Staffing Industry Spotlight: Shahbaz Afghani, CEO of Cybotic System

In this interview on Ascen’s Staffing Industry Spotlight Series, we spoke with Shahbaz (Robbie) A, CEO of Cybotic System, to explore his journey into the staffing industry and the founding principles of Cybotic. Shahbaz shares his background in technology consulting and his transition into staffing, driven by personal circumstances and a desire to innovate within the industry. He discusses the creation of Cybotic System, highlighting its unique approach to staffing solutions through the integration of technology, diversity initiatives, and a strong focus on talent engagement and culture. The conversation also touches on the role of AI in recruiting and strategies for standing out in a crowded staffing market. Through Shahbaz's insights, readers can expect to gain valuable perspectives on the ever-changing landscape of the staffing industry and the keys to success in driving meaningful change within it.
June 30, 2024

Mickey Pelletier:

Hey, Shahbaz, thank you for taking the time to sync with me today. I want to learn a little bit more about you and Cybotic. So, let's start off with who you are and what you do?

Shahbaz Afghani:

So, more than just the name, which is Shahbaz Afghani, I'm very passionate about technology, and that's why I'm in this industry. Other than technology, personally, what excites me is automobiles and that's somewhat my passion in life now.

Professionally, I've been in the consulting industry for about 15 years now, and the two specific areas where I've been very active are, one, the outsourcing and data services industry, and the second is the staffing industry. Those are the two areas that I've spent the majority of my time in. Recently. I took the move of being the founding member at Cybotic System. I currently serve as the CEO of the organisation.


Great, thanks for that! So, let's go back in time. How did you get into the staffing industry? What has kept you in it?


Yeah, I think it was not a conscious choice of getting into the staffing space.


It usually never is.


Yeah. So, I was pretty comfortable in my realm of consulting. I was working with a consulting company doing offshoring outsourcing work with some of the North American clients, and that was not in my hometown. I wanted to move back to my hometown because I was supposed to get married, and because of that personal choice, I moved back to my hometown, and the only options available there were staffing.

So, I started working in the staffing industry first as a client services manager, and I was managing a few logos for my company. And that's where I started my exposure with staffing, and I wanted to learn the day-to-day life of a recruiter. So, what I did was I also tried including myself for the first few months to understand what goes into finding the right resources. What are the challenges that recruiters face? Because of this, I developed that empathetic view or perspective towards the recruiter being on the client services side. I would understand if they would tell me something specific or technical about the sourcing process, rather than just continue to work with the clients.

A few years into it, I invested in a staffing company, I did a couple of consulting jobs when I was helping people develop their companies from the ground up, and eight years from there, that's where we started Cybotic System. It was a conscious choice because we had hands-on experience of driving services and operations and developing AI tools in the efficiency and productivity side. So, we thought, why not do an amalgamation of both, and create something disruptive?

Mickey: You sort of answered my next question: What is Cybotic and what led to you starting it? But maybe you can go a little bit deeper.

Shahbaz: Sure, here's a brief breakdown of the founding philosophy and approach of Cybotic Systems:

First, identifying a gap: we recognized a lucrative market in the staffing industry but aimed to avoid being just another generic staffing firm.

Second, a unique proposition: We focused on offering a distinct value proposition by blending innovative marketing strategies with practical implementation in day-to-day operations.

Third, a holistic approach: We examined each aspect of staffing operations with fresh perspectives, aiming to enhance traditional practices with technology integration and empathetic considerations.

Fourth, technological integration: We leveraged technology, including UI enhancements and AI tools, to optimise recruitment performance and prioritise consultant retention.

Fifth, human-centric approach: we prioritised not only business objectives but also the well-being and inclusivity of consultants, aiming for a more wholesome experience.

Sixth, diversity and inclusion: we actively pursued diversity initiatives beyond superficial marketing, including the establishment of a Diversity Board composed of external advisors to ensure genuine progress.

Seventh, disruption and differentiation: we aspired to be a disruptor in the industry, offering both staffing solutions and innovative products to set Cybotic apart as a solutions-oriented company.

Overall, Cybotic System aimed to redefine the staffing industry by combining innovative approaches with a commitment to human-centric values and genuine diversity and inclusion efforts.


You mentioned AI, and a lot of people talk about AI, its implications, and its role. What do you feel is the role of AI in recruiting?


A lot of people talk about AI as a standalone product, which can be life-changing for this industry. I don't believe the same. My thoughts are different.

AI would not be a standalone product but would actually be a supplemental product to the traditional practices and the traditional recruitment of today. For example, you cannot take human interaction out of the recruitment life cycle. What you can do is you can include AI to automate most of the activities that happen right from the start of sourcing until about when you deliver the candidate.

Things that can still be tackled by technology without human intervention are the things that we should be looking at automating. What AI is going to do in the recruitment industry is expedite the overall process from sourcing to the candidate joining. Also, optimise the overall way things are done and keep a better tracking of what is happening and what is becoming successful and making things successful.

When you include AI into any process correctly, one thing that happens instantly is that you start receiving data on every step that is being taken to get something done. For example, from point A to point B, if I want to complete the task, I will complete a task even manually. But when I start using AI to complete the task or track the task, I also get data points in terms of how much time it takes to complete. What actions would it take me to complete the task? What were the actions that were successful? What were the actions which were not successful? What were the actions that were very mediocre?

So, with that kind of data available and data insights, it can actually help you to optimize the way things are being done today to another level. And I think that's the perspective through which we should be looking at. Why? Because a lot of people have in the past tried replacing recruiters with AI bots. Which did not work well because artificial intelligence is in the nascent stages. As of today, probably 10-20 years down the line, it would be at a level where you can independently handle the entire process and do it. But for now, I think it's more of a supplemental technology.


Yeah, that is one of the questions I wanted to follow up on, and you started to cite this here, but do you think that AI will eventually remove the need for some of the roles within the recruiting lifecycle?


Some of the roles, yes. Within the recruiting cycle, I think the absolute role that does the majority of the work is the recruiter. From sourcing people, finding them, talking to them, and screening them, putting them through a submission format. And then eventually submitting them. I think the recruiter would not be affected greatly. What would be affected is more of the support roles because for the recruitment industry, recruitment is the core of the operations.

However, there are a lot of supporting operations that help the overall recruitment life cycle. For example, on the contingent workforce side, the timesheet systems check-ins, and the compliance complaints in terms of payroll, benefits, etcetera. I think all these processes can be automated through AI and that means the people who are doing it today manually would not be required or would not exist. But I think the recruiter’s role will not cease to exist and will be essential. I think the supporting roles might cease to exist with the inclusion of deeper-level AI.


Yeah, that makes sense to me, and is possible. But I think it will take some time and we may see how that actually spells out for the industry. But I also think that's a very real threat to some of those roles. I want to shift topics now. One thing you and I have chatted about in the past is your culture, and talent engagement, you're very passionate about that. So, what does culture and talent engagement mean in the world of recruiting?


I think culture and talent engagement for me are very prominent, not only just for my recruitment operations, but for any kind of operations. Because for me, I believe if you have happy employees they can develop and deliver much better results than somebody who's just looking for another job. To have people engage at a better level and feel a sense of belongingness to the business, you need to have a very inclusive culture and also engage your talent.

A lot of people in the industry perceive engagement as offering them fun activities. Team dinners, etc., are not engagement. Certain activities can be considered engagement activities, but they're not overall engagement. Overall engagement, in my eyes, is when you engage with your employees, not just to understand their professional needs but also their human needs and personal goals.

So, whenever you offer them any business goals, you tie them down to their personal goals because everybody has some other personal goals that they want to achieve because of which they initially chose to take up the career or probably even have a job, So, if they're just working to keep the job, or, you know, making a career out of it and not even worried about or relating their personal goals to their professional goals, it doesn't make sense to me.

I think talent engagement is not just engaging people in certain activities that are considered fun but engaging with them on a personal level to understand who they are, what they do, and what they need in life. What are their personal goals and accordingly help them to develop their career in a certain way, which also backs up or supports their personal goals and others, not just aspiration. In terms of the profession, a lot of times, what happens is that leaders would only talk to people in the team when they need something, when they want to give directions, when they want to ask for something, or when they want to get something from them. Not when they actually talk to people to understand what they need and what they want.

I think engagement for me is having more conversations about what the employee needs to be more successful, what the employee needs to be more content, and what the employee needs to be happier, and then working towards delivering that for your employees.


I love that. I think that's just a big piece of the workforce today, whether you know it's full time, whether it's temp staff, it's about feeling included, about feeling a part of something bigger in the company and doing something to better enable those personal goals. I appreciate that point of view.


Yeah, I'll give you an example. Let's say you go to an NFL game and you're going to watch the Patriots play, and you're a big Patriots supporter. Your experience would be entirely different if you were wearing a Patriots jersey. If you were not, you would not feel the belongingness to the entire environment around you because you would be the odd one out. You would not show off the same enthusiasm as you would when you wear the swag of the Patriots team.

What instantly happens is when you have acceptance from people around you who are also wearing the same kind of jersey. You now feel that you're part of the team and an extension of it in the public stands rather than just another viewer or spectator. You’re not just an outside viewer. Now, what I'm trying to hint here is that the jersey is the culture that flows within your organization. If people are wearing your culture on their sleeves, they will feel a sense of belonging. They would feel that they are not just the next outside viewer who's seeing things happen around them, but they are actually an extension of the team.


Sometimes, they call that drinking the Kool-Aid. Sometimes people can tease about that, but sometimes it's good to drink the Kool-Aid. It means you're really buying into it. You really believe in it, so I think it's a good analogy that I appreciate. You touched on this earlier, but one last question I want to ask you because I think it's a big one that a lot of staffing firms struggle with. I think the number is that in the US or North America, there are over 22,000 staffing firms. With so many in the world, I mean, how do you make yourself stand out? You've touched on this, but I want to directly ask that question. What are your thoughts?


So, like I said previously, and I gave you a little sneak peek into what we're trying to do, we're trying to create differentiators on 3 fronts. One is that our delivery is going to be stronger than anybody in the competition. Two, we will have a better engaged, better-retained workforce. And three, we're not just going to become a company that talks about having diversity, but actually, a company that delivers you the right balance of diverse candidates from all different groups that are underrepresented today. How are you doing that on the delivery part? I think everybody hires recruiters from the same job market.

So, if you're just depending on the skill of the recruiter or your process, your delivery process would be very dependent on human skill, which can deviate from time to time depending on the person's mood. But when you include technology to standardize the way you deliver your operations, you achieve a status of having standard delivery rather than just depending on people. You're now depending on the process and technology that is helping you upscale or uplift your overall staff performance.

That's what we are doing with the inclusion of the AI suite. Our number one differentiator is that our delivery is very streamlined, standard, and better than the competition's.

The second is the diversity platform that we're building now. This is more of a direct sourcing platform, which gives you as a company working with us direct access to this very diverse platform of underrepresented groups, right from the black community, veterans, to women coming back to work, to LGBTQ, and all the other underrepresented groups. And with this platform, what we're trying to set up is we are not just a supplier who's going to tell you we are diversity owned, or we have X diversity certificate. Why a diversity certificate? No, We’re going to deliver a candidate pool that is diverse whether you want to hire them or not. That's your personal choice. Whichever pool you want to engage in, we have that available for you proactively.

The third differentiator that we're trying to build is more on the engagement part. Right before this when I was talking about culture and inclusion of employees and giving them the sense of belongingness – we're developing a standard operating procedure of touch bases with our consultants who work for the clients at least twice every month. Wherein we engage with them not only for things that we need out of them but actually for things that they need out of us. To help and support them so they feel a sense of belonging towards the business and feel a sense of inclusiveness in doing so.

One thing we are doing as an industry first is creating an inclusive AI platform, which is going to gauge their mental wellness on a score. Based on their mental wellness score, we also offer them proactive therapy and consultation sessions, which is a cost borne by Cybotic System and it's more of an investment towards the wellbeing of our employees and consultants. I think those are three differentiators that we're trying to create because of which we get faster delivery, diverse delivery and also a very good, retained workforce.


And all that's just going to lead to happier clients, happier workers. Thank you for sharing all this with me!


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