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#TalentQA: ZeShaan Shamsi, Director of Talent @ Onfido

Francesca Greane
Written by Francesca Greane

The latest in our Talent Leaders Q&A, we spoke with ZeShaan Shamsi. With experience building teams at enterprises like the BBC and Government Digital Services, ZeShaan has since turned his attention to tech company Onfido.

ZeShaan reflected on his experience of the evolution of the talent acquisition industry and how businesses now have to be a marketing-first organisation, and steadfast in communicating their mission, values and purpose if they want to attract  sought-after talent.


Third Republic (TR): How have you seen Talent Acquisition (TA) change in your time in the industry?

ZeShaan Shamsi (ZS): I’ve been in recruitment for just over twelve and a half years and have worked in both agencies and in-house in public service, public sector and now tech, so I’ve seen quite a lot of changes. One of the main ones is the fact that companies used to be naive and relatively lazy with their communication with candidates. It’s always been an incredibly competitive landscape, now even more so as everyone is looking for great people, whether you’re a tech start-up looking to scale or a traditional organisation looking to transform. Companies that typically relied on ‘posting and praying’ their jobs now realise they need to attract, engage and nurture candidates if they want them to join. As a result, talent acquisition is a niche skill in itself, having matured and started to get its own credibility - despite still being the poor relation to the rest of the company! HR and TA have very much become distinct entities, with complementary but specialised skill sets, and this is being reflected more in businesses.


TR: You mention this niche skill set for talent acquisition individuals; do you think the skill set they need now has evolved from a few years ago?

ZS: Yes; while there’s always been outbound headhunting/marketing, TA has added inbound marketing initiatives too. Like Product where you look for a product market fit, with TA you also have to be able to react and listen to your market, and that in itself requires an evolved skill set. People often say TA is like Sales, but it is different; in Sales there’s one buyer and one seller whilst in TA, both parties are buying and selling - the company to the candidate and also the candidate to the company. So, recruiters today need to be able to identify different personas, their buying and selling signals, the markets they operate in, and how to adapt communication effectively. This marketing element has matured over time and comes in addition to the control and organisation needed to run the end-to-end process.


TR: Have you also seen candidates changing their behaviours?

ZS: Yes, candidates are aware that they have a sought-after skill set so they can now define what they want from their working environment. Previously you could say it was a company-led market where candidates may have been motivated just by the security of a job, but now in a competitive market, the focus is on culture, fulfilment, challenges and problem-solving. Candidates, rightly so, become more demanding of what they expect and more selective about what they choose - and I'm no different; I constantly assess if Onfido is ticking these boxes for me and over two and a half years after joining it still is! TA professionals are now acting as communicators and facilitators and ensuring they are projecting the right messages to candidates to provide them with this understanding of the values and culture in a business. The focus in marketing and engaging candidates with these values is a change we’ve tried to keep up with at Onfido. Because we’ve created a culture and set of benefits that encourage team engagement, as well as physical and mental wellbeing, the Onfido team feels very together and closely aligned.


TR: You mention candidates being sought-after; are they becoming harder to source and engage as a result?

ZS: Yes and no – it is harder in a competitive space, but with so many social platforms there are many ways to engage. If you are authentic, have a clear identity,  value proposition and can articulate the impact you’re making to candidates, then you can cut through the noise and attract the right attention. It can be harder to engage, therefore, if you don’t have a clear understanding of who you are and what you’re offering. My role is essentially as a communicator and to facilitate these conversations. If you don’t have your in-house team and processes in order then it is definitely harder to marry people together with opportunities and get them successfully through the recruitment process.


TR: Are there any particular tools or technologies you use to overcome these challenges?

ZS: There is a whole ecosphere of tools and technologies being developed. We use a few but we’re not married to any particular product, tool or technology because at Onfido we ask what problem are we solving for and then pick the best product for that. Our Co-founders are very engaged and supportive and that helps a lot! I believe tools and tech should enable and support processes and behaviours, not dictate them. Unfortunately, sometimes companies are locked into particular ones that then dictate their process and behaviours and you hear the anguish of their TA teams - they’re being put under high pressure to deliver but aren’t given the tools or support to help them. Significantly more companies are experiencing and recognising the pain points of TA and consequently a whole plethora of start-ups are looking to build products that solve these problems - whether it’s sourcing, screening or scheduling related. I’m wary of single products that say they can solve all your problems, that’s not realistic. The reality is we’re needing to pick best-in-class products to solve each problem and ensure that they converge and integrate with each other because I simply won’t run five to six different systems that don’t talk with each other - it’s too much admin and opportunity for error.

I hear a lot about AI disrupting TA, but it’s still in its infancy. I think maybe vendors are pitching AI as a buzzword, when in reality it’s automation, which is great as a starting point. AI learns, adapts and makes smarter decisions based on what is learnt and you just can’t get that off the shelf - you have to supervise that learning to make sure it’s learning correctly for you. No third-party could do that for you, they can provide the tech, but you have to teach it and that’s what is being offered at the moment.


TR: Do you think the rise in digital and technology will continue to influence and alter the industry?

ZS: Yes; we’ve embraced technology as a means for our development and so it’s here to stay. We use it in every aspect of our personal and professional lives, so if you want to be considered a serious company you have to be digital first. Whether you’re a legacy bank or work for the government you have to be underpinned by digital and technology now because that’s what the user expects. But considering our wider physical and mental wellbeing, we need to be mindful of how and when we digitally-detox.


TR: What other emerging trends are you seeing in the talent acquisition industry? 

ZS: The sophistication of technology, and the respect for candidates and for TA itself is only going to increase. TA leaders already are challenging their businesses more on their requirements and needs, and on what they can get. There’s the old squirrel analogy; hiring managers looking for purple squirrels - candidates that don’t exist. We need to remind them of the reality of the market; grey and red squirrels, and even one of those has become much rarer! So we now consult back to the business, whether that’s redefining our needs and why we’re looking for this ‘purple squirrel’ or showing how the other options can similarly meet our needs, TA has evolved – and will continue to evolve – into this problem-solving role. Whether the business chooses to listen or not is a different matter.

Another trend that has to continue to get investment is Learning and Development (L&D). The reason why people leave companies is that they no longer see growth opportunities. The reason they join somewhere new is for that growth and the reason why they stay is because there are continued learning and development  opportunities that are supported.

How people consume information and learn has evolved too; the expectation is for mobile-ready hyper-personalised content - the Netflix and Spotify-effect.

My vision is where we recruit mainly at entry-level and help develop careers into expert and leadership positions. As our people grow, this creates opportunities behind them for the next wave of entry-level hires. You naturally would need to supplement this with specialist hires along the way, but this approach would do wonders for Inclusivity and Diversity across all industries - it gives access and opportunity and it’s what we’re building at Onfido.

That is a mentality you don’t often see as succession planning in your team could be perceived as a threat to your own position, but if you’re growing too then everyone benefits. HR and TA professionals can support a business to grow in this way by establishing development and hiring plans to ensure a continuous pipeline of new talent at entry-levels and growth of people at all levels. This can be easier said than done though!


TR: You have worked at the likes of the BBC and Government Digital Services; what is it like recruiting for these enterprises? 

ZS: In large companies, there are usually archaic structures and processes. I think everyone values knowing what needs to be done and guidance about how to do it, but when these processes don’t allow for any flexibility then it becomes hard to solve for the nuanced problem you have. If something isn’t fit for purpose then in large, bureaucratic environments like the BBC and GDS it’s a big job just finding out who does what, who the decision makers are and establish communication, let alone explaining and convincing the changes you need to be made. Using my experience, or pattern recognition, I knew the basics of what needed to be done at the BBC and GDS to meet the business’ needs. There’s the saying ‘ask for permission or forgiveness’ - to achieve the results we needed in those environments I went ahead and did it, choosing the ‘ask for forgiveness’ route. Happily, there was very little forgiveness needed.


TR: How does it compare to recruiting for a rapidly growing, relatively young business like Onfido?

ZS: It’s different at Onfido, and that’s down to the trust of the co-founders and the team. There’s actually no major hierarchy so we can engage quickly, be inclusive of diverse perspectives and iterate quickly. When it comes to Talent decisions I bring in our co-founders, Husayn (CEO) and Eamon (COO), and Ruth, our wonderful VP of People. We’re able to discuss thoughtfully and agree quickly - it means we can focus on high impact actions.


TR: Where do you envision the future for Onfido based on how you work now?

ZS: We’ve put together our financial and hire plans to help us achieve our vision of an open world where identity is the key to access and mission of 1 billion verifications by 2025. I’m finalising our talent roadmap: our vision and strategy for 2019 and with my highly-skilled Talent team of Sofi, David and Aga, as part of a wider People team supporting the business, I’m genuinely excited by it. With the drive and passion we have and the teams we are building, I can definitely see us achieving our vision and mission.