Psyched up for CEO search

The business

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) was created in 2001 from the merger of 72 Training and Enterprise Councils, which were part of the Department for Education and Skills, and the Further Education Funding Council.

The LSC’s mission is to transform the education of people aged over 16. It aims to achieve this by acting as a broker between employers and educational establishments. It works with businesses to discover the skills that are needed, and then provides funding to colleges to run courses that will provide those skills. It has 4,000 staff – 90 of whom are in the HR department.

The challenge
David Russell, national resources director, recalls that, by 2003, the LSC had run into difficulties. “We lacked leadership throughout the organisation and so were merely maintaining, rather than transforming, post-16 education,” he says. “Businesses didn’t feel we understood their needs, and various lobby groups were making their disappointment at our performance known to government ministers.”

He points out that the first chief executive, John Harwood, did an excellent job of managing the largest ever public sector merger, and establishing a new organisation. Russell believes that Harwood coped admirably with having 47 local directors and seven national directors reporting directly to him. Harwood retired in 2003, leaving the LSC with the job of finding a new leader to take it forward.

The solution
In April 2004, the LSC placed advertisements in the national press and then hired Veredus, a firm of recruitment consultants, to help it reduce the 60 applications to a shortlist of six.

“Most of our applications had been from the public sector, but some on the shortlist were private-sector candidates. We found it hard to evaluate them because their experience was so different from that of the public-sector candidates,” Russell says.

He brought in business psychology firm OCG to conduct interviews with the candidates. In these interviews, the psychologists prompted candidates to discuss their childhoods, early careers, emotional relationships, fundamental motivations, and other personal issues.

Russell and his panel then used the reports from these psychological interviews to structure the questions they asked in two subsequent, more traditional interviews.

“We had used other occupational psychologists before, but found their reports to be formulaic and of little real help,” he says. “By contrast, OCG gave us a more in-depth and individualised picture of each candidate. We felt we really knew the candidates well. We got underneath what they were telling us so we could understand what they were really all about.” The cost of using OCG, he says, was a small part of the total budget.

The outcome
In July 2004, the LSC offered the chief executive’s job to Mark Haysom, and he began work in October 2004. It was a radical step because Haysom had no experience of working in education or the public sector.

He was, in fact, a journalist who had risen to become the managing director of Trinity Mirror, a regionally-devolved media organisation.
Haysom has transformed the LSC, according to Russell. “He established a regional structure, with nine regional directors reporting directly to him, and he cut the size of the head office, shifting the centre of gravity out to the regions. This, together with his leadership style, has had a remarkable effect. Our 2003 staff attitude survey made painful reading, but the 2005 version is showing marked improvements. Employees now feel the organisation is going somewhere,” Russell says.

The selection process was such a success that it was also used to recruit the nine regional directors. “Using this process helped us get the right combination of management styles on the board, with a mix of extrovert and introvert, creative and systematic,” Russell says.
“It has created a strong and effective leadership team. Remarkably, not one of the 13 members of that team has left since it was established 18 months ago.”

Employee perspective

Margaret Coleman joined the LSC during its formation in November 2000. In Decem-ber 2003, she was appointed regional director for Yorkshire and the Humber, and as part of that selection process, she was interviewed by psychologists from OCG.

“Beforehand I wasn’t sure about it. I thought my talents were surely more relevant than my family background. But it turned out to be more of a conversation, an opportunity to make sense of how I tend to relate, right from childhood, through to managing a team.”

In fact, she was so impressed that she has used the process to hire two senior members of her team, and has engaged the interviewer as her executive coach.

Learning points for HR
Russell has this advice for anyone faced with the task of hiring a new chief executive: “Remember that it’s the most important recruitment decision you’ll make, so be prepared to invest your time. Get the right consultants, and consider psychological profiling. It might seem intrusive and strange at first, but we found it to be money very well spent.”

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