Perspectives: Hung Lee, Editor of Recruiting Brainfood

Featured, Perspectives

I had the pleasure of speaking to hiring heavyweight Hung Lee. A leading figure in talent, few are held in higher regard than the editor of leading industry newsletter, Recruiting Brainfood. Hung shares his thoughts on how to grow personal brand, the future of recruiting, and whether remote working signals the end of company culture and employer brand as we know it.

With over 25k subscribers to his curated industry newsletter Recruiting Brainfood, Hung Lee is on a mission to cut through the noise. He's passionate about knowledge sharing, driving collaboration, and growing a community of future-focused recruitment professionals. 

His interview is not to be missed. 


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Let’s start with a bit about you and your background. 

I'm a recruiter. I still think of myself as one even though I haven't sent a CV in 10 years. I started in the noughties and got into tech recruiting, agency side. In 2019, there was a shift. I realised that different technologies were starting to take hold, particularly social tech. It became clear to me that a lot of the things that traditional agencies were doing were going to be under threat from direct hiring. I wanted to investigate and understand more, so I left the agency world. I ended up working as a trainer and in social media. I also worked in-house for a bunch of start-up tech businesses. Then about five years ago, I launched Workshape.io, a tech recruiting platform and in parallel, four years ago I started Recruiting Brainfood, a newsletter for recruiters.



Let’s talk about Recruiting Brainfood.

It was a side project and initially, it was only for my own personal use. It was about trying to reduce the noise level for myself. The internet is great, but you have a problem - there’s just so much content out there and you have to swim through a lot of rubbish. As time went on it suddenly occurred to me that having done a lot of this work already, I could just share the content with people, and they could benefit from my work. It started from a very humble beginning, with no return and no agenda.



Recruiting Brainfood now has over 25k subscribers. Did you have any idea that it would take off like it has?

I had no idea. The number of subscribers really started to stack up. I reached a point where companies were coming to me trying to sponsor Recruiting Brainfood. It was then that I realised we had the attention of the industry and it made me appreciate that I needed to dedicate more time to it. In truth, it’s a full-time job for me now and it’s been a really enjoyable segue in my career. I didn’t see things going this way, but I’m really glad they have.



The Recruiting Brainfood community is incredible, it’s become far more than just a newsletter. Was this always the plan?

Yes, that was quite strategic, I have to say. As the newsletter took off I realised that we needed a place for the members to actually talk to each other. The different channels that have been developed since then have been to help people discover the content and each other, as well as to help with general learning and support. It’s worked really well, and it’s been a really pleasing part of how things have evolved.



There’s also the added bonus in that they also do some of the work for you, sending across content!

That's been a fantastic revelation! You can't do it all yourself. The community has been amazing at just sending stuff through. It’s been really helpful, and it just confirms that people do want to share good stuff that they’ve read. It just highlights how supportive the industry is or has become in the last four years or so.



Have you got any plans for the future of Recruiting Brainfood and how it might evolve?

There’s something bubbling. I really feel the need to deliver even more value, particularly now there’s such an engaged community. I’ll continue to be consistent with the stuff that people enjoy, the newsletter, podcast and the lives will all continue, but I think there’s something missing and I need to work out what that is. Hopefully something will come to light next year, so watch this space.



During the last 4 years you’ve grown a strong personal brand. What lessons have you learned along the way?

I think there are some quick and easy ways to grow personal brand. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that if you're open with what you're doing, that that in itself will give you all the content you ever need.



Moving on to content. How can you use it to fuel brand?

Content has changed. If you look back to Web 1.0, everything was broadcast. As a consumer you couldn’t interact with content, you could either consume it, or ignore it. At that time, there was the sequence of the 3 Ps. You’d produce, publish, and then promote content.

In a connected world, this sequence of the 3 Ps doesn’t work and I think the problem a number of people and businesses have is that they still view content in this way.

One thing I’ve discovered as being really useful in terms of producing great content and growing personal brand is to share half-finished ideas. We live in a very collaborative and interactive world and if you’re open with where you are with an idea, and the fact that it’s unfinished, it allows the audience to come in and help you finish it. It’s great for personal brand and it’s a much cheaper and faster way of producing content.

Speed is great. If you’re producing a number of blogs, tweets, whatever it is, as opposed to an annual report, it means that if you get it wrong, it doesn’t really matter. Now if your report doesn’t land, you’re in big trouble as it’s likely taken you all year. Speeds means that content frequency will increase which is also great for brand.

If you go back to the idea of publishing content that’s not polished and has a few holes, by asking the audience to come in and fill some of the gaps, you’re driving higher engagement, wider distribution and more interaction – it’s a win-win situation. The term I would use to describe it is conversational marketing. It's a fairly new concept and we see a lot of it on LinkedIn.



How much has the recruitment industry changed since you've been involved, Hung?

It hasn't changed in its fundamentals. I think it's become more complicated, but I think the complexity is interesting. We care a lot more about things like experience, diversity, and employer brand. When I started in 2000, it was simply a case of getting CVs in and it was a pure sales job. Generally speaking, the changes are really positive, and we’re trying to give people a better experience throughout the journey.



As a techie, what technology do you think has had the biggest impact on recruitment?

Social media, no question. It's changed the way in which people can communicate with both candidates and clients. Before the era of social, everything was locked into a database. Agencies had spent years building a database and businesses had to work with them because they were the ones with access to the talent. Then LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter came along, and users could start to push their personal information to the market. The result was that the agency database lost its value because you could find equivalent information or better information through the social web. This meant that direct hiring really took off.



What are your tech predictions? What should we look out for?

I think right now we have to look at any technology that automates repeat processes. It sounds like a bit of a contradiction, but I think the most exciting technology is typically the most boring technology, things like scheduling software. I'm really excited by tech that can get rid of things like scheduling or reporting.

Automation is coming into recruitment in a big way. It has been for a while and Covid-19 has definitely accelerated this for two reasons. Firstly, businesses are much more aware of cost and the drive for efficiency, all businesses are going to be looking to make things leaner. This economic driver only serves to propel automation in recruiting. Secondly, the shift to remote working means we’ve digitised a lot of previously analogue processes, things like booking meeting rooms and arranging interviews.

If you take video interviewing for example, it gives us so much data, we know the length of the interview, and what’s been said. We can now start to join the dots around performance. All these things will start happening and companies won't look back. Businesses are looking for more efficient, faster ways to do things. Recruiters need to be aware of changes and embrace them. The wrong thing to do is to be hostile to these changes and dismiss them, because if we don’t get behind the wheel of the car, we’re going to get run over by it.



What impact do you think Covid-19 has had on recruitment and candidate experience?

That’s a tough one, as Covid-19 has had a different impact on different parts of the market. If you’re an involuntary job seeker, someone who has lost their job and is on the market involuntarily, the chances are you’re not having a positive recruitment experience. Now that may not necessarily be the fault of the recruitment industry, it’s more to do with the fact that we've got an overwhelming surge of candidates in the market battling it out for fewer roles. The result is that you’re less likely to be given concierge treatment. Your experience might be that you’re constantly applying and constantly hearing nothing. So, all in all, a poor experience.

You’ve then got the in-demand skills, the people who are still premium and have the luxury of choice and they’ll likely have a far more positive candidate experience.

I guess it’s hard to tease out Covid-19 from the wider economic impact that it’s had. It’s a really tough time for candidates and recruiters but with the acceleration of the adoption of technology, it should mean that the overall experience for candidates will improve and very quickly.

If I look back to when I was a jobseeker, the main reason why people get stressed isn’t because of the outcome, it's because of the ambiguity. Not knowing what’s going to happen is very stressful. If you know you’re going to have a bad outcome, then you can mentally prepare for it and start thinking about your next move. If you don't know the outcome, and you’re disappearing into a CV blackhole, which is quite a common experience for many people at the moment, it’s tough. Now there’s a quick fix, technology. Just being able to give people a red light or a green light will do a huge amount for people and their wellbeing, not to mention the reputation of recruiters.



There’s a lot of talking about upskilling and reskilling. Do you think we're starting to see an evolution of recruitment professionals and a move towards them becoming a talent advisor?

Yes. It’s essential that recruiters start moving up the value chain, right now. There are a lot of the things that are going to happen in terms of working trends and the adoption of technology, and they will knock us out the game if we don’t evolve. Recruiters need to get away from being the best CV reviewer or the best person to convert a sale. We need to take on a strategic role and we have the perfect opportunity to do that now.

We need to move towards advising our customers strategically about the way they should be recruiting. The challenge is working out how we price for that change. The recruitment revenue model is fundamentally based on percentage on placement and outcomes, so unless we unlock ourselves from that, we will always be considered just a delivery function. We need to challenge some of the fundamental pillars of the industry to make sure we’re in a really good position moving forward.



Remote working presents plenty of challenges. How do you think they can best be overcome?

There’re a lot of companies we can learn from here. I really admire businesses who went remote voluntarily. They’ve thought about it, they’ve designed it and the good news is that a lot of these companies are very public with their information. Naturally, a lot of the real success stories are technology companies as the nature of the business lends itself well to remote working.

The broad theme is one of transparency - just be honest with your employees. It links back to what I was saying earlier, the value of sharing things before they’re completely finished and giving people insight into the process. People tend to be far more forgiving if you’re honest with them, so be upfront about what a job entails, what the structure looks like, and the onboarding process. Transparency is key.



What impact does remote working have on company culture and brand?

We have to understand that remote working is very different from on-premise working and that has a knock-on effect on culture and brand. The difficulty comes when businesses pick up on the things that work in an office, and assume they are preservable and will work in a distributed working environment. Let’s take Friday lunches as an example. They were great in the office but if you try and replicate that experience virtually, it just doesn’t work.

We need to create remote-specific rituals and cultures, and these will evolve over time. But for businesses trying to replicate and maintain on-premise culture in a remote setting, it should be a red flag. We have to accept that maintenance is not what we want, we need to recreate the culture of the business in the remote setting. That’s going to be far more sustainable and aligned with the natural behaviour of people. We won’t be trying to fit square pegs in round holes, and it won’t be artificial. We're going to get to a point where businesses will have remote only rituals and cultures. They’ll probably feel very different and some people aren’t going to like it.



Do you think things like AR and VR will have a part to play?

Absolutely, but not yet. I was involved in an AR conference recently and I think it’s going to be a game changer. It’s just so immersive and really holds your attention. It’s much more engaging than simply looking into a screen.

The challenge at the moment is that the distribution of these devices isn’t easy, nor is their utilisation. As it stands, we’re a way away from them being used widely I’m afraid.



What impact do you think Covid-19 and the switch to remote work has had on employer brand?

That’s a good question and it’s a really interesting topic. Working remotely changes everything, because now differentiation is very difficult. A big driving force in businesses spending lots of money on an office, interior design, and cool furniture is to make people feel like, in your case, a ‘BPS employee’. And as though they want to work for you.

My gut feeling is that employer branding will become far less significant as time goes on and it will become an area where we’ll invest less time and energy.



Do you think the same thing will happen to company culture?

Yes, again I think it will be less of a focus for businesses. If you look at the assessments people do before they start a job, the main reason for them is so that companies avoid hiring the wrong person - someone who isn’t a good cultural fit. We all have experience of a hire that hasn’t worked for cultural reasons, it’s just not a nice experience. In a remote world, culture won’t be as important. Our touch points with our employees and colleagues will be reduced and culture won't be the main driver anymore.



Do you think we’ll move away from more traditional permanent hiring?

Yes, I do. That’s where we’re heading. I think we’ll do more trial and project work, and we’ll end up thinking ‘Oh, this is OK. Let’s do more of this’. I think the way we interact with businesses will change fundamentally and this has a huge impact on the recruitment world. Recruiters, both internal and external, are still fixated on two broad types of recruitment, full-time permanent employees and contractor employees. There’s going to be huge diversification in the types of contracts we’ll be working on moving forward and at the moment, we don’t have a handle on these.

It comes back to the point I made earlier about the need for recruiters to be talent advisors. Another big part of the role moving forward will be advising our clients on the type of employment contract. We’ll need to know and understand the most appropriate employment contract for a particular role, set of roles, or function. I think that’s where recruiters need to head towards. We need to be talent advisors who can give guidance to companies on the full talent orbit available to their organisations.



Finally Hung, let’s hear your predictions for 2021.

OK. I really think we’ll see an increase in what we call the ‘alternative workforce’ - those who aren’t permanent, full-time, or on-site employees. This will be a challenge for businesses as everything we’ve built is based on that premise, and we refer to anyone who doesn’t fit into that group as an alternative worker. Companies have historically seen these employees as a temporary stop-gap before they find someone permanent and that has to change because both businesses and workers will demand it.

There’s a really interesting piece of research from McKinsey. They asked 800 executives what they envisioned for the post- pandemic workforce and one of the main takeaways was that they’re looking for advanced flexibility. Given the current climate, the last thing businesses want to do is to hire lots of people on permanent contracts. As we know, these assets can quickly become liabilities in this changeable world. Again, as recruiters, we have to be ahead of this change. We need to be leading and advising our clients, rather than simply accepting a requisition for a permanent full-time employee. That type of work will shrink and we’ll shrink with it.

Another key challenge on the horizon is how we overcome the retention of talent. Top performers will always be a flight risk but rather than simply accepting that people will cycle out, I think we’ll start to see employees remain affiliated with an agency. It’s something technology companies tend to do. Rather than losing lots of people, they create an environment where they can branch off on their own under the umbrella of the business. You’re satisfying the needs of the person who wants to leave, but not losing them completely. It might mean sharing a database, sharing technology, or doing cool stuff together, but not necessarily retaining them as an employee.

Again, it will mean a big change. It used to be that if you worked for a company, it was written into your contract that you didn’t work for anyone else. I think that that barrier is going to become permeable and the smart companies will be those who figure that out and how to make it work for them.

 

Thanks Hung!

Check out Recruiting Brainfood, the industry newsletter for the talent business, or connect with Hung on LinkedIn.

If you're interested in being interviewed as part of the BPS Perspectives series, I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me at  leanne.kelly@bps-world.com.

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