HE Executive Recruitment – What’s HR Got To Do With It?

The below article featured as a UHR blog.

It sounds simple doesn’t it, people who are good at their job should get promoted. This might seem obvious and straightforward, but just how do we measure what it means when we say someone is ‘doing a good job?’

We all know that performance is not just about measuring what people do, it is also about understanding how they do it. We also know, through painful experience, how difficult it is to develop and implement consistent and effective performance management processes. The challenge seems difficult enough when trying to consider and evaluate the performance and potential of internal candidates, but when making such a judgement about an unknown external candidate it is even trickier.   

How can you test the quality of someone’s leadership experience – asking for x years of experience tells us nothing about how effective they have been. They may for example have just been repeating the same mistakes year after year, been resistant to learning and responsible for many employee relations cases. How can this be tested effectively and what is HR’s role and contribution to senior recruitment and selection? Inevitably this will vary between institutions but shockingly despite all the available research on defining and assessing leadership and management, it is still the case that the role of HR in HE is still largely about administrative tasks. 

What has changed in our approach to recruitment and selection over the last few decades? 

If we are honest, we would probably agree that the answer is not much. Most of us still struggle to move away from an almost complete reliance on an hour-long large panel interview. Sure, we might include some psychometric tests and some stakeholder discussion groups, but inevitably it will be candidates’ performance in front of the formal interview panel that determines the decision.            

If we believe that appointing people to senior leadership positions is one of our most important responsibilities, then should this not be something we devote more time and effort to?     

As a former HRD in HE I know just how busy and pressurised life in HR can be. However, the cost and potential reputational damage of making a poor hiring decision is huge for both the institution and the individual.          

Recruitment is not an exact science of course; it takes time for applicants to get a sense of a university and for us to get to know them. Being absolutely clear about what you are looking for from the start is critical, as is being honest about the challenges and opportunities that the role holder will face.  

HR needs to resist pressure to get campaigns started quickly without a period of reflection to think through what is really needed, what the current context is for the role and working with the hiring manager to create an unambiguous role specification. How often does a fundamental role review really happen it still seems more common to undertake a quick cut and paste from the previous documents. In life we recognise that most activities are better with some planning, as Benjamin Franklin said ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail’.   

As the need for more diverse and inclusive leadership in HE becomes ever more critical, now surely is the time for the recruitment and selection to move to the very top of our strategic priorities. The risks of making a poor hire are too great not to do give this dedicated thought and attention. Be brave and raise the bar, you could be surprised how much better and more diverse your candidate pools become.    

Jayne Billam, Principal Consultant, GatenbySanderson; Jayne will be hosting the “Searching for HR” workshop (BC3) at this years’ UHR Conference.

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