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Blair McPherson: How councils recruit reveals a great deal

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It didn’t start well. An informal one-to-one with the chief executive opened with him announcing his exit from the authority. He didn’t hide the fact he found the leader hard to work with. In fact the chief executive seemed like someone I could work with.

Next was an informal chat with the finance director, more akin to an interrogation. He referred to the chief executive’s imminent departure, but stressed he had a good working relationship with the leader. I got the impression he wanted to be the next chief executive.

Sandwiches and drinks with representatives of the voluntary sector followed. Some people from health asked me if I am aware of their financial problems. The cabinet member for the post introduced herself, the chief executive having already tipped me off that she is married to the leader, implying this has caused problems

The leader was doing the rounds, taking each candidate aside and asking – I assume – the same question. What do I think about a recent referendum the council conducted on a controversial proposal? The chief executive had said the advice from officers on the referendum had not been what the leader wanted to hear, with the question designed to get the right answer.

I thought the advice given by officers was sound and what I would have given. But this would clearly not be the right answer. I didn’t want a job where I had to tell the politician what they wanted to hear, but I did want this job.

My equivocal reply was that I was surprised by the outcome of the vote. In most authorities I was aware of it had gone the other way and I gave my view why. I then said the outcome here could be seen as a vote of confidence in council’s leadership. The conversation made me feel uncomfortable. Had I blown my chance even before the formal panel interview?

Unsurprisingly, the chief executive had a marginal role on the panel. It’s unusual for a rift between chief executive and leader to be so blatant, though the process does usually reveal whether the chief executive or the leader runs the authority.

It also reveals the respect the leader has for the opposition members on the panel, hinting at the level of cooperation or conflict between parties. The way the panel is chaired and the roles allocated tells you who your real boss will be: cabinet portfolio holder, leader or chief executive.

The reaction of a panel member to my presentation showed both the need to get the balance right between content and presentation, and how officers were spoken to in this authority. In a sarcastic tone the panel member asked if I had much experience in making presentations to members. I answered anyway.

Even at this level presentation skills are a lot more important than content. The panel may have several references they are expecting to hear in the presentation, but what they are really assessing is how engaging the speaker is, not how knowledgeable. The same is true of subsequent questions, hence the advice to keep it short and simple and avoid trying to impress with the depth and breadth of your knowledge.

It was disconcerting to note the body language of panel members. There was the member who smiled in a friendly, encouraging way at my answers, but they were the opposition spokesperson with no influence on the hiring decision. Another member had a pained expression, as if they didn’t approve of the question or think I should have made it through to the interview.

The leader maintained his poker face towards me but occasionally felt the need to remind the, “chatty” panel member that there were several candidates to be interviewed. And there was the panel member who appeared uninterested when others are asked their questions, as if the whole thing is a waste of time because the leader has already decided who they want to appoint.

Not all interview panels behave like this. Most are professional and business like. But a dysfunctional interview panel is a clear indication of a dysfunctional organisation. Not being offered the post may have been a lucky let off.

Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC

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