How to get hired – “Attitude above everything else”

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Jodie Murray Boxtree Recruitment

If you want the inside track on an industry, few have such a good overview as those involved in hiring and firing. Not the often mercenary HR departments designed to protect corporate interests. But the headhunters.

“Find a business that truly wants you to do well and will give you the time to train and grow,” says Jodie Murray, associate director at Boxtree Recruitment, who specialises in getting the right bums on seats in specialist finance. Avoid firms where the attitude towards staff is cost rather than investment, she cautions. “Ask questions during your interview that will show you the core morals of the company you are potentially joining, ensure they operate with integrity and kindness”.

In truth she is speaking about hiring in her own sector, recruitment. But it is advice she clearly applies when placing her clients in jobs too, though picking positions based on a company’s kindness will be a luxury too far for many right now. More people in the UK are out of work than at any time since 2009 – 1.62 million according to the Office for National Statistics. Nearly 320,000 more than last year, and 243,000 more since the Spring. Lags in the data mean the reality is likely even bleaker – unemployment is expected to peak at 9 million people next year because of the economic impact of coronavirus.

Older and younger workers have both struggled, but on balance Murray echoes reports from other sectors of more barriers in front of younger candidates without as much experience. Finance firms “have been nervous about bringing on candidates with such large training needs, feeling it’s not fair to hire and then not be able to support them fully,” she says. The government’s Kickstart Job Scheme for 16 to 24 year olds has so far not been widely popular. The government claims 19,000 jobs have been created so far with the scheme, but only 2% of all businesses said they have or will use it, according to research by Rangewell, an SME finance broker.

Murray has seen jobs crises before. Three years into her career the credit crunch hit. “I lost 100 per cent of my clients overnight,” she recalls, a collapse in business that meant Murray risked becoming unemployed herself. “I adapted, picked up my stall and landed retained contracts with insurance companies while the mortgage market recovered,” she says. Finance jobs were hardest hit in 2009. Now it’s hospitality, retail, the arts, travel and tourism. Recruitment in bridging so far remains in rude health, says Murray, who sees “a big opportunity for the sector and the need to hire increasing”. Pre-Covid-19 Boxtree mainly had a passive candidate pool – employed but potentially open to a move. Murray doesn’t see this changing, “and so I don’t anticipate a drop in salaries or a rise in applications for the sector”.

Boxtree Recruitment is based in the sometimes sunny Southend-on-Sea in the heart of Essex, a short overground ride into Fenchurch Street station and another type of pulsing muscle – the City of London, centre of a sector which in the year to March 2019 contributed £75.5bn to the Treasury, 10.5% of all UK tax receipts. Murray joined Boxtree not quite a year ago, but started in financial services back in 2005. Characteristically she didn’t wait for that first job to come to her. “I read an article in my local paper about a brokerage called National and Capital and its plans to expand so I picked up the phone to the hiring manager and landed my first ever role in the mortgage sector,” she remembers.

Given Murray’s entry it is perhaps unsurprising that, when asked what three attributes are most likely to help candidates win over potential employers, she lists attitude first (followed by research, and credit skills). “I always look for attitude above everything else,” she says. “My family sometimes laughs at the level on which I get to know my contacts but I fail to see how you can headhunt effectively without fully understanding what makes people tick.” Murray’s stance is backed up by the research. US business training company Leadership IQ studied more than 20,000 new hires and 1,400 HR executives to determine why new hires fail. It found attitudes drive 89% of hiring failures, while technical skills account for only 11%. Likewise, successful companies fix culture first, says Murray. “I have always encouraged hiring managers to build with different experiences and perspectives. If you can get the inclusive culture right, you boost employee morale and in turn productivity.  It is also the best way to build a positive employer brand,” she says.

A working mum of two who juggles a busy workload with her sons’ weekend football schedules – “I spend all my spare time in muddy fields and washing kits!” –  Murray says she has always been an advocate for women in the same boat. “I never shied away from representing candidates who need a little flexibility, are returning from maternity leave or from raising a family,” she says, groups “as valuable an addition to the workplace as any other demographic”. During her two decades in the specialist lending sector she has seen “a big shift” in diversity with some “really positive” initiatives and now “fantastic women” in senior roles as “excellent role models” to inspire the next generation. Several bridging firms, including broker Brightstar Financial and lender Hope Capital, are signed up to the Women in Finance Charter to improve female representation in senior leadership roles. Murray admits there is more to do, saying “we aren’t diverse enough yet”. But with more entering, and staying, “you would hope we will continue to see them reaching senior manager and board level, meaning younger women will be drawn in if they believe they too can achieve such career progression”.

Boxtree’s tagline this year has been ‘your role has been made redundant, not you’, an attempt to help candidates who find themselves back on the job market not to take it personally. “It’s so hard, but it is critical to try and view redundancy as a commercial decision only,” says Murray. Salesperson, which arguably encompasses many roles in specialist finance, was Linkedin’s number one most in-demand role in November, even beating registered nurse – fairly astonishing in the middle of a health crisis. Often candidates can be their own worst enemy. Common mistakes Murray sees are blindly applying without a follow up call or email, applying only for open vacancies, and letting self-doubt prevail. “Do not be too proud to reach out and ask for help and network,” says Murray, who views Linkedin as “both a blessing and a curse”  but adds “I can categorically vouch when used correctly and with the right mindset Linkedin is a powerful tool I am very grateful we have during this recession. I think it would have been a welcome lifeline back in 2008”.

Figures from Bridging Trends, lender MT Finance’s data blog, revealed a 45% fall in gross loan volumes in the first half of the year, as activity was besieged by the first Covid-19 lockdown. But the sector is staging a comeback. The latest data revealed a 46% increase in bridging loan volume in the third quarter as Covid-19 restrictions eased, with lending transactions at £115m in the three months to September. Overall activity is still 36% below pre-Covid-19 levels but is bouncing back, led by regulated bridging, as pent up demand, plus the stampede created by homebuyers trying to get across a crowded line before the stamp duty holiday ends next March, has meant bridging loans stepping in to save chains. “Covid-19 has really demonstrated the agility of the industry, the speed in which all our traditional trading methods were stripped away from us almost paled in comparison to the speed in which we found the work arounds,” says Murray, highlighting how technology and physical processes were quickly replaced with initiatives previously years away from implementation.

Murray has placed thousands of individuals at all different levels of their career into new roles. But when she hires fresh young recruits at grass roots level within the industry, she tells them something the figures above bear out. “I tell candidates property finance is resilient and robust and no matter what happens in the economy, there are always opportunities within this sector.” The advice we all want though is how best to answer probably the most maligned and cringe-inducing interview question, which tends to provoke all kinds of misplaced and false modesties – ‘what is your main weakness?’ For bolder candidates an exasperated Murray recommends saying ‘my main weakness is that I still have to answer this interview question in 2020’. “In all seriousness though,” she adds, “this question is all about self-awareness and honesty, so even if your answer isn’t what they are looking for it is still best to speak your truth – and what is meant to be for you, will come your way.”