Q & A with Portman Partner’s Paul Cutcliffe

We are living through a time of great transition and challenge – political upheaval, Covid-19, the acceleration of digital transformation. You have a diverse set of experiences including many years in the recruitment sector for various industries, but your current position as a partner with Portman is your first role working in the digital infrastructure and data center sector. We’d like to hear your thoughts on how digital infrastructure leadership roles differ, and don’t, from other types of businesses, and what you see as the challenges for the industry including the focus, even demand, for data centers to address sustainability.

Can you speak a bit about your background and how it prepared you for your current role with Portman?

I started my recruitment career back in 1996 with AndersElite placing Engineers. For the next 18 years I worked with some of the best global recruitment brands including Hudson, Robert Walters and Michael Page in both the UK and Australia placing supply chain, procurement and finance professionals. This experience gave me the grounding and training that supported my move into executive search with Duncannon in 2009.

At Duncannon we specialised in roles within the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors. Similar to my current work at Portman, I worked with both SMEs and PLC’s placing director and board level roles across the corporate spectrum. All of this has prepared me well for my pivot into executive search for the data center industry.

What enticed you to make the pivot to the digital infrastructure sector? 

I have always been interested in digital infrastructure and have placed a number of CIO’s and IT directors throughout my career. After nine happy years working within the retail and leisure industries, it became apparent, (before Covid), that the traditional “bricks and mortar” retailers and some restaurant groups were exposed, and were now consolidating. I had also worked with NP Group who specialise in technology recruitment which gave me an appetite to change.

One thing the pandemic has taught us all is that we are more reliant on digital infrastructure in our daily lives. I am keen to contribute to this success story and help this sector ensure it can attract, recruit and retain the best talent sustainably.

You started at Portman in May, 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when it seemed the world had stopped. How did you come to work with Portman & what was pandemic onboarding like for you? 

Luckily, the world of recruitment never stops and there will always be sectors that are more robust than others. A mutual friend introduced me to Peter Hannaford who was looking for a Partner to focus on the EMEA region. Those who have had the pleasure of working with Peter, know that he has time for everyone & a wealth of data center industry knowledge. His deep expertise has been incredibly helpful as I broaden my knowledge of the sector. We have a super team at Portman & everyone has helped with my onboarding, making it as fun & personal as possible in a pandemic!

What challenges and opportunities did the situation bring in terms of getting to know the digital infrastructure business and the people in it? 

Obviously, joining Portman from a different sector, the key challenge has been that I was an “unknown” within the data center industry. Coupled with needing to get up to speed quickly, it has been a fantastic opportunity to learn something new. Not many people can say that at my age, being nearly 50! So far the clients & candidates I have had the pleasure of working with have been both helpful and collaborative, & with each successful search I’ve expanded my network & knowledge of this growth industry.

While many businesses struggled in 2020, data centers and the digital infrastructure industry were more essential than ever. What do you see for the sector and its business opportunities as we go forward into a vaccinated future? 

With the Data Center industry needing to find c300,000 new roles by 2025 (Uptime Institute) this then could be the perfect opportunity for businesses to align sustainability with their diversity & hiring strategy. Many Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2015) will now be assessing their options & tapping into what most appeals to their value set when considering the company they want to work for.

There is a huge opportunity for the data center sector to align and partner further with education institutions. This will ensure that the new up and coming generation of potential employees will view the industry as a serious option.

Let’s talk about data center sustainability. This is a very important issue to you. What do you want to see happen in the next year, three years, five years? 

Thankfully, sustainability is now an important issue for everyone. We have seen a huge shift in advertising over the last year with businesses highlighting their sustainable credentials as a USP. Many Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2015) will now be assessing their options and tapping into what most appeals to their value set when considering the company they want to work for. Peter Hannaford’s article “The future of the data center depends on sustainability, but not for the reason you think” speaks to this issue. Young people are focussed on the importance of sustainability and ethical trading, which in turn will affect their career choices. Therefore, all businesses will need to work harder and smarter to attract and retain the best talent.

Over the next three to five years, companies will see massive implications if they don’t get their strategy right and prove they are making a difference. There is also the constant threat of tighter regulations and government scrutiny. Companies have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon, not just for the sake of the environment, but to alleviate the tension between sustainability and profit. If they can get this balance right, the data center industry will continue to thrive.

​What role will leadership play in sustainability initiatives and what mindset, skill sets and experience are you looking for in candidates for Chief Sustainability Officer positions?

​Sustainability is now a core issue, being driven by world leaders, governments and at board level. As mentioned above, it is now a key strategy with tangible targets. The mindset of the board has changed. It acknowledges that customers are now using sustainability as a criteria when choosing a partner. According to 451 Research, a third of multi-tenant data center (MTDC) representatives said all of their customers want contractually binding commitments to efficiency and sustainability, while another 44% said it is true for most of their customers.

​Historically, in most organisations, the role and responsibilities of the Chief Sustainability Officer would have been handled by the facilities manager, but the focus on sustainability has become so important it is now a board level position and the role is no longer seen as symbolic. The prospect for the future of the position is a positive one for expanding diversity in the data center industry as well with forty-five percent of Chief Sustainability Officers positions currently being held by women.

With respect to “skill sets” and “experience,” the Chief Sustainability Officer used to be associated with environmental issues like energy use. Now, the role has expanded including responsibility for improvements in the supply chain, operations and safety, whilst having an impact on the bottom line.

​The experience of the ideal candidate will depend on each company’s level of commitment and whether the business is looking to hire a CSO who sits on the board and reports into the CEO. At the C-level, the CSO must be an excellent communicator with a proven record of strategic success and vision and the ability to inspire those around them to believe in the goal and commit to the journey.

In terms of overall leadership and company culture, where do you think the data center sector needs to improve as compared to other industries you’re familiar with?

​The key area needing improvement is diversity. Thus far, the client for every search I have undertaken requested we ensure we consider diversity and include diverse candidates in our research on the shortlist we present to them. In 2019 when I still worked with the retail sector, only 26% of board level appointments were women. This is too low and it’s even lower for the data center industry. The good news is that our clients are not just paying “lip service” to the issue, they are challenging our research and working with us to help find solutions to create balance in their boardrooms.

What is your favourite quote about business or leadership and why?

​“Don’t be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.” — Richard Branson.

​I think in life it is easy to be hard on yourself and others. Having worked through two recessions and now a pandemic, I know that there are many external factors that you will never be able to predict or control that can impact business. The important thing is to learn from these experiences — dust yourself off, surround yourself with good people, and start again.

What is your favourite quote about anything else?

​“Be yourself, everyone else is taken” — Oscar Wilde.

​Can you name someone who has had a tremendous professional impact on you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

​I have been lucky to work with some super managers and peers. One that has always stood out was Louise Campbell, now Managing Director, Robert Walters, Ireland. Louise was my manager at Hudson in London in the 2000s. She joined Hudson as part of an acquisition and inherited a big team of consultants to manage. We were all taken by her professional approach, knowledge, gravitas and fantastic sense of humour. The impact she had on me and the team was immediate. Working with Louise was great fun. She gave clear direction and gave us all self belief, directing the team to become one of the highest billing at Hudson. Louise guided me to become a “super achiever.” She is still a great friend and mentor, and I view her as part of my extended recruitment.