Ella McPartlin interviews Oxfordshire based head hunter Nicola Gardiner

With over 20 years' experience, I asked Nicola Gardiner for an insight into finding senior executives for some of Oxfordshire's most exciting businesses.

How has the recruitment industry changed during your 20+ years in the industry?

Beyond all recognition, and just thinking about that makes me feel rather old! When I first started as a fresh faced classics graduate at London based Robert Walters in the early 1990’s, the UK was coming out of a recession. Our core business was newly qualified accountants into industry; a market that our big blue chip clients were demanding in increasing numbers as the economy recovered. CV’s were faxed, not emailed, and sectors like mobile and broadband were emerging.

I moved to Odgers just as the dot com boom arrived; it was an incredibly exciting time. Investors were over eager to pour money into little more than ideas. We witnessed some spectacular successes and spectacular failures. Telecoms and the internet were the industries generating the growth. When I look back now, I think one of the positive legacies of that time was how it changed the mindset of board room executives. It became a positive career experience to leave the comfort and security of the blue chip environment, and accept the risks and rewards on offer in a start-up.

That mindset and appetite is undoubtedly what motivates the people I talk to now about joining start-ups and emerging businesses in and around Oxford.


What prompted you to start your own head hunting business?

Like many Mum’s, I put my career on the back burner for a few years whilst I had small children at home, and spent those years freelancing for a range of head hunting firms and consultants. When the right moment came, I knew I wanted to focus geographically near my home, rather than London. When I looked around, I couldn’t find any Oxfordshire recruiters who shared my approach ie; head hunting specifically for a client brief. That was the catalyst for starting my own business.

The Oxford business community covers most industry sectors, but there is a massive emphasis on technology and science. That played into my strengths in terms of sector experience. It helps that Oxford is a ‘destination of choice’ for international professionals, academics, and students, creating such a wealth of talent, diversity and ideas.

I’ve stayed in recruitment all these years because I’m fascinated by people and their career journey’s. Over the years I’ve become pretty intuitive about the types of profiles and personalities that will work in different environments. One the main challenges facing my clients is finding senior people who combine the technical credibility and prowess, with the flexibility necessary to work in a fluid start-up environment. It is a well-used phrase that ‘a company is only as good as it’s people’, and that is even more important with a young company.


Describe a typical assignment?

My clients are mainly SME’s; embryonic or growing businesses. They come to me when they need to appoint someone at director or board level. Typical roles are CEO, Finance Director/CFO, CTO and Sales Director etc, but are sometimes more unusual such as Head of Quantitative Research. An assignment generally takes a few months from agreeing the client’s brief to the successful candidate starting his/her new post.

My job requires attention to detail; the classics degree probably helped after all! Whilst LinkedIn provides a platform in theory for clients to find their own people, recruiting at the most senior levels still needs a credible third party to be involved. Firstly the high profile of the individuals likely to be relevant means they are unwilling to raise their hand unless convinced this represents for them a good career move, and secondly they have neither the time nor inclination to respond and apply to roles via a company website or job board.

Any incoming executive needs to blend in well with the existing team, this is even more important when the headcount is small. Getting the right fit is much more than matching up hard skills; it’s about understanding the mindset and motivations of the candidate. Convincing someone who is happy and successful in their current role to consider joining my client is the first challenge, the final challenge is managing the negotiations over salary package.


What challenges does running your own business present?

In many ways the experience of running my own business allows me to understand my clients better. Like them I have to focus on delivery whilst keeping several other ‘balls’ in the air – business development, marketing, contracts etc. Although I run all client assignments myself, I work with other professionals on areas which are not my forte, such as social media marketing. I also make a point of going to relevant networking events, as meeting to other business owners is both inspiring and energising. 


What do hope the future holds?

I’m hoping to continue what I currently do for many more years! I am so excited about the new generation of entrepreneurs coming out of Oxford University and the Saïd Business School. Oxford’s reputation as the source of many great start-ups lends credibility to any new entrant, and ambitious individuals are more likely now to start their own business post University or MBA school than join a big corporate.