The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself – Thales.
You miss 100 per cent of the shots you never take. — Ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky
By the time she was 30, Jannine Fraser had held down 30 jobs. Through a journey of self-discovery, she found her niche and turned it into a powerful business, Directioneering, a respected and fast-growing outplacement company, started in 2004. With businesses now shedding staff in the current uncertain economic climate, Directioneering is on track to grow even faster.
Along the way, Fraser made hard decisions and has taken risks that have put her in a lonely space. Those decisions included ending a partnership with a co-founder of the business and demanding greater accountability from her leadership team. “I guess that’s part of any MD or CEO managing a business,’’ Fraser says. “There are decisions you have to make that are not popular and sometimes you have to stand alone on these things.”
Fraser’s determination has left her with a thriving company that is now generating just south of $10 million. Directioneering’s client base includes the ASX100, and top-tier professional services firms in accounting and law. Fraser’s story has potent lessons for managers and CEOs attempting to build faster, more profitable growth.
Fraser started out as a sculpture student at RMIT with a burning desire to succeed in the art world. “I … realised I would be poor for the rest of my life and potentially, which was very unappealing, be financially dependent on somebody else,’’ Fraser says. “So I parked the creative side.
“Because I was so clear about my path [until then], when I took [sculpture] out of the equation I had no idea of what to do next. That was probably the seed of me being interested in other people’s careers, really coming from the personal experience of being hopeless at knowing what to do.”
Fraser then worked in jobs as diverse as publishing and TV casting before landing on her feet at recruitment agency, Right Management, where she became a top-billing consultant, specialising in outplacement.
After taking maternity leave, she hopped from one recruitment firm to another until deciding to go out on her own. “I had got to the point where I felt so disenfranchised with what was being offered in the market. Our sector was going to a much more commoditised model. What was missing was that premium offering of genuinely being in the business of helping people. It was about the depth of conversation. All the big providers were chasing volumes of people being ‘exited’.”
When Directioneering started eight years ago, Fraser created a highly personalised business that worked closely with clients, managing their careers as they coped with the trauma of losing their jobs, helping them into another, and then keeping in touch with them to make sure the new gig was working. At the time, no one else offered that.
There were two big barriers to entry against the incumbents. The first was location. This was a business, after all, that would be catering to the top end of town – companies that would be paying anywhere from $6000 to $60,000 plus disbursements for a high-profile executive outplacement in certain circumstances. It had to look the part.
“Your client base is the top tier listed firms and professional services firms and the top tier private organisations,’’ she says. “Very few smaller entities have a vested interest in providing what is perceived to be an expensive level of support for an individual on the way out.
“Therefore, your business has to reflect the corporate style of the businesses your candidates are exiting. Your clients need to feel they are stepping out of one polished environment and into another. You need a Collins Street address and you need a substantial amount of space because what we were providing was an environment where people had access to private offices when they came in looking for work.”
The second barrier was recruiting the sort of talent that competitors, with their commoditised offerings, didn’t have. Fraser knew the kind of people she needed. With a strong network behind her, she poached experienced experts from outside the outplacement industry. They included HR directors from global firms, company directors and a consultant from McKinsey.
“The calibre of the people on our bench is almost our key differentiator. Every organisation talks about key people but very few people would have led impressive organisations of their own and now be doing this work, have board experience and provide counsel.”
Setting up the business was hellishly expensive, and that required some lateral thinking. “I became exceptionally creative because that’s what we have to do,’’ Fraser says. “When you get very creative, it’s amazing what you can do with a small amount of funds but we came up with the money ourselves. I didn’t raise funds externally at all.
“We had enough to keep us going for about five months and very fortunately, at the three-month mark, we started seeing work come in through the door.”
To set up the business, Fraser had also entered a partnership. It lasted three and a half years.
“The partnership ended because we got to the point where the business needed to be run by one person,’’ she says.
“It was probably the toughest thing to have navigated in the course of the business. The transition was from two people leading the entity through to me. It was a difficult process for the team because someone they liked and regarded well was moving out.”
Fraser wanted to create a new leadership team and a completely different style of management; one that was more transparent, with more candour from everyone. As part of that, she decided to open the books to her leadership team so that they could understand what impact each and every one of them was having on the business. Some didn’t really want to see the books, but she was determined that they would see the accounts. That, she says, was a turning point for the business.
“It was less about constantly seeking permission and more about recognising what each person’s impact is on the business in the decisions we make on a daily basis,’’ she says.
“It was a pretty isolating period from my point of view because it was a bit of a gutsy move to buy out a partner and be standing there alone in the field at the beginning. But it tested our resilience. It was the greatest test of mine that I had encountered. But looking back, it was the best possible thing for the business and we have ended up with a group of people I have tremendous respect for.”
Fraser spent the next 18 months on this transformation, discussing the financial state of the business, and looking at what improvement needed to be made. Surprisingly, not everyone wanted to hear the details Fraser provided. “I’m sure there were people who would have preferred not to know all the financial details and were really just happy to come to work. But we have ended up with an inspiring leadership team that I have tremendous regard for and they have their head in the detail.”
There are no secrets in Directioneering’s open-plan office under the new structure, and this has encouraged greater self-direction. Fraser says: “The clarity around where the business is going and what the core objectives are manifest in the decisions we make daily. There is a lot of self-management.
“If one team member is not particularly keen on the way someone has handled something, they will deal with it. The level of candour in the business is quite exceptional. People have genuinely learned to park their egos. You will have very senior people who have led organisations and sit on boards now being given feedback from a more junior person in the team on something he has done to manage a particular project.”
Fraser encourages feedback from clients via an external consultant. The leadership team meets weekly to discuss trends and client feedback.
Everyone also attends a professional development forum once a fortnight.
Fraser’s tough focus – people deliver or they’re out – can be a problem when everyone is so close.
“It’s a necessary and painful business tool that occasionally you have to move people out. I absolutely get it because the organisations we work with are going through the same thing.”
Fraser believes the level of transparency and candour will ensure the organisation will keep growing. “It’s to keep things moving and make sure that we are genuinely stretching ourselves and not doing what we have always done.”
Q&A with Jannine Fraser
1. What is your favourite source of leadership inspiration and ideas?
I find the Harvard Business Review (online) very useful, as is the McKinsey Quarterly. Probably best inspiration, however, comes from my membership with the CEO Circle, which is a eight-weekly roundtable with CEOSs from a broad collection of organisations. I find it highly collegiate and frequently inspiring.
2. What is the one thing a leader should never do or say?
Never believe you have all the answers. No one does.
3. What two elements are critical to achieving change?
Providing a genuine opportunity for those who have to live with the changes to have some influence over what those changes look like. Being able to communicate, with absolute clarity, future direction and objectives. Also required in spades is a healthy dose of energy, creativity and passion for what is trying to be achieved.
4. What was the worst moment of your career, and what did you learn?
Losing my job shortly after returning from maternity leave. At the time it seemed the worst possible timing – still breastfeeding, somewhat hormonal and having just employed a nanny! My confidence was definitely not at its peak.
I learned that we can all surprise ourselves! I did move on to a new role, far quicker than I anticipated. I was successful in the new business, with fewer resources and in a tougher environment. While it was very testing at the time, it not only restored my confidence in myself, but also motivated me to genuinely consider setting up my own firm from scratch. Ironically, losing my job was possibly the best thing that could have happened to my career.
5. What important qualities do you look for in your direct reports?
Demonstrated rather than professed integrity, genuine interest in and care for people, high energy, and a creative approach are critical in our work. Of equal importance is an ability to laugh. This environment lacks a steep hierarchy and so those who are after a linear career will be disappointed. People who thrive in a more collegiate environment excel, as do those who view the competition as being in the external marketplace as opposed to the desk next door.
6. What makes a workforce productive, or more productive?
So many elements come together to genuinely get the best from a team. The key in a firm such as mine is the ability to play to the strengths and preferences of the individual. We’re small enough that I can achieve this most of the time. This doesn’t mean that there are aspects of everyone’s jobs that they would prefer not to be doing, but on the whole, this great team is about really good people doing what they’re best at. I think, overall, we’re very good at this.