Co-ops and mutuals: Attract, recruit and retain talent

07 October 2022

The BCCM recently sat down with Geoff Curran, Practice Leader at Gerard Daniels, a Business Associate member of the BCCM and international executive search and board consulting firm operating in the Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East, Africa and the Americas.

Geoff has extensive experience as a business leader and executive search professional, with a particular focus on working with organisations in the co-operative and mutual sector.

We asked Geoff for his thoughts on how co-operatives and mutuals can compete to attract, recruit and retain talent, especially in a tight job market.

Geoff explains that “I’m regularly talking to CEOs and Chief People Officers and other senior executives in organisations, and what I hear is that everybody is frustrated or mindful of the fact that it’s hard to find sufficient people for the jobs they have available. It’s a really tight job market, and it’s a constant topic.”

According to Geoff, there are a range of factors impacting on the current situation and causing a competitive recruitment environment. These include the disruptions of COVID-19, the switch to hybrid work models and shifts in the life priorities of employees, all of which mean organisations have to offer attractive packages and other non-financial incentives to secure new talent. One positive is that it will encourage organisations to focus on their retention strategies, because leaders understand this is a more effective approach than constantly looking to the external market to fill positions.

Further, the tight job market is more pronounced in certain job families such as technology and digital, and at the frontline and middle levels within organisations. Geoff has observed more stability at the C-level, although executives are reporting frequent approaches by executive search firms.

Geoff reflects on the impact of COVID-19, noting the structural shifts in employee attitudes and expectations. Recruitment now requires a customised approach, with many people seeking greater flexibility: “COVID has shown that it is possible to work from home. You don’t have to be in an office, or at an office site or a warehouse five days a week – there is some work that can be done successfully from home. Some people now place more emphasis than they did before on flexibility and the opportunity to be with their families.”

The challenge moving forward is for co-ops and mutuals to find ways to accommodate individual expectations in ways that are mutually beneficial.

Organisations must also consider the different needs of various demographic groups. For example, older individuals may no longer want to work full-time or pursue a high-powered career. Taking a flexible approach, for example, can see these key knowledge holders retained in a part-time capacity, having more time to enjoy life while also appreciating the opportunity to give back. At the other end of the scale, employees with young families might be seeking the flexibility to be more involved in family life, such as working flexible hours that allow them to coach their child’s sports team or do school pickups.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about recruitment and retention without discussing remuneration. Geoff notes in the current climate, “co-ops and mutuals do need to be sensitive to current rates of remuneration, and in some situations, they may need to pay a premium to get people.” In part, this is due to the stagnation that was prolonged by COVID-19. Further, remuneration is an important consideration in the retention of existing staff. Geoff cautions against paying a premium for new talent while allowing existing employees to remain on lower incomes – this is a sure-fire way to sow the seeds of discontent among loyal and experienced staff. It’s critical that leaders are aware of current market rates and pay staff accordingly, “because they could well be getting approached or be applying for jobs.”

Ultimately, Geoff believes the most successful retention strategies incorporate both appropriate financial reward and other non-financial benefits. It’s also about offering learning and development opportunities and ensuring that the workplace is an environment characterised by genuine respect and support. Geoff explains that “these soft skills are really important, particularly where individuals operate in a hybrid working environment, so that they remain connected with their colleagues.”

Off the back of the pandemic, exhaustion is a common theme: “one of the things I hear is that many people are worn out because they’ve been running really hard and fast through COVID. Because there have been additional demands, they’ve had to adjust, change work practices, work from home, reorganise people. The pace of change in many situations is now greater.”

Managing worker fatigue requires sensitivity. “You can’t close down the organisation and give everybody a month off, so it’s about ‘how do we help our people recharge their batteries in some way?’”. Aside from the obvious importance of protecting workers’ mental health, a supportive workplace culture can be highly protective in reducing staff turnover.

Although Australia might have escaped The Great Resignation that has been experienced overseas, we haven’t emerged entirely unscathed. Geoff reports seeing “quite a degree of turnover at certain levels in organisations. They’re finding it hard to compete – someone might be getting offered a big increase in salary and so they’re leaving, especially among frontline and middle management staff”. These challenges are further compounded by the slowdown in migrant arrivals and the lack of international students, who might have formerly been recruited for some of these roles.

Despite the challenges, there are some exciting opportunities for co-ops and mutuals in the current climate. “Co-ops and mutuals can compete to attract and recruit people that they wouldn’t normally consider. How can they perhaps hire people from a new area, who with training can be upskilled into the roles that they want to hire them for? Co-ops and mutuals may need to invest for a longer-term return, but they’ll get a committed and dedicated employee, because they’ll appreciate the opportunity they’ve been given.” For co-ops and mutuals who are in a position to invest in this kind of training and development, it’s an opportunity to live out their co-operative values.

As an experienced executive search professional, Geoff has some words of advice for those who aspire to work at the helm of a co-op or mutual one day: “it’s about having goals, plans and ambition, but ultimately it’s about pursuing a career you enjoy. Technical skills will not necessarily carry you all the way, because when you move into senior positions you have to evolve your soft skills and ability to lead and influence people. People engage with people and so it’s these skills that a manager and a leader needs to really develop.”

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