The Amrop Digital Interviews: Luke Henningsen, Australia

"I am constantly fascinated by founders and entrepreneurs – the energy, and the passion that they have when they’re building something. Recruiting in this space, I enjoy it so much that it doesn’t feel like 'work' to me."

Luke Henningsen is a Partner at Amrop Carmichael Fisher in Australia responsible for the Technology sector, and a member of Amrop’s Global Digital Practice.

We spoke to him about the start-up and scale-up environment in Australia, leadership qualities required in different stages of the start-up journey, his background running technology businesses and being part of Amrop’s network and the Global Digital Practice.

Luke Henningsen

Can you talk a little about your professional experience prior to joining Amrop and how it has helped you shape your career with the company?

I’ve been in Executive Search for 26 years now and, in the early years, I worked broadly across financial services and mining, however I fell in love with early-stage technology businesses around 15 years ago when I began recruiting “C” level executives for venture capital funded businesses commercializing technology out of the universities. These were very early-stage businesses, and I enjoyed learning about the weird and wonderful technologies that they were bringing to market as well as the challenge of recruiting executives with sufficient risk appetite and belief in themselves to take on these highly entrepreneurial roles. Then, in 2015, I sold my interest in the Executive Search business I had co-founded, and this enabled me to become deeply involved in the Australian startup ecosystem as an angel investor and to dedicate myself to specifically building a new Executive Search practice in the startup/scaleup market which was maturing and growing quickly here at the time. So, for the past 9 years this is what I have done – recruit mostly CEOs, CTOs, CFOs and CPOs for venture-funded tech businesses, while occasionally making an angel investment in some of them. I am constantly fascinated by founders and entrepreneurs - the energy, and the passion that they have when they're building something. It can be addictive. So, when I'm talking to a founder, I get very excited about their business and what they do, and recruiting in this space, I enjoy it so much that it doesn’t feel like “work” to me.

How has the startup sector been evolving in Australia? Has there been a lot of activity around, for example, initiatives and products relating to sustainability?

The startup funding ecosystem has really matured in the last ten years and has seen the rise of some very large (by Australian standards) venture funds – the likes of Air Tree, Square Peg and Blackbird as well as a myriad of smaller funds and angel investor networks. This has coincided of course with the rise of the Aussie Unicorns – including Canva, Culture Amp, Deputy, SafetyCulture for example. It has been a lot of fun working in this environment with companies growing rapidly and having the funding to support that growth and take Australian technology to the world. Unfortunately, our startup ecosystem, like most, took a step back in 2023 as interest rates began to rise, valuations dropped and funding dried up. Fortunately, however, we have been seeing this start to turn this year and, very recently, announcements of new funds being raised. With respect to sectors, sustainability and green energy yes, they have been a hot topic for a while, but more recently, in the last eight years, it's been very much about digital technology, digital products – ecommerce, martech, fintech, legaltech, hrtech. Now it is, of course, moving more towards cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. Our ecosystem does tend to mirror much of what is happening elsewhere.

How did you come to join Amrop?

As mentioned, I've been working in this market for a long time and knew and admired Jamal Khan, who had built Amrop’s business in Australia. It was time for a change for me, and we talked. Jamal is very entrepreneurial, and this resonated with me, as I have an entrepreneurial background as well – it’s in my blood too. We clicked and connected, and I looked more deeply at the Amrop network, and was impressed that we have so many partners focused on the digital and technology space – and that we have this active Digital Practice. There are other networks out there, but I haven’t seen anything quite like this – our network and the practices are very friendly and embrace new partners and are more than happy to share knowledge. It’s really good to be a part of a larger, broader system.

At Amrop are you again working with digital, tech and startup clients?

Yes, and I’m bringing my network with me, as it’s something that you develop over a period of time. I’m very active in the startup community, taking part in events, and you have to contribute to get something out of it – you give as good as you get. I’ve been in touch also with Amrop’s strategic partner in the US, JM Search, and, of course, with offices in Europe, so it’s good to know what’s happening in other markets around the world when it comes to the tech and startup space. Now, when I talk to my tech clients here in Australia, I have a real local insight from other parts of the world – real, genuine stories and connections, which undoubtedly add value to joining Amrop.

What’s important for a tech leader in the startup space and how does it, for example, depend on the cycles that startups go through? Do leadership requirements change depending on that?

A few years ago, you kind of had to sell the concept of working for a startup to candidates – that was not, and to some extent still isn’t, a traditional career choice that candidates would make. You need to talk to them about the founder who is a visionary and how they’re building something, which they passionately believe will change the world. And that’s about a mission, about really wanting to do this – because typically they couldn’t pay market salaries but would offer equity. You need to want to join this “rocket ship” going somewhere, and you might not get paid as much as you would in a big corporation, but there could be some equity, some skin in the game. Now we’ve seen technology businesses grow and become big really quickly, so you don’t have to do that much convincing these days. But when it comes to the type of people – startup founders need to be cognizant that they have to attract good quality talent, and often they haven’t led large teams and can also be a bit younger; so, all of a sudden, they find themselves in a business situation where they rapidly move from the university to a role where they have 50-100 people and that’s a difficult step to take. They need to be good at accepting advice and establishing relationships with a mentor. It is also beneficial to have the board or the advisory board composition where they have people who’ve been through the scaling journey. It’s helpful for them to have a sounding board, so that they can actually talk about some of the issues, because it’s quite challenging from a personality perspective – you need a lot of resilience to go through the pressure cooker of being a founder. We can really help in this respect too, advising on the different leadership capabilities they might need in their business as it goes through different maturity stages.

What about the positions they need to hire during those fast-growth periods? Is it beneficial if they come from large corporations which would make them more suitable for introducing a more rigid structure, for example?

I think that people who come out of big corporate backgrounds struggle in early-stage startups because, by nature, startups have to do a lot with less – so there’s not a lot of support and resources. Sometimes they might not realize that they just have to go and do things themselves. That being said, when the startup advances through into “scaleup” maturity phase and reaches a certain scale, then the flip side happens – its then you’ll often find that the people who’ve grown up in the startup don’t know how to implement the processes and the procedures that you need in the business. So often the “handing of the baton” takes place when they get through that maturity phase and when the professional money starts flowing in; usually a CFO joins the company, and things need to tighten up, rough edges need to be smoothed. Investors will look for this to happen and are often a driving force for it. This can be a very challenging time for everyone involved.

The company culture must then change along with that too.

Yes, it inevitably does change, and sometimes that’s a bit sad for the founders. The key is to try to maintain the core elements of the culture and what the business stands for. Truly great businesses do this through their HR practices, embedding it in their recruitment and the way they work. Early-stage startups don’t usually have an HR function so building this and recruiting the right Chief People Officer at the right time is really important to ensuring their culture scales and endures.

But, when it comes to searching for these other leadership positions for tech companies – in your view, do the potential tech leaders always need to have previous experience in the sector or can that be learned on the job and perhaps there are more important factors?

I think you certainly need some experience within the technology domain to lead a technology business – it depends on how specific it needs to be beyond that though. For example, B2B vs B2C, SME vs Enterprise, SaaS vs Marketplace are all different, but the distinctions will be less important when recruiting a Chief People Officer as compared to a Chief Revenue Officer or SVP of Sales for instance. A CTO search will result in different lenses yet again.

You have already talked about being a member of Amrop’s Digital Practice which brings together Amrop’s tech experts from offices around the globe. What, to you, are the central benefits in being part of Global Digital Practice?

The thing I enjoy the most is I really love the WhatsApp group we have for our Global Digital Practice – Senior Search Consultants from our 50+ offices reaching out for ideas, sharing networks and knowledge, and really working as a team to support our clients. There is an immediacy to responses and, as we are international, it runs around the clock! It’s a very, very giving and wonderful group.

To find out more about Amrop’s technology and digital knowledge, methods and tools, please contact Luke Henningsen or the Amrop Digital Practice members in your country!