This article originally appeared in the California Business Journal on 18th April 2022.
Fourteen years ago, when Hayley Still first started at the London-based global recruitment agency, Hydrogen Group, becoming CEO one day was not on her list of goals. Even if you had asked her three years ago — after she had risen through the ranks from recruiter to team leader to director — she would have said that she was too focused on her current position to think about heading up the organization as CEO.
“I’m always just really focused on the job that I’m doing and being the absolute best that I can be in that particular role, and just trusting that if I put my mind into it, and I do my absolute best, that other doors will open,” she told California Business Journal. “I never thought too much about what those other doors were, and just focused on the here and now.”
Ms. Still attributes this ability to focus on the current task at hand — and perhaps a certain competitiveness to be the best that she can possibly be at that task — to her upbringing in a sports-focused family. In her youth, Still trained seriously as a gymnast — her father is a National Women’s Gymnastics Coach, and her mother is a gym owner and Gymnastics Commentator for the BBC.
After earning her Bachelor of Law from Cardiff University, Ms. Still realized that a life as an attorney wasn’t the best fit for her. She knew that she loved people though, and in 2008, began working at Hydrogen Group in the highly competitive in-house legal market. She moved through the ranks, becoming a team leader, then associate director, then director, managing director, chief operating officer, before finally becoming CEO in January 2022, whilst on maternity leave with her first child.
With her people skills, being a recruiter was a good fit, and similar to gymnastics, there was a sense of winning when she found the perfect candidate for a job. But unlike gymnastics, where one could be limited by physicalities, in recruiting, there weren’t any limitations to what she could do.
“Once I knew that I was very good at recruitment, I was determined that nothing could hold me back. It was only up to me — how much I was willing to put in, how dedicated I was, what I was willing to sacrifice to get there. I just loved it. I’ve always found I get a bit of adrenaline from work. It’s one of those industries where you get little wins throughout the day. It’s really addictive because it’s so fun.”
As a naturally curious person, what she enjoyed most about her work as a recruiter was learning about people, different businesses, and everyone’s individual stories. Turns out those same skills — understanding peoples’ motivations and abilities — are perfect for the role of CEO.
“Whether it’s with people in our company, whether it’s with our clients or candidates, you’ve got to really understand where someone’s coming from, and where they’ve been, to know where they want to go, and what their perspective is. It has put me in such good stead for running a company and knowing that about people in my company — that what matters to one person does not matter to another. Never make that kind of assumption. You’ve got to really focus on what they want.”
Hydrogen Group is a leading STEM staffing business focused on supplying talent to a variety of sectors globally including Life Sciences, Technology, Utilities & Power, Legal and Project Management. Delivering into a variety of sub sectors has meant the Group has had to develop a sophisticated platform to not only be competitive but to get ahead of larger staffing firms in North America and across the globe. What separates the business apart is Hydrogen’s ability to have a core Purpose that puts people at the center of everything it does, which it believes is vital for now and in the future.
For people to be successful in their careers, they not only have to define what they want, but what they are willing to give up in order to achieve those goals, Ms. Still says. When she was a manager and team leader, she learned to help others identify those parameters, so that they could hone in on their particular version of success.
“I learned to be realistic with people, like, you might want to conquer the world, but are you willing to sacrifice what you might need to sacrifice, to conquer the world? And how do we find the right balance for you? And how do we create an environment where it’s fine for you to be open about what your success looks like — not what society tells you your success looks like.”
It is a vision and philosophy that she puts into action as CEO, helping Hydrogen employees achieve their goals, not just professionally, but also personally. With the onset of the pandemic and move to the work from home model, there’s been a worldwide reckoning of the role jobs play in peoples’ lives, and a reimagining of how to achieve not only a better work-life balance, but also more personal fulfillment in one’s work.
At Hydrogen, there is a little more forward thinking. Ms. Still in particular started to think about this in 2018 — before the pandemic and this worldwide reimagining — when she was still an associate director.
“We needed to evolve and change with it. I believe that expecting employees to adhere to traditional work hours was, in essence, treating them like children, and could even prevent workers from leading a fulfilling life,” she says. “We need to treat people like adults and put the accountability back on them, so that they understand how to structure their lives and get the most out of life. Everyone’s an individual; it can work differently for everyone. I feel like the new generations that are coming through don’t want to work 9 to 5, and why should they? There are so many other things in peoples’ lives that are important.”
Hydrogen launched what it calls “I Own My Time,” and did away with standard working hours — although employees did need to have some consideration for their clients’, colleagues’ and candidates’ hours. The firm also did away with the need to be office based. And then the pandemic hit, which further set these new policies in place.
The philosophy of “I Own My Time” evolved even further at Hydrogen. Now it’s “I Own My Future” and “I Own My Goals.” Ms. Still likes to think of managers as personal trainers who are there to encourage employees in their pursuit of goals. She would eventually like Hydrogen to evolve into a company where this expands outside the traditional career realm. For instance, if an employee wants to train for a marathon, or work on any other life goals, she would like to see managers helping their team members to achieve it.
“It’s a work in progress; there’s a lot we still need to work on and get right. But I feel passionately that, if you look after people and their wellness, they can thrive. And I think a common mistake for leaders to make is to feel they need to ‘make everyone happy.’ I don’t think it’s about that, it’s about helping people to unlock the ability to make themselves happy, as that is then in their control and they can repeat it! Hopefully very often!” she says.
Most people are still pursuing society’s version of success, rather than their own personal version of success, and Ms. Still envisions Hydrogen as a place where people can go after their truest idea of success and fulfillment. That might mean building wealth or moving into management — or it might not.
“Everyone should be able to define what success means to them, and we have to have an environment where people can be open and honest about that. You could be the most junior person in my business, but if you’re incredibly happy, and you get that feeling of success, because you’re doing the job at the right level for you, then you are successful. The loop is that the more successful everyone is individually, the more successful we will be collectively, obviously.”
As CEO, Still’s leadership style is decidedly non-hierarchical, seeking input from a wide range of company members — even on non-business topics, like what they’re watching and listening to — in part to ensure that Hydrogen stays relevant with its clients and candidates.
“I’m always accessible to my people. I don’t see myself as the CEO. I view myself as someone who is just working on the business to make it as good as possible to give them a platform to achieve their hopes and dreams and goals.”
As a purpose-led business, this ethos transfers into benefits for Hydrogen’s Clients and potential candidates as well, as it has become a company known for honing in on everyone’s specific challenges and goals.
“I want us to be a business that is full of really bright, motivated people with clear personal and professional goals who feel supported, and I think that ultimately will move us forward as a business as well,” Ms. Still concludes. “For our clients, it will allow them to lean on us properly. We’re going to find out what their challenges are, and work with them to find solutions. It’s really about helping people and enabling people to thrive in a changing world, whatever that change might be. And I think that a lot of how we’re overcoming the challenges is by connecting with individuals.”