Poor business practices have been exposed — those abusing the furlough scheme or treating employees badly have been showcased for their bad behaviour. It is good to call this out and people will work with businesses whose values are in line with their own, creating a more ethical environment.
Sharing your feelings — we have all had times of despair and when people have been open about this, the reception has been supportive. This is something we should take forward.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sophie Milliken, a multi-award winning entrepreneur and MD at SRS, a Graduate Recruitment and Employability consultancy. SRS provide assessment design and delivery services to employers including M&S and AXA and are known for their unique large-scale assessment centre simulations in universities. Sophie is known to be a recruitment and employability expert and her bestselling book, From Learner to Earner, which helps students to get their first graduate job is out now.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I joined the John Lewis graduate scheme after finishing university and started out at the Newcastle store. After being a manager on most departments within the store, I fell into HR, specifically learning and development. I moved to head office in London and worked on the new store opening programme before moving into graduate recruitment, a post I held for five years. During my tenure, we introduced around 10 new graduate schemes and moved from number 74 to number 9 in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers list, as well as winning a number of awards.
I left John Lewis and set up SRS with a business partner in 2013, becoming sole director in 2017 before merging with GradTouch in 2019. We work with employers to design their assessment materials and support them with screening their candidates. We also work with universities on various employability activities and are best known for running large scale assessment centre simulations.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
Loads of great things have happened, winning big contracts and developing exciting products and services. One of the most interesting things happened less than six months after starting the business. We had secured an application form screening contract with a global investment bank. Part of the job required one of us to be on-site at their London office in Canary Wharf one day per week.
One day, I was sat eating a sandwich in one of the Pret shops in the Canary Wharf shopping centre on my lunch break. I was scrolling through LinkedIn and noticed a post from James Caan who I had connected with a couple of years previously. He was running a competition to find a “Recruitment Entrepreneur”. I pulled together our entry, carefully following the rules on content and word count. When I hit the submit button, pinging our entry over to James, I knew it would go somewhere.
Sure enough, only a week or so later, I received an email from James’ PA. James would like to meet you. The response to the brief was to be presented to James at his Mayfair office. I decided we needed to stand out and that a visual would help. I bought a massive piece of white card and got an artist friend to draw a winding path on it. I stuck pictures of Simon and I at the start of the path and included some photos along the start of the path to represent our journey so far — our previous work history, the services we were offering and the clients we had already won. The path then forked off in two directions — one showing us partnered with James and the other not, both had successful outcomes.
As we approached his office building, the nerves increased. The office was in a beautiful town house style building in Mayfair. James entered the room with the confidence you would expect of a successful businessman and TV star. He was wearing an expensive looking suit and had a strong presence immediately. He sat down and told us we each had three minutes to introduce ourselves and pitch our business. We were about half way round the table so had a little time to compose ourselves. I was thrown somewhat by having a lot less time than I had expected. Now, I would absolutely nail that pitch with everything I have learned since, but this was only month six of the business. Still, we did our best and his summary when we finished was “I get it, you are graduate recruitment experts who clearly know your stuff. Good.” He seemed to like our visual aid. As no one else had brought anything, it certainly made us stand out.
As we walked through Mayfair with that massive board (which I still have in our Newcastle office!) we reflected on the experience. It had been really exciting and I had enjoyed the thrill of meeting James and pitching our business. I was concerned that if we won, we would be expected to relocate to London or at the very least spend a lot more time there, something I had wanted to avoid given a key driver for setting up the business had been to have more time at home. My gut told me we wouldn’t win the investment and as usual, it was right. We received a polite email a day later: “Thanks for coming in yesterday. It was really good to meet you both and we were certainly impressed by both your drive and ambition. And your presentation board!”
I don’t regret having a go and on reflection, it was the right outcome for us. We dined out on the experience for months if not years afterwards. People in recruitment are always interested in hearing about the time we pitched to James Caan.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Like many, we have been working hard to move our services to a digital offer. We are now able to offer everything we do digitally and have our own digital assessment software, which I believe is the best in the market. The software can be used by employers to run digital assessment centres and we are using it for all of our university assessment centre simulations.
We have also launched our international campaign and are actively targeting international universities to work with to help them prepare their students for graduate jobs.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people who have been role models or who have supported me in some way. It’s hard to choose just one so I will cheat a little and say I have a group of women who are my rocks. We met through a networking event a few years ago and formed a group chat to share business challenges. This has developed over the years to cover personal issues as well as business and they are an amazing support in good and bad times.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
I always feel frustrated that these types of questions are asked of women but not men and that sums up our challenge right there — the family issues often fall to the women. This is especially the case for me as a single parent. Homeschooling has been an absolute nightmare. The provision from the school has been disappointing and unhelpful. This has meant it has been hard for me to balance work and childcare and the disruption to my child’s education has caused a lot of worry.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’ve been up early most days to try and get a start on the day so that if I’ve needed to break off later to help my daughter with her work, I’ve still kept on top of my own work. I also got my daughter a tutor three times a week to give her some structure and supplement the school work. We’ve kept this up through the summer holidays which I think will help her when she returns to school.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
It’s exactly what is above — managing childcare and work. When there is no childcare, childcare becomes a work related challenge.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
Be disciplined. I get up early and am highly productive. The tutor has taken the pressure off me with homeschooling so has been worth every penny. As soon as it was safe to do so, my cleaner came back to work and that takes house pressure off. I batch cook each Sunday to set us up for the week ahead. Its hard to balance everything and I don’t think its ever possible to get a balance, even in better times. You just have to do what you can at the time.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
Talk to your friends — by phone rather than Zoom as Zoom fatigue is a thing. Be honest about how you are feeling. Get outside when you can and see people within the safety of the guidelines. Exercise and meditation are valuable too.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Innovation comes from crisis — we pivoted to accelerate the development of our software which has allowed us retain all of our client work for the year and deliver it in a different format. It also led to us being shortlisted in the Pivot category at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
- Flexible working has advanced — many jobs can be carried out remotely. We’ve always had a flexible approach but now more traditional companies have had to adapt to this too. This provides opportunities for many and reduces the location barrier.
- Small businesses are in the spotlight — people have been encouraged to shop locally. Many small businesses have been able to adapt quickly and come out stronger as a result.
- Poor business practices have been exposed — those abusing the furlough scheme or treating employees badly have been showcased for their bad behaviour. It is good to call this out and people will work with businesses whose values are in line with their own, creating a more ethical environment.
- Sharing your feelings — we have all had times of despair and when people have been open about this, the reception has been supportive. This is something we should take forward.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I think it is as basic as listening to people and respecting their boundaries. For example, my parents are now able to visit inside our house but do not yet feel comfortable doing that so I respect that and we meet in the garden.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Say yes to all opportunities, figure out how to deliver later. I’m a huge fan of saying yes to every opportunity that presents itself. Often the scariest opportunities are those which we learn the most from. Saying yes to one thing usually leads to other excellent opportunities. When I took the opportunity to write my first book, it led to making new and useful contacts, being offered a TEDx talk and ultimately generated business.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m on most platforms but spend the most time on LinkedIn and twitter:
Twitter: @SRS_Sophie LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/sophie-milliken
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!