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12 things that defined Vana - and our industry - in 2015-16


With the end of another financial year in sight for Vana (30 September), we always aim to take ourselves off-site around this time and use the opportunity to reflect on the last 12 months. In particular, this is to analyse and interpret our commercial data, understand the market trends for both Vana and the industry we support, and revisit our strategy for the year ahead.

The good news is that Vana has enjoyed a superb year, and we continue to work with great brands and people. The business environment that we support has evolved further so we’re also seeing changing trends and new challenges. In the spirit of sharing Vana’s experiences, for this week’s blog we’ve summarised our reflections down to 12 headline observations.


1. Performance – and the demand for talent – remains strong
Vana has enjoyed a strong performance, closing the financial year ahead of budget and clearly up year-on-year. In fact we’ve just had our busiest summer of new searches commencing, with no real let up in the industry compared to a decade ago when things would slow down over Christmas and Summer. The demand for strong talent remains high and we continue to work across a broad spectrum of industry; FMCG, retail, insurance, financial/professional services, logistics, and manufacturing.  Besides the obvious benefits from having a diverse client portfolio, this also enables us to better understand the health – and confidence – of the UK economy during what is a critical phase post-Brexit.

2. Demand for HRD/Head of and HRBP roles driving significant activity
There’s been a healthily steady demand for HR Director (HRD) / Head of HR (HoHR) hires, and the HR Business Partner (HRBP) market that sits directly beneath, all of which have generated the highest activity for Vana this year. We’ve seen fantastic leaders continuing their commercial journeys by moving laterally to different sectors, and supported HoHR on an upward trajectory and taking their first step up to HRD level. We’ve also noticed a much better diversity in shortlists, with many more male HRBPs than there were some years ago. Overall, it’s a really encouraging picture.

3. Increasing need for commercially-aligned Senior HRBPs
There’s definitely an increasing demand for commercially-aligned Senior HR Business Partners in the c.£80-100k base salary bracket. Vana have used several routes to market to unearth new talent in this area. The calibre of people we’ve worked with has been superb, but these candidates are not always easy to find. It’s even more challenging to identify people available to immediately undertake key projects (there’s been a significant increase in clients requiring an interim to lead projects primarily focused on mergers and acquisitions, integration activities, or to undertake a strategic review to assess outsourcing opportunities). For Vana, it’s a major investment in time and resource to be continually identifying/assessing candidates but it has enabled us to build up a bank of talent that makes us better placed to respond to client demands however urgent.

4. Talent Development specialists in demand – but Talent Partners are elusive
Talent Development specialists continue to be in demand, particularly at ‘Head of’ level. This is a strength area for Vana, and over the last year we’ve placed key leaders across a diverse range of businesses (energy, insurance and logistics to name a few).  More difficult to attain has been the Talent Partner level sitting within this area of expertise, with most candidates looking to make the move from performing as a Learning & Development generalist rather than true Talent Partners with a track record in this space. Consequently we continue to be short of the right candidates, with related roles ready and waiting.  It’s an area of focus for us right now.

Elsewhere, we continue to see steady demand in the areas of Resourcing and Internal Communication.

5. Recruiting right first time more important than ever
The majority of our corporate clients continue to drive major change and transformation agendas. Therefore what they demand and expect of a candidate is greater than ever. An ability to demonstrate solid success in supporting leaders through ambiguity in a complex and matrix environment is a real asset in the marketplace, and something we don’t see changing any time soon. In this increasingly pressurised environment we support it’s now more important than ever to get the hiring process right first time and, to assist this process, Vana has started offering Assessment Services to clients. It’s always been a component that we’ve used through an Associate Partner but, with an increase in demand, we have taken the step to extend our services and will share more details later this month.

6. The lure of the daily rate
In Reward/Compensation & Benefits, demand still exceeds supply for us (particularly at ‘Head of’ level for the mid-tier businesses c.1000-5000 employees). This is because a lot of specialists are understandably maximising the opportunity to consult on a daily rate basis, and we’re not seeing new talent coming through in this space. It’s definitely a topic that we’ll be discussing with the industry over the coming months.

7. Busy clients and the ‘candidate experience’ challenge
Strong communication, engaging candidates throughout the search process and particularly at interview stage, is something Vana values highly and has earned a reputation for. Increasingly busy agendas for our clients, who can get pulled in different directions by competing priorities (maybe for the reasons described in point 5), is making this communication process more challenging. We’ve found ourselves having to extend timelines and, as the process gets protracted, we’re forever conscious of our vital check-in with candidates to ensure their continued engagement. This inevitably carries a risk for our clients of missing out on their preferred talent to a competing organisation, so we strive to constructively challenge our client’s timetable to ensure they land the right candidate for their organisation.

8. Candidates increasingly motivated by culture
We are now seeing many more candidates driven by an organisation’s culture, values, and approach to mobile working rather than total reward. Some clients often mistake this as a request for a reduced hours contract, but in most cases it’s about having a flexible attitude around being present in the workplace at varying times. They want to work for a business that values output and measures their performance by results – not simply time spent at their desk. It’s challenging to secure this approach from some of the owner-managed organisations as culturally they‘re still maturing. We have however seen a number of our corporate clients driving projects on how to think differently and extend their remote working offering as some of their properties reach maximum capacity.

9. Vana’s horizons expand across the UK – and internationally
Demand for our services has increased across the UK, and certainly for candidates with expertise across international markets. Our traditional Southern ‘heartland’ – the M4 corridor, South West, and London – continue to be busy, and we’ve relished the opportunity to work with a variety of clients in the City this year, from new high-tech start-ups to the established FTSE 100 portfolio.

From Vana’s perspective it’s less about geography, and more about relationships. We don’t restrict ourselves to any one region, and can manage a project anywhere in the country – as delivering successful hires in the Midlands and North this last year demonstrates. HR is a small market nationally, and emerging technology has aided our mapping and search capabilities. That said, we’re not great lovers of Skype or video interviews, much preferring in-person contact and being where the work is. Travelling – and new people and places – is what continues to make life interesting.

10. Long-term strategic partnerships continue
Vana has been building new teams for HR Directors that we’ve worked with for several years as they move into new organisations, some of which also happen to be new businesses or geographies for us. That they continue to treat us as strategic partners, with relationships built on trust and integrity, is fundamental to what Vana stands for. 12 years on from when we started up, it still reassuring that our standards, results and quality of service remain high.

11. And there’s still time to say thank you…
One of the highlights of the year was taking a great group of clients to Royal Ascot in June as a way of saying thank you. Even with the posh frocks it was still an informal fun day out – so much so that we’ve been asked to do it again in 2017!

Overall we couldn’t achieve any of our 2015-16 success without a superb bunch of associate partners and suppliers that have helped to build and mature our infrastructure over the years. A huge thank you to the teams at Sprague Gibbons, Mayfair Associates, Personnel Today, People Management, Monahans, and Westgate, and the clever independent market mapping experts that continue to provide us with such valuable insight.

12. And finally, outside work what have you been up to?

Debbie: I had my own ‘Grand Designs’ experience with a massive 6-month barn renovation project. It was a pretty hectic time, project-managing the build whilst working full time and being a Mum of two! I quickly understood why moving out of the barn when work commenced was a good idea – the demolition process is fast and unforgiving. For those who know me well, new learning and adventures are always welcome, and this was certainly an opportunity for both. I learnt a lot about supplier selection and management, teamwork, attention to detail, agility, decision making, juggling (albeit at a whole new level)… sound familiar? The bonus was working with people who are passionate about their trade and, thanks to all of the above, we made it on time (and almost on budget until I got carried away with the finishing touches). I’ve really enjoyed experiencing the open plan space and flooding light over the summer.

Jo: This has been my second year as a bee-keeper and, significantly, the first that I’ve harvested honey. The sense of achievement is not so much gathering and bottling the honey (which is still pretty amazing) but more learning about these amazing creatures and using that knowledge to help manage them. My apiary is a quiet place; working with the bees requires a stillness of mind that I’m really enjoying learning.