Finding Genuine Talent in the Artificial World – An Interview with Erick Swaine of Mackenzie Ryan Executive Search

Finding Genuine Talent in the Artificial World – An Interview with Erick Swaine of Mackenzie Ryan Executive Search

Thirteenth in a series of in-depth interviews with innovators and leaders in the fields of Risk, Compliance and Information Governance across the globe. From the soon to be released book, “Tomorrow’s Jobs Today.”


Erick Swaine is a practice director for Mackenzie Ryan, a global talent recruiting firm. He specializes in Information Governance, AI and Analytics. He has placed thousands of job candidates across a wide spectrum of industries into mid-level to executive leadership positions and speaks frequently on their journeys and the mechanics of professional development. He received his Bachelor’s in Marketing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I spoke with him in July about today’s recruitment process, outsourcing strategies and the nuances of succession planning in the information age.


Erick, you were an early pioneer in helping employers understand the value and talent that information governance, AI, and analytics professionals offered when these disciplines were in their infancy. How has the demand for these emerging fields transformed recruiting in the job market?

There’s a lot to unpack there as it relates to tech itself, the demand for these emerging fields and how that has transformed over the years. I come from the industry myself. Prior to my current role I sold analytics software with built in compliance and document management capabilities. Our firm recognized value in analytics and was looking to build a technology practice. Mackenzie Ryan, which split off from Personify last year (both held under Mackenzie Ryan Holdings) didn’t have it when I came abroad so they went to their private equity VC partners and asked them, “Where are you investing as it relates to technology?” There was a resounding theme around electronically stored information. This was about a dozen years ago. At that point not everyone had a content management system. The players were SharePoint, OpenText, and OnBase and companies like Stellent, which was later picked up by Oracle, and Filenet, which was picked up by IBM. But they hadn’t penetrated all the markets. Early on the investment was in Content Management and overall repositories. It was really a soup-to-nuts storage of data, you know, manipulating workflows for all components of information management.

Overall, the human capital demand is there because of the efficiency that you can create by understanding your data. The newfound efficiency is driving advanced analytics and AI over the last five to six years, with massive amounts of investments around how we make decisions around these resources. This strategy requires the right talent.

As companies started to evolve, and you had social media come into play, around the same time, there were massive amounts of electronically stored data being created. Although storage kept getting cheaper and cheaper, there was a lot of regulation coming out requiring governance of data. Many of them looked at the discipline of Information Governance as a cost only, and then hopped over into advanced analytics. Over the last three or four years, they have moved more into Artificial Intelligence.

Yet, it’s all about making sense of the data that we’re already storing, and probably not defensibly disposing of. What the new technology has done for both large and small employers is really allow these companies to make data-driven decisions, and they drive those decisions based on a lot of historical legacy data. We noticed there are several companies that either used advanced analytics platforms or AI for internal knowledge management (to enhance institutional knowledge and train their people better), or they began aggregating and analyzing the data in order to develop additional revenue streams externally.

Overall, the human capital demand is there because of the efficiency that you can create by understanding your data, and that has driven, especially in advanced analytics and AI over the last five to six years, massive amounts of investments around how we drive decisions around these resources.

Do we have enough of the right types of candidates? For example, insurance companies can’t seem to find enough people who understand telematics because the technology is so new in and of itself.

That’s certainly the case in some respects. You take artificial intelligence, a subset of machine learning, one step further into say, deep learning and natural language processing. There’s certainly a limited talent pool there. AI is a field that’s just a few years old, and so to go in and ask someone for three to five years’ experience in an area that hasn’t really been around three to five years is obviously very tough. As a result, many organizations have grown these capabilities internally and certified their own people around those programs. Yet, there is an absolute shortage in many different related areas. Good data scientists, for example, can be hard to find. Certain developers are moving away from traditional skillsets and into the open source world so we’re seeing a shortage of talent there. Employers need to be able to ask specific questions, to drill down and recover root causes of problems and fill those gaps. We do not minimize skill set by any stretch, but we have also learned that the ‘intangible’ side of the equation (i.e. personality, culture, management style, etc.) give both sides a better shot at a long-term fit.

Due to the speed of technology, how are HR departments dealing with succession planning in their IT groups now that it’s the case that what’s needed in a successor is not simply soft skills and pedigrees, but working knowledge of systems and programing languages that are still burgeoning?

We are seeing the focus is on employee engagement and employee retention. There are a lot of strategies being built around this capability. For example, a lot of the data we look at, especially with the sub four percent or so employment rate, is evidence that it’s very hard now in this climate to find exceptional talent. What it really comes down to is succession plans have to be built through an understanding of your own organization, by engaging your employees, and through that engagement process companies learn the motivations of their staff, understand when big events happen, and how it affects certain departments. By understanding and gleaning information around that, they’re able to get in front of situations that may cause challenges to a succession plan.

You’ll also hear quite a bit about employee analytics and these systems are helping management understand trends and predict problems that may be prevented earlier. We use them ourselves, and also provide them to our clients. We believe, again, that it’s not really or only just about attracting talent. It’s often more important these days to think about the employees that are already in the seat, and how you will retain them. That’s what we’re really seeing as the most important factor to a lot of employers. That factor is especially true in the tech world, because there’s not just a battle for talent, there’s a war. The war is not only on understanding bigger, faster, stronger systems, but also on culture. If you could understand that, it’s kind of like the old adage of bottling it up. If you could bottle that up and understand it, and then put the systems into place to watch the outliers, then you’re able to better predict succession plans. This strategy helps you predict when and where you may need help because you’re watching the data insights behind employee engagement.

What about the fact that some folks don’t expect to work at a place for twenty or thirty years anymore? What are the drivers that keep people around nowadays besides compensation?

That’s a great question. Drivers can be a multitude of things. However, it really comes down to timing. So, what we are looking at is where are these individuals in the trajectory of their career? Are they just beginning and starting out, or are they five years in looking for promotion to climb the ladder? Are they ten years in, have kids? Knowing where they are gives you a better understanding of what their motivations are. When you know what their motivations are, it helps you with your planning and satisfying those needs. You must make sure to drive your decisions by understanding why that individual is motivated, and the way that they’re motivated, at that given time. A lot of companies are building structures around that idea, from wellness programs, to empowering committee structures, to doing charity work.

There’s also a lot of talk about burnout. What do you think are the drivers for that?

There’s a couple of pieces around burnout. The ones that we see a lot of time is when companies have more of an idea around, well less of an idea really, around their vision. They change direction a lot. We’ve noticed it when there is no management to help communicate and assist with the change. That creates this kind of 8000 RPM running mode of all employees. It’s more hamster-wheel running. It’s not really running in a direction that is systematically scalable. More bureaucracy, red tape, not being able to get things done creates burnout as well.

Are you talking about a change in business strategy like a company redirecting its revenue stream or introducing a new business model?

Yes, like a company going from on-prem to Cloud, that type of transformation. Or transforming a services company into a software company. Institutional transformation with a lack of planning, execution, and communication around the change is where we see a lot of burnout happen.

How has recruitment process outsourcing or RPO influenced the candidate selection process, and does it result in employees staying longer in a chosen position?

I’m more on the executive search side, but I know a lot about the recruitment process outsourcing side as well. The way that it influences the candidate selection process depends on how in-depth their RPO is. If they’re handling everything A to Z, RPO really is beneficial from branding the website, running the back end, posting all the positions and handling all the incoming candidates. It helps but it really comes down to making sure candidates have a good experience. That’s what we’ve noticed over time-it’s what the recruiting industry has unfortunately fallen short of at times. Many have earned poor reputations. For example, have you ever had a recruiter call you, and then not called you back after they said they would? That type of experience has an impact on an organization.

To counter that, we run all the efficiencies so that every touchpoint is covered. So, our influence is mainly on the experience, really. That’s what an RPO does. It’s more about the true candidate experience. In our RPO clients, everyone gets a call back. The first candidate and second candidates are surveyed, along with the candidate that got the job and the manager. This strategy allows us to have continual process improvement.

It really comes down to the intangibles that I’ve noticed in this people business. When you understand someone at that level, and understand their motivations and what their drivers are, you can truly build a team, and a very successful team, especially when you have a high-care quotient around it as well.

Does it result in an employee staying longer? When we use the engagement factor we talked about, it certainly does. When we have the recruitment process outsourcing put into play, and then on top of that, we have engagement software that delights the employee, we’re able to have a seamless integration starting at onboarding. Then, as they are three months in, six months in, whatever cadence, you set up a regular check-in with that employee. When that happens, we’ve seen data to support the fact that placements are staying longer in a chosen position and seem happier.

We often overuse the maxim, “Do what you love”, which is easier said than done. Is there any career advice you’d have for a new college graduate, or a person between jobs, trying to find the right spot? For example, how long do you wait for the right gig?

I actually work with SKEMA, S-K-E-M-A, which is the international business school at NC State. I go there through a couple of our programs that we run at the firm and speak to masters students and grad students. My advice to them is really about understanding yourself first. If you can know your why, if you can know why you do the things that you do, you’re moving in the right direction. For me, I’m in sales. I’m not a salesy sales guy though. It’s more for me, my why. Like the organizational consultant Simon Sinek says, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

I truly know in my business I can affect change in someone’s career, and I take it very, very seriously. If they give me the opportunity to really sit down and get to know them, not from just the skill set perspective, but truly an intangible aspect…What are their drivers? Is it challenge? Is it money? Is it advancement? What are the things that really drive them given where they are in their current circumstances? If I can understand that, and if these individuals coming out of college can understand what’s important to them right now, then they’re better equipped to put themselves in the position to seize the right opportunity.

You’ve coached softball for Special Olympics now for a couple decades. What has that organization and its athletes taught you about teamwork and about success in general, that you might convey to somebody building their resume or their career?

I’ve coached Special Olympics softball for sixteen years and I probably get way more out of it than they do. In essence, it’s teamwork. Many times, I have had to reteach my team, certain members of the team, certain skills every year. It teaches patience. We all learn comradery and love for one another. It’s not what it’s about whatsoever, but we got walloped all the time. I mean, we went seven years straight without winning a game, okay?

Finally, one year we started winning and got into the last tournament game, so we were going for the gold. Long story short, we lost, and much of the team doesn’t know if we win or lose, right? So, they came up to me and said “Coach, coach, hey did we win? Did we win?” And I turned around to them and I was like “You know we’re all winners, we’re going home with some hardware, we got second place.” A few minutes later I was talking to one of the other coaches and I hear right behind me, suddenly, this chant, “We’re number two! We’re number two!” They’re all celebrating. And I just lost it. I mean, that is to me what it’s all about. I was like, these athletes are so genuine, and this is really as good as it gets.

We ended up wining in the 50th anniversary last year, after all those kind of tough years, so it was really cool to see our athletes, some of whom I’ve had the whole time, mark that accomplishment. You know, it’s all the little things. It’s a theme in what we’re talking about today. If we learn people, that’s where you learn to listen, and actively listen. In all walks, right? When I’m listening to a candidate, when I’m listening to a client, when a new grad student is listening to a professor, or listening to someone they’re interviewing with, when we’re listening to our children, when we’re listening to our parents… that’s when the meaningful stuff happens.

It really comes down to the intangibles I’ve noticed in this people business. When you understand someone at that level, and understand what their motivation and their drivers are, you can truly build a team, and a very successful team, especially when you have a high-care quotient around it as well.