Wavelength founders reminisce on the early days and reveal their secrets for long-term business success.
Dr John Bethell and Claire Ponsford at Wavelength International Office in Surry Hills
As we celebrate 20 years in medical recruitment, Wavelength co-founders and business partners Dr John Bethell and Claire Ponsford reveal how they first met, how our award-winning workplace culture was ahead of its time and their secrets for long-term business success.
Thanks John and Claire for taking the time to talk to us during this milestone year. Tell us about how you both met and established Wavelength?
Claire: Before arriving in Australia in my twenties, I’d already started to build my medical human resources career with roles recruiting senior doctors within the National Health Service and also as HR manager at the Royal United Hospital in Bath. I’d been working with the workforce planning team at the NSW Health Department and when my contract came to an end, a colleague of mine said I should meet John who was working in medical recruitment at the time.
John: When Claire came in to see me, I have to say I didn’t know what I was going to do with this English backpacker who’d been working at the Health Department, because I was only placing doctors. But as a favour to a friend, I begrudgingly agreed to meet her! As soon as we started talking however, I knew she would be a great asset to my team, and I asked her to come onboard.
Claire: I’d never thought about joining a recruitment company as I’d always been in the public sector but the more John and I talked, the more I knew I could add value. When I joined the company, we were the only consultants specialising in medical recruitment and over a period of 18 months, we had great success sourcing doctors from overseas to help fill a real shortage particularly in regional and rural areas.
After a while though, we began to realise our small healthcare business wasn’t really aligned with the wider company. Essentially, the way we worked was so very different to the rest of our colleagues. The company was very KPI driven particularly around ad space you’d secured in the SMH, how many clients you’d visited and candidate interviews you’d arranged.
Our clients weren’t Sydney based, didn’t see value in advertising in the SMH and our candidates at the time were in the UK, so as you can imagine we didn’t hit many of our KPI targets! We’d sit in sales meetings every Monday morning and be reminded of what an outlier our small business was, because it was just the two of us with an admin support. The way we worked was really quite alien to everyone else.
John: Independently of each other, we'd both become quietly miserable. The company was very commercial and sales-oriented. The culture was very corporate with set office hours and little flexibility. There was also more emphasis placed on getting results than providing a quality service and neither of us really fitted with this cultural mentality. That’s when we both decided to go out on our own and Wavelength was born.
Wavelength Co-founders & Directors Dr John Bethell & Claire Ponsford
What was your vision for Wavelength in the early days?
Claire: We knew we wanted to move away from the traditional corporate approach towards doing business and certainly didn’t want an office space in the CBD. It was a bit of an anathema to us to have to suit up and go into the city every day, so right from the start we wanted to achieve a real work-life balance. We wanted to take a more casual approach in terms of dress and location and didn’t feel this would necessarily translate into a more casual approach to business.
Flexibility around working hours was also important. I was always an early morning person and John never was. Working for ourselves allowed us to adopt the working rhythms that suited us as individuals, and we soon recognised that flexibility around when you start work is important to lots of other people too. We also wanted to build health and wellbeing into our day so always made sure we had time to catch up for coffee, or go to a yoga class, or whatever it was.
And because John and I had a very close friendship and trusted each other implicitly, our partnership was based on the principles of teamwork, trust and collaboration right from the beginning.
John: In a practical sense, this meant Claire and I always agreed we would split our profits equally no matter who did what. If Claire was busy making big placements and I was busy designing the website, our revenue was still split 50/50. If I was busy recruiting and she was busy working on our finances then it didn't matter. This notion set us apart from the rest of the industry in terms of our focus. It meant all of our business processes were equally valuable and we would both benefit from our efforts.
We were providing a service to people who were doing important work, and therefore, whilst we were in business in part to make money, we were nonetheless very focused on the welfare of our doctors and clients, and with patient care front of mind. Wavelength was always a values-driven business right from the start.
How did this vision impact on your hiring processes in the early days? And how did you find the right people to take this vision forward?
John: When we started to hire people, this was a big question for us. How would we keep them aligned with our values? We sat down and we thought very, very carefully about that. And the conclusion we came to was that we had to hire people who were aligned with our values, first and foremost. We had to treat them well, we had to pay them fairly, and we had to state very clearly, right from the beginning what our expectations were in terms of the quality of service we were providing. And they needed to buy into that.
So that's how we started. We hired people we liked and respected and our success grew from there.
CEO Chris Riley with Digital Marketing Specialist Deanna Daly and Office Administrator Caitlyn Fehily, at the 2017 BRW Best Place To Work Awards where Wavelength was voted #2 BPTW.
Why do you think Wavelength has been so successful over the years?
Claire: I think one of the main reasons we've been so successful is we've always seized new opportunities. We've never been afraid to try something new. As each opportunity has arisen we've been able to quickly discuss it and come to the same conclusion, "Well, look, we've got to try it, haven't we?" And I think the way we've structured our business has allowed us to offer really deep expertise within a combination of medical specialties, employment types and geographical areas which we’re now renowned for.
I also truly believe what sets us apart is making sure our growth hasn’t diluted our values, ethics or culture along the way. We’ve managed to sustain a workplace where people truly care about each other, their clients, their candidates and the outcome. We’ve become known for the very friendly yet professional nature of the way that we deal with everyone.
John: As I said before, we’ve always believed if we hire around our values, manage around our values and deliver service around our values, then good things will happen. This has always been the case, and I think it's been a winning strategy.
This was a bit of a quaint, hippy approach to business in the late '90s and early '00s, but ironically the business world has caught up. The language of culture, values-based business and work-life balance is now commonplace, so in many ways we were well ahead of the curve when we started to hire people. For me, it's given us a real, rock-solid, competitive edge in terms of company brand. When people are happy in their work and they believe in what they're doing, they put in a lot of discretionary effort for the team. And you get good results from that.
Claire: It's interesting when you look around the office now at the number of incredibly diverse personalities and backgrounds. We’ve haven’t taken a cookie-cutter approach to hiring. But I think what’s common in all of us is those strong values and genuine care factor. There’s a positive buzz and great sense of fun in the office, but underlying that is a real care for each other, and for what they do.
What do the next 20 years hold for Wavelength?
Claire: I’ve no doubt we will continue to expand our service offering while making sure we keep healthcare employers and doctors at the heart of what we do. With our recent executive search acquisition, we have a great opportunity to become the lifetime career partner for doctors right from the early stages of their career to specialisation and beyond. We are also looking at alternative career pathways for doctors who wish to diversify within companies on the edge of some extremely exciting and interesting healthcare innovations.
John: It's great to see Wavelength continues to grow as a business and remain innovative. Because the world around us is changing incredibly rapidly, there's still a real need for lateral thinking, changing the way we do things and adopting new technologies. That's why Wavelength has remained an interesting place.
It really does come back to our core principles and values. If we can continue to innovate using those underpinning principles as our grounding force, then it means that we can continue to evolve, and be a leading light for other players in the industry. I know a lot of people look to Wavelength as an example of a great way to do things and that makes me very proud.