As part of our Recruitment Hero Series here at Centredexcellence, I want to share Joe Sweeney’s story. 

Joe is a co-founder and Managing Director of Manners McLean International, a global recruitment business offering bespoke talent solutions to consumer goods organisations.  

Joe is a biller in the organisation who works with senior leaders. I wanted to share Joe’s journey because it is a rare and unique success journey out of the trenches of COVID. 

He has achieved what many people thought would not be possible in today’s crazy marketplace; imagine shifting your company to work on six-figure retained projects. 

In fact, in the last two months, Joe has completely pivoted his business and rewritten this year’s forecast from poverty to profit; this has all been possible through a shift in their approach to their business development strategy. 

Being transparent, this whole transformation has taken place because Joe is a member of the RockIT program. If you want to find out how you can replicate results by joining RockIT like Joe, book a call with one of our team members. 

I asked Joe several questions during a recent interview, and you can find his answers below. 

What Challenges Were You Experiencing Before You Joined RockIT? 

I’m Managing Director of Manners McLean International; we work within FMCG consumer goods.  

This includes big food, businesses, beverages, alcohol, tobacco, personal care, and cosmetics, and this is our 11th year of trading.  

We chose this niche because back in 2008, during the last recession, which was financial, we looked at the landscape, and we were generalists at that point, and we said, well, FMCG is a robust sector. It’s as recession-proof as you get because people still need to eat and drink, and most still use cosmetics.  

We have always recruited senior leaders, so we switched to FMCG and built our business here over the last ten years. 

In 2018 and 2019, we performed well as a small boutique business, and we were growing. Then my business partner and I realised that we like to be around a six billing head business with a support team; we were sitting quite pretty.  

And I look back now and reflect that we weren’t doing any business development. If you’ve worked in your niche for over ten years, you have a network, a name, and a brand.  

We had existing clients from whom we were very fortunate to get repeat business. We could almost guarantee revenue from certain clients. Then bang, the pandemic hits and these big, super reliable, dependable accounts that you have, through no fault of yours, stop hiring, and a recruitment freeze happens. 


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And major FMCG businesses have used the pandemic to restructure and reorganise; in other words, to lose people instead of hiring people.  

So the major challenges that we then faced were that we had plateaued. We had lost the ability and the knowledge of how we business develop in today’s world because we were in that fortunate position that we hadn’t needed to do it.  

Then Covid hit, and our strategy of working with a small number of clients and giving them a high touch point service suddenly wasn’t a sustainable model. 

We realised that we weren’t as robust and recession-proof as we first thought. And we had offers pulled or cancelled, and we made a record fee in one month, which then fell through several months later. The situation was unprecedented no one had ever experienced this before. 

Historically we had always been able to find superstar ‘avatar’ candidates and ‘sell’ them to our clients, and suddenly this was no longer working. 

We knew we had to do something, but it was like, what do we do? 

What Were Your First Results When You Joined RockIT? 

I had a conversation with you then, Katy, and decided to join RockIT. 

RockIT put me first and foremost in a virtual room with a peer group of business leaders and owners with a similar D.N.A. to me, both as a person and a business, all with completely different niches looking at other functional areas all experiencing something similar.  

And we were able to connect as a group because we care deeply about our business. 

We’re all in the same boat and need some inspiration and new ideas. So I think first and foremost, the thing that I got from this peer learning group was the support that we had off and online. 

If I’m honest, I didn’t hit the ground running in the first couple of weeks. But there were people in the group who took action a lot sooner than I did and were getting results. 

People were coming back and saying, I’ve picked up this role or picked up this lead, and you have to be honest with yourself and say am I giving this 110% or am I just plateauing and giving it a half-hearted go? 

So I soon cottoned on that people are having some results with this. And so what? I then decided to go for it, hit the targets, hit the KPIs, and take action. And, what we’ve been able to do is embed a systemised way to do business development, particularly in this current business environment. 

What Actions Did You Implement? 

The key switch was building rapport with people. 

You are engaging with senior decision-makers within your niche, but you may not necessarily have something tangible or specific to talk with them about.  

So rather than waiting to have something specific, or tangible, to engage with them about, you’re reaching out to them to build a relationship with rapport and empathy.  

I appreciated that these individuals were like us; they are isolating at home in an uncertain world at the time. 

Then if you present yourself as a specialist within your niche, therefore their niche, they are far more motivated to chat with a head hunter or specialist recruiter within their niche. 

The RockIT training helped give me the questions to ask that enabled me to unravel potential opportunities, whether they are immediate opportunities now or whether there is something on the radar. Still, you’re also talking to people about challenges and pain points and frustrations that they’re having.  

And you’re having multiple conversations with similar people, you start to pick up the same, you start picking up synergies, and it’s not a coincidence. They’re all going through the same thing. And so you build that momentum. And you start to become better at identifying and generating opportunities. 

How Did You Get The 6-Figure Placement? 

Katy: Tell us what difference it made for you; tell us how the six-figure placement came from a call?  

So we did win a retained search in September; the six-figure fee was an interesting story. 

On a Monday, when I go to work, I have all my calls planned out, so I know what I am doing.  

About 24 hours before this call, it was with a very senior V.P. level candidate with 20 years of experience; a huge fish messaged me and said, look, for your information, I’ve left the company that you think I was with, and I am not looking for a job. If I do go back into work, it will either be as an interim, or it will be as a non-exec director.  

I’m up for it if you still fancy having a chat, but I perfectly understand if it’s not. So I decided to go with it and have a call; I could get a recommendation or referral. 

We had a forty-five-minute call in which she had changed her mind about taking on a role again. 

I knew a year ago that an organisation that we had worked with was on the lookout for people exactly like her. 

The next thing is we made a placement to a client that at the time was dead to us for a fee of over £100k with a candidate who, when I started the conversation, in theory, wasn’t interested. 

This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t used the techniques and mindset work available in the RockIT programme; you gave us a formula that worked. 

RockIT and our innate skills as recruiters are what worked here. 

What New Beliefs and Habits Had You Added Since Covid? 

There are two key things we have added. 

We now have an embedded continuous B.D. Strategy, which we didn’t have. You can take positives out of Covid; we weren’t always at the races; now, we have a process dialled in when it came to B.D. 

We know we need a more robust strategy to diversify our client base outside of ‘just’ the big players. 

We have also aligned numbers, and we take action daily. The first stage of RockIT taught us to look at quality, five calls a day, not fifty. 

It wasn’t phone bashing 50 calls a day; you’re making one high quality, high value, connect connection call to a senior level stakeholder. So that’s what we’ve asked the team. It’s a quality over quantity exercise, and we’re just out there networking.  

So we have that embedded, more sustainable business development strategy.  

The other strategy is setting a morning routine that works incredibly well. 

I didn’t have a morning routine pre-joining. 

Every day, I would come into the office, look at my diary, and think, Christ, what am I doing today. I had a massive psychological shift; I’m getting up every day, doing some self-care, going for a run, or exercising. I have a more structured routine.  

Now when I come to work, I’m clearer on what I’m doing, so these areas are a major contributor. The two major things one, I would say, has had a major professional impact. 

If You Had A Billboard With A Phrase To Encourage Recruitment Business Owners, What Would It Say? 

In honesty, stop overthinking and JFDI. 

I find myself saying this to the team now, like even yesterday, we were going around in circles; ‘should we do this or that?’ 

We stopped and just decided; because version one is better than version none. Taking action and breaking through that fear of failure we all experience. 

And because of this, I’m finding that I can connect with people who were previously completely off my radar. 

I have been doing this for 15 years; I still have that fear when you’re about to make that phone call to somebody you know is way above your pay grade and in a sector you don’t really understand, but you’ve just got to do it.  

You’ve just got to have that conversation and know that you ARE bringing value; you know what you’re talking about. Phrase of the day; JFDI. 


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What Other Advice Would You Give Business Owners? 

Refine and consistently implement the ‘basics’ and then add additional strategies. Working with you on RockIT, I started to analyse my business. 

Like looking at our offering, having a broader approach with more sophisticated recruiting product offers I could monetise. 

To close, I would also say, believe in yourself and at the same time practise some self-care. For instance, if you’ve not had a break, you find yourself continuously going down, down, down, take a break, and take a step back because it’s critical to take care of yourself before taking care of your business. 

RockIT produced a big R.O.I. for me, and I would encourage anyone to have a conversation with the team at Centredexcellence. 


Today we want to share Joe Sweeney and the Manners Maclean International story. Moving from a poverty to profit situation and six-figure retainers in the middle of a pandemic is hard to get your head around. Joe and his team moved from the ‘easy recruiting life’ pre-pandemic, where business always dropped in, to no jobs and no consistent B.D. strategy to developing a better business model that was robust and right for the future. 

In this case study, Joe shares his lightbulb moments and drivers of success: 

  • Decided that their business model had to change 
  • Getting support, strategies and coaching from the RockIT programme at Centredexcellence 
  • Developing a different B.D. strategy 
  • Broadening their niche and offer despite the fear 
  • Taking daily action on the specific RockIT processes they were learning 
  • Being outside their comfort zone daily 
  • Developing a JFDI mindset 
  • A focus on self-care at the start of every day 

Joe was a slow starter in RocKIT by his own admission, and then when he took action and did the work we share in our various programmes, the results started to stack up. 

If you would like to discuss how we can help you build your recruitment or executive search business to seven figures and beyond, schedule a free profit Accelerator Session with one of our Scale Specialists.  

We will help you gain clarity on exactly what you need to do to double your sales and build a business that runs on autopilot. 


Warm Regards 


Nicky and Katy