Headhunters, beauty parades and trial by sherry are the characteristics of modern senior management recruitment in local government.
The standard process for recruiting staff in local government is fairly straightforward. The post is advertised in the professional press, candidates are selected for interview on the basis of their application form and the successful candidate is identified on the basis of their performance in the interview.
The process is a lot more complex and drawn out when it comes to recruiting senior managers.
In most cases the recruitment process is contracted out to an executive recruitment agency. Their fee is based on their ability to deliver a strong shortlist from which the council can choose from. The agency will ring people up and say “Have you seen this post? Would you be interested in getting the details, if not do you know someone who might be?” This is called headhunting.
The first time you are headhunted it is difficult not to feel flattered. However, you quickly come to realise that a lot of people are getting these calls and it does not indicate your name is being mentioned in high places for great things.
The first surprise is that headhunters most often ask you to submit a CV rather than a local authority application form. From these CVs they draw up a long list of people to be invited to an “informal interview”. This interview will be held in the up-market city centre offices of the recruitment agency – a world away from the average local authority office accommodation.
The informal interview is in fact a structured interview where you are asked the type of questions you would expect to be asked in a management interview: “Tell us a bit more about your current post and responsibilities. How would you/your team describe your management style, what are your strengths and areas for development, what do you think are the key drivers for change in local government?”
Don’t be surprised if the interviewers are two white males, the headhunter with an HR background, the other “a specialist adviser”; someone who knows something about the area of work you have applied for. The specialist adviser is most often a current or recently retired senior local government officer; a director or chief exec. They will recommend to the leader of the council/cabinet members who should be shortlisted and invited for what is most often a two-day assessment process.
Headhunters are therefore influential people. They decide who to longlist and who to put forward for the shortlist. Their activities fall outside the local authority’s recruitment and selection process. Three big recruitment agencies have the largest share of the business so you are likely to keep coming across the same individuals if you are interested in a senior management post.
It has become the norm to have a two-day final assessment phase. This can involve psychometric tests, in-tray exercises, role play, an evening event and a bumpy trip around the patch in a draughty minibus.
I quite enjoy the battery of tests and exercises, however, some people describe this as like sitting exams. Since everyone shortlisted has a degree or equivalent and most have a management qualification I am not sure how these tests help select an applicant. Most candidates think that this part of the process is not going to determine who gets the job.
However, candidates do think evening social events with elected members and partner agencies have the potential to rule you out of the running. These social events can be a formal sit-down meal at which the candidates change seats after each course so as to have the opportunity to talk to everyone or a buffet in which the challenge is to balance a plate of food and a drink whilst appearing intelligent. Such events are sometimes referred to as ‘trial by sherry’.
The secret is not to eat or drink and smile a lot.
Sometimes there is an opportunity to have a one-to-one with the chief exec or members of the senior management team. This is usually included to give you an opportunity to find out more about what it’s like to work here. Never forget that anything you say could be fed back to your disadvantage. Some people seem to delight in putting you off by telling you at this late stage how bad the budget position is or how poor the relationship is between officers and members. However, this could be just that they favour the internal candidate.
At some stage there will be a formal interview with the leader, cabinet members and opposition spokesperson and there will be the requirement to do a short presentation. This is where the decision is made by an interview panel of anything of six-12 people. A 10-minute presentation is followed by an interview that lasts no more than an hour. The presentation is a challenge; you are required to demonstrate clarity, brevity and passion. Content doesn’t seem to be as important as you might expect.
Successful candidates seem to be those who come over as confident and agreeable. Since all the candidates can demonstrate they have the experience, skills and knowledge to do the job, the senior management recruitment process is often described as a beauty parade. The final decision being based on whether you look and sound like the type of person the panel could work with.