Welcome to the Cultivating Conversations podcast brought to you by the team at Chaseman Global. In this series we’re bringing you conversations with experts from across life sciences. We chat with our guests about the challenges of today’s market, discovering their opinions, solutions and ideas for the future of the industry.
Our Research and Delivery Lead Steve Collins recently sat down with ISCA’s Chief HR Officer Kim Spencer. Kim shares her fascinating career path as a medical doctor who transitioned into the world agriculture and her experience so far at ISCA. We’ve worked with Kim on a number of C-Level and other senior roles over the last few years and in this conversation we chat everything from the challenges of recruiting into agriculture, the mindset challenges when senior candidates switch industries and how ISCA have managed recruiting during the pandemic.
Welcome to the Cultivating Conversations Podcast, today we’re joined by Kim Spencer from ISCA. Kim is Chief HR officer at ISCA, she’s joined us to share her unique career journey as well as to discuss the challenges of recruiting into agriculture, mindset challenges when switching industries and how ISCA have managed hiring during the Pandemic.
Thank you for joining us Kim, I think it would be really interesting for our followers to hear more about your career journey and background as this is quite unique compared to other HR professionals.
Thanks Steve, I’m really happy to be here and talking with you. As you know I really enjoy our partnership with Chaseman and I’m happy to share with you anything that I can about ISCA and my journey. My title is Chief HR Officer of Inca Inc which is our global organisation, I’m also one of the founders of the US entity and have been with the company for around thirteen years in the US.
What’s pretty unique about my journey is that I’m not an HR professional by training. I’m actually a medical doctor by training – specifically an OBGYN. I joined the company with many different hats, firstly one of the founders and financiers, then later I joined the regulatory side of things, then organically moved into the people aspect of the company focusing on people development. Here I look at the development of our employees as well as identifying and developing our company culture. This is where I sort of naturally gravitated and that’s where I got the title of HR Officer.
I suppose it’s quite the change going from a medical doctor to your role at ISCA?
Yeah. There’s two sides. For me, people are pretty easy. I am experienced with interacting with people, I enjoy interactions with people, I enjoy facilitation, coaching etc. For me that challenge comes from the business side of things. There are times that I’ve put my head in my hands and thought I wish I had a business degree, or a law degree, because I felt that would have helped me more. But what people have told me along the way is that it’s the soft skills that are harder to learn. Luckily these skills I developed quite strongly through my medical work and they help a lot with the role I do.
Can you tell us more about ISCA and the business itself Kim?
Sure, so what we do at ISCA Is develop alternatives to traditional pesticides using semiochemicals. So most people have heard of pheromones, this is the chemical that all animals including insects use to communicate with each other. People understand the sex pheromone best, what’s used for reproduction, it’s what a female insect will use to attract male insects. So we use these chemicals to influence the behaviour of insect pests, or agricultural pests. So if we can use nature identical products, make the pheromones and put them into the field we can disrupt the mating of the insects and the population goes down so they are no longer damaging the plants. That’s a method called Mating Disruption.
The other method we use is called attract and kill, we might put a small amount of an insecticide into a product (containing both the semiochemical and the insecticide) and we attract the males to that formulation and they will get exposed to the insecticide that way. What happens with either strategy is we either eliminate completely the insecticide causing harm to the environment or reduce significantly the amount used in a field and per year by the grower helping the environment. So that’s what ISCA does, it’s an alternative to conventional methods. WE can use it as part of an integrated pest management system or we can use it alone.
That’s really interesting to me and to our listeners, we’re increasingly seeing the demand for greener solutions across all aspects of life from agriculture to automotive, all different sectors we’re seeing a push towards a greener and cleaner environment which can only be positive for the planet.
Fantastic, so obviously HR covers a huge area, but our focus and journey together has very much been recruitment. Can you share your own experiences of recruiting into ISCA that could be relevant for other people in the industry?
Well first of all, I love recruiting. It’s probably my favourite part of the job. I love talking about the company, the vision of the company and finding the right fit for the culture of the company. Before we started working with Chaseman I had recruited using traditional job boards, we have great relationships with California Riverside University (one of the reasons we stayed in the area), I had used local recruitment agencies for some of the administrative positions, I used temp agencies for our manufacturing group and I tried our HR partner (who have been great help for us in other areas) however their recruiting service I found was expensive and wasn’t that far above what I could do myself.
So we first engaged Chaseman as a specialist industry recruiter when we were looking for more senior roles. I felt like Chaseman got to know the company and the team, they partnered with us getting to know me really well too. Throughout the process I felt you and the team had a really good understanding of our culture and our company. As industry specialists you were able to go through a lot of the profiles and have deep conversations with them before they came to me. I felt like it was much more in depth than the other processes I had used.
To avoid telling everyone to use Chaseman, which would of course make my life easier. Would your advice be to partner with an agency that really understands your culture and takes their time to get to know the business and the people involved?
Yes, I really believe that a recruitment agency can ask questions that we can’t really ask and you can dig into the answers a lot more. I feel like agencies can dig into the answers a lot more as a third party stakeholder, an objective individual, challenging candidates in a way that I, as a prospective employer, am not able to.
OK well that’s good to hear. So again, when you’re working for a company like ISCA you can often be looking for a unique kind of candidate. What personality fit would you say works best with your business?
Sure so we look for adaptable people. That’s one of our core values alongside engagement and team. While we are considered a growing business rather than a start-up, there are many aspects of our business that are considered like a start-up still. What I mean by that is when a person comes in, the conversation I often have with them is how are you with wearing different hats, how are you with priorities changing? The more you are disturbed by doing something not in your job description or something pops up that you didn’t expect then this will be difficult for you? Because this happens on an ongoing basis at this company, and with any company that’s a start-up or growing as ISCA is right now.
We’re also always looking for self-starters and proactivity. There aren’t other people in the company doing the job of anyone that we’re hiring right now. Either we’re replacing a job that someone has left from, or we’re hiring a totally new role that no-one does at the moment. You can’t necessarily ask the person at the lab bench next to them what are we meant to be doing. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of help within the company, we pride ourselves on being able to help each other and available to do that, however there is no redundancy in our company right now. So, the people who do the best like that challenge, enjoy owning something, starting something new and making something new.
The final thing that we look for a lot is called ‘Yo-Yo’. They need to be able to come down into the weeds to a very granular level, being able to go from low to high and high to low and the drop of a hat. Going from a CO level role, to managing someone on minimum wage.
Yeah, and we’ve had conversations like this before when ISCA was first growing and first building and how your CEO would be in the warehouse one day and the next out leading the business as the CEO. We’ve obviously worked together on a number of C-Level roles. What advice would you give to other companies looking for C–Level roles.
That’s tricky, you work with a number of very big companies from big to small. We would be on the smaller end of course. For us it’s not the same as when a very large company hires for a C-level role. What we look for can’t always be translated. Our experience, what I was looking for was the skill set of a C-suite person but someone who was also looking for the challenge and adventure of something that was growing. They had to get in the weeds with us so as to help elevate and scale the company out of the weeds, to get the structure and infrastructure in place to grow and the company.
OK, sure so you kind of touched on this when you mentioned the transition from much larger businesses but what do you think has been the biggest challenge for you when you’ve watched someone moving from traditional agriculture into a company like ISCA, or from a big business into a smaller business? What are the challenges they face?
OK backtracking a little bit, for some of these senior positions at ISCA the candidates went through four interviews. And these interviews would often take the whole day, we wouldn’t fly someone in for a two-hour interview. I wanted people to get a full picture of what was going on, I didn’t want anyone to have any surprises about what the company was like, the office was like, the people at the front desk etc. I wanted them to know what they were getting into. They would be interviewed by teams of people, so we could check they were consistent and we could bounce our feedback between us before we made these decisions. These people were going to be a big part of the future of the company and therefore it’s important we made the right decision.
I knew it was going to be a rollercoaster, and there would be growing pains with the scaling of the company. When we were speaking to people from the bigger agriculture companies, one of the things we discovered was that many of the highest performing executives within these companies would have been there for a minimum of thirty years. They were now looking to do something different, some had seen friends leave and go on to smaller companies, some were looking for retirement and wanted to do something different and others felt that due to changes in the industry their jobs were maybe at risk. What quickly became clear to us was that having spent a lifetime in traditional crop protection, switching into our industry (alternative crop protection) was a big change. What I noticed, for some people was that they were just dipping their toe into the world of greener solutions having previously spent many years defending conventional methods so it was a very big switch for them. In addition to this, they were used to having a lot of support in their roles (EA’s etc) which they wouldn’t have with ISCA, here they would be potentially booking their own travel, meeting growers face to face, managing their expenses etc. They wouldn’t have support staff at their beck and call.
So it was almost like they were taking a step back into the trenches to help grow the business?
Yes! Often I was looking for someone who, when they had first started their career had done some experience at a small company or worked for a period in a team where they were growing something. If they perked up when I asked them about it and remember that time fondly in the interview then that was a plus for me. I felt that they perhaps missed that side of things when they dived into the bureaucracy of a larger company, they actually missed diving into the trenches, missed the hands on experience, speaking to the growers etc. I was often looking for those who had experience in the past in a smaller company and missed it.
So I guess the next question is in the world we’re living in at the moment, it would be great to get your perspective both as a doctor and an HR professional on COVID and how that has impacted your hiring process?
You know, we’re proud to say that we have hired quite a few people during COVID, of course in agriculture we’ve been considered an essential business but of course we’ve done everything that we can to manage this safely. However overall I would have to say that we haven’t felt it so much.
Sure, we’ve worked with you on a couple of roles and I would say that you format has changed though? Have you changed how you approached interviews? We’ve worked with you on more of a zoom format?
Yes it was interesting, almost overnight everyone became comfortable with Zoom/Teams. I think we suddenly became used to video calling eight hours a day. We, as a company, actually found that we were very productive with it because everything was scheduled through zoom. What happened with interviews as an example, we used to do audio calls and we switched it to video calls because it gave me so much additional information to gather feedback from. I felt like that screening process was much better, it meant we brought half as many people on site, however we’ve not made any hires without a face to face interview. We manage this safely, everyone that comes on site has their temperature checked and we sit in large conference calls with masks on for the interview itself.
Was there ever a discussion at board level to address a hiring freeze while we see how the ground lays? Or was it just a continued commitment to growth and our business?
Yes absolutely the latter. There was a discussion around the commitment to growth and a belief in our business, and a belief that the importance of our business (as you think about global health and a clean food supply and the health of humanity) we just pushed forward. I’m somebody who is cynical by nature, people don’t call me pessimistic to my face however I’m prepared to admit that this is my natural style. However at a certain point I just decided to get on board with the risks we’re taking and believe in the products and that they are going to work and we just needed to go for it and get the right people into the business to help us get to the next level.
As a person who has been extremely risk averse, an influence in particular from my career as a medical professional where risk is a matter of life and death, I simply had to get over this. I don’t think it’s a way we can grow unless we believe in what we’re doing, get the right people in the right places. It’s actually become something we screen for a lot in the hiring process – making sure we check they have the same risk belief system as we do.
I agree. I think from our side of things it’s been a pleasure to work with you, with ISCA and the team and to place people into the business. That sort of brings us to conclusion Kim, it’s been a pleasure to catch up and chat to you.
Always a pleasure Steve, thank you for talking to me.