145 – The deep web and local government recruitment.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         1100 words

deep web

Local government executive recruitment is a game. Often recruitment is not genuinely based on competence and ability. In many cases, relationships are far more important. I have heard it described as the ‘deep web’ – what you see isn’t all there is. So, how does it work?

Councils recruiting a new CEO tend to go for ‘tried and true’ or ‘shiny and new’.  I think analysis will show an alternating pattern from one to another. It is almost as though councilors become bored with their CEO, or, more likely, the CEO refuses to do what they tell them to do. Once a CEO stands up and says ‘no’, they are likely to be on the way out.

Councilors know that they can demand that a CEO does what they want – whether or not it is in their or the community’s best interests. I think that once a council has dismissed a CEO and they have a ‘taste of blood’ they are more likely to do it again and a cycle of CEO non-reappointments and appointments begins (with all the disruption this brings).

When councils are recruiting a CEO, they rely on assistance from the recruiters – companies that specialise in helping councils to recruit executives. These companies can be highly influential. I have been told that only a very brave council will appoint someone as a CEO who has not been recommended by the recruiters. They are the king and queen makers.

Once a CEO has been appointed, they typically replace their direct reports.  They seek to ensure that they have the team to deliver on the promises they made to get the top job. Again, the recruiters become invaluable, assisting the CEO to find the ‘right’ people. I have heard that the main role recruiters play is to find people the CEO’s already know for the roles available. The recruitment process is apparently independent. This is the ‘deep web’ at work.

CEO’s seem to need people they can rely on. People who are loyal to them and prepared to follow their direction so that they can implement the reforms they have promised. And they always promise reforms. After all, why would they get the job unless they had something to offer to make improvements? Surely, councils would just reappoint CEOs if they were doing what was needed.

So, when CEO’s start to look for their direct reports, what are they looking for? The evidence suggests that they are looking for low risk fealty. In practice, how does this work? Well, the recruiters receive a fee for finding the people that the CEO already knows will meet their requirements. Using the recruiters puts this process at arm’s length from the CEO. Sometimes a CEO is so new that they don’t have networks in the ‘deep web’ and they need to start ‘Googling’ the surface web for candidates. Then they rely on the recruiter’s networks.

This is another interesting insight into the culture behind executive appointments. When discussing my ambition for higher office, I have been advised to buy some services from the recruiters so that they ‘will get to know me better’. Spend several thousand dollars with them for psychometric testing and evaluation and then they will be able to recommend me. I suppose the opposite is also true – if they don’t know me they will not recommend me. Recruiters have said that they aren’t being paid enough to interview all of the people who could potentially do a job and they have to rely on more efficient ways to make selection recommendations.

You may ask, what are those ‘more efficient ways?’ The most common is to advertise a set of selection criteria and then apply more specific and different criteria. For example, selection criteria seldom say that you must have had previous experience in exactly the same role or a role at the same level in the organisation. They usually focus on the skills and abilities required to carry out the requirements of the position. However, for positions reporting to the CEO, a common reason given to applicants not progressing to interview for is that they ‘are not already at that level’. This is an easy and unaccountable way to limit the field of applicants progressing through the recruitment process.

I have often wondered why recruiters do this. The answer is complex. To begin with it enables them to efficiently reduce the field of applicants that they must analyse or interview. Less time is required. It also enables them to eliminate applicants who may ‘out-compete’ the applicants already known to the CEO. I know people who have been told several times that only the applicants currently at the level of the position are being interviewed, only to find that someone below that level has been appointed. There is very little accountability in the recruitment process at this first step. Dissatisfied applicants would have hard time raising any grievance with the process and it has usually been outsourced anyway.

Recruiters also like to reduce the field to only people who have previously done the same job because it reduces their risk. They only receive their fee if the appointed person stays in the position for 12 months. If someone is appointed who has not worked at that level, even though they may redefine the role and excel in it, they could also fail abysmally. It is much harder and takes more time to recruit people for potential than it does to recruit them for historical performance. Hence, the safe bet is someone who has already been appointed to a role at that level.

The key assumption is that past performance is a good guide to future performance. If jobs don’t change and the required performance isn’t changing, this is a useful guide. However, if the environment requires change or is becoming more dynamic, it isn’t such a useful guide. Then you need to look for people who are adaptable with a wide range of professional and life experiences. Recruiters are uncomfortable doing this because it takes more time (and their fees don’t cover It) and they may recommend someone who fails (and they get no fee).

The more you look at executive recruitment, the more you see a game where the rules are set by the risk averse to suit their goals. You don’t often see the needs of the organisation or the community put first. Whether it is CEO appointments by the councilors or the appointment of direct reports to the CEO, the rules are set by the recruiters. They win when people don’t fail. Whether they succeed is largely irrelevant.

I always think that with any investment if it is low risk it is likely to be low return.