TecHRseries Interview with Steve Black, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Topia

Steve Black, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Topia believes that the ability to hire candidates anywhere in the world is the key to addressing any global or local talent shortage. The right HR Tech stack can help enable this.

Catch this complete TecHRseries interview to unlock interesting tips on tech recruitment and hiring, while also picking up a tip or two on optimizing your HR Tech Stack to achieve your organization’s hiring goals.



Hi Steve! Please tell us about yourself and your professional journey so far. What led to the inception of Topia?

Born and raised a few hours south of Chicago, my life growing up was firmly rooted within a few hundred miles of home.  I was lucky enough to get my first exposure to life abroad visiting my older sister when she was studying abroad in London – which definitely wet my appetite!  Prior to founding Topia, my first career was in management consulting – with a heavy focus on helping organizations better leverage data to optimize their businesses.  While in consulting, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity for a ‘temporary’ assignment in the UK back in 2007 – and that was my introduction to the world of corporate talent mobility.

With that move, I experienced the highs and lows of the exciting but incredibly stressful process.  Technology was non-existent, information was scarce and there were more surprises than there should have been!  A few years later I met Brynne Kennedy, a serial expat herself having bounced around Asia in investment banking. We hit it off and joined forces to try to make life better for individuals and easier for organizations to make the most of an increasingly global world.

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What according to you are some of the major challenges that HR teams face with engaging a mobile workforce? How can they build better engagement with key talent as they move around the globe?

For the last decade, we’ve seen organizations increasingly realize that their talent pool is global. They need to find the best talent, regardless of location, and quickly get them on board. They need to think globally to retain and develop top talent – or risk losing out to competitors that will. And time and time again, we’ve seen organizations struggle to tie these talent aspirations to best-in-class delivery across their global mobility function.

Too often, a relocating employee can slip between the cracks and not get the support and attention that this top talent deserves.  By better flowing information between regional HRIS platforms and making sure that you have data on an employee’s entire career journey and aspirations, you can stay close to them, keep them engaged and know who is interested in what new opportunities.

What are the pointers to keep in mind while deploying and managing employees around the globe? Where and how does automation help the cause?

Two key things need to be top of mind: First, at the end of the day, don’t lose sight that it is all about the people!  Too often I’ve seen a cost cutting measure or relocation policy redesign effort that is driven by folks that aren’t close enough to the reality of mobility. Yes, that home search agent is expensive!  But much less so than paying for two extra months of a serviced apartment because it is next to impossible to find a place in San Francisco on your own these days!

Secondly – automation is most impactful when it eliminates the mundane, but doesn’t eliminate the people.  HR and mobility teams got into the business to help people.  Relocation suppliers care deeply about delivering great support to their clients.  But on both sides, paperwork, duplicate data entry and inefficient processes take away from that service focus.  Where technology can automate away those manual tasks and allow the talented teams to get back to focusing on service, that’s a real win-win.

Given your vast experience in the global talent mobility industry, what are your top takeaways when it comes to acquiring new talent in the B2B/Tech Marketing and Sales sphere?

  • Having a unique vision helps (e.g., not ‘another business intelligence tool’)
  • Finding people who can connect with customers and see them as partners, not paychecks
  • When scaling a business, don’t get overly excited by major brands on a resume. You need grit, tenacity and company builders for scale – not folks who aren’t willing to get their hands dirty.

How important is it to instill the corporate culture in the hiring/recruitment process?

Critical. When unemployment is this low, and companies are fighting for talent, it’s imperative for prospective employees to get a feel for company culture.

At Topia, we recently launched The Topia Way internally – our articulation of HOW we expect our team to live out our values every day.  And by weaving that into the recruiting process, we’re better able to filter out people that won’t be able to have an impact at Topia.

What’s the impact of having a diverse workforce on the overall functioning of a business? How does it help address the issue of talent shortage?

So many people think of diversity as being racial. That’s part of it, but it’s also about exploring diverse candidates from across the globe—not just in your specific location. The ability to hire candidates anywhere in the world is the key to addressing the talent shortage.

It’s also about diversity of opinion. You need folks that tackle problems from different angles.  And global experience is a great way to get it.
The number of expatriates is set to increase from 66.2M in 2017 to 87.5M in 2021. Unlike previous generations, people today feel more connected to their social communities than to physical locations, especially younger employees who’ve grown up with digital communities and social networks. Rather than being tied to any specific geography, they want to live and work where the culture and opportunities align with their goals and values.

With job-requirements and responsibilities changing frequently because of automation, how do you suggest companies reskill and train their workforce for the future?

The way I tend to think about it is the three Rs: retrain, reskill, and relocate. To address the talent shortage, not only do you need to think about retraining and re skilling – but you also need to think about relocating employees to make the most of your global talent pool. And it isn’t just relocating the youngest staff.  We’re also seeing a willingness for empty nesters to be increasingly mobile around the globe once the kids have left home.

How will the HR-Tech landscape look like in the future? What kind of features/capabilities will be in vogue?

Hundreds of HR tech solutions exist with more coming up every day. In the future, we’re going to continue to see tech companies throw around hefty buzzwords, such as AI, machine learning, big data, data analytics, blockchain, and mobile apps. There is the temptation to forget the substantive and be attracted by the latest and greatest “shiny penny” technologies. What we must consider is what does this “cool” and “appealing” technology do to further our business goals and enhance employee experiences.

AI will have a huge impact, but for HR, it is less about replacing staff and more about helping them focus on where they add value the most.  Blockchain is likely to do transformative things in recruiting and talent profiles that you can carry with you from job to job.  And the power of data will only continue to increase.  We’re still in the relatively early stages of the impact of technology (as strange as that may seem!).

Tag (or mention/write about) one person in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read. Could you list some of your favorite leadership building books?

Person: Josh Bersin – he’s got a great perspective across HR Tech!

Five Dysfunctions of a Team (or anything by Lencioni) – I love the storytelling approach to hitting home critical things that we have to keep top of mind to stay effective.

Any parting thoughts that you’d like to share? It could be on anything, a motivational tip, work-life balance, etc.

 Never forget to have diversity of thought and focus in your life.  It is easy to be all consumed by a job – but you’ll be surprised what a bit of mental time away thinking about something else can do for you!

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Topia logo

Topia’s Global Talent Mobility Platform enables companies to deploy, manage and engage employees anywhere in the world.

Since co-founding Topia in 2011, Steve has  seen the company grow from a small London-based startup to an award-winning Global Talent Mobility platform company supporting organizations around the world. At Topia, Steve leads strategic initiatives leveraging deep industry and customer insight. An expatriate himself, Steve understands the challenges of moving abroad, and is dedicated to ensuring that everything Topia does is in the best interest of its customers.