147 – ‘The Voice’ for local government. An alternative recruitment approach?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          600 words

the voice


Did any of the judges in The Voice Italy expect to see a Nun when they turned around?   Watch the linked video. My guess is, no. Would a Nun have won through normal auditions? Maybe in Italy (she won by The Voice by the way). I am not saying that she wasn’t a good singer. The question is, would she (and other winning contestants) have found their way through the first round of auditions if they could be seen by the judges as they performed?

Blind auditioning removes some of the obvious prejudices that hamper institutionalised selection processes, like television pop music. You might ask why it is potentially useful to local government.

Anyone applying for executive level positions (i.e. direct reports to the CEO) will have had some experience of the prejudices built in to the recruitment and selection process. Have you ever applied for one of these positions only to be told ‘we are only interviewing people who already hold or have held the same position elsewhere?

This is a significant barrier to any bright and capable emerging leader. It also traps organisations and the sector in status quo. It is where we are comfortable but it isn’t where we need to be.

This advice is usually provided by the specialist recruiter hired to find suitable candidates and screen them. Most councils have strict policies for recruitment that provide for fair treatment of applicants, particularly that they are evaluated against the selection criteria. These policies seem not to apply to their agents. The requirement to already have experience in the level of the position is never a criterion. Recruiters like to recommend applicants who have already held a similar role because they are more likely to receive their fee.

You might argue that it is a logical extension of the ‘suitable experience’ criterion. You could be right. But then this has become the main basis for selection of senior officers – not the other 5 or 6 criteria based around skills and ability to perform the requirements of the role.

While this is frustrating for applicants, it is more frustrating for the sector. How dynamic and responsive to changing community and customer needs can an organisation be that simply recycles other organisation’s executives? Sure, some councils must be promoting people from lower levels but this is usually done with someone from within the organisation. Again, you might say this is good for morale in providing opportunity for promotion. And it is. But it is also more likely to continue current ways of thinking and doing.

Claudio Fernández-Aráoz in his very interesting book (see this post by Colin Weatherby) says that hiring from within is the lowest risk way to hire when an organisation is performing well. It perpetuates what is working well. There is more risk in bringing in someone from outside unless the organisation is performing poorly, when it is often the best way to recruit.

Fernández-Aráoz also says that for Egon Zehnder (one of the world’s leading executive search firms), hiring people for skills and ability is more important than prior experience in a role. The world’s leading recruiter doesn’t look for people who have already done the job somewhere else. I think there is a reason for this – it is why they are the leader.

If a council wants to be a leader, maybe they should take a leaf out of his book. Try blind auditions to get past the prejudice of prior experience and find the fresh thinking necessary for change and innovation.

Fernández-Aráoz, Claudio, 2014. It’s not the How or the What but the Who – Succeed by Surrounding Yourself with the Best.