Randstad CEO Karen Fichuk is in her first year on the job. In this second part of our interview, she discusses coming into the role as an industry outsider, how she applies her unique set of skills, what tools she uses, and some important advice about workforce management. See part one of our interview here.
Randstad CEO Karen Fichuk
Now that you’ve been in the job as Randstad CEO for a while, are there work experiences or training you wish you’d had?
More experience in the staffing industry obviously would have helped! More experience with the HR function would have been helpful since they are important stakeholders.
In the CEO position you draw upon lots of different skills and experiences. I was fortunate that I have a finance background. I’ve also had several functional rotations and opportunities in operations and marketing. I spent a lot of time on the client side. I’m a client-centric manager in both service and account management and also within sales. All of that has served me well.
The other thing concerns leadership styles. People envision a traditional CEO as someone very authoritative, decisive and charismatic. This is changing, maybe because of more women in leadership roles. I have some of the softer skills such as being able to connect with people, having empathy, and being a good listener. I think this has helped coming into an organization at this level and being so new. It just would not be possible for me to come in without having a lot of those characteristics and being a bit more humble and willing to learn. I think that goes a long way.
In business today, nobody has all the answers. Even one company can’t do it alone. Everybody’s working in an ecosystem, which highlights the importance of not only clients and suppliers, but also partners. Acquisitions also require that we’re able to make connections and build relationships and use some of those softer skills that have not always been attributed to a CEO.
Do you notice people treating you differently than they did in previous roles?
Well, I’m new here, so that’s a little hard to gauge. Certainly in my previous life when I moved from one leadership role to more of a general management position, then yes. There’s a responsibility that comes with the CEO seat. You need to be very aware of what you say and how you say it. People are watching you. That goes with the role and the responsibility.
One of the tools that I use here and have used at lots of other leadership transition roles is a leadership assimilation process. This is a formalized, facilitated process that’s been really helpful and useful because I’m new. You bring the team together and give them the opportunity to communicate without me in the room. They have an opportunity to ask any questions or share information they think I should know. Then I have the opportunity to digest that and come back and talk to the team about it.
It requires some vulnerability and bravery on my part, but works really well. It saves a lot of time, because it gets you to a productive place with the team a lot faster by being transparent and open and taking the elephants in the room head-on. This process also helped me create a 100-day plan, which I’m tracking closely to.
As you visit branches, how do you respond when an employee asks what you do as the Randstad CEO?
Number one is the buck stops here. Ultimately, I am accountable for making Randstad a great place to work and delivering value to customers and shareholders. Beyond that is the bigger, higher mission to protect and nurture the culture and the legacy of the Randstad brand. We want to lead the world of work and connect employers and job seekers.
Have you settled into your operational rhythm as Randstad CEO, in terms of how you get information from the organization on a regular basis?
Yes; as I said, Randstad is a high-performing business. You’ve got people running the different lines of business who have been here for a very long time and are great at what they do. There’s this operational excellence in this business that is so impressive, coming from the outside. There is already an operational cadence and rhythm and quarterly business reviews. We have all the metrics that we could ever need in terms of running the existing business.
What I can add to that is a bit more headroom for strategic discussions: How do we prepare for the future, as well as manage the business today? Being new and from the outside gives me license to ask a lot of questions and be a bit provocative at times. It helps the leadership team and the organization think about where we’re going and what we’re going to look like in the next five to 10 years and how to lead the industry.
I spent 25+ years at Nielsen. I knew everything about that business. I was an operator through and through. So now coming in and not knowing as much about the day-to-day and being the one to facilitate the longer-term strategy and view has been a lot of fun.
A lot of older companies have a lot of financial data but don’t have as much data about customers and employees. Is this the case with Randstad?
Randstad has a tremendous amount of data, especially data about the employees. We’re in the middle of our employee engagement survey, which we do quarterly across the organization from the lowest levels up. I have a dashboard where I can see the feedback by every possible segment that I want to look at and question. We have Net Promoter Scores as well as overall satisfaction scores with thousands of comments.
It’s a fantastic tool to get a gauge on employee sentiment and the challenges that we need to address. It also highlights the bright spots so we have clarity on what we need to be doing more of across the organization. This all supports the human part of the Randstad culture.
On the client side, part of the change expected when I came into this role was to create a more global client organization. This is being run by a fellow colleague and the intent there is to get closer to those enterprise clients and global clients. We want to bring the full power of Randstad to bear against those relationships. We’re going through a segmentation process to understand the needs of clients and how we should organize to fulfill those.
We’re also in the process of doing the same thing within the North American business. We’re learning a lot from fellow markets in Europe. Randstad in Europe has a full-blown customer delight program that we’re starting to roll out in the U.S.
Considering your industry and position as Randstad CEO, other CEOs will be very interested in how you are looking out six to 12 months. There’s conflicting economic data in the air, and all of us who have been around a long time know there’s a recession coming at some point. How does that reflect in your planning right now?
Well, you will what you want, Joel, so I am saying we’re not going to have a recession! In all fairness, though, our business is tied to the cycle. I started in February and that initial jobs report came out two weeks after I started. It’s all kind of smoothed out and I have some advisors on this question because it’s so important. We’re also a member of the Conference Board and are doing work with ey.
The indicators would say that, even though we are slowing in terms of growth, we are not going to hit that full-on down cycle or recession for some time. We’re seeing that in our business and in the numbers so far. You never know, though. It’s a super volatile time with the trade policy and the stock market.
That’s not to say there aren’t some trends that are a challenge for other CEOs in terms of HR. One HR trend is economic and social polarization. There’s the widening of the gap between the haves and have nots, as well as the vanishing middle class. Our data at Nielsen showed this, as well. In the measured consumer purchase information, we could see the high-end luxury brands growing, while the lower private label products also increased growth. This is something we all need to be aware of and take responsibility for.
We talk a lot about reskilling and upskilling and the impact of automation. We need to make sure we’re not only talking about it, but also doing the reskilling and preparing people to work in this economy. The economics work, if you actually sit down and put pen to paper and sprinkle in a little creativity on top of that.
Also investing in resilient and counter cyclical businesses helps protect against the downside. We have our RiseSmart business that does outplacement work, and what we’re finding is that instead of hiring us for outplacement, perhaps it may be better to hire us to identify employees who can be reskilled and redeployed within your organization. CEOs should keep that top of mind from a talent perspective, especially given the shortage in certain areas.
Diversity and inclusion are also important. I wouldn’t be here today if not for the investment, sponsorship, and mentorship of others and all the things that I benefited from in my career. I keep that top of mind. It starts at the top. We must make our commitments and take action to change the workforce and the leadership profile of the future.