"It’s all about the people" – Q&A with Hannah Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer

Hannah Donaldson, one of the founders of Meet Recruitment, started the company along with our two other founders, Paul McGuire and Alastair Shaw in 2009, aged just 25. Since then she has been promoted to COO, spearheaded the business growth and single handily launched the brand in the USA.

So Hannah, where did it all begin?

I knew really early on people were my biggest passion. Particularly after doing a degree in psychology which I really engaged with. However, before joining the big corporate company where I started my recruitment career I didn’t know recruitment was particularly sales focused. What I did know was it’s a career that would give me the opportunity to move away from the North-West to London, earn considerable amounts of money and was all about people! And despite the challenges, I quickly realized I wouldn’t find an industry that would offer the same opportunity to progress my career and also, importantly, my lifestyle.

Although I started as a trainee in the IT business of this big corporate, they were diversifying the brand into pharmaceuticals at the time - it was a sector that interested me, particularly with my degree and the fact my parents are both medics. Ironically, after vowing at a young age never to join the NHS, I spent my early career talking to doctors!

The pharmaceutical branch was a start-up and that’s where my passion for the start-up/SME environment kicked in – the beginning of my journey of being a business owner. When I left the group, I was Team leader level, running a sector and billing successfully myself. I could feel my career starting to kick off.

 

From there, what were your personal and professional drivers for starting your own business?

I started my career in a big corporate. Although I am eternally grateful, both personally and professionally, for my experience there, I knew early on that I needed a more entrepreneurial and autonomous environment to reach my potential.

Being solution focused is one of my biggest strengths. Whether it’s a challenging compliance matter, stepping in as ‘acting’ Financial Controller or coaching a future leader towards the next promotion, having the independence to work in a solution focused way is critical to my engagement.

So, I felt confident that starting a business, I would utilise my strengths. Especially, starting from scratch. We had no road map, no support – but I thrived on that! My personal drivers are directly connected. I was moving away from the frustrations of red tape, I wanted to lead and make the decisions.

I felt more successful with the autonomy to drive something of my own forward.

 

Meet has been incredibly successful since its launch and is now an international business. Aside from the obvious positive aspects, what are the toughest parts of building a business?

Everyone knows when you own a business, you’re always on. For me, that crystallized when I launched our brand, single handily, in the US. That was a whole new level of always being on. Whilst it’s rewarding, it’s also incredibly hard being the only person who can answer any questions from staff, vendors or clients.

Another thing, that I talk about a lot, is imposter syndrome. It exists in a lot of women, especially in a commercial environment and is hugely prevalent within me. It’s a feeling of being out of your depth and unable to perform to people’s expectations. Fighting, embracing and accepting it, is part of the journey but it’s tough.

You have to find confidence in the fact you can’t know everything. Face your shortfalls and surround yourself with people that will aid and improve you. As a business owner, you have to be confident that you’re not just hearing the good news an it’s OK to continually be making improvements .

Finally, the best leaders I’ve known are those who recognise that the toughest part of growing a business is making sure the people that work for you are engaged, challenged and fulfilled. I attended a female entrepreneur’s seminar in New York recently and heard the CEO of Baublebar speak, her message was that as the owner of a business, your role is about your people not your product. It resonated with me and the way we run Meet. Running a successful business is about creating a space that is as good as it can be for the people who work there which in turn will have an impact on clients. It may sound strange to say that’s difficult, but you can’t be everything to everyone and that’s hard.

That’s why culture is so important at Meet. Recruitment is a big industry, what I thrive on is ensuring Meet’s culture is what sets us apart from our competitors and is the driving factor of our success. As we grow that becomes increasingly difficult. Growing pains are real! We’re seeing a 50% growth year on year, so I’m working incredibly hard to make sure the exponential growth doesn’t dilute the culture we’ve built.

 

How have you overcome these challenges?

I wanted to go into recruitment and start my own business because I am a people person to my core. It’s my biggest strength. So, I imagine it’s not a surprise that the people in my life have been crucial in my career. To overcome the tough times, I've created a support network, both professional and personal, that have supported everything I have accomplished so far.

For a long time, I wrestled with becoming a female leader, I would see people who hadn’t taken on the “stress” and think wouldn’t that be so much easier? But that’s not me - I’m driven in a different way. Having a family and partner that understand that and will support me is really important. I’m aware that, in some ways, I can offer less to these relationships; because, essentially, I don’t have as much time. But that doesn’t mean my relationships are any less pure, they are just different.

I’m also lucky enough to have a friendship group of successful women - who are all a huge inspiration to me. Although we’re all doing different things we are united by an ambition to drive the growth of our organisations.

On a lighter note, one of the things that helps in the tough moments is having a sense of humour. Having a realistic view on the world is far better than getting stressed about something that ultimately is not the end of the world!

 

What do you find most inspiring?

People who are able to blend different facets of their life seamlessly; from family to friendships, to successful professional development, to self-gratification, to financial success. You can’t have it all. Those who recognise that and know when to say no are inspirational. I hope to replicate that.

Sheryl Sandberg is one of those people. I think she is the most incredible woman in business. Her philosophy is not about shouting the loudest or even being the most confident. It’s all about leaning in, creating an option B and finding strength in every situation. She’s a phenomenal advocate for how I believe businesses should be run. 

 

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?

Firstly, treat people how you would like to be treated; personally, and professionally. But also believe passionately that you are in the right place for you - doubt can be paralyzing and will stop you reaching your potential.

I was given a piece of advice a few years ago: “Treat yourself when you hit milestones”. As an entrepreneur there is no one there to congratulate you. You have to do it yourself. If you don’t, you stop acknowledging the great things you’ve achieved.

It’s doesn’t have to be a materialistic treat. When I first launched the American business, it was incredibly stressful. On my first trip back to the UK I sat in the airport and I wrote down everything we’d achieved in the first month. It was so powerful. Up to that point I had been focusing on all the things we hadn’t done. Taking time to recognise everything we had done gave me clarity.

Acknowledge that you are going to have to congratulate yourself and celebrate the successes. It’s all got to come from you.

 

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