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Choosing chiefs: outsourcing big hires keeps the process clean

Former Victoria Police chief commissioner Ken Lay’s successor will be appointed following an international executive search process, much like the one that preceded his own permanent promotion to the job in 2011.

The simple and by all reports highly successful choice to make Lay’s tenure permanent is unlikely to be repeated this time; acting chief Tim Cartwright has already said he won’t be throwing his hat in the ring. Another local contender named as a front-runner earlier this month, deputy commissioner Lucinda Nolan, has since said she may or may not apply.

The search is being managed by the Department of Premier and Cabinet, which expects to engage an executive search firm by mid February, following the completion of a “targeted competitive process” in which several firms have been invited to submit quotes. A spokesperson from the department told The Mandarin:

“The position will be advertised. The search firm will support the recruitment process by conducting a local, national and international search and making recommendations to an interview panel chaired by the DPC Secretary.

The interview panel will make recommendations to the State Government, and the successful candidate will be appointed by the Governor-in-Council. It is expected this will occur by the middle of the year.”

The selection panel may be wary of being swayed by unofficial endorsements or other factors outside of a fair, merit-based recruitment process. It was a less-than-successful experience when a selection panel led by John Brumby veered away from the reportedly preferred candidate — Englishman Ken Jones — at the last minute and went with Simon Overland. The panel was reportedly swayed by lobbying from Overland’s influential supporters and Jones was made a deputy. The arrangement proved unsuccessful.

With such a high-profile and politically sensitive role, the use of a private executive search firm gives the process an air of probity, increasing confidence in the eventual decision in all quarters. Even if a Victorian cop is promoted to the top job, the exercise of having an external firm draw up a shortlist of contenders from all corners of Australia and comparable nations is nevertheless worthwhile, to confirm the new chief has what it takes.

Obviously the choice of firm is important — as retailer Myer found out last year — but the field of contenders who can handle such a task is pretty small, just like the field of potential new police chiefs they could contact.

“In that sort of case, it’s possible that if you use a firm they might throw up somebody unexpected.”

Melbourne University management professor Bill Harley says that often, the choice to outsource an executive search is made to keep the process at arm’s length for political reasons, rather than for managerial expediency.

“It gives a picture of legitimacy, because I mean, realistically, if you think about replacing Ken Lay, there’s probably a relatively small number of people in the world who could do the job,” Harley told The Mandarin. “And, if the people who are making the decision don’t have a very good idea of who’s in the frame or can’t form a pretty good idea simply through talking to appropriate people, then I’d be surprised.

“In that sort of case, it’s possible that if you use a firm they might throw up somebody unexpected. I’m willing to accept that in some cases, it’s a sort of rational, managerial process, but I think sometimes — I would hesitate to say more often than not — but certainly sometimes, it’s a way of legitimising a decision.”

While the use of external expertise can make an executive search more objective, or at least appear that way, the responsibility for the final decision can never be outsourced. It’s also important that the head-hunter is briefed well on the requirements to ensure a diverse group of potentials is put forward, and doesn’t give anyone the impression they are the preferred choice.

Monash University public sector management specialist Associate Professor Deidre O’Neill says executive search firms have their place in public sector human resources management, but aren’t always needed.

“If you’ve got an organisation where succession management policies have been successfully implemented, then it would seem to me that you don’t always need to go through a full-blown recruitment process,” O’Neill told The Mandarin. “If you’re confident that you have some really top applicants in house, for example. If that’s not the case, then you might think it’s time to be open to the idea of bringing in someone from outside to manage the recruitment process.”

O’Neill agrees that outsourcing the search for Lay’s successor is a way of keeping the process at arm’s length due to its political sensitivity, making sure it is demonstrably thorough and impartial.

“It still doesn’t mean that they won’t cop it when the final decision is taken,” she added, “if the rank and file don’t support the appointment or if there’s some other contentious aspect to it.”

Australian National University public policy professor Andrew Podger, who led several federal departments through the ’90s before becoming Australian public service commissioner in 2002, says search firms have their place but suspects a lot of money is wasted on using them unnecessarily for routine executive appointments.

“Search firms can be helpful particularly for specialist executive jobs or other jobs where there is good reason to believe the usual suspects (internal candidates, others in closely linked agencies) present a very weak field,” he told The Mandarin by email.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated the executive search was “being run out of the Premier’s office”. It is being run by the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the selection panel is being chaired by DPC secretary Chris Eccles.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.