From Army Captain to Recruitment MD: Andrew McNeilis Shares Expert Job Search Tips

Why do some candidates get selected over others? Andrew McNeilis, MD of Phaidon International APAC, pulls back the curtain and sheds light on what companies are looking out for, talent trends in Southeast Asia, and how you can gain an edge over the competition.

By SGN | 27 September 2021

Andrew McNeilis spent the early years of his career as a Captain in the Infantry in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment before transitioning to a corporate career.

Having spent over three decades working in strategic leadership roles across organisations ranging from start-ups to public companies throughout Europe, Asia Pacific, Middle East, and the Americas, Andrew McNeilis, Managing Director, APAC at Phaidon International, is the expert to consult when it comes to securing jobs.

We speak to Andrew to learn about hiring trends in Southeast Asia, what companies are looking for when it comes to recruiting talent, how professionals may stand out in their job search journeys.

Hi Andrew! Tell us a little about yourself.

Adult Male, left handed, married to Nicole. Four children – Tom, Olivia (twins, working in London) and Christian and Gabriel who are here in Singapore. From Teesside in England and lucky enough to have travelled extensively – having seen more than 139 countries on the Planet.

The Army sent me literally all over the world – some tough (Ulster/ Belize) others fun crazy – Mexico, Asia, Southern Europe, Canada, Kenya, and many others.

My commercial career brought me to The Middle East – every GCC nation, Russia, many European nations, all over the USA, Asia Pacific – China, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and now I’ve been based in Singapore since 2019.

What does a day in your life look like?

Very busy and full on. I am a lark not an owl; early rising is my habit. I tend to start early – (430/5am rise (ex-Milkman!) , checking morning overnight “traffic,” post three cups of coffee. I’m out the house by 0615 heading up Bukit Timah Hill and round the Dairy Loop trail to get the heart racing, brain thinking and ready for the day.

Whether WFM or in office, I am generally tuned into my day by 0730 / 0800. At Phaidon, I have the privilege of leading a team of talented professionals committed to helping Asia-based clients solve their number one challenge: hiring business-critical talent across six niche brands. We have delivered our services to core markets based in over 17 countries.

Andrew with the APAC team at a pre-Covid office incentive event with Phaidon International.

My day is an enjoyable mix of driving the business to achieve the agreed goals whilst dealing with unanticipated challenges that commercial life brings any Professional Services company. Unless necessary, I will rarely make a decision after 7pm because by 630 pm I’m “done” which always makes our 8pm Monday Global Board catch ups a unique concentration challenge for me!

We hear you used to be a Captain in the Infantry back in the UK – how did you get into the talent industry?

Pure serendipity. In my last months in the Infantry, I was running an operation to guard Nuclear (Cruise) missiles at Greenham Common. One night I was tasked to investigate a suspicious vehicle that turned out to be a shiny BMW with a flat tyre full of very well dressed (ball gowns, black tie) professionals on their way to an award ceremony.

Our squad sorted the tyre and whilst chatting, I found out they worked for a recruitment business, got a business card which planted the seed. I then got my first break with a City( of London)  Firm and found I both enjoyed it and was good at it. 

What are some emerging trends you see in the regional market when it comes to the kinds of roles companies are looking to fill?

As specialists working in defined niches, our candidates typically have +7 years’ post-graduate experience, of which 100% have a first degree and 78% a secondary post graduate qualification. Through this lens, the key emerging trends we see across Southeast Asia include:

  1. Strong demand for indigenous talent and moving away from the import of foreign talent
  2. Navigating the hiring of foreign expertise to plug skills gaps whilst respecting the domestic talent pool
  3. Multiple client competition for the same business-critical talent pool
  4. Accessing overseas diaspora to return home to great career opportunities
  5. Encouraging inward investment to attract emerging industries and leading edge knowledge economy / STEM employers.

For those looking for job opportunities in Southeast Asia, which industries are hungriest for talent?

Every single industry is experiencing talent crunches across a wide range of business-critical functional roles.

Some of these are unique to the sector – e.g. Research Scientists, Solar Engineering experts, Quantitative Traders. Other skills groups are in huge demand cross sector. For example, Digital Marketing, Software Engineering, Compliance to name but a few.

When it comes to talent, Southeast Asia often stands in the shadows of more established talent hubs such as Silicon Valley, London and Shanghai. What are your views on this?

I have always looked at addressable market opportunities in terms of Rising Stars and Falling Giants – be it client, sector or geography. For example, it is worth highlighting that Silicon Valley has its own problems these days. Many businesses are moving out, seeing Texas and Florida as preferrable.

Apple Park, Cupertino (pictured above) exemplifies Silicon Valley’s reputation as one of the best tech innovation hubs in the world. However, Andrew cautions that many businesses are moving out in favour of Florida and Texas.

Southeast Asia is definitely a Rising Star in terms of career opportunities. We are all aware of some of the key geo-political considerations that constantly impact the global economy and how they impact regionally.

Two things you cannot write an algorithm for are Sentiment and Confidence. When negative, these often impair employers’ willingness to invest in hiring.

I see Singapore as being the standout safe harbour country for inward investment by companies wanting to expand into the wider Asian market, using Singapore as their first point of entry and “jumping off” point.

I do not believe we place enough scrutiny on demographics, global mobility and the rise of a heightening of Domestic policies. All these can sometimes create tension when it comes to the pursuit of available talent pools in a very globalised economy.

As our Selby Jennings’ Confidence Index Survey indicates, Singapore is the most desired location for APAC financial services respondents to relocate to if there is better opportunity. BC (“Beyond Covid”), I passionately believe that Singapore will attract increasing investment and benefit from today’s big geopolitical and demographic issues. I describe Singapore as the Switzerland of Southeast Asia. It has an enviable reputation because it offers everything and more that an Employer or Employee wants when they consider the ideal environment to thrive in. Stability, safety, transparency, a favourable tax regime and a proven legal and compliance framework that offers protection and recourse.

In simple terms it is easy to do business here compared with many of the other countries and a superb place to live.

They say culture eats strategy. How may firms – particularly start-ups – hire the right candidate with strong culture fit and skills?

I will be contentious here; I find company culture is like a good wine or cheese; it takes a while to ferment and improves over time. Every start up believes it has a unique culture and probably believes it is going to save the world.

As tech start-ups mature and achieve explosive growth, they often become the very thing that the founders had turned their back on, warns Andrew. (Pictured: Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Image source: CNBC)

Many entrepreneurs consciously leave big companies because they find them impersonal and feel they are “not making a difference”. The truth is, a successful start-up will eventually become the very thing that the entrepreneur turned their back on. We should remind ourselves that Grab, Lazada, Apple, Google all started in a backroom or garage.

Rather than having founders talking big about the culture, I would recommend leaders clearly define what they value (“Values”) in employees, ensure there is a crystal clear vision/ purpose and ultimately what is in it for the prospective employee to join and then stick around.

Beyond a pay cheque, “smart young people with lots of choices” need to be impressed, engaged and come away from the interview believing that working for your company will make a positive difference to the community and to their own circumstances. 

If it is a case of “the meal looked lovely but tasted bland,” – i.e. it was a great sell at the interview but the reality of the job is not a great experience – you will have terrible attrition.

Be open, honest and hire people who are not afraid to work hard. The people who want it more will give you more and your firm will go further – providing they are aligned with your values and you have been authentic and honest about the opportunity.

What is some advice you’ll like to share those looking to transition into the tech industry given the opportunities available, but have no prior experience in tech?

It completely depends on what you want to do in tech. If your forte is sales, and you are currently selling medical devices, you can quite easily apply your learnings in Tech. If you are in medical devices sales and want to be a software engineer – tough, get back to school in your own time and learn to code before you apply.

My advice is to recognise what skills, qualifications, attitude and behaviours are needed to be hired in any tech firm and garner them accordingly.

Job search has always been a bit of an art. In today’s climate, the challenge has become more pronounced than ever. What are some tips for those looking to find an edge over their peers?

  • Do not have a one size fits all CV. Customise it each and every time to highlight what you have to offer by reflecting the key points the job description is asking for. Many initial sifts on applications involve key word recognition by humans and AI.
  • Do not be a victim. Hussle. Applied? Did not hear back? Then make contact. Follow up, find an ‘in’ to the prospective employer, get in touch and ask for an update or feedback. You will be surprised how many people do not go the extra mile and simply sit and wait.
  • Research the culture. Use your network to find someone who works at the companies you are interested in joining. Ask them what the working environment is like and how they would describe the culture. Why did they join?
  • Know what you are looking for in the next role. Again, whilst it is flattering to be headhunted, what is missing from your current role can often be put right through an open adult conversation with your current boss. Are you wanting to move for a new challenge, the location, to fulfil your ambitions more, higher pay or greater job security? When assessing a role, be true to yourself about what the next gig is going to need to deliver to you.
  • Say thank you! Don’t laugh – loved the interview? Want that role? Then differentiate yourself with the most basic of things: good manners. So many people do not.


You may find more career advice that we have produced on our websites.

What are companies looking for in recruiting talent – and how can candidates stand out?

Regardless of the sector, it is vital that the job seeker has an awareness of what soft and hard skills the employer is looking for and how they might assess or evidence you have what it takes.

Technical skills, relevant work experience, required qualifications, positive attitude/ aptitude to learn and cultural fit are what you will be judged on whatever sector. Some roles require pre-requisite qualifications; however there are a number of tips I can give to job seekers.

  • Understand what competency based interviewing is (google it) and then ensure you articulate what competencies are in your toolkit. Further, be able to evidence them from your work experience …”Can you give me an example when you have had to be resilient- what was it, how did you deal with it and what were the outcomes?”
  • Understand behavioural interviewing (as above). “Are you calm under pressure? Can you evidence this at the interview or reference points in your previous career history?”
  • Practise if you can. If you know you are going to have to do a test- e.g. coding- get busy practising – don’t try and do the test on the fly.

For those mulling over different offers, or looking for new jobs, how may we assess whether a potential employer is the right fit?

My strongest advice is do your diligence throughout the selection process, because once you have joined it’s too late. Take the time and trouble to gather as much tangible evidence by researching, talking to current employees about what it is like to work there.

Talk to ex-employees about why they moved on. Take the likes of Glassdoor with a pinch of salt. Such things only tend to focus on outliers – a total rant or a love fest – and above all ask smart questions at interview that will help you.

Andrew cautions: take what you read on Glassdoor with a pinch of salt as they tend to attract emotionally-charged reviews. (image source: Tech Crunch)

For example, a useful tip on culture might be to ask “how are decisions made here?” or “If I wanted to get an idea approved, how would I go about it?”

Finally, remember you are a lot more employable when employed than unemployed. If you do not like your job, don’t quit. Being unemployed puts you in a weak negotiating position. If you are working, take your time to find the right role.

What advice would you give those starting out in the job search journeys?

Be yourself. Customise your CV so you do not rely on one version fits all. Write down what your ideal job looks like, and if a role offers you 6/10+, take it. Hussle, research the company, research the people interviewing you and show them you have done your homework by referencing what you have found out.

Have an opinion, and be prepared to state it if asked. All said and done, evidence your character and a positive attitude; an employer can teach you the rest.

Finally, any words of advice for those thinking about working with recruiters?

My advice is straightforward – take your time to work out which recruitment firm  understands the skills set you have developed in the context of the industry sector or sectors you want to work in.

By working with a recruiter who has an appreciation of your talent and the sector, you will get excellent advice. Good recruiters will find you a job; great recruiters will build a long-term relationship with you and help you with your career and future career choices. Find out more from Benefits of using a specialist recruiter.

Avoid registering with every recruitment firm in town. If your CV turns up to the same client from twenty agencies, you are in danger of looking desperate. Recognise that whilst recruitment is a demanding sales career, great recruiters are the ones who genuinely get pleasure and joy from getting good people their dream job, thus pleasing their clients too.

For more tips on job hunting and navigating career transitions, check out the resource hub here.

This article was developed in collaboration with Phaidon International Singapore, the APAC regional hub of award-winning global recruitment group Phaidon International. Phaidon International is the parent company of six organically grown recruitment businesses specialising across important industry sectors, covering Financial Services (Selby Jennings), Life Sciences (EPM Scientific), Engineering and Infrastructure (LVI Associates), End-to-End Supply Chain (DSJ Global), Technology (Glocomms) and Regulatory and Legal (Larson Maddox).

About Andrew

Andrew has over 30 years’ commercial experience working in strategic leadership roles across organizations ranging from start-ups to public companies throughout Europe, Asia Pacific, Middle East, and the Americas. He also enjoyed a first career serving as an Infantry Army Officer in a variety of operational theatres, teaching him the value of public service, leading people, operational planning and execution, achieving the mission and exceeding expectations.

Connect with Andrew on LinkedIn here.

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