• Madeleine Bonser

Spotlight on - James Stewart

We speak to James Stewart, Chief Operating Officer of Macildowie Recruitment.

I’ve done any number of jobs you care to name at Macildowie, when I started there were only three of us, now we have 9 divisions, 3 of which operate nationally. I’ve watched it grow, and it has been a brilliant journey to be a part of.

I started 25 years ago and was given the yellow pages and told to go and call people. I was thrown in at the deep end. We had one computer that only the office administrator was allowed to touch (the rest of us wouldn’t have known what to do with it). It was about building relationships, and that has stood us in good stead because that’s what we’re still about. What we do is about working with people during their whole career, not just an individual transaction. What’s great about this job is that after a number of years you start to see people coming back to you to find their next job because you gave them great service last time. Your career grows as you help them with theirs and your progression parallels theirs. You also find out pretty quickly if working so closely with people on something so important to them is for you or not.

Why recruitment?

I never thought I’d be in this kind of role when I started, and I never thought this would be something that I would love doing. When I started, I graduated and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I did a placement in the civil service- which wasn’t for me. I had a temporary job at a pensions company. I did c450 job applications whilst working there, I got lots of knock backs and I had to think about what I really wanted to do. I tried to get into lots of different jobs resisting recruitment along the way, as my brother had been doing it for ten years. I eventually gave in and decided to try recruitment. I got 4 interviews in recruitment straight away - I went to two of them and had offers from both. I picked Macildowie as I thought there was more room for me to grow. It was less money up front, but I thought I would get more out of it.

Biggest challenge

When I started in recruitment I didn’t really know what recruitment was, but I was essentially doing a sales job. I had to go and sell myself, the company and our offering. I realised early on that I was faking it, the way I was doing it wasn’t really me. I didn’t know if I should carry on faking it, or give up. My boss had overheard me on the phone with my brother, he asked ‘why aren’t you like that on the phone with clients? Be more like that with them.’ That was a great lesson for me, I realised that I needed to relax and be more me. I needed to trust that people wouldn’t mind talking to me if I was more like that. Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s okay. In fact if you aim for everyone to like you you’ll come across as bland and probably fail. People call that ‘being authentic’ nowadays and it’s right. However, be careful of people who use ‘I was being authentic’ as an excuse to get away with behaving badly to others.

The last recession in 2008 was a big setback, we had to make some redundancies, it wasn’t pleasant to do, and we had to pivot and realise what we were going to do to ensure the business survived. We started a new division in procurement as it was counter-cyclical. We thought people needed procurement people to keep costs down, and it worked. What helped at that point was realising you can’t control everything but you can control how you react to everything.

For years I didn’t have a balance, I couldn’t switch off from work and I took everything personally, I’ve been here for 25 years so how could I not. But I’ve now learnt at the end of the work day, to switch off from it and get the balance right. That isn’t easy but it’s better for your career and your mental health once you do.

Drive to succeed

A big part of what drives me is not letting the team down around me. I come from a military family, so there was always discipline in my family, but it was never pushy. My mum gave me a lot of my drive and determination, she loved trading at car-boot sales. So she would always get me up crazy early on a Sunday to go and help. That gave me a bit of a love of doing business at a basic level, combined with the military background. After 15 years of doing recruitment, I seized an internal opportunity to do a combination of recruitment and something technical. It was actually a demotion rather than even a sideways move but I was confident I had something to offer in that space and that it would give me an alternative promotion route in the business to everyone else. Now I’m the COO doing a job that I love with people I respect.

My biggest piece of advice for those starting out in their careers would be to know that you are in charge of your own destiny and that it is nobody’s fault but your own. It’s in your hands, don’t mess it up and don’t wait for others. It’s easy to look at the loudest voice or the person who takes all the credit and want to be like them, but I would say to anyone starting out, look at who is genuinely valued in the organisation and particularly by the board or leadership team and be more like them.


I’m a calm, logical person and leader. For those that know the tool my Insights Discovery profile is Blue (with a lot of red). However, nobody else around me is the same. I’ve always been unusual in our organisation in the way I’ve managed things. I work well with details, logic, rationality, whereas others around me need a different approach to win them over. I have to be conscious of how I come across to others who are different to me. People think that being ‘authentic’ is not having to modify themselves at all,but that’s not real life. To manage interactions with other people you have to be conscious of how you’re impacting them and how they impact you to get the best out of them and yourself.

The biggest lesson in leadership that I have learnt along the way is, to be honest and transparent because people will know that’s what you’re doing. People will come to trust you, even if they don’t like the message.

The best part of my job is seeing my people develop. The worst part is being in a leadership position where you can’t always be as communicative as you would like- this has especially come across during lockdown. We have a very open and transparent culture, we spend time with people and we have time for people, it’s much more difficult to do this at a distance. The worst part of my job is not being able to make a specific person’s ideas happen because I have to prioritise. Turning down great ideas because you can’t do everything is not ideal but it’s the prioritisation and effective implementation of the key ones that will really make difference.

We’ve been amazed by how the Macildowie team have operated during the lockdown, we’re really proud. In my mind, the formula for success is to be authentic while considering how you impact others. Make your impact a positive one.

To my sixteen-year-old self, I would say; ‘Don’t be so scared to fail. Failure is how you’ll learn to do better. You’ll get this. Go for it!’

Thanks so much to James for chatting with us, you can check out Macildowie here. You can also read more of our blogs here!

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