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Defining a vision for talent acquisition- Johnny Campbell [Interview]

Defining a vision for talent acquisition- Johnny Campbell [Interview]

February 29, 2024

About Jonny Campbell

Defining a vision for talent acquisition- Johnny Campbell [Interview]

Johnny Campbell is the co-founder and CEO of SocialTalent, the world’s leading learning experience platform for hiring professionals. Johnny co-founded SocialTalent in 2010, and since then has served as CEO and lead on product and content. Johnny is a regular speaker at industry events including UNLEASH, SHRM, LinkedIn Talent Connect, and SourceCon, sharing his expertise in the global recruitment industry.

Vanessa Rose

We have the pleasure of welcoming Jonathan Campbell today to our interview series. I’m Vanessa Rose from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of peopleHum -  peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.

We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month


Welcome, Jonathan, we’re thrilled to have you. 


Thank you, Vanessa. Please do call me Johnny. It's only my mother who calls me Jonathan when in trouble these days. 


Okay, Johnny, could you tell us a little bit about your journeys so far that brought you to Social Talent? 


Of course. So I started my recruiting career, Vanessa, straight out of university back in 1998. And I worked as an agency recruiter, staffing agency recruiter for many years, doing finance and accounting based in Dublin and I moved to the Cayman Islands in 2006, I think. So I ran a recruitment agency there for a few years and that was a fantastic, amazing experience.  

Once there, I had decided to return home and set up a recruiting agency that would recruit offshore people in the insurance and finance world. I found another friend who I met on the island, who would agree to do this to me. And we set up our business in July 2008. We were a virtual recruitment agency. I was working from my home in Dublin and my colleague from his home in Cork, in Ireland and we were recruiting for people in the Middle East, in South America across the Gulf states, different parts of the world.

But that was, of course, July and the recession, a massive financial crisis hit in September. So we had to survive and find a way to innovate. And in doing so we kind of developed a way of recruiting that was new to us, that involved using the Internet on social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter, which were beginning to really open up at the time and the Web to what we now call sourcing to source talent and this worked and, we began to grow and quite quickly realized that the real value of this wasn't in running our own agency doing this. It was teaching the world how to do this better.

So we started Social Talent in late 2010 as a teaching organization, to teach recruiters how to leverage these new technologies to recruit better and as the years went by, we quite quickly realized to scale the organization, we had to move it online. We built our own first digit learning platform about 6-7 years ago and since then, the platform has become the world's largest learning platform for hiring.

We teach tens of thousands of professionals every year how to hire better, virtually, online from, you know, from sourcing all the way to onboarding and managing talent. We teach anyone involved in the hiring process how to do that. So it's been a journey that I would be lying to say that it was an intentional journey, that I thought I would end up right here. But this is where my recruiting career has taken me.


With respect to the ongoing crisis, what do you think the hiring world should expect this year?


2020 is a crazy year. I guess, I look back on my experience in 2008 and try to see what could I learn from that, and therefore, what can we gather from previous times of crisis. Although they were very different from this. I’m trying to speculate as to what might change. First of all, all predictions are slightly wild right now.

So it's an opinion and I certainly wouldn't take this as gospel. It's most important that people take several opinions and try and figure out what the world looks like. But from what I can see, you know, there are two crises happening. There's COVID-19 and then there's a recession. Right now, as we speak in late May 2020 the world is still dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and aren’t even beginning to deal with the recession and the recession will bring with it different challenges for hiring and for recruiting.

And I fear that we will probably end up having two crises in parallel and they have different effects. In general, we're going to see a massive production in hiring around the world. That's just an unfortunate consequence of this. I think large enterprises will pull back their hiring, but they are broadly still hiring. 65% of the enterprises we pulled last month told us that they are still hiring. Some are doing the exact same hiring, some more, some doing less, but they're still doing critical hiring. And 35% of frozen things are downsizing their organizations.

Those numbers may change as the crisis continues but for the most part, companies are still hiring, but they are doing less of it. I think if you look at internal recruiting, the types of roles you might have to recruit for will change and the people you recruit for those roles may change. So, for example, a lot of large enterprises are asking their in house recruiting teams to look inside the company for talent, which is something that they never had to do before.

Its talent acquisition, after all. But these teams for the first time, probably ever in most large enterprises are being asked to headhunt or source talent within their own organization, which requires different skills and different change of culture and mindset in organizations. But in times of change like this, organizations typically innovate and they have to adapt, and you'll find that not all of the staff you have today will be needed and you will probably create other new requirements as you remove requirements in the business.

So I think organizations should try and do the right thing, which is, keep your staff or maybe move them around. And this is something that we had predicted would happen over the next decade. It's just happening all of a sudden, as my friend Lara Schmidt says the future of work is now. A lot of these changes are just accelerating. They're not necessarily new.

We're also seeing virtual working becoming more of a norm in organizations. It's a requirement right now, but I think people anticipate it will become much more prevalent when this crisis lessens and, that opens up more opportunities to hire people from other jurisdictions with different backgrounds. So I think there will be much more diversity in terms of the type of people you can recruit for because more roles will be able to be done virtually and won't require an office location.

So that's gonna change the candidate marketplace. It's going to give more opportunities to some candidates and less to others or at least to others, it will give opportunities at reduced salaries reduced compensation. Hopefully, the recruitment environment becomes more equitable, that anybody who wants to do the job can do the job, no matter where they are currently based, which maybe will change issues around these visas and restrictions and all these things that organizations have been grappling with.

And then the staffing agency world is being massively impacted. Firms recruiting is down an enormous amount but you're seeing these staffing agencies, I think, you know, transition into more what the RPO or the recruiting process sources are, which is flexible organizations still delivering recruiting solutions and hiring solutions, but in different ways.

And you see a lot of project hiring happening now. Organizations like hotel chains or massive retail outlets around the world will have to turn back on their stores and their offices and their locations. They'll need to ramp up from next to zero to tens of thousands very suddenly. So the short term, there will be opportunities for a lot of project hiring like that. But it's just different in terms of the way we would have done things in the past, So opportunities for sure, changes that will be negative as well, and it will definitely require all of us in the recruiting industry to adapt.


Do we have a standard set of rules to engage passive candidates? 


So I think, you know, I've always felt that there is a better way to engage talent and there is a process to it. Obviously there's a science, and there's an art to engage. And the science part of it says that when you're engaging with talent, there are certain steps you should always take. So, for example, when you're reaching out to cold talent or talent you don't have a relationship with, you should try and form or find some alliance or commonality with that person.

So a common connection, for example, is a good way or research their background and see if you find something in common you have with them that is uncommon in the wider world. What is the unique approach you're talking to this person? It's a personalization piece. That's just standard science to be like, don't just reach out to everyone in the same way.

“Where talent is concerned, don’t just reach out to everyone in the same way.”

Other methods on the science part that I would count on are the ways that you reach out to talent. You have to basically understand that talent will reply to different mediums in different ways. So just because you enjoy reaching out by e-mail doesn't mean that another person's gonna reply by e-mail. They might be better on messenger. They might be better on LinkedIn. And so trying multiple vectors is extremely important to reach somebody. And the third piece is follow up and it's unlikely that the person if they're in demand of talent will reply to your first message. So you have to go through several stages of follow-ups, 4 to 7 follow-ups to try and really exhaust your engagement efforts.

So those elements like that, the science, which is personalization, using multiple methods or vectors to contact somebody and multiple follow-ups, that is the same the world over.

And then there's the art, which is down to how you communicate, the language you use, the words you use, whether to use questions and many questions, the tone of your message, or phone call. And I think that's something that you develop over time and you practice and that's where the real difference is in terms of somebody who can understand a process and copy it. That's one step. But who has the expertise to develop a methodology. That to me is how you best engage with passive talent.

So it is the kind of understanding that there are rules, rules being guidelines. They’re the science aspect of engagement. And then there's the art form, which is the learned and nuances, the subtleties of language, the subtleties of culture as well, which I think is becoming more important as the next few months develop, to your previous question, Vanessa. There's something that in Social Talent we commissioned a new course this month based on the great work of Aren Maeir.

Aren Maeir wrote a book called The Culture Coat, which he published, a year and 1/2 ago. It's fantastic, and I encourage every recruiter to read it. I understand that because she highlights the differences in different cultures around the world, for example, between India and the United Kingdom and the U.S.

And France and Germany and whilst we are all broadly the same, we are culturally biased to react different ways to different things, like a meeting, you know, different parts of the world, people from different cultures will treat, you know, a start time of meeting differently. In some parts of the world, you absolutely arrive on time that somebody says, I'm going to be speaking at 9:45 and you’re ready at 9:45. In other parts of the world, it's alright, we'll talk tomorrow morning is okay.

And when you're more likely going to be recruiting in a more multicultural world because you have a wider candidate pool, more jobs are virtual. You need to really understand how important these cultural differences are.

Because you can have the science of engagement but if you don't understand the cultural differences, what is expected in a different culture, I think you might inadvertently create a cultural faux pass in your engagement strategy, and I think that's gonna be something we're going to see in the next year or two.

“You can have the science of engagement but if you don’t understand the cultural differences, I think you might inadvertently create a cultural faux pass in your engagement strategy.”

Recruiters really need to understand those cultural differences because most recruiters probably recruit just within their region and they haven't had to deal with these issues. I think a more virtual work environment requires us to better understand those nuances of cultures.


That's a very nice explanation. An online presence is very important these days.

From a recruiter’s perspective, what sort of profile would get the most attention?


So your online presence is very important these days. So there are two ways of looking at your online presence. One is how do I get found? The second is if somebody is on my profile or they are connected to me, how did I get noticed?

So the first is more by just understanding how some of the search tools work, how Google works, how LinkedIn search works, for example, and a lot of that's based on keywords. So, to be found, first of all, you need to make sure that your online presence contains the right keywords. You have to think about who is looking at your profile. So most of us want to be very individual, and we tend to do things like changing our job title to be more individual, more customized and you don't like to use the generic job title, but a recruiter or employer will probably look for the typical name of your job.

I wanted to hire a sales manager, not a business development leader, for example. So you have to make sure that you balance your choice of words on your profile so that you're using a variety of different words that might mean the same thing, synonyms and you are considering who might be searching for you. What keywords, what phrases will they look for to be found in the first place?

The second is just making sure that when they do find you that they find something that’s warm, inviting, and engaging. So making sure that you, first of all, the information there is the right information. That means that you're highlighting the areas of expertise and you're demoting or hiding the areas that are not appropriate. So on LinkedIn, this may seem obvious, but somebody might find your Twitter account.

They might find your Facebook account. And, although it's your right to post whatever you want there, and you might use it as a personal forum, you have to remember it could be found in a business context.

So you should always review your online presences and make sure that you are proud of each of them in all contexts that they might be found so that if a prospective employer finds your Facebook profile, you are proud and you will say, 'That's okay, everything I say there I'm proud of. I have no problem with an employer seeing.'

“Always review your online presence and make sure that you are proud of each of them in all contexts that they might be found.”

When you start arguing, that's personal, that's private. I think that's not the perspective to have. It's that if it can be found, it might be seen and therefore you should be cautious and do the right thing and be sensible about these things.

But also, people want to see a warm face. They want to see your real personality. So, make sure that you have a professional photograph. But make sure it injects personality. Don't try to be too professional. You could have you, and you can have your kids or you could have you in your favorite place. I think that's becoming more acceptable these days. Especially in the virtual world in the last couple of months, where we've learned that it's absolutely fine to have grandparents or a child walking in on a phone call. I think people don't mind as much anymore.

But you want to make sure that you're also coming across someone who's perhaps engaged in their community. And by that, I mean the virtual community. So you are sharing articles, liking articles, commenting on things again, remembering that you have to be proud of what people see. So don't be negative, no hate comments, don't get involved in arguments. But if you see something, you like it.

You see something you want to share it. It's good to keep an active virtual presence because it says to somebody that you are engaged in your profession and you’re engaged in the passion of the work you're doing.

So to me, they’re the core things. How do you get found in the first place? It's one way thinking about your online presence, but also then what do I find? Make sure it's personable, professional and make sure it shows that you’re an engaged member of your community.


Do you think employers now form biases based on what they see online?


I wouldn't say the word biased, but they're influenced whether you like it or not. And a lot of the work we do in our training online is to try and teach people how to recognize their biases and make sure that they don't use the bias in the wrong way and, it's never intentional.

So, Vanessa. One of the concerns that I had recently when I was discussing virtual working in the post COVID world is that most of us are moving towards virtual interviews, for example, very practical. You know, you're in your home, I’m in my home right now. But if I'm an employer and I'm interviewing you, Vanessa, I might see too much of your home, and by that I mean, I might see things that I have a bias towards.

I might see that you have children. I might make a judgment on the quality of the furniture in your home. Now, that is a bias that might make me think you have a certain socio-economic background. I might think , 'Oh, my goodness. She's from a very wealthy family', or 'Oh, my goodness, they don't have much money.' And these are things that introduce biases to the recruiter. Not intentionally, the recruiter doesn't mean any harm, but they are a risk.

And I think we have to be cognizant of that as the recruiter but also the candidate. Make sure we remove the opportunity of bias at all times.

Some recruiters suggest to me that even though we're all moving to video virtually maybe for an interview, you should use the phone because on the phone it’s just about the skills and the conversation and the information and you don't have the opportunity to introduce bias with what you see which isn't necessarily what you should be seeing and that may be unfair to the candidate. So they're some of the things that make me think around bias these days.


With the increase in the millennial workforce, the gig economy is gaining more prevalence. How do recruiters and human resources departments prepare for this scenario? Do you think they’re already prepared for this?


I don't think they are prepared. I think they need to become more prepared. So, the gig economy as people saw three months ago, it was very much about contract workers, and it was the smaller part of the economy. I think we will move more rapidly into the gig economy because one of the obstacles to the gig economy for some roles was that the gig worker wasn't able to come into your office or building or be in the same city, and that meant that gig workers weren't suitable for lots of roles.

I think people see that you can be anywhere. And I know I look at my own team at Social Talent and we just each other virtually now on video. So they’re mostly still in the locations they were in three months ago. The fact that they are permanent employees doesn’t matter anymore. Once you see how life can work in this world, we're going to be more flexible.

I think therefore the gig economy is gonna grow. Actually, I don't think it's due to generation issues. I don't think it's due to the fact that there is a large number of millennials in the workforce. That's not the major driver. I think COVID-19 is a big driver. And that’s just accelerating it for everybody regardless of your generation.

What organizations aren't ready for it? They're not ready to onboard people, virtually. They're not ready to build a culture with their gig workers. It was easier to separate your gig workers and your permanent staff in the old world. Your permanent staff were the people you see in the office. The gig workers were the people you didn't see. Now everybody is the same.

We're all just somebody at the end of a zoom call. I think that back to my point earlier and I think it creates more equality because nobody really knows your status, you're just another colleague and that is a positive thing. But organizations still have the bureaucracy and the way of thinking of old organizations which treat permanent FTE's, full-time employees, different from gig workers and the legislation in most countries doesn't provide for a more equitable balance between the two.

Even the question, if I want to employ you today to work for Social Talent, like there's no reason why you couldn't do a job for us that somebody with the equivalent skills in Ireland. Why would you not be suitable for that? You could just log on and do the job. But there is a real issue of how do I employ you? How do I pay you? The legalities, the taxes, etcetera? I still think those things are slowly moving and haven't caught up with this new virtual world.

So I think organizations and economies are still behind. But I think they're gonna be forced to catch up because this is the new world. You have to be ready for this. Organizations and people are gonna plow ahead and do it and if you don't create structures to support them, they're going to circumvent your existing structures and go behind them.

So as an economy they'll just not pay tax. Actually, that creates a black economy from a tax point of view, and then internally we'll just break the atrial rules because my manager here just treats us all the same. I want my team on a call and we assign work.

So I think people tend to just get on with things and organizations and economies have to catch up. I think that's what's gonna happen here. The people will just move on and get on with doing work, and I think everybody else will just have to catch up, and they’ll have to catch up fast.


Do you think organizations will be accepting of these workers? Because most employers want to see their employees working and are not really trusting unless they see for themselves.


You have to trust, but also the verified part is where most companies don't really have good systems today. So working virtually requires you to rely more on your verification processes.

“So working virtually requires you to rely more on your verification processes.”

So I spoke to an employer recently who told me that in his business they had a management meeting every month, actually every week. But sometimes he wouldn't attend, and sometimes the meeting wouldn't happen. They had a dashboard of KPIs that people had to import into, but nobody checked, and as soon as they went remote, they had to move to a daily meeting where everybody attends.

He wakes up in the morning and checks his KPIs every day. And to me, that typifies the change we have to adapt to which is we have to rely much more on our verification procedures. So for organizations or teams who work in an agile manner, for example, this is easy. You have scrums, sprints, you probably use software to manage that workflow, and you record your completion of work in a managed system. That's a very, very typical of a type of agile process.

Most traditional offices, as you pointed out, they manage by visually just seeing things are happening. I see people working, as in they look busy, they're on the phone, they're tapping a keyboard. They are working and we measure activity. Most of our economy measured activity opportune there and now we're gonna have to shift fast to measuring outputs.

My father rings me twice every week asking the same question. 'How do you know those people  are working?' Because to him, he's a 78-year-old man and to him the idea that everybody is at home at the end of an internet connection, just being trusted to get their work done. He still can't understand that. He thinks, because I can't see them, I can't possibly know they’re getting work done.

That is a problem, but you need to bring in tools and processes to do this right and one of the best books I have ever read maybe 10 years ago was a book called 'Remote', and it's written by the guys who wrote Rework. Jason Fried, I think, is the guy who's behind it. Remote was a very honest, real look at virtual working and it talks about the philosophy of virtual working, which most people are supportive of. But it talks about the harsh realities of what you need to have in place in terms of structures, systems, and reporting. And without the latter, virtual working doesn't work because people’s trust only goes so far. Because you need to trust, but also be able to verify. That's critical.

And you've seen the stock price of companies like Atlassian and others slack. Companies that have really good software solutions for measuring outputs and measuring work in this way. They've risen dramatically in the last month. I think you're gonna see more and more companies implementing those in roles that perhaps weren't really designed for this type of working. We're gonna have to move to many, many different responsibilities and roles being measured in this way. So trust and verify, to me, that's how you do it.


Moving on to our last question, Do you have any sound bites you would like to share with our viewers?  


I'm more thoughts about what's happening and what they can do. To me, if you're working in recruiting or in talent acquisition now is the time to make yourself indispensable. I've heard fantastic stories from organizations that told me how their recruiters have been so flexible and helped the organization do other things. Recruiters helping other HR colleagues or non HR colleagues whilst they haven't been terribly busy because maybe there haven’t been hiring.

“If you’re working in recruiting or in talent acquisition, now is the time to make yourself indispensable.”

They're not willing just to sit there and wait for the work. They're saying, 'What can I do?' I think recruiters tend to have a variety of skills that could be applied to many different jobs. And now is the time for you to show your employer you could help in different ways. So don't wait to be asked to do something different. Offer your skills.

Ask what else can you do. Can you retrain? Can you upscale? Can you help another team? Even if it's just temporary. They're the employees who will keep their jobs and grow. And also, be prepared for recruiting when it returns to your organization unscaled to look different. You know, I mentioned we might be recruiting different people, maybe internal colleagues, but we also might find ourselves recruiting different roles.

I've met many recruiters who two months ago were hiring experienced, high-end developers, and today they're hiring drivers and to me, you need to do that with a smile on your face. Recruiting is recruiting and don't get caught up in the fact that used to recruit high-end technical roles yesterday. If you're recruiting something else today, ask what the market is looking for, help organizations and teams recruit back. So don't forget that in trying to make yourself indispensable, you're gonna have to take responsibility for upscaling.

“In trying to make yourself indispensable, you’re gonna have to take responsibility for upscaling.”

So the knowledge you need, trust me, is out there. There are tons of free resources available for teams for people to try and figure out how to cope with this. But don't let the world happen to you. You need to happen to the world. You need to basically go out there and say, 'I'm not going to sit here and let my world be changed by COVID-19 and by this recession. I am going to change my outlook, my opportunity. I'm going to take control, take charge.'

And somethings are gonna be harder to do. You're gonna have to look, you know, put on a smile, but find yourself a community of fellow people, fellow recruiters, fellow HR professionals, leaders, whoever that might be, to lean on. You're gonna need them. Because not gonna be easy every day. So have the right attitude. Go right there. And let the world change you. You need to change the world. But to have a support network of people, create a zoom environment of a bunch of people of you think you get together on. Find people online. People are being flexible. Join a group and say, Come and have a weekly call and we chat every two weeks and I just have somebody else to talk to and chat with. So you need that support network.

What's your attitude is what's gonna make this work for you are or gonna break you and the big piece of advice I've always given people is, it's your choice, all right. You cannot change many things in life, but you can change the decisions you make. You can change the attitude you choose to have to that, and now is the time to really shine. It's really the time to do what's right for you and others.

And trust me if you're wondering what to do, helping others is the absolute way to go right now and try and find somebody else who might need that encouragement and might need a support network and reach out and offer your help to them as well.


That is really positive and wonderful advice, Johnny. Thank you so much for that. It is really the time to work on ourselves and help others.


Exactly. Exactly. Such a pleasure speaking with you today and thank you and sorry for the maybe bad connection time. I hope that wasn't too much of a problem for your viewers. Thank you so much, Vanessa. Stay safe and have a positive attitude.


It's been a real pleasure. Thank you. Take care.

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