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Let staff grow

Published on Friday, 05 Jul 2013
Steve Ingham
Photo: Berton Chang

PageGroup CEO Steve Ingham says ‘organic’ development makes a successful workforce

When Steve Ingham began his career in metallurgy and material science, little did he know that one day he would become CEO of PageGroup (also known as Michael Page International), one of the worlds biggest recruitment firms.

Trained as an engineer, he worked for four years at the world’s biggest precious metals manufacturer, Johnson Matthey, first in fabrication and later on the commercial side. “At the time I was travelling a lot with Johnson Matthey,” he says. “I wasn’t enjoying the job and I wasn’t looking forward to Mondays.”

Over drinks one night, a friend who worked for Michael Page suggested that he try for a job. “He was enjoying his job, and he talked about growth opportunities in the company and overseas,” Ingham recalls. “He said, ‘From what I’ve seen of you Steve, you’d do well’,”

Ingham was interviewed in 1990 by Terry Benson – who later became the firm’s CEO – and joined as a consultant, as most people do at Michael Page in London. “Michael Page is organically grown, so most people join at the bottom and work their way up,” Ingham explains. Within four years, he was managing director.

In 2006, Benson retired and Ingham became CEO. Two areas proved challenging to the new head: the media and investors. “I didn’t have a lot of expertise around the press and results, and while I used to do quite a bit of investor relations, road shows and so on, it was nothing compared to the level of a CEO,” Ingham says.

“[As CEO] everybody wants to talk to you. This is particularly true with PageGroup, because not only are we a reasonably high-profile company, we’re also seen as a bellwether. People want to know what we’re experiencing in each country because we’re seen to be at the front edge of what’s actually happening – whether people are looking for fewer or more jobs is often a good indicator of the way the economy is going.”

It was Ingham’s predecessor, Benson, who had the most influence on his career and management style. “Not only did he hire me into the organisation, he also persuaded me to stay when perhaps I thought of leaving when I was young. I learned a lot from him in terms of people skills,” he says.

At Michael Page, staff are promoted as quickly as possible and moved into the right market. “People are our only resource,” Ingham says. “It’s not like we’re inventing a new drug or making or building something. Our only asset is our people.”

His keys to being an effective leader include people skills, integrity and honesty. “It is about people skills and developing trust with people that work for you, trying to motivate and incentivise them, trying to understand them, and trying to maximise what you get out of people by putting them in the right roles,” he says. He adds that leading from the front and setting an example for people are also vital traits.

Ingham believes he was lucky to have organically grown into his role as CEO, as he has an understanding of the business and both fits and is able to influence its closely aligned culture.

“You can’t work as many hours as I do in as many countries as I do for 26 years and not fit the company quite closely. I try to create an environment or culture that fits a lot of our best people and that helps me really get the most out of them,” he says.

With 160 offices in 34 countries, Ingham is proud of the laughter, fun and ease with which each office operates. “We’ve got a very strong culture within our organisation and you can get the same laughter and fun in any of our offices consistently around the world,” he says.

Working long hours and travelling extensively do not seem to faze 51-year-old Ingham, who is married with three children. He prefers not to see “work” and “play” as separate entities.

“If you’re in the right sort of work, and you enjoy your work, the two merge. I enjoy business, so I enjoy the challenges it throws up. I also enjoy dealing with people and like a lot of the people I work with,” he says.

What is key is that he has the energy for it all. “I must admit I find it easier by making sure I stay fit,” he says. “I do gym, a lot of running and accept strange challenges like marathon running on the Great Wall of China,” Last year, Ingham did his first triathlon along with 20 other CEOs and several sports personalities in the UK.

Based in London, Ingham sees travel as an essential part of the job. “You have to meet people face-to-face. Even with all the technologies that are available today, you still need to meet people, talk to them, understand them and see their expressions,” he says.

Michael Page opened its first Hong Kong office in 1994 and now has three offices here, with another 10 in China. “[In Asia] we’re not just in China, we’re in Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and India, and the Asia market represents about 13 per cent of our business. It’s been rapidly growing now for some time, and we continue to expand,” Ingham says.

The success of Michael Page is also based on its own form of recruitment.

“We believe that we have a unique model in recruitment. Generally speaking, we try not to take people from our competitors, because we feel that it’s better to train people up in our way of doing things. We hire at the bottom of the business, promote our best people, grow them and promote them again, and keep doing that. That’s how we’ve grown and it’s a very strong formula,” Ingham says.

Staff are rewarded as a group rather than as individuals. “Here, it’s about teams and the rewards are shared out,” Ingham says. “As a result, getting the most out of teams is very much key to our being successful.”


THE RIGHT THINGS "Give people the right opportunities and the right work environment."

FUN IS GOOD "Provide a fun environment, where staff can be at their most productive and can progress quickly."

TAILORED REWARDS "Give staff rewards and make sure those rewards are tailored to individuals. What is considered a reward by one person might not be seen as such by another."

KEEP TALKING "Make sure you're talking to staff and communicating with them to find out whether they are actually feeling happy, motivated and wanted."

PEOPLE ASSETS "Look after your greatest asset - people. Some big companies become complacent about staff, forget to take care of them, and then wonder why they decide to leave."

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