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The Resilient Recruiter

Jun 25, 2021

How do you build a £20m recruitment business? It starts by hiring, retaining and developing good people, of course. But the glue that holds everything together, and lifts the business from good to great, is company culture.

In this interview, Jonathan Keen shared how he creates a high-performance culture while promoting a healthy home-work balance. Jon revealed so many fantastic insights for recruitment leaders, from providing extra holidays, fostering a safe space for people to share their true thoughts and feelings, to adopting a qualitative approach to management.

Jon is the CEO of Cognitive Group, a company he founded in 2007 at the age of just 25. Since then, he built Cognitive into a £20m business with a team of 21 and offices in the UK and Germany. Cognitive is a Microsoft talent expert and has placed over 2000 professionals into Microsoft projects on both a permanent and interim basis, building leadership teams and supporting digital transformations. 

Episode Outline and Highlights

  • [1:15] Moving from South Africa to the UK with £1,200 in savings, aged 20 with no degree or experience. Hear Jon’s astonishing story.
  • [6:30] On handling objections - how training at a young age impacted Jon’s career.
  • [8:54] Challenges when starting - Jon shared key learnings on nearly losing the business in the early years because of cash flow. 
  • [14:00] Mental health awareness: Jon shared his valuable takeaways from depression and what we can learn from his journey. 
  • [28:00] Massive jump in productivity - Jon revealed the positive effects of providing extra-long weekends to their employees.
  • [34:49] How to uncover your team’s motivations and bring the best out of them. 
  • [47:58] Optimistically looking forward to the succeeding years after the pandemic - what is next for Cognitive Group.

Starting Was Not Easy - Jon’s Journey

Jon moved from South Africa to the UK at age 20 - with £1,200 in savings, no degree, or experience. A friend referred him to join the recruitment industry and the rest was history. After five years, at age of 25, he launched Cognitive and eventually built the company to around £20m.  It was easier said than done though, and like all successful business owners, he also had to go through some difficulties and challenges which can be a foundation for valuable learnings. Jon shared how he almost lost his business in the early years because of cash flow. He offered an honest and realistic perspective on the stress of running a successful business and how it can affect our physical and mental well-being. Jon also did not hesitate to share his key learnings: never risk everything and beware of being complacent in client relationships.

Mental Health Awareness, Work-Life Balance, and Building a High Performance Culture

As we went along in our conversation, one of the main topics we discussed is being aware of your mental health - why it is important to both personal and professional aspects of your life. I really admired Jon’s transparency and courage when he shared how he dealt with depression. For sure, we can learn a lot from his journey. 

I had to ask Jon, how is he able to build a high-performance culture while protecting his team from burnout? He shared very insightful approaches on how he handles work-life balance for his employees. The gist of it, in Jon’s words, is bringing your physical and mental health to the top of your priority list.”

He shared two practices that you may want to consider if you have a recruitment business:

  • Providing extra holidays: Every 2nd Friday in Cognitive is a free holiday which translates to 25 extra long weekends on top of the usual holiday entitlement.
  • Being a qualitative rather than a quantitative leader.

Hear how these approaches actually resulted in a massive increase in their productivity.

Bringing the Best Out of Your Team

Another interesting thought that Jon mentioned is uncovering your team’s motivation and bringing the best out of them. It is no question that if we know our team’s motivations, we can help them to achieve their goals. So what is Jon’s approach to knowing his team’s motivation? Jon said leaders must “show that your intention is to genuinely help them. When someone can feel that they're in a safe environment to speak openly, that the answer that they might utter isn’t quite the answer between a sales leader and salesperson. It can be “Actually I’m not sure whether this is right for me,” and you can genuinely say ‘let’s talk about it’.”

Very well said indeed. Jon further elaborated by sharing two takeaways:

  • Celebrating successes via personalized praise
  • Fostering an environment where people share things 

Jonathan Keen Bio and Contact Info

Jon is the Founder and CEO of Cognitive Group - a team of experts in Microsoft talent and staffing specialists across Azure, D365, Power Platform, Data, Analytics and AI. Jon is an experienced recruiting leader, 18 years in the Microsoft tech space helping customers build their teams and building a super productive, driven and balanced team at Cognitive.

Jon is dedicated to building and inspiring a leadership team that is committed to delivering the best candidate and client hiring experience by nurturing a progressive company culture that not only supports, but actively encourages all forms of diversity and inclusion internally, and in the way they engage with candidates and clients.

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