The Staffing Show - Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson, Vice President of Professional Services at Avionté, joins David Folwell to talk about his experience in staffing and his thoughts on what is shaping up to be an increasingly digital future. Johnson explains how staffing firms can gain and maintain a competitive advantage by adopting digital staffing programs and processes. He also shares his thoughts on talent intelligence and discusses how algorithmic matching can lead to better and faster placements for both job seekers and companies.

David Folwell: Hello everyone. Thank you for joining us for another episode of The Staffing Show. Today I am super excited to be joined by Chris Johnson, who is the Vice President of Professional Services at Avionté. Chris, thanks for being here today. Super excited about the conversation.

Chris Johnson: Thanks David. Yeah, glad to be here. Finally, right? We can finally get together.

Folwell: Absolutely. With that to kick things off, I know a lot of people in the staffing industry already know who you are, but if you could tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started in the staffing industry?

Johnson: Yeah, for sure. It’s funny, I’ve been asked this question on interviews before and I go, “When did I get into staffing?” Time-wise, it was in late ’90s for sure, but at the time I didn’t know it. So I was working in this little ad agency in Baltimore, which now does a lot of work with Under Armour. They’re not so little anymore. But we had a customer of ours that did contract pharmaceuticals in Baltimore, and we were doing the branding for them, and they said, “Hey, we got this software.” And really what it was was like Pfizer would come in and basically rent out their chemists and their lab to create, effectively like demo drugs for trials and stuff. Yeah. And he said the software just wasn’t working for them. And I didn’t know it at the time, but what we were doing is actually developing staffing software.

It was all bill pay, it was like order the cash. It was all the same kind of stuff. It’s cool. I’ve been an HR tech ever since then, but I’ve always hung my hat back on that and thought about, man, what were the challenges that that customer had? And then when I popped up again in… gosh, I guess it was like 2005 here in Jacksonville, for the folks that are on the call that remember Recruitmax, little ATS based in Jacksonville later became Vurv acquired by Taleo, well, way back when they had Recruit Max SE, which was staffing edition. So I cut my teeth back then running customer support for Recruit Max, working with small, mid-size staffing firms, which a lot of times can be the hardest ones to work with because the stakes are very, very high. The margins are very, very thin.

So we were delivering software into those customers and trying to do the best we could to make them successful. Ultimately, they got rid of the SE version and focused on corporate recruiting on the ATS side of the house. But yeah, I’ve kind of been in and around the world for quite some time. I think a lot of people probably know me from my time at the Adecco Group where I was Head of Digital Operations and I was part of the group on the whiteboards trying to think about digital staffing. Gosh, it’s probably seven years ago now in Zurich where we thought, “Huh, what would self-service staffing actually look like? Is there a world where we can actually do zero-touch staffing?” And that’s where I really, really kind of got my teeth into a lot of the stuff that people are facing today when we talk about talent marketplaces and digital staffing, et cetera. We were really trying to figure that stuff out way back then and it kind of fast forwards into Checkr, and now I’m over at Avionté.

Folwell: And so it sounds like you were digging into the digital transformation before it was the buzzword that it is today.

Johnson: Yeah, our old CEO, Frank Meyer, he’d always say, “Oh, Chris and your exotic ideas.”

He wasn’t wrong. I always wasn’t the one that stayed on the balance and was like, “Yeah, that’s cool, but this is better.” Just trying to press the envelope a little bit. I do think I’ve kind of earned that mantra or that sort of brand in the industry and I’m perfectly okay with that.

Folwell: Yeah, I love that. And seven years ago that was pressing the envelope and now it’s becoming table stakes in some industries and depending on what vertical you’re going after. Let’s talk a little bit about, I know you just entered a new role at Avionté. What is it and why are you excited about this new opportunity?

Johnson: You work as part of the Avionté family and I’ve known Jake and Jodi some time. We were always the outsiders at the SIA conferences. We were over there talking about digital staffing where everybody else wasn’t, so I had known these guys for some time, and they reached out, and coming out of CONNECT there was a real need for professional services. And that’s like a loose term. Really what it means is that there’s some change that needs to happen with our customers and we need someone who can be kind of a steward for that change. We can unpack that a little bit more, but why I thought it was so interesting is that we’re at like this weird inflection point in staffing where you kind of have to go or not go, and everybody’s kind of teetering on this line, and I thought it was a really interesting investment for Avionté because they wanted to bring it back in-house and really be able to help the customers figure out which direction you want to go and figure out what the new version of their staffing firm is.

So I’m super excited because it’s a highly-focused opportunity to work with our customers versus say going the SI route where it’s a little bit of you don’t know who you’re going to deal with. We kind of have a definite scope and a definite customer profile that we can work with, and it allows us to get super, super, super focused. So I love it specifically because we’re in a big change period in staffing and it’s nothing but upside for the entire industry.

Folwell: And so if you could just elaborate a little bit on what is the professional service component of Avionté and what is this going to look like for customers?

Johnson: Yeah, for sure. I think professional services, it’s a broad term, mixed professional services. I was at Accenture. That’s professional services. I think there’s a lot of SIs out there that do professional services. And I think what we want to bring to Avionté, and it’s important, it’s a definite intended outcome. We want to be very deliberate with the conversations we have. What we’re not is we’re not going to come in and look at your entire tech stack. So we’re not Accenture, we’re not McKinsey, we’re not some of the third-party SIs that are out there in the staffing space. What we do want to do is make sure that you maximize the ROI with your investment with Avionté. And that comes back to that being highly-focused. And there’s a couple different flavors of that, but I think the one that most people will be excited about is the concept of embedded optimization.

And there’s a couple different packages. We’ve tried to frame it up and when understanding where the Avionté customers sit, how could we take this high-level advisory service and make it something that’s approachable and attainable for our customers in a way that’s familiar. If you’re not used to buying professional services, big statements of work can be super scary. So we wanted to make it something that felt sort of natural. It was kind of buttoned up with the SaaS fees, with software fees and it was really organic and was less about this big lift, big effort. “Hey, the big SI is coming in, and we’re going to do a bunch of discovery, and there’s going to be this big read back,” and more in the pocket with our customers working and capitalizing on their relationship and driving incremental change and incremental value.

And then the net is that we wake up 12 months or three years from now and the customer’s saying, “Whoa, I’m tapping into every piece of technology that Avionté has, and I’m maximizing on it, and I’m getting the technical advantage for my business. And, oh wow, I actually just went through a digital transformation and didn’t realize it.” We’re able to do that, and we’re winning.

Folwell: And how does this compare to, from a competitive perspective, what you’re seeing with other applicant tracking systems in terms of the service offering that they’re providing as people are purchasing those?

Johnson: I haven’t done a battle card against our competitors but…

Folwell: Yeah. No, that’s fair.

Johnson: I mean I have been in the ATS space for a while and, again, I remember in the early 2000s it was like, full stop. Everybody had in-house professional services, and then there was this shift over to where nobody had them. And I was actually at Accenture when it happened, and I have another arrow in my quiver, which is my wife. She’s a career HR tech person as well. So always kind of calibrating against her and what she’s doing in her travels and we flipped over to we don’t want to have the burden and the bench of professional services. Everybody started outsourcing everything. Like at Accenture, we were a big Taleo shop, so Taleo had no PS. So that was me, and my team. We delivered that. I think what’s differentiated is that we are making the investment to say, “Hey, we’re going to assume a bit of risk with the intent that we’re going to drive positive outcomes for our customers.”

And what that comes with is actually building the bench right now. Is it a big bench? Not yet. We’re just kind of getting started, but anytime you do that, there’s a burden for us to carry the headcount and to invest in the capabilities and the people to be able to do it with anticipation of sort of hedging the customer’s going to buy it up. So I do think it’s a bit of a renaissance move to bring it back in-house at a really high level and I’m pretty excited about it, and it was a good opportunity when they reached out, I thought, “Oh, that’s cool. I want to kind of take it back to the old school and do real high-level consulting, but inside the four walls of Avionté.”

Folwell: I mean I think it’s a great concept and I feel like so many staffing agencies struggle to get the most out of their technology and so there’s definitely a need for the services and I feel like with the deeper expertise of being in-house, it makes a lot of sense. How do you see this as being a differentiator for Avionté?

Johnson: I mean, again, I think it’s an easier conversation. I love all of our friends that are all out there in the space that all the third-party SIs. I know some of them personally, certainly professionally. And I think that’s an important role to play for a lot of staffing firms that are just, like hair is on fire. “I don’t know what I’m doing across my entire tech stack, and I’m not really sure what I want to do.” But I do think when the folks sign the contract for Avionté products, it can be scary because now all of a sudden, you just made a big investment on software and to think that I have this other bill that’s out there with somebody else I think is, it’s a lot, right? Unless you’re a big enterprise level, you’re spending a bunch of cash on your IT budget. I do think it’s differentiated and I’m really excited about making it approachable and accessible for everyone. It’s scalable, up and down our customer base.

Folwell: Just having a software company and working with enough staffing agencies, seeing the change management that’s needed, I think that there’s anything that can help customers and agencies have more success with the technology that they have is a meaningful move for the industry. 

With that, and since we’ve kind of dug into your background and a little bit of Avionté, let’s talk about, I want to pick your brain on what you know best: tech strategy and change management. What are some of your thoughts just on the role of technology in the staffing industry today?

Johnson: I might get some hate mail for this, but go and look at this great analogy of Blockbuster and Netflix. I just came out of four years at Checkr based in Silicon Valley. So four years of being a student of the industry and watching what happened with taxis and Uber and we always did all these go-to-market plans and really taking a look at what’s happening. And when I look at staffing I go, “We’re kind of like that too, right?” Where we now are sitting on top of technology that staffing firms can actually capitalize on. It’s attainable, it’s not exotic. It’s oftentimes not super, super expensive. It’s easy to get ahold of. So I think the role of technology is critical for staffing to take us where we’re going because we’re not the exotic guys now sitting on the sidelines talking about digital staffing. It’s a must-do right now, and there’s a lot of reasons why you take a look at what’s happening.

And I’m saying digital staffing, yes, the talent marketplace, but I’m also talking about digitizing the supply chain too. It’s more than just mobile. It’s about using technology and different automation and chatbots and all of the cool things that are out there and capitalize on that because the customers are asking for it to know what I mean by that I mean the buy side, the buyers are now getting more sophisticated, they’re expecting more out of their supply side. They’re like looking at them and saying, “Hey, how are you guys differentiating your service?”

Candidates are expecting more. And I think the stakes are quite a bit higher now because if you’re a staffing firm that’s sitting out there and still using sticky notes, now you have to take your head up and look at the people that are coming from Europe that are fully baked from a technical standpoint. And there’s some logos that Barry talks about on the main stage, and you go look at those digital natives, and it’s Gojob, Job Talent, My Alma Mater, Adia. These are staffing firms, W2 staffing firms that have figured out how to use technology and those are the new competitors for the traditional staffing firms. So like I said, that’s not an inflection point we’re talking about, and I think the difference between Netflix and Blockbuster is that everyone can be Netflix now.

Folwell: Yes.

Johnson: There’s no excuse to ever be a Blockbuster.

Folwell: I guess from your perspective, how are companies going to compete if everybody can be Netflix? How do you compete as Netflix if you’re adopting all the digital technology, how do you stand out?

Johnson: You just have to be better. You use that. See that’s the cool thing about it. When I look at staffing firms, and I work with a lot of them. They all have their nuance, they have cool branding, they have mission. There’s things that differentiate staffing firms that align to every buyer in every industry depending on who you are. When you look at staffing company one and light industrial versus two, it’s the level of the content, it’s the human factor, it’s the location, it’s the deals. When you look at the back office, and you look at the supply chain logistics of actually doing staffing, the technology allows you to double and triple down on those things that actually differentiate.

So I don’t know that the tech, I think it can product-market fit on the tech. If somebody just woke up tomorrow and said, “Hey, I want to go low touch, and I want to have a digital supply chain, I want to do a talent marketplace, and I want to look like all those cool gig shops overnight,” they’re going to be differentiated. Fast forward two, three years from now where everybody’s a bit more on board, and everybody’s a bit more digitally transformed, that’s where you got to take that time or money that you’ve saved with the technology and then reinvest it in growing new markets or doing deeper branding or getting on social media or going, kind of meeting the candidates where they are, just can’t kind of sit on it. You got to do something with it.

Folwell: Absolutely. And with that, you’ve named quite a few different examples, I think, of interesting approaches to staffing the kind of digital staffing components. What are any examples? Do you have any specific examples or stories of success cases where you’re like, “Wow, this really just stood out, somebody did something that I think is super unique and an approach that others should be looking at as a company to kind of model after?”

Johnson: Yeah, I do. I mean it’s a bit of a third-party. I have no insider knowledge of this, so I purely got my facts from LinkedIn, but during the pandemic, right at the onset of the pandemic, I think everybody was lost. And I’m talking about the first 48 hours, first week when the world sort of shut down. Even me, I was supposed to go speak at Exec Forum, and I was still getting on a plane on Saturday, I never will forget. And I think I felt some pride in this because being part of the team behind Adia at Adecco, I remember they flipped the switch to get X amount of workers, I can’t remember what it was, 1,500, 15,000. And it was a significant number of essential workers out into the field and what they really did was just redirect to the Adia platform. And I thought, “Man, that is awesome.”

And then I started thinking about, “Wow, had more people listened to the early adopters and did more around that sort of digital or lower-touch type of staffing model, and they had some of these pieces and parts in their supply chain, they could have flipped a switch like that too.” But it was just a great case study. I talked about it on a few webinars and podcasts back then when I was at Checkr, I said, “Man, that’s kind of as advertised, what you build a thing to do.” And it was just a really cool pivot, man. Look at the folks, I mentioned a couple of those out there that are out there doing it today, and you look at the time and energy that technology buys them to do different things. It’s a neat use case.

Folwell: I mean I think it’s amazing when you can put, one, shift what you’re doing that quickly. And then also just the ability to put people to work without having the recruiterless model. A lot of companies are trying it, and I think it’s different in different verticals. From a macro perspective, one of the things we’ve talked about on the show quite a bit is just when we look at the staffing industry, it’s very fragmented, and there’s a lot of companies trying different things, a lot of companies that are trying to go after this digitizing the staffing market. How do you see this playing out? Do you think it’s a winner takes all? Do you think that there’s going to be multiple brands? Does it model the travel industry? What’s the path that you see this going down?

Johnson: It’s still a bit of an arms race. I think we are sitting in the middle of the product-market fits. I think the early adopters will win. But yeah, I mean somebody that wakes up and gets this done in 2023, will have a bit of an advantage, but by no means is it a winner take all, by no means is it, “Hey, I need to go full-send recruiterless.” I like to use the terms obviously I’d like to build and think about zero-touch because then you can work backwards from that and say, “Okay, well if we’re thinking about a world where it’s zero, I have all sorts of capacity, but let’s now fold back in where the touch is super, super needed, right? At the very bottom of the funnel where I really want to talk about talking with candidates or letting customers put requisitions into the technology by themselves. So that gives me more time to be on site and have really good meaningful conversations with them.”

I think there’s room for everybody, but it’s going to hockey stick up where the expectation that’s just going to be that you have it in. And I’m already kind of hearing that. I’ve had a couple customers say, “Can you guys do X because my buyer, my customer is asking for Y.” And it’s a technical piece of code, and it’s like, “Yeah, we have that. We can help you get there, but it’s going to require some change on your side. You can’t just fold in those same three-ring binders of processes you have. To do what that customer is asking for, it’s going to require you to make some wholesale changes in your people processes and be okay with that and support it from the top down.”

Folwell: I know you and I talked a little bit before this call, but there’s so much wholesale change that needs to happen within an organization for a lot of this technology. Adoption’s a huge problem. We hear that all of the time. “I bought the technology, didn’t do what I expected to do and I talked to agency owners or was like, “Well, we bought it, we expected this.” It’s like, well, what did you do from a change management perspective? You talked a little bit about the importance of starting with why, which I was channeling your inner assignment Simon Sinek, but how do you do that and why is that important to do this with change management with tech?

Johnson: Start off the bat, there’s a lot of thought leaders that agree that just because you bought the tech a digital investment does not mean digital transformation. And you have to keep that really in the back of your mind. So you can buy all the tech you want to, you can have 25 pieces of code in your tech stack. And if you don’t think about how to stitch those together or fully commit to adopting them, then you just have really expensive old processes, right? Because you just have old processes on your tech. So I think it’s important to really, really sit down and I take a page from a sales playbook, from the Command of the Message® playbook, and I say, just sit down and really understand, “What am I doing today? What do I not like about it?” So, what’s motivating me to want to do something different to buy new technology or make a change?

And then, “Who do I want to be tomorrow?” And then, “What’s it going to take to actually get there and what’s the anticipated outcomes?” The PBO process is a positive business outcome, and it’s one little piece of a sales methodology, but it’s so critical for what we’re talking about today and driving digital transformation because it’s that left-right, the AB, the yin yang. You have to kind of understand, “Who I am today and tomorrow.” And then once you do that, now you tie a bow up around that tomorrow piece then, and only then you start plugging tech into that and then trying to figure out, “Okay, now that I know that I want to be zero-touch, okay, cool, there’s a world where I want to go into new markets without having any real estate costs. I want to take the Kroger model.” Kroger is infiltrating the southeast very rapidly without having any source, right?

Because they just have warehouses and they have trucks because they realize everybody’s buying groceries on Shipt and Instacart, why have real estate? If everybody’s just getting things delivered, then let’s just work out of a warehouse. That’s a model that can be used for staffing. And if you are a staffing firm that says, “Hey, I kind of want to do that. I want to move into Jacksonville without having to have an actual branch, what tech does it take for me to be able to get there?” Then again, you work backwards again and start plugging the tech into that, but who do you want to be tomorrow? That is, I think the keystone on that.

Folwell: I love that. And I also, as you’re talking about this, the thing that going back to my marketing agency days, and we’ve actually surveyed lots of different candidates with what they were looking for and I was actually looking at A/B testing, value props and trying to understand what they wanted to see on staffing firm’s websites. And what I came away with is the segmentation of the talent pool is something that I think is going to be really powerful because there were people who all they cared about were the most locations to work from in travel nursing. There are others who cared about the most jobs. There are others who cared about the highest pay, there are others that cared about the service. So I think that as you’re looking at what technology to go after, understanding who you are, the segment of the audience you’re working with or who you’re targeting, I think it’s going to be critical as well.

Johnson: Oh, I think it’s on both sides. The candidate, I talk all the time about changing expectations. They’re still changing. That was a three-year-old conversation I’ve been having with things like this. It’s like, “This is still changing.” But yeah, definitely understanding them. And selfishly, I do like the candidate side a little bit. Buyers are super important to me, don’t get me wrong, but I like the candidate one because I have my son who’s in his twenties, so I’ve been watching him evolve as a young adult, and they’re fascinating. That whole Gen Z and what they’re expecting and the social alignment and I do think that is becoming more and more important. So some of those assumptions in the candidate pools and staffing that they only expect X or they only want Y, and having that be part of the standard operating procedure I think is not the right decision.

You have to assume that even the folks that you’ve had dialed in for the last decade are changing and somebody that’s doing day labor or pack or what have you for X an hour, they still want to have some social limit. They still want to have some of their soft benefits because it’s an expectation, it’s part of their life, and it’s important stuff. And we talked earlier about, “Well, how does somebody differentiate themselves?” Hey, cool, go buy some time with the technology and then turn back around and figure out what are you doing from a social mission alignment kind of standpoint and how do you turn yourself in a less of a commoditized staffing firm in one that people want to work for, and they do feel like they’re part of something larger. That’s a quick and easy way to differentiate yourself.

Folwell: I absolutely love that. And I’m just going to regroup back on the whole change management component because I think during our first conversation you talked about building out the “why” by each individual stakeholder, and I thought that that’s just a super valuable thought, kind of resonated with me and I thought it might be something valuable for the audience to think about as well.

Johnson: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s a super tactical conversation, but it’s very, very real. Whoever’s on the call, you’ve been on one side of an implementation, either you’ve tried to implement, or you showed up on a Monday and joined something that popped on your calendar, and you’re like, “Why am I here? What are we doing? My old system was perfectly fine.” So when you get in and buy the technology, I think it’s important from the top down, so from the buyers, the people signing the contract on the new technology to understand that we really have to go in and answer the, “So what, so what, for me?” for everyone that’s going to be involved. Obviously the CEO of the company, they’re going to have a reason that they’re bought in and they want to change. The head of ops is going to have their reason, the branch managers, the recruiters, and that’s something that I do on day one, whether I’m implementing or if I’m just coming in and doing advising around, “Well, hey, we already bought it. How can we take a couple steps backwards and resolve it?” I want to know who we’re dealing with. 

Then going back to the PBO, what’s the positive business outcomes for each of those personas? So develop the personas and then answer the question for them. And then as you work through the change and work through the transformation, now all of a sudden you’re answering the question, so you’re mitigating the risk for someone to say, “I don’t get it. It was perfectly fine.” Because if you’ve answered why the new way is going to be way better for them, it’s really just objection handling, but it’s very key.

Folwell: And I just love that concept. I know it is definitely on the tactical side of things, and I feel like the, I’ve watched so many staffing agency owners purchase software with the, “I know what this does from a business outcome standpoint, from the CEO’s perspective,” but they’re not going down to the individual level and breaking it down and thinking about getting that buy-in and explaining that why on that depth. So I really like that concept.

Johnson: It comes from a natural spot. I have hundreds of HR tech implementations I’ve been a part of, and at least a third of those, I’ve been the one holding the bag on that conversation on an onsite project kickoff, and I’m in a room full of 10 or 15 people, and they say, “I don’t get it.”

Folwell: “I don’t need this.”

Johnson: “I like my old software.”

Folwell: Yeah.

Johnson: You’re just set up to fail. So yeah, I think it’s important to unwind that early and then continue to calibrate back to that. So what can mean over the course of the project.

Folwell: I think that’s great. Zooming way back out again, what do you think the future of the tech landscape looks like over the course of the next five years? How do you think things are going to evolve?

Johnson: Man, anybody that follows me knows that I am a huge, huge talent intelligence person. I think that’s the next big gap. I love that the big thought leaders are talking about it, too, because it’s always legitimized once those guys start talking about it, but there’s been really good tech that’s been out there for a while now. Things like the Plum. It’s a great behavioral intelligence platform that I absolutely love. And I think that level of getting into not only racking and stacking the skills and resume against the requisition and sort of understanding who I’m dealing with, but also getting into the cerebral side of people and then being able to understand, “Well, it’s not just what Chris can do, it’s what Chris wants to do,” and then how do we begin to index that and want to do, could be a change in job, a change in location. I want to get some training.”

And this is stuff that is around in professional hiring, like corporate recruiting. It’s stuff that I do in my job, but in staffing, it’s kind of a foreign concept. And I think staffing’s actually the perfect industry for it because now we are using another layer of algorithmic matching to get you closer to that sort of one look, one placement, which is what we want. We want to crash that cost of acquisition down as fast as we can, get them in the field as fast as we can.

So I think that’s going to be the next big technology lever that we see. It’s over the horizon still. It exists, and it’s out there, but I think it’s over the horizon a bit till it gets integrated into the staffing world in a really elegant way, but I dig that. Right now we’re front and center on a talent marketplace play and what does that look like and what is a candidate 360 experience? And that’s a lot of things that we’re delivering with our portfolio and tying it really tightly with the ATS, talent intelligence will be the thing that you and I talk about here in a few years.

Folwell: And so when you talk talent intelligence, job matching, almost like value-based hiring where you’re like, “All right, what are the values of the stacking agency, values of the employee or behavioral, what are the things they’re looking to do?” And you said, is there software that’s doing that well?

Johnson: Yeah, there’s a few out there. Yeah, it’s still early. They’re doing really well. They’re integrating, I mean, they’re out there in space. Josh Person talks about them, and I’ve been watching them for some time. I’ve done a couple sessions with the folks at webinars, and I think the technology’s there, but it just takes time for the tech to get fully integrated. I think there’s some staffing shops that are beginning to play with that type of technology. Like I said, digital staffing isn’t a new idea, but it’s hot now.

Folwell: So it’s five to seven years from now.

Johnson: I hope. I think it’ll be sooner than that. But I’ve pinned in the corner, and someone’s like, “How long do you think it’s going to be until we’re doing talent intelligence?” Five to 10 years, I hope closer to five, be cool to see. It’s a candidate side, people’s needs change and they evolve. I will always be a candidate satisfaction guy again because I look at my son and I think about him, and it’s like, man, he was working in a warehouse, big name warehouse and was doing kind of the low man on the totem pole work, super smart kid and wanted to do the next level. He saw an opportunity, and it was really terrible career coaching in that organization. And he popped out the other side, and I hated to see that because he could have had a really fruitful career there, but just because of bad matching and bad HR process, he had to pop out. And that’s a shame. And I think things like talent intelligence begin to solve that in a systematic way. And you don’t have to be relying on the recruiter necessarily to be front and center on that

Folwell: I also feel like it’s such a, I mean, in corporate hiring, you see that value-based hiring. You see people really digging into culture. On the staffing side I think a lot of times it’s butts in seats and it’s like, “Oh, how do you differentiate? Well figure out how to get the right butts into seats with the companies that they actually care about working for and taking out of that level further as well.” So that’s pretty cool. So jumping into the general staffing questions, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges in the staffing industry today?

Johnson: Well, it’s just change adoption. I mean, there’s no secret. I mean, we all know, yeah, I mean staffing is, it’s a traditional business. And I think that’s why the digital natives are so scary and disruptive is because they’ve just started with a blank sheet of paper and we’re like, “Hey, let’s just figure out how to do this in a different and better way.” And I think they’re such a risk to the traditional firms. I do think most people have woken up now and are starting to figure out what we can do. That still is a big challenge. Buy the tech, but then the field doesn’t get it. They don’t want to use it. They don’t want to get back to the old way. So it’s just that willingness to just make the change. It’s just stop trying to be right. Stop trying to defend what feels good and let’s just have a really honest conversation.

And that’s not to say that everything that you’re doing today isn’t good. There’s a lot of good, there’s a lot of stuff that you’re doing. If I was to look at a process staffing firm and everything that they did was summed up in one through 10, maybe there’s three things in there that are absolutely amazing, and you’ve solved that problem in the most elegant way. Let’s grab those three, let’s bring them forward and now let’s supercharge those three with some change management, some different tech and a new process and a new way to do things. But yeah, I think at scale, that willingness to blank slate actually say, “Just tear the three-ring binder up, tear that thing up, and let’s just start putting new pages in it.” To me that’s the biggest risk or the biggest challenge.

Folwell: I think the unwillingness to change. I think of staffing agencies. I always relate to the travel industry where I spent a decent amount of time thinking about it from the perspective of you probably had a relationship with a travel agent at some point. Here in staffing, it’s all about the relationship. It’s all about the relationship. It’s like, “Well, how much do you care about that travel agent relationship now? And are you actually talking to somebody to book your trips? And how does that compare to the…” Because there’s an industry transformation that’s happening and the service delivery model is changing rapidly as well. So we already talked a little bit about what you’re excited about in staffing, but is there any talent intelligence, is there anything outside of that that’s super exciting for you in terms of new tech or new developments in the industry?

Johnson: No, I think I’ll probably still have a few more at-bats on that one. I’m still hyper-excited about it. I’ve been trying specifically not bring up talent marketplace too much. I’m sure we’ll all be talking about it here in a few weeks. But I do think there’s an advanced version of talent marketplace to where candidates sort of live and breathe in that mobile app and they live and breathe in that mobile experience because there’s a lot of people that talk about the…or whatever, use an Uber as a bourbon. We look at what the gig economy taught us is that people want to engage in different ways and the expectation for high amounts of data at any point in time, it’s out there. And when I say that, just go buy something on Amazon today and take a look at the amount of artificial intelligence and predictive analyzation that’s out there.

And they’re like, “I look for a sprinkler head, they’re showing me five more. I’m seeing all the ratings like the five-star ratings. I’m looking at pricing.” It’s an amazing piece of data intelligence. So when I look at the talent marketplace as an example, I do think there’s just massive upsides still in that area before you even get the talent intelligence. I think talent intelligence is a capstone on that, but when we really start building that kind of Amazon/Uber/Apple/insert consumerized experience that we all live with every day into that talent 360 vibe, that has me excited. And I still think we have a long way to go there and that we, I mean, just think the industry has a long way to go there so we can continue to develop and do some stuff there.

Folwell: I couldn’t agree more. I feel like it’s just scratching the surface on it across the board. It’s an entry point, but a long way to go. So with that, let’s shift over to the fun personal questions at the end here. What advice do you wish you were given before entering the staffing industry?

Johnson: Oh, that’s a good one. I didn’t know if we were going to ask all of them.

It’s probably just less about the staffing industry and just more general. Just stay in the pocket and listen and learn. It’s easy to listen to people and instantly just want to object. For whatever reason, either think you know more or, “My way’s right,” or “This way’s comfortable” I wish somebody had said, “Just shut your face and just listen to the people around you and understand what they’re saying and then just put that in your back pocket for another day.” I think sometimes that manifests itself in change management conversations as well as, “Oh, my side too.” 

So it’s something that I tell my team. And be confident we know what we’re talking about, but also be empathetic and listen to what’s happening. I’m going through a move myself. It’s funny. I ate my own dog food. We sold our house, we’re moving. And I went through this moment of a couple days of change and anxiety. And I even told my wife, I said, “Geez, that was kind of scary. I think I just experienced what we coach around.” So it’s a hard process, and you have to really, really listen. And nobody ever told me that. It took me probably a good 10-plus years as a professional to realize what active listening actually meant.

Folwell: Awesome. Great advice. In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

Johnson: Just letting go. I’m a career professional services guy, career project manager. All the things I talk about. I’ve been doing this my whole life, letting go. I am not a control freak. That’s not what I’m trying to say. But having project management be my trade or my craft, we are good because we try to control outcomes. We try to think about everything good and the bad. We want to high five on the good ones. We try to protect ourselves from the bad ones. And I think personally I’ve been trying to take a little bit more on the loose and fast and just trusting the gut kind of mantra and saying, “Okay, listen to it. Be aware of what I’m hearing and what I’m feeling, but let’s take the energy that we were burning on.” If there were two positive outcomes and 10 negatives.

I think the first part of my life I would bias on the negatives and make sure I’m protecting the two positives, but now what I’m starting to do is recapture a little bit of velocity from the negatives, and that way I can double, triple down on my own positives for myself and my customers. And that’s a hard thing to do.

Folwell: I absolutely love that. That’s great advice. And what is the book or books you’ve given most as a gift and why?

Johnson: I love, love, love Daniel Pink. My favorite book. I talk about it as many times as I can is A Whole New Mind. And here’s a reason I have a non-classical education. I’ve come from a creative background, worked in the agencies and just product of the dot-com boom and sort of ended up where I ended up. But early in my career, I can never figure out like, “Wow, why am I good at what I do and how did I end up in this consultancy and advising and on the business side of the house versus design?” And when I read that book, A Whole New Mind, it talks about the power of the right brain and the creative thinker and be able to analyze and problem solve very rapidly and think in four dimensions.

It was an amazing book. So whenever somebody asks me kind of like a little personal reflection on books, I always point back to that one and it’s an oldie but a goodie. But it definitely overnight shifted how I thought about myself personally and professionally, it told me what my superpower was and I just instantly started using that for good for customers and every job and every employer I’ve had any sort of fast-forward to today and it still holds true.

Folwell: Ah, that’s amazing. I’m picking that one up. That’s great. Awesome. Well with that, any closing comments that you have for the audience?

Johnson: No, this has been super fun. I love a good casual podcast. They’re always a lot of fun. We’ve covered a lot of ground. I try to find a balance between being sort of like a positive thinker and a bit of a challenger as well. So a couple question marks, and I’m going to go back and look at those three-ring binders after this, but we’re always around, so always happy to dig back in after this if anybody has any questions.

Folwell: Awesome. Well, thanks so much for joining, Chris. Really enjoyed the conversation and very excited for you in the new role at Avionté and looking forward to seeing what happens.