Susan Levine Of Career Group Companies: Five HR Strategies On How Companies Can Turn A Crisis Into An Opportunity or Advantage

An Interview With Rachel Kline


Every crisis offers valuable lessons. For us, the crisis served as a wake-up call to diversify our service offerings and reevaluate our business model. We engaged in thorough post-crisis evaluations to identify strengths and weaknesses. This helped us refine our strategies and become more resilient for the future. By using the crisis as a learning opportunity and listening to our clients’ needs, we turned adversity into a catalyst for growth.

As any HR leader can tell you, crises are an inevitable part of the job. Tough situations pop up, often at the least convenient times, and these situations need to be handled efficiently yet delicately. Whether it’s dealing with a new employee, wages, or internal conflict, there are ways to come out on top. How can companies learn to take a crisis and turn it into an advantage? In this interview series, we are talking to HR leaders who share their strategies about “How Companies Can Turn A Crisis Into An Opportunity or Advantage.” As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Levine.

Susan Levine, Chief Executive Officer of Career Group Companies, is an expert in building relationships and creating meaningful professional connections. Susan has used her remarkable intuition and love of people to solidify herself as an industry icon, curating quality career matches based on finding the perfect cultural fit between client and candidate. For these reasons, executives across the country rely on Susan as one of their most trusted advisors.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’d never thought of getting into the recruiting industry. When I fell into this industry, I wasn’t certain what that would look like, or what being a recruiter even meant. I loved it immediately — I loved the opportunity to reach out to leading companies throughout the country, and at the same time find and source the best talent on the market for their open positions. I’ve always been somebody with really high standards, and I pride myself on being a people person and a connector. I’m a storyteller at heart, and I’ve really enjoyed the journey of forming meaningful and collaborative connections with my clients, and assuring them that I would be the right partner to find them absolutely fantastic talent.

I was excited to start a luxury recruiting and advisory firm that would seek out the very best talent and pair them with the industry-leading companies. I saw the opportunity in the market to create a brand that elevated recruitment services. And that’s what I did. I was only 25 years old — I had no experience or investors supporting me — but I’ve always loved a challenge, and I was passionate about my vision. I was also eager to have the very best recruiters on my team, much like a sports team. A team of professionals all moving in the same direction with the same goals — it was exhilarating to me.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We recently extended our nationwide recruiting services by opening our newest office in Dallas, Texas! Our team in Dallas is working on roles in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, as well as other Texas metropolitan areas, including roles in executive support, retail, lifestyle, and digital. The greater Dallas area is one of the fastest-growing employment markets in the country. It made perfect sense for us to expand into a market where many of our clients are relocating, as well as a market which demands the highest-caliber recruiting services, which we are known for.

What drives me are my goals — thinking of how to perfect the recruitment process, and how to continue to set ourselves apart from every other recruiting firm as we have for the past 40 years. We’ve done that by being creative and collaborative and always positioning ourselves as the opposite of transactional. We really care about people and we want to change the course of someone’s life by finding them their next great career opportunity.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I love this question. I always think of Career Group Companies as a sports team — it’s never about one player; it’s about the whole team. Everybody along my journey for the last 42 years has had a great influence on me. I feed off of positive energy. I do my very best to hire the most talented individuals out there, whether they have no experience at all — who I love to mentor and train — or they have been in this industry for years. I’ve learned from everybody at every level of the company. I would say that my greatest wins have come from failures. As funny as that may sound, you get up and you realize what you could have done differently to have been a better partner or to be a stronger recruiter or leader. So, for me, everything is a learning opportunity. Even after 42 years, I have a long way to go, and I still learn something new every day.

I want to recognize my husband and life-partner, Michael Levine, my two daughters, Emily Levine and Natalie Boren, and my Executive Vice-President in our New York office, Annie Papp. They are each an integral part of Career Group Companies; they made this journey possible with their support, guidance, and excellent listening skills, and I want to thank them for always keeping us on a positive path, as well as maintaining our standards and upholding our vision.

Career Group Companies is successful because of the people that work here. We have over 200 very different individuals, which I love. No two people are alike, just as no two companies are alike.

Fantastic. Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about HR strategies for turning a crisis into an opportunity. Can you share your story of when an organization you’ve worked at entered into a crisis? What happened? What did you do?

We have grown so much, even in the last 4 years, amidst a pandemic and volatile employment markets. When the bottom drops out, which is inevitable, the secret is to stay focused, positive, and to come back stronger. I was not prepared for the pandemic. I don’t think that anybody could have imagined what was going to happen, and as a business owner, it was frightening. Recessions aren’t anything new, people know how to navigate through them. But a pandemic, that’s something we’ve never had to deal with before. You don’t know how long it’s going to last. You don’t know where the bottom is or if you’re ever getting back to normal.

Closing our offices was highly concerning to me. I’m somebody who doesn’t want to be confined to a home, and so I worked outside with a select group of team members that felt safe enough to be outdoors with me, and we were each other’s strength. We held each other up through it.

Through it all, we maintained close contact with our clients, offering guidance to many individuals who were grappling with fear, unemployment, and uncertainty. We did this by actively listening to our clients’ and candidates’ concerns and needs. This deep understanding allowed us to pivot into industries we hadn’t staffed before, thanks to the trusting relationships we had built with our clients over decades. Our approach was never transactional; it was always about nurturing and strengthening these relationships. We asked our clients what they needed and how we could help. As a result, our clients trusted us to help them through this crisis, and this trust opened the door to new opportunities.

Nevertheless, we remained resilient and innovative. Our team was able to connect with numerous healthcare professionals, allowing us to provide temporary employment opportunities in line with the prevailing circumstances. There was a sudden need for health workers in industries that never had such needs before — like health and vaccination screeners or individuals who could help implement various safety measures in our clients’ offices.

Recognizing the importance of emotional support during this time, we hired a full-time on-site physician to counsel our staff regarding their health and safety and to help navigate through the changing regulations on the state and federal levels. Our approach was steadfast and rooted in the belief that panic was not the answer. Gradually, as time passed, we observed a return to normalcy, and our operations regained momentum. Despite navigating treacherous waters for an extended period, our commitment to perseverance and our willingness to pivot was critical. It was important to remember that there was still a demand for our services, even if it looked different than it had before.

By adapting to the evolving job market, we were able to shift our strategy to accommodate the abundance of temporary employment opportunities as opposed to full-time positions. For those who had been laid off, our aim was to bolster their resilience, assuring them that when the market stabilized, a plethora of new roles would be available. True to our word, this optimistic outlook materialized, and job seekers found themselves with a wealth of options to choose from.

What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?

The main focus of discussions in the last two to three years have been the pandemic and the “impending” recession. The real question is how do you navigate and maneuver through very tough times? For myself it starts with the head space and mindset: knowing that staying positive and focused, while being creative, is the only option. It’s all about finding the positive, and even when you’re scared, being able to plow through it. You have to be able to see the other side; things will always turn around and move forward and get back to a positive, strong place. People who have worked with me for over 30 years have paid me the greatest compliment by saying: “Susan, through the worst of times, you’ve never shown fear, and you’ve never caved. You’ve always led us and motivated us and told us to stay strong, to be positive, and to keep our eye on what’s important, which is always moving forward.”

Can you please tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and how the company ultimately turned the crisis into an opportunity or advantage? What did the next chapter look like?

My chief belief during the pandemic, even when things were dismal, to say the least, was that there would be a turn around and that when that happened, we needed to be prepared. Companies had such a headcount shortage due to layoffs and I knew that would eventually create more opportunities and more open roles than ever before. What we didn’t anticipate was how many people would get comfortable staying at home — either because of stimulus checks, childcare, shifting priorities, or desired career changes — but regardless, this meant that many people didn’t feel the need to return to work quickly. What we saw as a result was an outrageously high demand to hire, and we were on a treadmill 24/7 trying to keep up with the market. It was incredibly active, and we were filling what felt like 100 new roles a day. 2021 was our busiest year in 41 years and we were only able to stay ahead of it because we had the foresight and we were prepared. It was a very exciting time coming out of those unprecedented waters, and a very fortunate time because we were able to rebound and recover in such a strong way.

At the same time, we paid attention to our clients’ movements. The Miami job market was benefitting from the decentralization generated by the pandemic. A wave of strong talent was moving to Miami and major firms were relocating their headquarters or opening new branches in Florida. We noticed the trend, and we launched our Miami office in 2020.It has always been my strategy, as someone who prides myself on outstanding client service, to let our clients’ needs inform our growth strategy. When clients began reaching out to me asking for assistance filling high-level Information Technology roles, we launched an IT division. It was a risk to open a new location in the middle of a pandemic, but I knew it would be successful because the decision was based on demand from our existing client base.

Based on your experience, can you share five actionable pieces of advice for HR leaders about How Companies Can Turn A Crisis Into An Opportunity or Advantage?

1. Plan Ahead & Define Priorities

After navigating through different crises over the last 40+ years in my own business and as a consultant to many other companies, my first piece of advice is to always be ready for the unknown and unexpected. Planning ahead and understanding that at any time something could go awry, should not only help you remain calm, but also help you better understand the situation and prepare you mentally to deal head-on with any challenge. And when a crisis occurs, define your priorities. How are you going to navigate around this, and what would be your priorities in order to make sure that your business and everyone in your company is safe?

During the pandemic, planning for the future was critical for my business. We assessed our core business offerings and identified which areas were most vulnerable. By shifting our focus and resources to address these priorities, we not only ensured the survival of our company but also discovered new opportunities. For instance, we proactively diversified into staffing health screeners to meet the growing demand, which ended up becoming a new line of business.

2. Remain Positive — Yet Realistic

My second piece of advice is to always remain positive. Take the pandemic for example, even if my positivity was unrealistic on a certain level, I needed to get to that headspace to be able to motivate, lead, and move forward. As an HR leader, it is very important to have that positive attitude, to understand and really believe that no matter what is going on, you will come out of it. Simultaneously, be honest and transparent with your employees as to what is happening. This is where communication and collaboration come into play. When you realistically share the details of the situation, you are able to help people feel safe and prepared, and by coupling that with a healthy amount of optimism, you will be able to increase morale and give the whole team strength to push through.

In the face of uncertainty, maintaining a positive outlook is vital. But positivity should be grounded in realism. For example, when we lost a major client due to the crisis, our team felt the reality of the challenges ahead, but we remained optimistic. This led us to reassess our operations, cut costs where necessary, and refocus our efforts on growth areas. By balancing positivity with realism, we navigated the crisis successfully.

3. Get Comfortable with The Uncomfortable

Step outside of your comfort zone. This is an intellectual challenge if you’re used to feeling a sense of safety and security. Dealing with a crisis in business is going to feel uncomfortable. The “right” solution may aso feel uncomfortable if it wasn’t in your original plan. When we, like so many others, were forced to transition to remote work overnight, the change was met with some resistance. By encouraging open communication, finding new technical solutions to address frustrations, and providing support through the adjustment, we made the shift smoother. Our teams quickly adapted to remote work and discovered the benefits of flexibility and productivity. Embracing the uncomfortable can lead to innovation and lasting improvements. It is key to learn how to deal with discomfort and how to turn something negative into a growth opportunity. There are plenty of opportunities during a downtime to really think, pivot, and reevaluate systems that perhaps you need to change within your organization. This is when innovation happens, which is empirical to keep organizations competitive in the market.

4. Listen to Your Clients, Customers, and Employees

My clients are my business. In any crisis we’ve faced as an organization, we’ve taken the time to lean on the strength of those relationships, to listen, and to ask how we can best be of service. As a hiring partner, whether it was a looming economic recession, union strikes, or the pandemic, the employment market and our clients’ needs have fluctuated a lot in the past 3 years. We are fortunate to have very strong, trusting, non-transactional relationships with our clients. So when a crisis does arise, even if they’re not in a position to make a hire, we can continue to have productive conversations and ask thoughtful questions. That’s how we learn where the market is headed, and how we inform our path forward. For HR leaders, it may mean listening to your employees and their needs and concerns, and how you can thoughtfully address them. It’s important that you are always listening to your clients, customers, and employees, not just in times of crisis, so that there is trust and a genuine relationship.

Every crisis offers valuable lessons. For us, the crisis served as a wake-up call to diversify our service offerings and reevaluate our business model. We engaged in thorough post-crisis evaluations to identify strengths and weaknesses. This helped us refine our strategies and become more resilient for the future. By using the crisis as a learning opportunity and listening to our clients’ needs, we turned adversity into a catalyst for growth.

5. The Right Team is Everything, Lean on Each Other

Even though I am the head of a company, I need the people in my organization, especially during a time of crisis, to keep strong. I work with these people every single day, and they have not only become my lifelong friends, but they are the pillar of our company’s strength. So, my advice is to surround yourself with people who build you up, and rely on them in the same way they rely on you. Being united, working together, motivating each other, and collaborating to be better and stronger through a downturn is the absolute key to turning a crisis into an opportunity. Having people that you care about close to you really makes it a much more positive and rewarding experience.

When faced with staffing shortages internally, our employees stepped up to fill essential roles. We fostered a culture of mutual support and encouraged team members to lean on each other’s strengths. We understood the importance of having individuals who were not only skilled in their areas of expertise but also shared a sense of commitment to our collective success and unity. Our team’s cohesive and collective efforts not only helped us overcome immediate challenges but also reinforced the central ethos of our company — it’s all about the people.

What are a few of the most common mistakes you see leaders make when their company hits a crisis? What should be done to avoid them?

I do not think that people should make any important decisions impulsively or based on emotion. I’m a deep thinker and I’m a very analytical thinker, so if you make a decision impulsively, to me, that defines reckless business. Once you do that, it is very hard to backpedal your way out of it. Your best bet is thinking through all of your options clearly, when you are less reactive, and reflecting on what is the most intelligent decision to be made. If you are a reactive decision maker, it can help to ask other trusted advisors to weigh in and to take their valued judgements into consideration.

What advice would you give to HR leaders and organizations who have yet to hit their first real crisis?

If you’re new in business and you haven’t hit your first real crisis, buckle up. That day will come and knowing how you will deal with it is everything. Think of a bird’s eye view — if you’re a pilot and you’re 40,000 feet above what’s happening below you, you can keep the bigger picture in view. It is very important to understand that anything can go wrong. Be prepared. Stay positive. The best thing you can do would be to have a game plan. I always say it’s like an emergency preparedness kit. Make sure that you are psychologically in a good headspace and that you have a plan for your team.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Having empathy, human kindness, and being selfless to elevate others are admirable qualities that need to be shared with those who are less fortunate. I would love to be able to feel that I’m instilling confidence in those who do not believe in themselves. Those who have never been given a chance to succeed or to be able to afford to dress professionally, to have a resume done for themselves, to be coached, to be taught, and told to believe in themselves, because they are capable of achieving anything if they believe in themselves. Giving someone that chance to feel a sense of wholeness and gain that confidence is life changing. We partner with many organizations that are doing this on a regular basis, and offering our expertise wherever we can. These are organizations that offer free workshops, advice on what corporate America looks for, job coaching, and the tools to get ahead your job search. People just need a chance. With that in mind, I would love to be a part of a movement that elevates job seekers at all levels to reach their full potential by providing the resources, inspiration, and tools to get there.

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Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.