Internal v. external District Chief Executive appointments – better the devil you know?

Published: 2 September 2013

There has been a recent trend in the private sector for companies to hire internal candidates over externals when replacing their Chief Executive. The US management consultancy firm Booz & Co have been tracking the hiring of Chief Executives in the world’s largest 2,500 private sector companies for 13 years. Over the last couple they have seen a large percentage of both planned and forced Chief Executive appointments going to the internal candidate – in some years on 8 out of 10 occasions in high performing organisations. Is this a trend we are likely to see in our Town Halls? Nick Cole, a Consultant in the Public Sector Practice at Berwick Partners and a specialist in District Council Chief Executive appointments, offers some thoughts from his own experience on the debate.

The challenge for the internal

Being an internal candidate for a District Chief’s job is a double-edged sword. You’re a known entity but then again you’re a known entity. You have a track record and you’re well-liked by Members and staff. The issues are, can they picture you as their new Chief Executive and can you honestly see yourself making that step up to the top job at this moment in your career? As the Chief you will expect to be trusted a advisor, crystal ball gazer, protector for the Leader, lawyer (oh and accountant, town planner, etc). Have you got the full range of experience and service exposure that will be needed to maintain strategic oversight with the occasional deep dive into every conceivable Council service? If not, go and get it; this may mean a sideways move.

How to present

If you do go for the job, perception is everything. You must think yourself into the role and throughout the appointment process present yourself to Members in a way that will convince them that you as the Chief will be very different to you as a Corporate Director. What are those ideas you’ve had over the years that you will bring if you get the top job? How will the Council look under your leadership? How will you look? How will your behaviour, presentation, language and leadership style differ – if at all? How will staff feel about you if your behaviour changes? How will you feel if you have to make difficult decisions that effect people with who you’ve worked with for many years? You must think these questions through seriously before putting yourself forward. Also, don’t forget to blow your own trumpet. If it was you that got that new leisure centre built and you alone – say it – not all Members of the Appointments Committee may know.

The external – making up the numbers?

I once heard a recruiter say that in any appointment process there are only two winners – the candidate who gets the job and the first candidate to withdraw from the process – everyone else is making up the numbers. I disagree. When I take a brief for a District Chief the opening question of “what are you looking for” is always met with the same response from Members whether it’s on the South Coast or the North of England – “the best we can possibly get”. Seeing the widest range of talent from a range of backgrounds and environments is essential for Members to make the right appointment. They always want to see externals.

Make sure you know as much as the internal

Do your homework before applying. Recruiters can spot the most credible external candidates from the questions they ask. “What kind of Chief do they want?”. “How up for change are they?”. “What’s the Leader like?”. “What’s keeping Members up at night?” If there isn’t the fit between Members’ ambitions and ways of working and yours - don’t apply.

If you are called to interview - research, research, research! One of the best District Chief candidates I ever knew walked into a Council Office in jeans and a T-shirt the week before his Member interview, said that he was moving to the area and wanted some help. His personal experience of the staff, services and feel of the Council formed the basis of his presentation throughout the assessment and selection stages.

Be bold, be innovative. Talk to people you trust who know the authority and have a clear value proposition for your candidature.

Are you sure you want the job?

If the move involves a major relocation make sure you have visited the area and made enquiries about houses and schools. Most Districts will insist that you live within their boundaries and the Leader will expect you to be an active member of the community even when you are off duty.

My final words of advice whether you’re the internal or external applicant. When offered the job say yes and mean it. Alongside a marriage proposal it’s not the kind of question that should be asked unless the answer is already known. If there’s any doubt in your mind you shouldn’t be applying.

Nick Cole is a Consultant in the Berwick Partners Public Sector and Not for Profit Practice. He has a generalist remit which covers local government, housing, health and publicly funded bodies. Prior to joining Berwick Partners he was at Tribal as a Consultant in the Local Government Search Practice and led on numerous appointments across a range of functional areas. He also had five years at public service outsourcer Capita in sales and marketing roles in both the management consultancy and recruitment process outsourcing businesses. His early career was with Robert Walters and Michael Page in temporary and contract recruitment in both their finance and legal public sector practices. Nick was educated at Bristol University and graduated with an honours degree in English Literature. He is also trained in the use and interpretation of the Wave profiling instrument and Leadership Judgement Indicator.

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