Dave talks to… Paul Sharpe – Talent Matters Podcast

Essential Employ

The One Where They Talk About…

  • Seeking a sounding board as a business owner
  • The vital importance of a business plan
  • Solutions to recruit recruiters
  • The explosion of the gig economy
  • How to be a great leader
  • How to scale successfully
  • The future of recruitment in a changing market

Episode 4 of our Talent Matters series is a goldmine of advice and insights for recruitment SMEs from a man that has been in the industry for 21 years. Paul Sharpe, of the wonderfully named Sharper Outcomes, now advises SME business owners, using his experience and knowledge to help others. In our podcast, he chats to Wave CEO Dave Jenkins, lending us his wisdom on scaling, recruiting recruiters, the importance of investing in self-development as a leader, the growing gig economy, consultative recruitment, and so much more.

We highly recommend giving the podcast a listen – trust us, it’s fully deserving of your time – but have also compiled Paul’s most salient points for you to look at in the meantime.

The hardest part of setting up a business is starting

As with many things in life, the bit that most business owners struggle with the most is just getting past that starting point. Taking that first step, making that first plan. If somebody does that for you, sets out some ideas on paper that you can tweak, that can trigger the mind going forwards. Talk to someone who has done it before, who has run a recruitment businesses and can tell you from experience what worked and what didn’t, what a people plan and a career map looks like, and then you can take it and make it fit for your business. It’s business evolution.

Seek out a sounding board

Starting your own business can be incredibly lonely, especially when you’re used to working alongside a team. You can be the best recruiter in the world but the daily ins and outs of running a successful business are a whole new ball game. Sometimes all you need is a sounding board to validate or challenge your plans, or to knock ideas back and forth with. You need someone to hold you to account so that you complete what you set out to achieve. That could be someone from within your company, or someone neutral like a coach.

The best conversations are those with no agenda, sparring and bouncing things backwards and forwards – that’s when something great is born. Having an opportunity to share your thoughts, ideas, plans and vision with somebody else, especially someone who has done it before, can really help. That’s the power of working with someone, whether that’s someone within or outside of your business.

Formulate a plan and stick to it

Making a plan should be a business owner’s number 1 priority, both for the short and the long term. Breaking things down and having a 90 day sprint is important but longer term vision is equally crucial. Every recruitment agency is super busy, searching for candidates, expanding networks, making placements, and so on. Because of this, many business owners are not taking time to work on their business and think about its direction.

“I would always take a directional day over speed,” insists Paul. However, because of the nature of recruitment, which is led by speed, recruiters often choose speed over direction. Taking time out from the mad race to make placements also allows you to build your business in other ways – sharing thought leadership, insights, data, having regular service reviews with clients. What you don’t want is to have regrets down the line and this comes down to having a solid business plan in place, with a 3-4 yr financial forecast, and delivering on it. Some of that plan will be around candidates and candidate placement but understanding what you need to do to future-proof your business should be the central part.

That doesn’t mean that your plan can’t be flexible. The unexpected happens all the time – just look to COVID as a very recent example – but that’s all the more reason to plan for it. It’s entirely understandable why gravitating towards money for that placement to be made on Monday is hard to pull away from. However, thinking about what to do over the next 3 months to make sure you’re successful in month 12 is what will give you longevity and help you to grow.

Find your differentiator to recruit recruiters

One of the biggest challenges currently facing owners of recruitment SMEs is recruiting recruiters in order to grow the business. The issue is often the way the job is being sold. The organisation is important but that’s not all people are buying into. They want to know what their first 7, 14, 30 days will look like, who they’ll be working with, what they can expect to achieve in the first 6 months, what training will be provided, and so on. There are 38,000 agencies in the UK so why should someone come and work for you? What is your differentiator, the why? In order to stand out from your competitors you need to create your point of difference and market that.

Why onboarding should be more than just training

Most agencies have a comprehensive training programme when consultants join the business but onboarding should be about more than just training. New employees need to know what’s expected of them, who their mentor is, who they go to if they have questions. Onboarding is often thought about from a training perspective rather than an emotional needs perspective but there should be a structure in place for both.

The gig economy is about to explode – don’t get left behind

One solution to a recruiter shortage is to look further afield, and not just to remote positions within the UK. A number of forward-looking business owners are growing virtual delivery teams that don’t sit in the UK, part of the gig economy which is growing at an exponential rate (it’s estimated that the gig economy will be worth £63 billion in the UK by 2026). The gig economy is often misrepresented as only serving delivery or Uber drivers but it can work for a wide range of professionals, in any skill and in any industry, wanting to work in a more fragmented way. If you can find a great recruiter with spare capacity who happens to live in a different country, why would you not want to tap into that resource rather than struggle to recruit more traditionally?

Great leadership requires self-development…

When it comes to hiring remote workers and virtual teams, many business owners worry about trust issues and the lack of camaraderie and togetherness. However, trust comes down to the initial conversation of how you work together, the contracting conversation that should be had on day 1, that sets you up for success down the line. It’s also a management task, the success of which is entirely dependant on business owners and mangers leading, inspiring and motivating. If employees are watching Netflix rather than working, that’s as much a leadership failure as a failure of that employee. This is where it’s so crucial to continue to build on leadership skills. It’s a common trait of business owners to invest in themselves less than on their team. What’s important to remember is that spending time and money on your own development will benefit the entire company.

… and a great support network beside you

The best business owners are those who recognise their weaker traits and surround themselves with people to cover their blind spots or have a great network to help. There can be an element of arrogance around people who think they know it all, who have been top billers and have perhaps been pandered to. Nobody knows it all and if you haven’t run a business before there is always a lot to learn, no matter how good you were in your previous role.

Scaling successfully requires these 3 elements…

You’re a 10-strong recruitment business, you’ve been operating successfully for a few years and have overcome the the initial challenges. Now you want to grow. How do you manage a team of 100 rather than 10? It’s a big leap but the key is to do it in stages and ensure you consider the following 3 elements:


We’ve already detailed the importance of setting out a plan from the start. What’s vital is to have someone to hold you to account for that plan, to ensure you follow through with it and take those directional days to assess and keep the plan on track.


The infrastructure of your business needs to be set up properly in order for sustainable growth. There are two parts to this. Firstly, it comes down to your tech – having the right tech stack, using it properly, and ensuring that it integrates well with your systems. The best tech eradicates time spent on manual processes, freeing up time to spend on those more human of jobs, of which there are many in recruitment. Used well, tech is a massive enabler.

The second part centres around the operating model. At what point in your growth journey do you invest in roles other than recruitment consultants, roles that support and further the growth of the business, for example an office manager, management accountant, marketeer? As businesses grow, hires should be either about generating revenue or freeing up capacity in the business owner. Your first two hires should be consultants, then you should train a consultant to be an account manager. When you have 5-6 employees, you need a salesperson to grow the business beyond the immediate portfolio, all the while backfilling consultants and promoting from within.

It all comes back to the plan you’ve formulated at the start. That plan might seem daunting in the early days of business operations, which is where it is helpful to have the ear of a neutral person to hold you accountable, to stick to the plan and make it happen. “Set a recruitment business owner a challenge that is beyond what they think they can do and they will always rise to it.”


Many recruiters don’t use data well enough. They have access to a huge amount of it but they’re not using it to drive performance. Data can be a valuable tool to help owners to scale their business. Ask yourself, what reports are you getting out of your CRM and how can you use that data to drive your business? Data can alert you to key performance indicators, helping you to understand the health of your business week by week and make improvements where necessary.

The future of recruitment is solutions-based

“We have hit a peak”. Clients needs are going to change, if they are not changing already. As a result, forward-thinking recruiters are moving into solutions-based recruitment. They’re transitioning from being an order taker to being more consultative. Recruiters are a small part of a much bigger process and in order to thrive need to add value to the service they provide by utilising their expertise and skills, access to data and technology. What recruiters need to do now and in the future is sell to clients a solution that helps solve a problem, not just fill a vacancy. There are already examples of clients choosing competitors because they offer non-traditional, solutions-based recruitment. The future is now.

Total talent solutions for a changing market

Demand for project-based solutions is growing hugely – 28% of outsourcing solutions are now more project-based – and therein lies a huge opportunity for recruitment SMEs to grab hold of that market. Business owners can future-proof their businesses by maturing and developing services that clients will value downstream but planning needs to start now as demand is already increasing. It’s about doing more than just taking an order and placing a candidate in that role. The scope needs to be broader to include total talent solutions.

Clients will begin to choose recruiters that think about the work that needs to be done rather than the body that needs to be hired. This is where there needs to be a shift from a transactional model to recruiters taking on a consultative role with the client. There is now an opportunity to work out how to solve an entire talent problem rather than how individual roles can be filled. This was already valued pre-COVID but is valued now more than ever before. If you’re only selling transactional recruitment services now is the time to stop, re-think and plan what is right for you going forward. You’ll need to be prepared to change and move. Being dynamic is crucial in an ever-changing market.

Watch out for upcoming Talent Matters podcasts, where you can expect more advice and insights from a diverse line-up of individuals from the wide world of recruitment.