My Biggest Mistake: Jeff Grout

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The Independent Online
The joint managing director of Accountemps and Robert Half, the recruitment specialists, took time after leaving the London School of Economics in 1974 before settling into a career. Today he is a firm advocate of using temporary employees.

I HAVE MADE lots of little mistakes in my career, but two big ones stand out. They are related because they have helped me to learn a major lesson: the importance of thinking ahead.

The first mistake was leaving college and falling straight into a job without any structured thought, without trying to create a career. This is somewhat ironic, considering I now spend a good deal of my time advising people on planning their careers.

But in 1974, when I left the London School of Economics, there wasn't much in the way of graduate unemployment and - like many of my friends - I didn't go on the Milk Round. So I drove a van for a while, travelled round the United States and did a number of cleaning jobs. Then I fell into town planning because I saw an advertisement and I had a degree in economics and geography, which seemed to fit - rather than because I had thought about what I wanted to do or might be good at.

As a result, I spent about five years in local government town planning, before realising that I wasn't particularly suited to it - nor it to me. So I left and travelled around the world.

By this time I was 27 and for the first time I actually thought about what I was good at and what I wanted to do. I enjoy dealing with people and came to the conclusion that I wanted to do something that combined this with a sales role.

Most of the responsibility rests on my shoulders for not deciding on my career earlier - but I would also criticise the careers advisory services at schools and colleges, which are too focused on professions like law and accountancy at the expense of other fields that one might want to do long-term.

It all worked out all right because I happenened to know somebody in recruitment and that led me to Robert Half, where I have been ever since.

At that time all the recruitment consultancies in our niche of the market were essentially permanent recruitment businesses. We offered a temporary service. But there was no real focus or marketing effort. It was very much seen as the icing on the cake, rather than our core business, and a fallback for candidates that were difficult to place in permanent jobs.

And that was my second mistake.

For if I had thought ahead I might have seen the importance this part of the business would assume. Indeed, had we not been in the temporary market - and it was purely fortuitous that we were - the company might not have survived this recession as well as it did.

We didn't really concentrate on temporary recruitment until the early 1990s, by which time a recruitment transformation was under way. This was partly to do with the recession putting pressure on costs, but companies were also using temps in ways that they didn't before. Now we see this area very much as a complementary service. In 1993 Robert Half had 50,000 temporaries working worldwide.

Companies are increasingly using temps as a strategic part of their human resources policy rather than as the traditional stop-gap. And I believe this attitude is here to stay.

So in this case, too, things have worked out. But from both mistakes I have learned that you need to think ahead.

At Robert Half - more than many of our competitors - we take a strategic approach to the business. We have a revolving five-year plan. But besides that, we are trying to see what clients' needs will be in the future, and working out ways to satisfy them, rather than just better meeting the needs of the moment.

(Photograph omitted)