Meet Melbourne's Charles Van Heerden, "Three Decades, Mandela to Change Management"

This profile is one in a series titled Monday Member Showcase. It was originally published on, a recruiting and HR community, where I am a featured contributor. To read the whole series please click here."

Sage words from 'Van Heerden:'
"I am a firm believer in measurement. I have a value score for my contacts based on the level of interactions by email, phone or face to face. You have to make friends now with the people you may need later."

"... Rather than trying to fill traditional full-time roles, companies will have to consider flexible approaches to resourcing to fill skill gaps. The other big driver is technology .."

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Charles Van Heerden Observes his Three Decades, Generations & Countries, from Nelson Mandela to Change Management. A Veteran of the Staffing Industry, Charles has over thirty years of expertise which he regularly and generously shares to the community. He is a Change expert, commercial HR Director & innovative OD consultant, authentic leader & executive coach. His experience includes services (consulting, information technology and research), heavy industry (mining, engineering), FMCG (dairy, beer and carpets), working with medium and large scale organisational change, including acquisitions and mergers.

Tertiary qualifications include psychology, industrial relations, human resources and change management.

Q&A with Charles Van Heerden

Six Degrees: Tell us of your home world.

Charles: After getting married on my 21st birthday we have defied all the odds and my best friend Marianne and I have been married this year for 30 years. I am good at remembering our wedding anniversary, but tend to forget to buy a card or gift. We have two darling daughters; Tanya (27) and Leana (25), who both live in Melbourne as well. Tanya has a daughter (Felicity) who is ten months old. I really don’t feel like a grandfather as many of my friends recently had babies, so we enjoy being a close family, getting together on a weekly basis.

We live in the outskirts of Melbourne on a golf estate designed by Greg Norman, which should be really good for my handicap, but I still struggle to find enough time. I used to do a lot of running, including about a 100 half-marathons, until I did my first marathon in New Zealand, running around Lake Rotorua. After that, I reverted back to more gentle pursuits. The last couple of years we were based for most of the time in Warrnambool, which is based at the end of the world famous Great Ocean Road. This is known as the Shipwreck Coast and the weather can be pretty wild. Contrary to most of Australia, the Southwest is very green with lots of rain, very similar to New Zealand.

My life can easily be divided into three chapters, the first half living in South Africa, then moving to New Zealand for ten years, followed by the last eight years in Australia.

Six Degrees: What are some of the unexpected adventures in your life's journey's outside of the staffing industry?

Charles: We lived in South Africa during a turbulent time and I was working for the most progressive employer (SAB), which included various meetings with the ANC, including a very special dinner with President Nelson Mandela, including meeting him personally, just before the 1994 elections. I had the opportunity to meet him and other key ANC figures; I was quite involved with an organization that assisted returning exiles to the new South Africa. This included several trips to the UK. One of my fond memories is a presentation to a large group of graduates on how to prepare for interviews and the best way of finding a role.

It was really difficult to make the decision to leave South Africa, but we decided to leave due to the high level of crime. My next-door neighbor was the MD of an arms company and had guards outside with machine guns. I wasn’t sure if we should feel safer or whether we run the risk of being shot in case of mistaken identity.

Unfortunately we had to leave our three Persian cats behind, as the quarantine period was nine months, just too long so we found them good homes. It wasn’t long before we had another three cats in New Zealand, which my company agreed to move to Australia. Due to old age we lost two of them in recent months, with one faithful tabby, Tammy, now being spoiled.

Six Degrees: How many years have you been in the staffing industry?
Charles: It is getting close to three decades, most of it as a corporate recruiter. I have been involved with all types of roles, from shop floor to technical, with my expertise around management roles, as I have been head of HR from age 26. In my consulting roles I often redesign structures, resulting in revised roles or new roles. I refer any recruitment to recruiters, as WaveBox is not a recruiter but a strategic HR consulting business, developing strong relationships with other consultants.

Six Degrees: How did you get started as a recruiter?

Charles: My very first reference book was on recruitment (Successful Staff Selection), which is still in my extensive library of a few hundred books. So I got into recruitment from the start, initially as a Personnel Officer.

Most of my career has been in corporate HR, culminating in heading the Personnel function, which included Talent Management and Recruitment for South African Breweries (now known as SAB Miller).

After about 15 years in HR, I moved to New Zealand and was appointed in a senior line management role, which means I had to manage a team of twenty consultants, providing services to about 500 customers, from large companies like Gillette and Phillips, to very small companies.

Six Degrees: What single event had the most impact on your sourcing/recruiting career?

Charles: Recruitment has been an integral part of my career, including managing the Employment function for the Feltex group. It was during this time that I was leading a project that was recognized as a best practice in recruitment, working with Management Search International. Terry McCloy, the MD and I were able to develop and implement a true partnership model, where MSI was doing all external recruitment for Feltex. This resulted not only in a 30% reduction on recruitment costs, but a significant improvement in quality, including retention and time to fill. This model served the business very well for about three years, until we bought an Australian company and we had to change our resourcing strategies.

Do you have a mentor to whom you attribute your overall outlook on recruitment, capabilities, and/or model your career after?

Charles: Though I have been able to work with some excellent recruiters, I have learned most by leading teams and energizing and motivating HR teams to create a culture where the company is a great place to work. Getting feedback from my teams and others has been the biggest influence on my career.

Six Degrees: Tell us about your position, Charles.

Charles: My current focus is on change management and Strategic HR, including talent management. This includes Leadership Risk Assessment, which means that my key contact is with recruiters. I work hard to try and understand the real strengths and specialty areas so I can match it with specific clients.

Six Degrees: (A) What other companies' recruiting operations do you admire or have heard are best-practice examples?

Charles: There is a company in NZ (Kerridge & Partners) that I would regard as highly innovative.

Six Degrees: (B) In what aspects are they superior?

Charles: They are the first firm as far as I know, to have engaged a global CA firm to review their performance and confirm statistics based on an assessment of every assignment completed, not just a sample. This is an extraordinary high level of transparency, giving clients a sense of actual performance and accountability. They also offer an integrated search and coaching solution – taking full responsibility for identifying, assessing, attracting and developing senior leaders into critical roles.

Six Degrees: What recent general news story or industry trend do you feel will have an impact on your work in the future? Why?

Charles: The way in which we work is changing profoundly, which means companies will have to adapt the way in which they consider their talent requirements. Though it may not be quite as radical as making a movie, the concept of getting a group of talented people to deliver a project will require more innovative ways to attract talent. Rather than trying to fill traditional full-time roles, companies will have to consider flexible approaches to resourcing to fill skill gaps. The other big driver is technology, which means that a virtual team can be established, consisting of permanent, casual and contract staff, supported by consultants. Virtual leadership is demanding a different skill set, by getting a diverse and dispersed group to deliver outstanding results.

Six Degrees: Tell us about your broader involvement within the staffing industry:

Charles: Conferences are great to stay in touch with networks. I am fortunate that I have been invited to speak at a number of international conferences, though I now try and limit it to special events. When I chaired a conference a few years ago we had a number of speakers pulling out on the second day (highly contagious?) so we got the speakers together in a panel, which proved to be the best session!

My key topic areas are around strategic HR, managing change and talent management. Most recently, I spoke at a regional HR conference about configuring the workplace in recessionary times.

Six Degrees: Can you detail how the recession has affected your particular industry niche? Has it affected your job or that of your fellow team members within the organization?

Charles: The GFC impacted most industries in Australia though we have been fortunate that a strong banking sector, and a positive approach by the Government’s fiscal stimulus package have made it less severe than many other parts of the world. We haven’t yet seen much of an upswing and our client base is indicating little improvement until early 2010. The only sectors spending in real terms are government related projects. There are some signs of life at the lower end but more senior roles are still scarce. HR seems to have been hard hit and know of several senior HR people having been moved on.

Six Degrees: Aside from simply the generic term “Networking” what specific efforts have you made on your own behalf, or on behalf of colleagues to broaden your opportunities. Are there specific groups, both online and in-person that have proved fruitful in extending your personal brand and job seeking prospects?

Charles: Rather than networking in a haphazard way, I prefer a more structured approach. It takes time, but it means that you are more strategic in your networking. I am a firm believer in measurement. I have a value score for my contacts based on the level of interactions by email, phone or face to face. You have to make friends now with the people you may need later. This was a key lesson I learned from a previous CEO, Sam Magill, who did quarterly staff communication sessions. Sam also used to say: “I is no good trying to talk to staff in bad times, you have do it during the good times so you build a trust relationship”.

Six Degrees: Given your own Trial and Error experiences as a Networker, what advice do you have for your peers on what NOT to do?

Charles: As a result of my moves across countries I had to rebuild my networks twice from the ground up. I have been able to build enduring relationships. There are probably three things I would highlight:
(a) It is important to stay in touch with your existing network, as much as it is vital to keep expanding and adding new contacts. People quickly realize when you are like a butterfly moving from one contact to the next.
(b) Linked to this is the recognition to close the loop by keeping your network posted on your interactions with any referrals.
(c) Lastly, it helps everyone if you are generous by introducing others to your network. Creating a closed society is not beneficial to anyone. It really has to be a give and take.

Six Degrees: What is your next career goal? What do you need to do to get there?

Charles: Reinvention is the key to success and through WaveBox, my consulting business, I am developing a portfolio of innovative programs to cover key gaps in the market place – coaching/mentoring of HR Practitioners is an area I particularly enjoy. Another project is around talent management and helping people to grow their careers, which strongly relates to recruiting. Through my networking I developed great relationships with a number of consultants and we are working on a number of projects, all around improving business performance through people. Almost finished is my first eBook on Job Search, which has been commissioned by a career development web site. I would like to spread my time doing consulting, training, speaking and writing, which is why I really appreciate the great feedback from the recruiting community.

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