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Gary Elden, OBE for services to diversity in business, was a recent guest on the Amoria Bond podcast, discussing his own career progression, the award winning work he’s done to put diversity on the agenda of British businesses and the importance of turning your outrage against discrimination into action. You can listen to the enlightening, powerful conversation with Gary here

Gary also talked about his own progression and how he rose through the ranks at SThree PLC (a FTSE listed specialist recruitment company) from trainee to CEO. Here, in his own words, are five of his biggest tips for recruiters wanting to succeed and progress:

1. You have to challenge yourself if you want to progress

Progression means trying to improve yourself. Push yourself beyond your safety net and achieve what you want in life. We have a limited amount of time on this earth so make the most of it. Otherwise how do you know what you’re actually capable of? So, ask yourself  good questions about what’s next, instead of settling for what you’ve got.

Even now, at the ripe old age of 53, as I get involved in new tech start-ups, I’m learning new skills and I’m thinking “what’s going to make me feel challenged? How can I progress and evolve?” That’s what progression means to me – challenging and evolving as a person. 

I’ve always been ambitious, I’ve never been satisfied. Being brought up in a council estate I always thought “why can’t I have a house?” 

Then when I got a nice car, I asked “why can’t I have a better car?” - And “If I’m earning [X], why can’t I earn [X+Y]?”

So I think it was always in me that I always wanted more – initially it was for materialistic reasons. But even outside that I still just always think “why don’t you push yourself and see what you can achieve?” 

2. Be the best and good things will happen

In this business, if you’re the best at what you’re doing then the opportunities will come. That’s what I’ve always loved about sales and recruitment. It doesn’t always apply in every business – in some businesses it can be more about “who” you know than “what” you know – but if you’re in the right environment you should always push to be the best.  

I knew that if I got into sales and I was successful at it then the opportunities would come. 

And being the best doesn’t mean starting out that way naturally: it’s something you can work towards. Get in that mindset and push yourself, challenge yourself and work at it. Do what you can to be the best and then good things will happen.

3. Work harder than everyone else and smarter than everyone else

Academically I wasn’t the brightest, I wasn’t even the most natural sales person. When I started in sales I was in estate agency where I became one of the youngest managers after two years. But when I got into recruitment I realised “woah – this is a different league of sales people.”

They were academically brighter than me, they were better at sales than me. And the only thing I could do to close the gap was to work harder than them. And then once you start working harder and you get what you’re doing then you can be just as smart as them. Maybe not academically, but smarter in terms of knowing the job. 

I looked at it as a numbers game. I made more phone calls than anybody else, I worked longer hours than everybody else, I sent out more CVs than anybody else. And guess what? I got more offers than everybody else, I made more deals than everybody else, I made more money than everybody else. 

But there’s another side to that. People miss this bit, but it’s about working smarter as well. 

You have to learn all the time and the best way is to learn from other people who do things better than you. So as a trainee recruiter I watched people and looked at the numbers to see who was the best - I would go around and speak to the most successful people in the business and say “how did you do that?” and “what would you do in that situation?” 

Then I put the best bits together from everyone - combined with a bit of my own magic to create my own formula for success. But it’s not about copying people, you’ve got to be authentic and that means being yourself, but you can adopt elements of what works best for other people. That’s what I did, and it’s a great way to keep getting better and better as a recruiter.   

4. Surround yourself with the best people

There’s a term we used to use back in the day: “mood hoovers”.  They’re always complaining, “life’s not fair”. Now of course there are too many people still unfairly discriminated against and that continues to be a massive problem in business today. But I’m talking about people who face every challenge with a complaint, who will just sit back and gripe instead of trying to do something about it. I never hung around with mood hoovers, I’d hang around with the inspirational people and gain as much knowledge as I could from them to hopefully evolve and do better. 

And those people are everywhere. If I look at the people who have helped me become successful, they’re all from different walks of life. I had an odd group of people at Huxley – people would look at my team and go “they’re odd” - but I like people from different backgrounds. I’d have people from middle class backgrounds, working class backgrounds, different parts of the country, different faiths – it didn’t bother me, in fact it helped me succeed, because they all had something to add. 

I love surrounding myself with different people - it’s exciting! People have a different perspective on things and a different attitude and I love being challenged – that was always important to me. 

In order to be successful it helps to surround yourself with people who are going to be better than you at certain things and I think I was good at just pulling that together – I’m also very good at delegating. As a trainee 

5. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

We need to make mistakes in order to be better at what we do. 

I’ve failed so many times at so many things. I’ve opened offices that have lost money. I’ve made the wrong strategic moves. I’ve started businesses that have not gone anywhere. I’ve had a lot of failures. 

If you’re going to push yourself and challenge yourself, you’ll make mistakes. The more you practice anything, the more mistakes you’ll make. If you want to take it easy and be safe all the way, then of course you’ll make fewer mistakes. But any successful business person will tell you about the amount of mistakes they’ve made to get successful. I believe it’s how you deal with failure that makes you resilient and makes you better. I think failure is part of your development and if you don’t go through life failing at anything then you’re living in a bubble.

Life is about making mistakes, but if you don’t learn from them it’s all a waste, you’re just going to keep making them and you’re not going to develop. You need to accept that you’ve made a mistake and learn from it and take that listen to work smarter in the future. 

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Gary Elden, OBE is the former CEO of SThree PLC, a FTSE listed specialist recruitment company where he worked his way up from trainee to CEO including founding SThree brand Huxley. Today he is the Executive Chair of the disruptive tech start up Recbid, diversity tech platform Get-Optimal, and Amoria Bond.

He’s also trustee of the Aleto Foundation – a non-profit organisation supporting people from disadvantaged backgrounds to help them fulfil their potential as the future leaders – and in 2020 founded the Diversity and Inclusion Charter, an independent initiative aimed at encouraging companies and individuals to hold themselves accountable by publicly pledging what actions they’ll take to make positive, real world change to make diverse, inclusive, equal workplaces a reality.

In 2015 Gary was awarded “business person of the year” at the Black British Business Awards, an award going to inspirational role models who can encourage the next generation of business achieves. He has also received an OBE for services to diversity in business.