Cast your minds back to the first week of August. I was at my parents’ house for a pizza party with some family friends and over burnt toppings and soggy bottoms (my parents’ mid-life crisis came in the shape of a giant pizza oven that they’re still trying to master), my Mum’s Goddaughter Bryony – who happens to work at Joss Search – mentioned that her boss would be the perfect woman for me to interview.
Having just escaped from the world of private equity, hedge funds and finance jargon in general however (and lived with one of my best friends who absolutely despised her job in recruitment… but more on that later), I’d be the first to say I was a tad sceptical at the prospect of interviewing the founder of a private equity recruitment company…!
However – and it’s a big however here – Bryony went on to explain that Sivan was pretty much wonder woman in boss form…
From offering her team the opportunity to pitch for £1000 to put towards hobbies that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford on their own, encouraging wellbeing in the workspace with flexi hours, regular team workouts and frequent socials, plus hosting Christmas parties in her own home whilst dressed as a Christmas pudding… (not to mention being a DJ in her spare time, a strong mental health advocate and a new Mum of one) it’s pretty obvious, I’m sure, why I soon changed my mind.
I travelled to the home of Joss Search in Mayfair last month, and after sitting down with Sivan with cups of coffee in hand, it’s safe to say she lived up to expectations…
She can. She did. Let’s get right to it then! How long have you been at the helm of Joss Search for?
Sivan Joss. In January it will be 8 years which is completely insane, it’s just flown by!
SC.SD. Oh wow! And have you always been in recruitment?
SJ. No, I’ve had quite an interesting background…!
SC.SD. Ok, let’s hear it!
SJ. So I’ve always worked, I’m a proper believer in hard work…
Sivan grew up surrounded by self-made women. Her mother is an artist creating pots and jewellery so from a young age, she spent weekends at the markets and fairs helping to sell her mother’s creations. From the moment she was old enough to be employed at 14, she started waitressing and by 16, was running the restaurant whilst juggling her schoolwork.
SJ. I didn’t really know what I wanted to study so I didn’t go to university which I know is like “aghhhh” but I’ve always preferred working really, I’m not particularly academic…
SC.SD. My sister was the same. People often underestimate those that don’t go to uni and yet often they’re the ones out there making names for themselves…
SJ. I know that my clients think I’ve got a degree! They’re always saying “we need smart people with a degree like you” and I’m like “yes, I don’t have a degree sooo are you going to look at people without a degree or are you going to offend me now?!” I absolutely loved being a waitress though. In fact I say to the team all the time, I’d still probably do it!
SC.SD. What was it about waitressing that you loved so much?
SJ. Giving a good service, meeting new people, seeing happy customers… I love food…!
SC.SD. And it’s so fast paced?
SJ. It’s SO fast paced! Before you know it’s 1 in the morning and you’re sat with your colleagues having a beer and a curry and you’re like “oh my god, my feet hurt!” I just really enjoyed that and then I got into sales… I did some really unsavoury sales positions! Some were hilarious. Literally, I was 17 or 18 and had this giant window that I’d transport around in my car trying to sell windows… I was actually pretty good at it but after about 6 months I had a creepy experience so moved away from that!
After a brief stint in telesales that followed, Sivan stumbled upon the fast paced world of recruitment after registering with an agency.
SJ. It’s just like everyone’s recruitment story where the agent turns around and says “Have you thought about recruitment?”
Originally from Nottingham, her first recruitment role required her to place drivers who often failed to show up…
SJ. I’d get cold calls from drunk drivers at 3am saying they can’t turn up for work… oh it was awful! Hilarious looking back though!
In her early twenties, she moved to London and after four and a half more years working for a recruitment company, Sivan decided to launch Joss Search.
SC.SD. Did you always know that you wanted to work for yourself?
SC.SD. Why so?
SJ. My whole family is entrepreneurial. The entire side of my Mum’s family work for themselves. They’re based all over the world and some of them have moved to Hawaii and Chile with absolutely nothing and have made a life for themselves there with varying degrees of financial success but that depends on what you think is important. I don’t think financial success is important personally but I’ve always been inspired and motivated by them and seeing my Mum selling what she had created herself definitely inspired me.
Even though I always knew I wanted to work for myself though, it never meant that I didn’t give the people I worked for 100%. My history is that I work bloody hard and I’ve always worked bloody hard and I did that for everybody, regardless of whether they were my boss or not…
SC.SD. That’s understandable. It’s your pride and reputation at stake at the end of the day…
SC.SD. Why recruitment then? If you always knew you wanted to be your own boss, what was it about those four and a half years in recruitment that made you think ‘this is what I’m going to do in the long term’?
SJ. Erm, you’ll hear this a lot and it’s quite interesting because I meet a lot of recruitment owners and they all say the same thing… they want to challenge the recruitment industry and do things differently. I was no different… but I meant it you know!? My husband at the time was working for Innocent…
SC.SD. As in the smoothie company?
SJ. Smoothie company yes! Husband at the time?! Wait! He’s still my husband! Boyfriend at the time is what I meant to say!! My boyfriend was working for Innocent…!
SC.SD. Haha! So we’re talking 8-9 years ago… is this their start-up days?
SJ. They’d established themselves as a well-respected brand by then but the three founders still owned it at this time (before they sold it to Coke). He’d come home every night and show me all the stuff that they were doing. He was being challenged emotionally and professionally by his career and I was like what on earth?! Why is recruitment so ancient? Why do all these recruitment companies not care about their employees and their candidates? I’ve got goose pimples now just talking about it!
The goose bumps really were out to play..!
SJ. I remember thinking, what is going on here? I work for this company where I can’t be myself, I can’t listen to the radio, I can’t challenge anything… I’m working for Directors of a company who I don’t think are actually passionate about the business anymore, what am I doing here?
SC.SD. And that sparked something in you?
SJ. Exactly! I remember thinking why on earth can’t I take those principles and create a fantastic company to work for, that’s entrepreneurial and creative… where people are passionate about what they do in recruitment because at the end of the day we’re dealing with people’s lives.
Why is it just about how much money you’re making? How many calls you’re making? How many CVs you’re screening? It’s just turning people into numbers… and we’re not numbers, we’re people! Anyway, Ben was like “If you think you can do it so much better…”
SC.SD. “Do it?”
SJ. “Do it!” And I was like “errr…. ok….!” So I did!
It was never a dream of mine to open a recruitment company but to be honest I’m not trying to build a recruitment company… the team laugh at me but I just want this to be a fantastic place to work. Why can’t we be a world class organisation even if we are teeny tiny and only deal with X % of the market? We don’t need to settle you know? And I’m not saying we’re there yet by any stretch of the imagination…
SC.SD. But you’re aspiring to be?
SJ. We’re aspiring to be! What’s the point of aspiring to be just good or average?
SC.SD. Let’s go back to your light bulb moment… what steps did you take to set this up?
SJ. I didn’t actually get much time to prepare..! Anyone that works here knows I’m not much of a strategic planner. I’m much more of a day by day, fly by the seat of your pants type person!
SC.SD. So no formal business plan then?
SJ. No, to be honest! I just thought, go and see what happens! My husband has been an incredible support for me. Before Innocent he had his own business so he taught me about all the business stuff you need that I didn’t really know about and we just got to work registering the business which was really straight forward.
Eighteen months in, Sivan took on her first employee, Miranda who six years later, still works for the company.
SJ. I worked from home on my own for the first year and then gradually we started to rent meeting rooms for an hour at a time around the city before we finally were big enough to move to our current office! That was probably one my proudest days!
SC.SD. I can imagine, it’s in such a good area too! If I’m being honest, I’ve always been very cynical about recruitment as an industry. My housemate used to work in recruitment and absolutely hated it…
SJ. Was it the hours or just ‘it’?!
SC.SD. The hours were crazy, the mind-set behind it, there was so much pressure! People were put on the spot and it was so money orientated… suffice to say she left soon after! What have you implemented to make this place special on a day to day basis?
SJ. One of the things I did for the team was introduce flexible hours. I recognised that recruitment requires a huge commitment from you – what people don’t realise about recruitment is that it’s bloody hard work – so my feeling was if we’re requiring flexibility from you then we should give you that back. I’m trying to create an empowered, professional environment where you’re a mature adult, you know what’s expected of you and the faster you get your job done and the more effective you are, the less hours you need to spend in the day.
SC.SD. So you don’t value face time?
SJ. Obviously there are peaks and troughs where one just has to be at their desk but I do think that if you offer flexibility back, people don’t take the piss! They value having that flexibility so much. For instance, Claire has family that live in Switzerland so she flies out on Thursday night and works remotely from Switzerland on Friday but she doesn’t need to take holiday for that. If she wants to work for two hours she can, if she wants to work eight hours she can.
That’s what stops you resenting the effort that’s required because you know you can stop and put the flexibility on if you want to but that does take maturity…
SC.SD. Absolutely. You said that you’re not driven by money so what do you think motivates you and your team them? I know that’s subjective but…
SJ. It’s a good question! It is subjective but we’re doing a bit of a deep dive into that at the moment as I’m trying to really find out why. There’s a TED talk on this by Simon Sinek and it’s amazing so I showed it to the team and just said “what makes you come to your desk every day?” None of them said money at the time. It was all about feeling valuable, feeling useful, making a difference etc… I do think I’ve got a team of people that are driven by that however they are driven by being commercially successful too. Are they driven enough in that? Probably not but that’s probably what makes us nice! People want genuine and they want integrity but there’s no danger in having both… I have both.
SC.SD. I was going to say, for me if someone says money, that’s fair enough.
SJ. I think you can be both. But I’m definitely not driven just by money otherwise I would have grown this company to be 100 people already by now because I’ve got the opportunity to. I’m driven by quality and good service and I’m driven by my team. I want them to be empowered…
I meant what I said, I want this to be an amazing place to work and we’re not there yet but I think the team all know that it’s genuine from me. That probably also helps them if they’re taking a phone call over dinner to a candidate or whatever it might be…
SC.SD. Let’s talk about the biannual incentives that you do for the team…
SJ. Biannual incentive…? Oh you mean the “Jossie Scholarship?!” Ok so, biannually I give everyone in the business an opportunity to pitch for a £1000 to do something for them. Whether it’s related to professional development or personal development, whatever it is, it has to be something they probably wouldn’t spend the money on because of bills, mortgages to pay etc…
After presenting to the whole team about why they deserve the £1000, the “Jossie Scholarship” has meant that members of Sivan’s team have gone on to study cookery at Leiths, learn photography and buy a new camera, study nutrition and enter Iron Men competitions….
SJ. It’s designed to support the theory of betterment. My ambition with Joss Search is that people will leave here a better version of themselves… Ideally they’ll never leave but that’s not realistic!
I’m reading this great book at the moment that I’m making the team read and it’s about the New Zealand All Blacks called ‘Legacy’. It’s probably one of the best business books I’ve read and they talk about leaving the shirt in a better place and that’s something that really resonates with me. You don’t own the shirt, you’re just a temporary wearer of the shirt and when you finish, you better have done a better job than the person before you…
SC.SD. They always say that the All Blacks’ mentality is in a different league…
SJ. It’s on a different level yes and it’s such a powerful mantra. You’re just doing the best you can at the time that you can in the present moment and when you leave you’ll be a better version of yourself and you leave your seat in a better place for the next person. That’s what I want my employees to feel and do and be. We’re going through a period of motivational change and that’s one of the main motivators for me… the business is aligned to help the team achieve their personal goals but they’ve got to give everything while they’re here.
SC.SD. Do you take it personally when they leave?
SJ. Nothing’s personal in business so no, if it’s right for them… If I truly believe in becoming a challenger brand and I truly believe in the power of the company I’m creating, it would be a bit ridiculous of me to take it personally if someone wants to leave because this environment might not be for everybody. I’d just be upset if I felt that it wasn’t the right thing for them. If I knew that they were making a bad decision and if I ever did say that it would come from a place of integrity.
SC.SD. Definitely. After everything you’ve said, what’s your response to anyone that turns around and says ‘Sivan, you’re a good boss!’
SJ. Erm… I could definitely be a better boss! I definitely try to be the best I can be… I’m just doing my best.
SC.SD. By the sounds of it, you’re pretty amazing! Who do you turn to for support when you’re having a hard time?
In the first year of Joss Search, Sivan lost her Dad and in recent months, her Mum has been diagnosed with cancer.
SJ. My husband is a great support for me. He’s incredible. No one other than maybe Ben would know how much I’ve sacrificed for this company and I think that’s one of the hardest parts about this all… It can be so hard having to be a boss and run this company even though things outside of work aren’t always great.
SC.SD. I can imagine that being hard. When it does get like that, what do you do to switch off?
SJ. Exercise is really important for me.
If you have a peek at the Joss Search Instagram you’ll see that Sivan takes her team out for HIIT training sessions in the surrounding parks…
SJ. I try when I can to meditate too and just talking to people. I love the campaign that the Princes have done…
SC.SD. The ‘Heads Together’ campaign?
SJ. Yes, it’s great. People make out that feeling low, feeling depressed, feeling down is not ok… you have to pretend that you’re not, when in fact everyone’s human! Our minds are crazy!
SC.SD. I used to be our charity liaison officer with Mind on the side of my old job and it’s just crazy how ‘mental health in the workplace’ is still seen as a taboo topic in some offices when actually it’s ok to…
SJ. Have a crap day? Absolutely. That’s something that I really allow the team to do and genuinely share with me how they’re feeling. I’ve had employees tell me openly that they’re going through a period of demotivation and we sit down and work out “what are we going to do to get you out of it?”
I think I’m open with how I’m feeling as well. I don’t try and pretend that everything’s ok all of the time. Obviously I can’t start panicking (even if I am inside) because then they would start panicking but being transparent and authentic and open with yourself is the most important thing. It’s ok to have doubts, it’s normal… if someone had a camera looking in on your mind…
SC.SD. It would be dangerous!
SJ. I think everyone in the world would be scared about the thoughts that are there! It’s just a case of accepting that. Andy Puddicombe who owns Headspace – which is an amazing business – talks about sitting on the side of the road and observing your thoughts in the same way as watching the cars pass by. If you can get to that stage where a thought enters your brain, you watch it and then let it go rather than attaching to it and immediately thinking that thought is real, that’s quite powerful. It’s hard to do and I’m not perfect at it but I do try and remind myself that this is just a thought, this is not real!
SC.SD. I’ve never heard that theory but I’ll remember that. What was it like when you took maternity leave? Did you manage to fully switch off?
In the past year, Sivan became a first time Mum and took three months out of the office to enjoy time with her daughter. Gradually, she returned to work and after hiring a nanny, now works in the office three days a week and spends the rest of the week at home.
SJ. I’m the only partner so I was still making decisions but I was able to spend some really quality time with my daughter which was wonderful. I did switch off though. I think if you speak to Bryony about it, I think she thought I’d be breathing down her neck and I didn’t do that, which for me was quite good!
I just thought my daughter is more important so I’ll deal with anything when I get back basically and I trusted my team to keep it to a good enough level without me. Would it be perfect? Probably not but we’re not perfect now with me here so…!
SC.SD. Did you find it difficult not working?
SJ. I did really enjoy those three months and weirdly no, I didn’t find it difficult not working which was nice! But once I started to come back I realised that yeh, this is for me! I love my daughter and I love being a Mum – it’s amazing – but I also love having something for just me.
It’s another reason why I implemented flexible hours because at the time I had an all-female team at an age where the chances are likely that they’re going to have babies and I just thought I want life to integrate with work. I want the business to support them at different stages so if you’re not having children go for it, do it and then when you are you’ve got the opportunity to go at a slower pace if you like.
SC.SD. Does she ever come in to the office?
SJ. Yeh she’s been in. She’s quite loud though so that doesn’t go down so well!
SC.SD. I can imagine! Have any of your personal relationships with friends changed given how much time you’ve had to put into this?
SJ. Erm… I mean look, you don’t go anywhere without sacrificing some things and I’ve sacrificed huge amounts for Joss Search so that has meant narrowing my friendships but I think that’s something you do as you get older anyway… I’d rather surround myself with people who challenge me to be a better person, who inspire me, who support me, who genuinely want the best for me, who aren’t jealous of me…
SC.SD. Have you had scenarios where that’s not the case then?
SJ. Yeh you do, don’t you? When you do something different you’re going to have that but that’s for them to deal with, not you. The people I’ve got around me now are amazing, my best friend is an absolutely incredible human being and she’s always honest with me. So I think you naturally have narrower friendship groups but more fulfilling ones.
SC.SD. Absolutely! Do you have a favourite quote?
SJ. I have so many! I don’t even know who said it, but the most recent one I like is “when you’re at the top of your game, change your game.” I think that’s really powerful. Winston Churchill said something, I can’t remember it in word verbatim but it was about optimists and pessimists…
After a quick Google search, I’m pretty sure Sivan’s talking about the following: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill
SJ. Recruitment is so challenging and problems happen that you never believe could possibly happen so if you get demotivated every time those things happen you might as well give up because you need to find solutions!
SC.SD. I couldn’t agree more! Any business people you admire?
SJ. I really admire Tim Ferriss. He was the inventor of the 4 hour work week which really resonated with me. The Innocent Boys… I think they’re amazing, they changed the way we talk to our consumers…
SC.SD. Hugely… I remember looking at their packaging as a teenager and it talked to you and that was never done before… now I look at everything from my teabags to my shampoo bottle and they’re talking to me!
SJ. Exactly, they were the first! They were such a challenger brand…
SC.SD. What about women?
SJ. I am a massive defender of Serena Williams! I think it’s ridiculous that she’s not appreciated more! She’s won a ridiculous number of grand slams and yet Maria Sharapova has more money than her and gets more recognition. It’s like WHAT? It’s just stupid! But anyway (!) I seriously admire sports people in general because I understand what it takes…
SC.SD. That mind-set, it’s a different league…
SJ. Absolutely! That level of determination and not quitting is incredible. Caitlyn Moran, she’s a pure feminist and she makes me laugh to the point I’m shuddering with laughter…! But someone I’m really inspired by is my Mum. She raised me, she supported me using her talent, she’s fighting cancer, she’s totally going off piste thinking she can get rid of it herself but I really admire that she wants to survive… she’s incredible to me.
SJ. Women seem to be rocking it all over the world at the moment! There’s a real push for women succeeding. There’s people like you and all these things around the world that are encouraging women to be the best versions of themselves and to not think that there are limitations just because they’re a woman and I think it’s great to see!
SC.SD. Likewise! All amazing choices by the way. Right, to finish then…
I always feel like there should be a drum roll here…!
SC.SD. Do you want to be running Joss Search for the rest of your life?
SJ. Hmmm! We’re definitely not done yet with Joss Search. There’s a lot for us still to do, and the next 2 to 5 years of the business are really exciting. I think the introduction of technology into this space is a really exciting one that we’re really going to take on board whilst remembering in my opinion that recruitment is about humans and not forgetting that nothing can take this away…
She points back and forth to the two of us…
SJ. You can do as much as you want with technology but you can’t take you and me talking away… There are lots and lots of plans for me too but I think growth plans for Joss Search first and then I’ll see where the world takes me…
I turn the mic off there and leave London knowing that I won’t forget this interview anytime soon.
Sivan’s profound passion for the company she is building and her genuine respect for the team she leads (who clearly all adore her by the way) radiates from her in abundance. You can see it in her face and hear it in her voice; she’s a woman unafraid to do things differently, building a company that challenges every stereotype I previously associated with the recruitment space, one (flexible) day at a time.
Yet the past eight years of Joss Search have not been smooth sailing by any means and despite all the evident success – which she has worked damn hard for – Sivan’s story also highlights one of the most difficult sides of being your own boss; that leading a team when tragic circumstances at home arise can be overwhelmingly tough when work suddenly seems like the least of your priorities.
As Mental Health Awareness Week comes to a close tonight, her candid thoughts on self-care and mental health for not just herself but her team too, are lessons for us all… Being your own boss doesn’t mean you have to feel in control every day and yes it’s ok to feel anything but ok at times.
To me, her ambition knows no bounds. By surrounding herself with friends and family that genuinely back her, she’s a go-getter in life, constantly moving forward with her close team in tow.
For more information on Joss Search, visit their website here.