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Blair McPherson: The unorthodox stage of senior manager recruiting

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For those applying to senior management posts in local government, there is usually a stage before member interviews: a shortlisting process, run by management consultants.

Head hunters and recruitment consultants make their money by being able to put together a strong, attractive shortlist for members to choose from. The head hunter has asked around and your name has come up. They ring you up, flattering you to get you to apply.

Once they have your application and have confirmed you look good on paper, they need to check out you interview well. They may have a specific brief from the council leader, a particular challenge the post holder must address or a mandate for an amenable candidate, given that in the recent past member-officer relations have not been good.

Interviews by the management consultancy recruitment agency are usually done by a panel of two, one a current or recently-retired local authority chief executive or director.

The style is informal, but the conversation can be disconcerting. The interviewers like to be a little unorthodox to see the real you. Rather than ask questions they start a discussion, potentially making controversial statement to see if you will challenge them.

They may also aggressively challenge what you say to see if you will stand up for yourself and robustly defend your position. Alternatively, they may be testing you to see if you can pick up clues about what’s expected, and your willingness to be conciliatory.

To give a personal example, I was once interviewed by an authority chief executive acting as a management consultant for a recruitment agency. He was shortlisting for a director’s post. He repeatedly encouraged me to criticise my current chief executive, referring to him by his first name and claiming to know him well.

He wanted me to confirm that the county council I worked for was not as innovative or well run as my chief executive would have his colleagues believe. He claimed to have heard that officer-member relations were strained, and that the treasurer had left over a big outsourcing contract.

He asked about the financial position and level of cuts being considered for next year. It was all done in a chatty style, but it felt inappropriate and made me feel awkward.

I must have conveyed my distaste for type of conversation – I didn’t make it to the next stage. I’ve no way of knowing if this was a legitimate way of testing my loyalty and discretion, or an attempt to establish if I was one of the boys.

Another time I was interviewed by a recently-retired director, employed as a recruitment management consultant. He would ask a question then answer it himself, leaving me wondering how to respond. I got the impression he was trying to impress his colleague rather than test my knowledge and experience.

This was frustrating, especially when he interviewed me again a few weeks later, this time with a different colleague. Again he used the opportunity to talk about his experience and his views, leaving little space or time for my input.

On this occasion I made it through to the next stage. Maybe they were testing my ability to be a respectful, receptive and responsive audience. Who knows?

I’ll end by mentioning a final instance, this time with a surprising focus on my media experience. In my current job, it was asked, did I give interviews to journalists? Did I have experience of radio phone-ins? And had I been interviewed on local TV?

I was even asked to do a role play of an interview in which I was to explain (and defend) some unpopular budget cuts. I guessed that in this post it would be the officer, not the cabinet portfolio holder, who would be fronting unpopular council proposals!

Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC

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