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Interview: Bev White, chief executive, Harvey Nash

The Harvey Nash executive talks about recruitment during the coronavirus crisis, a new wave of interest in outsourcing, and leadership skills and challenges

Throughout her career, Harvey Nash CEO Bev White has prepared for and thrived on challenges. Her management toolbox is certainly coming in handy right now, as the executive leads the global technology recruitment and outsourcing firm through the Covid-19 crisis.

In an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly, the executive talks about the changes she has observed in the business landscape since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, both in terms of recruitment and IT strategy.

According to White, Harvey Nash’s 2,400-strong workforce has been operating remotely over the past two months and the recruitment business is doing well, with companies still looking to hire staff. However, the new realities imposed by the pandemic have increased the pace of digitisation – the firm already used video conferencing for interviews to some extent, but that has now become the norm.

In addition, there has been a shift in the types of roles on offer by companies looking to hire IT professionals. “Permanent hiring is softening up, people are perhaps delaying some of their decisions where they feel it’s not urgent,” she says.

Conversely, the contracting business has “pretty much kept up”, according to White. “Organisations that were reluctant about not being able to meet someone in person to make that permanent hire and wanted to get their projects done, switched it into a contractor or an interim role to keep things moving,” she says.

When it comes to the types of expertise companies are looking to hire, demand for data analytics and cyber security has been increasing amid the pandemic. “As organisations have moved their operations to home working, they’ve had to tighten up the security across their platforms, and this has driven more demand for those kinds of skills,” White notes.

“As organisations have moved their operations to home working, they’ve had to tighten up the security across their platforms, and this has driven more demand for those kinds of skills”

Bev White, Harvey Nash

As a computer scientist who has spent much of her career working in the IT sector at companies such as IBM and NTL (now part of Virgin Media), before shifting to recruitment in 2002, White is an advocate for greater diversity in the industry and believes there is potential for change as a result of the pandemic.

“As a woman who spent more than half of her career in technology, I’m very conscious of the need to have a fair and open process for all kinds of interviewing,” she points out, adding that the current situation is making organisations revisit some of their assumptions regarding women.

“I think it’s been more proven now that you can be productive and still be a carer of children, and that may open people’s minds up more,” she notes. “[Remote working] has actually been an incredible experiment that has proven or disproven a lot of prime misconceptions.”

A new wave of outsourcing

In addition to recruitment, the Harvey Nash chief executive says that as IT decision-makers seek to respond to the impact of coronavirus, she will be exploring other opportunities in the months to come, particularly around the group’s consulting unit Crimson and technology outsourcing business NashTech.

“Some of our clients and new prospects are now thinking, ‘Actually, outsourcing is quite a good idea – I don’t think I want to run my own platform’. We are seeing more and more of these types of enquiries, and I see that being an increasing growth area for us,” she notes.

However, the increased interest in shifting IT work to third parties that White reports is not related to a return to old practices, but a new model of outsourcing supported by automation.

“Organisations are looking for opportunities to take repeatable processes and use robotics to help with that. This is about business process re-engineering and an opportunity to look at an organisation’s effectiveness as well,” she says.

Leadership in times of crisis

Having taken over from the previous incumbent, Albert Ellis, in early February, White was getting to know Harvey Nash’s UK staff and was preparing to meet her colleagues in the US and Asia. The pandemic hit and plans had to change, but the executive has used her soft skills and technology to quickly adapt to the new way of working and to get under the skin of the business.

“I’ve now had almost as much time out of the office working in this way than I did in the office, but I love challenges because they’re an intellectual puzzle to me,” says White.

“I was concerned initially, because I didn’t have time to get to know a lot of people before we had to send them home, but pretty extensive use of tools like video conferencing actually mean that [interactions with staff] feel much more personal,” she adds. “I’ve got to know people on a deeper level much faster, and that’s been really good fun.”

White says the combination of data and people interaction has been crucial to leading the business through instability.

“The really good leaders are highly visible and that is key in challenging times. You can do that by holding town halls with your teams, you can write blogs, invite people in for coffee chats”
Bev White, Harvey Nash

Despite the challenges introduced by the pandemic, she notes that the current circumstances present an opportunity of re-invention. “Everyone is having to stretch their skills to some extent,” she adds.

As someone who is “endlessly curious about how businesses operate, as well as people”, White benefits from a multifaceted background – in addition to her formal education and MBA, she is an executive coach and a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) practitioner, which has equipped her with socio-emotional competencies that are particularly useful in challenging times.

“I am an executive coach myself, but I also have a coach of my own, so I can explore and try new ways of doing things. I am also an extensive reader and love to understand how other people think,” she notes.

“As I’ve been going through this process, I’ve gone back to my wide network, asking questions about what people have done and seen [in times of crisis],” she adds, commenting on the management tools she has been using.

Reflecting on her frequent interactions with IT decision-makers across the industry, the CEO says she has noticed the struggle of executives who hadn’t polished their management skills prior to the crisis, but has also seen many leaders who are currently “excelling”.

“The really good leaders are highly visible and that is key in challenging times. You can do that by holding town halls with your teams, you can write blogs, invite people in for coffee chats,” she says.

“It is also important to not dodge the tough questions, even if you can’t answer them immediately,” she notes. “A client once told me, ‘Leaders are like teabags – you only know how good they are when they are in hot water’. That definition has stuck with me, and it’s very relevant in business today.”

 

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