:58] KD: Correct, that they have the skill sets and the confidence to bet on themselves. So when you think about what matters to talent today, having more choice, I mean, one of the big four, for example, has said they’re putting several billion dollars into an approach to allow their associates to have the choice on their assignments. Now, whether that’s really going to work in a pyramid partnership model, I think that will be hard, but that’s what our business is all about, and has been from the start.
Rob, you may remember that RGP, when we started, it was really because we identified that there was a highly skilled talent pool that was being disenfranchised by the partnership model. It was working women who wanted more flexibility. They wanted more control and choice in their career development. They couldn’t find their way back into the Big Four partnership having taken time off. So they needed a more creative, more adaptable option. That’s really how RGP was founded, by identifying this talent pool that the world had left behind and saying this group has fantastic skills, they just need to be able to deploy their skills in a more adaptable, flexible manner.
Our talent in the early days would sign up for projects, and then know that they could make a choice as to whether they wanted some downtime, whether they wanted to take the summer off, for example, if they had children at home. Then our business has grown from those early days. Today, the pool of talent that is disenfranchised by more traditional career paths is much broader. So that’s the beauty of operating in today’s environment is that we are a business model built on this set of values, that more people want today.
What I love about our opportunity in the use of technology is that we can really open up the aperture to the talent lens and attract more and more diverse talent, no matter where you are in the world, because clients are being more flexible about how they get work done. It used to be that talent needed to sit in your own zip code or area code because clients all thought they had to sit next to each other to get the projects to deliver what they wanted. The global pandemic taught us differently. Now, that will moderate a little bit, as we talked about earlier on this call, but it really is an incredible time as a professional knowledge worker to bring your skills to the marketplace.
[00:30:55] RS: Can we extend this to the umpteenth degree a little bit to – what is the utopian version of companies are understanding toward flexible work, talents demanding it, and they’re getting it? Does this look like a full time job offer with the biweekly paycheck and the perks, and the 401K, and the insurance, but the expectation that you work only 20 hours a week, 25 hours a week? How does this shift, change the basic agreement of here’s the job offer, and this is what we expect from you in return?
[00:31:30] KD: Yeah. So one important aspect of our business model is that we look and feel like a more traditional employer. Meaning we have a suite of benefits. We have a health and welfare. We have a 401K program. We have paid time off. We have all of that, except that you get to choose what projects you work on for what period of time, and you bet on yourself that you’ll roll from project to project and that you have relevant skills. I think the dynamic that is being created is that both sides will be more accountable to themselves and others.
What do I mean by that? In order to operate successfully, and it be a seamless career path, you have to understand as a knowledge worker, that you’re bringing relevant skills to the marketplace, and you have to keep those skills fresh. I mean, I’ll use an example. I started my professional career in the late 80s, and early 90s. At the time you brought a set of skills, there wasn’t as much pressure on upskilling or adding a skill set. You learned on the job. But in many instances, skills got very stale. There wasn’t as much dynamic involvement to retrain, upskill, etc.
In today’s environment, there’s a lot of pressure, whether you’re in a more traditional full-time role or not. To make sure that you remain very relevant to the work ahead, whether you’re a full-time equivalent employee or whether you are a project-based worker. I think that then gives you a lot more control. It’s all about skill sets you can bring. I think the softer competencies around problem-solving, empathy, humility, and communication and if you bring a great approach to that you can be as busy or not busy as you want. So it goes back to your question. Then I think you as a knowledge worker get to write your own script. That I think is the future of how work will continue to get accomplished.
I think it’s what Peter Drucker said years and years ago, which is, efficient organizations will keep their full-time equivalents, very slim and lean, and will insource the skill sets and the competencies they need to execute change initiatives. Then trade out that set of competencies and skills and bring in the next round for the next project, which inevitably will be something different. As we think about moving from technology implementation, or a cloud migration, what you need for that is different than if you’re divesting a business, or you’re acquiring a business and need an integration plan. So what companies need, it’s going to become increasingly dynamic. Those that will win really understand it’s about staying relevant and making sure you have the skills that are in demand and then you’ll have a lot more flexibility in how, where, for whom you work, and really what matters to you.
[00:35:06] RS: This model of employment and what you expect from specialized work, specialized workers, I should say, that is the case in consulting. That is the model of how consulting firms hire their employees. A friend of mine works for one of the big four firms, I think it’s Bain. She periodically is what they refer to as on the beach, which means she’s between projects, and she might have anywhere between one to six weeks just off like, “Yeah, well, we’ll call you when we need you.” Part of it is a, “Oh, we don’t have the exact project for you right now.” I think it’s also this notion that “Look, you will be well rested, you can come back and then sprint after you’ve taken this time. We will use the other tools in our tool belt for this one project. We’ll bring you back when it aligns with your own specialty.”
It works great for her and people who have that lifestyle really do love it. Tech doesn’t work that way, right? I can’t think of any other industries that work that way. I guess teaching does, but not deliberately, right, just because they get summers off. Yeah, it’s a rare employment agreement. I can see how it would really, really work for both parties. But it’s going to be a slow change, slower than we’d like as talent who wants to be more flexible.
[00:36:18] KD: Right. Well, I think the next year or two will really understand, are these trends are here to stay. I personally believe that if you spend any time with some of the younger demographics, we’re not going back to the 90s or 2000s. It’s this genie that is out of the bottle. It may moderate a little bit, but we’re not going back. What I think’s really interesting is, if you look at the research and the demographics, even the baby boomers don’t want to go back into the office nine to five anymore. That I think was surprising, because people felt that that’s what we knew. It’s the relationship we had with work. Even that is being reframed as we come out of the global pandemic. I do think these shifts are here to stay. How extreme do they become? I think we don’t know yet.
[00:37:16] RS: Yeah, remains to be seen. Kate, before I let you go. I’m going to ask you to give some parting advice to the folks out there in podcast land. For people who want to wind up running HR at a sizable organization, what advice would you give them to uplevel their career and wind up in a role that?
[00:37:32] KD: Thank you. I love this question. For me, it’s really, I think the future of work or the now of work that’s here requires HR to be the most important business partner to the C-suite and to really understand that your point of view is no longer just an employee point of view, but really understanding how can you help your business meet its objectives by finding talent in new ways and really understanding that it’s broader than employee well-being. You might be running an ecosystem of providers, understanding how do you bring the best out of all of them, and help each category of talent understand, what’s their special purpose and how do they fit in. I think it’s a really interesting dynamic time for HR leaders, who understand that think about human capital as a supply chain for your business and get creative with your business strategies in delivery.
[00:38:43] RS: Kate, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thank you for being with me here today. I’ve loved chatting with you.
[00:38:48] KD: You’re welcome, Rob. Thanks for having me.
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