The left field candidate - A risky hire in Defence and Security?

The left field candidate - A risky hire in Defence and Security?
Published: 25 November 2019

Whatever the market conditions, whether they be bull, bear or uncertain (no guesses as to our current state), the competition and demand for senior leadership talent in the Defence and Security sector persists.

Notwithstanding the recent £2.2bn Defence budget boost for the next three years, the market remains equivocal: some future programmes could be deferred, but the future military modernisation programme continues. Consequently, the Defence firms are under significant pressure to drive competitive advantage and thus pressured to acquire and retain the best possible talent.

Brand and domain knowledge have been key characteristics for successful Defence contracting over the years. Both remain substantial, but as sales cycles become more complex and margins are squeezed, primes and SMEs are seeking to acquire alternative working styles in their talent armouries.

Job types in Defence and Security are diverse, though the core demand for leadership talent sits in:

  • Commercial/Business Development
  • Engineering/R&D
  • Operations
  • Programme Management

These four capabilities comprise 91% of our assignment portfolio since early 2018.

The default of luring ‘like for like’ talent from a competitor is habitually seen as the low risk option. However, with the pace of innovation, the need for operational excellence and commercial complexity across the supply chain, the decision to hire talent with requisite skills from outside the sector can provide a competitive advantage.

As head-hunters, all conversations with clients now lead to the topic of diverse shortlists; the emphasis being gender and ‘BAME’, both of which Berwick Partners has a strong track-record in delivering. Increasingly however, the conversation evolves to that of hiring from alternative markets, and whether there is an appetite to hire left field candidates. The risk is a lack of domain knowledge, but the advantages include:

  • Diversity of thought - creativity
  • Commercial agility
  • Injection of change
  • Cost effectiveness – candidate often take a pay cut to change sector

In the last year we have supported several clients who have expressed a real need to hire a left field candidate and have taken the risk. Examples include:

  • DSTL hired the CEO and COO from Telecoms/Communications
  • QinetiQ hired a Campaign Lead from Oil & Gas
  • L3 Harris TRL (Cyber/EW) hired its Engineering Director from Civil Aviation

All these hires have successfully adapted to their new companies and have mentioned their initial challenges being domain related.  The support from their requisite boards and senior management teams, however, has been the decisive success factor. The diversity of thought and experience these individuals bring is starting to reap rewards, driving commercial benefit and improved operational excellence.

Similarly, many of our clients consider hiring a ‘step-up’ candidate; someone who can develop into the role. In these instances, the risk to hire these profiles is far greater, as the necessity to hit the ground running is often the priority.

What is clear is that there is always a risk in hiring a left field candidate. However, providing you have the courage and the initial onboarding, support and guidance in place, there is every opportunity the left field candidate can make a significant impact across your organisation, in even more ways than you had originally envisaged.

James Blackwood specialises in leadership appointments in Defence and Security and his clients include blue-chip companies, family owned businesses and SMEs. For more information, please contact him on +44 (0)207 529 3957 or at james.blackwood@berwickpartners.co.uk

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