TecHR Interview with John H. Chuang, Co-founder, Chairman, & CEO of Aquent

John Chuang seeks a world where talent and businesses are empowered to realize their highest potentials. This vision led to his dorm room startup becoming  the 12th fastest-growing private company in America.

Serving as Aquent’s CEO right from the time of its inception, John has held multiple roles and witnessed numerous accomplishments throughout his professional journey.

Tell us about yourself, John, how did the idea of Aquent first come about?

While working on the Harvard Political Review as an undergrad, a few classmates and I started using Mac-based desktop publishing tools to help cut costs. As we became experts at desktop publishing, local businesses started asking us to come to their local offices and help them. From there, we grew from just providing help with publishing to providing temporary talent well-versed in Mac computing. Over time, the Mac technology became ubiquitous so we had to branch out. We wanted to stay ahead of the curve in predicting, sourcing and providing creative and marketing talent so we rebranded to Aquent, which means “not a follower” in Latin and ancient Greek. That captures how we see ourselves, we don’t want to follow the competition; we want to always be leading the way in the staffing industry. 

By the way, one of our first MacTemps clients is still an Aquent client today!

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When it comes to hiring talent, what are some of the common challenges you are seeing in the industry?

Perhaps the biggest (and most important) challenge in the industry is staying ahead of the curve when it comes to evolving skill sets. As technology continues to evolve rapidly, new skills and entirely new job roles are being created that weren’t in existence just 5 years ago.

For example, as digital products became more important to our clients and their success, we were prepared with a pool of User Experience Designers, Data Scientists, Customer Experience Specialists and Augmented Reality Designers and Developers to fulfill our clients’ evolving needs.  

To thrive in this rapidly changing environment, we’re always identifying the new and emerging technologies that our clients are using. At Aquent, we become experts in these technologies so that we can uncover the emerging skills and key deliverables for talent in these new roles. When a technology is new, no one has 10 years experience in it. So it’s critical to understand the transferable skills and related experiences that will help talent be successful. We also hire Independent Experts to help us assess talents’ technical abilities in emerging areas.

Becoming the employer of choice for talent in these emerging areas is also critical. When technologies are new and the talent pool is small, companies must do everything they can to attract and retain highly-specialized experts. Competitive compensation and benefits, company culture, work environment, and opportunities to learn and grow all work together to help companies recruit and keep the best people.

Given the changing market requirements and evolving job roles and functions today, what will the future of hiring look like?

How we work is changing rapidly. While stability used to be the hallmark of a ‘good’ job 30 years ago, today flexibility is preferred. Gone are the days of working 9-to-5 in an office, holding one job, climbing the corporate ladder over your career. Today, roles are more short-term and project-based. Work is transcending time and space; supported by technologies like Google Hangouts, cloud sharing, and the increasingly digital nature of work, more people can do their jobs remotely. Companies have also come to rely on the increasingly flexible nature of work. They leverage a large contingent workforce and the gig economy to be more agile and remain competitive.

As flexibility becomes the norm, companies increasingly find that the war for talent has extended beyond traditional, full-time employment to the contingent workforce. In the battle to attract and retain the best talent, companies need to eliminate the two-tier workforce by providing comprehensive benefits to all their workers. 

We have provided benefits to our contingent talent for decades and have seen it pay off for our business, our clients, and, of course, the talent. Government regulation is one approach to addressing benefits inequality, but I believe that business leaders should take the initiative today by offering all of their workers, regardless of employment status, comprehensive benefits.

Can you share a little about how top tech companies have used various HR Tech tools to solve their sourcing and hiring challenges? 

Over the past 30 years, companies have been relying more and more on suppliers of various kinds to support their staffing and recruiting needs. There are currently over 20,000 staffing and recruiting firms in the US, and companies are having a difficult time managing a large number of suppliers. So the trend has been towards vendor consolidation—limiting the number of suppliers they choose to work with. 

But should companies really be limiting themselves just because it’s hard to manage everything? No, the war for talent demands that companies use every resource possible to scout out the best talent. To do this, companies need to expand their vendors to access specialist recruiters in specific industries and niche markets. 

This is where technology comes in. Today’s Total Talent Management platforms help companies expand their vendors while streamlining vendor relationships and all back-office functions. For example, some tools integrate up and down the value chain with both the hiring company’s and the staffing vendor’s ATS, eliminating the need for a standalone VMS.

A related challenge is identifying the best recruiters to work on each job req. With the latest recruiting technologies, the performance of individual recruiters is rated, not just the recruiting firm. This information is critical because it’s the individual recruiters who are filling the roles and performance can vary widely from recruiter to recruiter within a single firm. Taking this a step further, some tools harness the power of machine learning to intelligently match the best-qualified recruiters with an open position.

What are the top factors that teams should keep in mind when it comes to integrating their HR tool with other marketing/sales products within the organization?

One of Aquent’s business units is RoboHead, a project management solution for in-house marketing and creative teams that has over 10,000 paid users. Our RoboHead customers have told us that they want tools that help them identify gaps between current and future work and talent resources in order to help them with the challenge of workforce planning.

Currently, companies have two sets of systems: one tracks ongoing and future work projects, and another system tracks the employees and the talent necessary to complete this work. Often, these two systems don’t communicate, meaning businesses can’t properly balance future work with their current talent pool. RoboHead is working to connect these systems to help companies find the corresponding degree of talent required to meet future project needs.

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What are some of the innovative ways in which companies can create a more compelling people/employee experience with the help of their HR Tech Stack?

An HR Tech Stack encompasses all relevant software platforms through which a company recruits, hires, conducts onboarding, sets up payroll, manages benefits, and more. This wide range of vital functions and associated platforms may cause companies to wrangle incompatible software. Such complexity is unnecessary and dangerous; it sinks innovation and increases costs. Instead, companies should streamline their HR Tech Stack by using point solutions and APIs so that programs communicate with each other to offer more choice, more efficiency, and better function. This ease leads to improved employee satisfaction and performance, company-wide. When companies are open to integration between all sectors of their HR divisions, the employee experience is simplified, organized, and comprehensive.

What’s your smartest work productivity hack? 

One of the things I do religiously is, seek the advice and counsel of people outside of the company. I think it is important on a regular basis, no matter what line of work you are in, to always try to hear a fresh, outside perspective on the work you are doing. While I always value the input I get from employees, consultants and clients, I also make a point to step outside my immediate world. This helps inform my thinking and can spur new ideas. Receiving insight from those who are not directly involved in the day-to-day work of Aquent and the talent services industry is equally important to help stay ahead of the game. 

Your favorite team building/leadership/hiring quote?

British advertising executive David Ogilvy said it best when he said, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

Any parting thoughts here you’d like to share…especially key learnings as an entrepreneur, tips for upcoming startup founders? 

The best investment you can make is in your people. When you value and invest in your workers, full-time internal hires or contingent talent, providing them with benefits, fair wages and more, you are going to see a return on that investment. Your company will attract more of the top talent and be able to retain them longer, which is key to a business’ ability to grow. Not only will your business be more productive, but your business will also build brand equity with the public. If the public sees that your business takes care of its workers (regardless of internal or contingent status), more people will want to work with your company and consumers will want to contribute more of their hard-earned dollars to your growth. 

Why wait for legislation like AB5 to make benefits equality a law? If you step up to the plate and do it now, you will build brand equity, attract top-performing talent, and increase productivity. Be a leader, not a follower. 

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Aquent is a leading talent services company, providing marketing and creative talent, managed services, extended workforce benefits, project management, and professional development. Founded in a dorm room in 1986, Aquent now employs 10,000 people each year across eight countries. In 1993, Aquent became the first staffing company to offer full comprehensive benefits to its temporary employees. Aquent’s other business units include Aquent Studios, Vitamin T, Scout, RoboHead, and Gymnasium.

John H. Chuang is the CEO of Aquent, a global talent services company he co-founded in 1986 while an undergraduate at Harvard University. Within five years, Mr. Chuang grew the company from a dorm room startup to the 12th fastest-growing private company in America, which today is the largest creative and marketing staffing firm in the world with 10,000 employees. Mr. Chuang has served as chairman of the board of directors of Angie’s List (NASDAQ:ANGI). He has also served as president of the Massachusetts Association of Staffing Services and as a board member for the American Staffing Association. Over the course of his career, Mr. Chuang has received many accolades for his entrepreneurial leadership and accomplishments.

AquentContingent talentContingent WorkersEmployee BenefitsEmployee ExperienceHR tech toolsMacTempsproject managementRoboHeadTecHR Interview
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