Shedding light on talent tactics

Last year’s president of the Society of Personnel Offices in Government Services (Socpo) Alan Warner has recently taken over the reigns as the group’s talent management lead from predecessor Andreas Ghosh.

Warner, who is also director of people and property at Hertfordshire County Council, is well qualified to take this role having featured in Personnel Today’s Top 40 Power Players 2005 for being a ‘beacon of best practice in the public sector’ on the back of the award-winning fully-integrated recruitment service, which is expected to save the council £3m.

Warner finds juggling his role at the council with his duties at Socpo works well.

“Both roles are complimentary,” he says. “I’ve really focused on talent management at the council and this has helped me focus Socpo’s efforts too.”

Warner says that he will be trying to break the mould once more in his new role. “I’m trying to establish a way forward that is practical and changes the way people look at public sector organisations,” he says. “We want employers to identify talented people working in organisations and help lead them up through the organisation.”

His first initiative as head of talent management is to spearhead new research, due to be published in a report in February 2006, aimed at challenging the way public sector employers think about talent management and how far they will go to identify outstanding staff. Warner hopes the research will help equip employers with new ways to recognise potential talent.

“Employers need to start thinking about talent management in a way that goes further than looking at competencies – I feel we’re starting to drown in lists of competencies. What we want to find out is: what is it that makes some people better at their job? I have a working title of ‘Magic Dust’ for this research at the moment,” he says, laughing. “Just what is it that makes some people stand out? We need to try and get a sense of what it is about some people that can mean they turn into a superstar. This is what I’m trying to help organisations recognise.”

However, at the same time Warner is trying to debunk the myth that talent management is just about looking at future leaders. “It’s about making sure everyone at all levels works to the top of their potential,” he says. Another important hurdle to clear is the hang-up some public sector employers have about championing individual employees, says Warner. He thinks there is so much emphasis on equality and fairness that employers can often feel awkward about recognising talent and singling people out. This can, he says, lead to a work culture where promotion is hard to come by.

“I wouldn’t say this is just a problem for the public sector, but it is definitely more relevant to big organisations,” he says. “Public sector employers are constantly equality-proofing and diversity-proofing their organisations. This can mean some people feel uncomfortable about selecting employees for promotion. The key is to make sure other employees understand why they are being picked. Big organisations struggle with this because of their need to treat everyone equally, but this can stop people from being picked out and helped to progress. If handled wrongly, fairness can make an organisation bland,” he says.

The launch of the report will coincide with Socpo’s second annual Public Sector Jobs Week next year – a dedicated week of media activity and publicity designed to promote a positive image of public sector employers. It aims to dispel various myths that surround working in the public sector, while providing local authorities with the opportunity to showcase recruitment initiatives.

The idea for ‘Jobs Week’ was one that Warner actually came up with while he was president of Socpo.

“The idea emerged from my own work at Hertfordshire County Council and specifically the problems we were having recruiting care workers. Geographically, we are north of London in an affluent area and so the competition for basic-grade jobs is high,” he says. “There are so many people, such as care workers, who make up a vital part of the infrastructure of the community. And it struck me that we should be promoting this.
“I got some case studies together explaining what the role of care workers and other lower-grade jobs entailed. If people actually understood what an important role these jobs offered and how vital they were to the whole community, I thought more people may want to do them.”

So the Hertfordshire Heroes campaign was born, which Warner is still running and says is continuing to create a positive response. It even has its own dedicated section of the council’s website, where people can download detailed information, including job descriptions, person specifications, case studies and frequently asked questions about roles in school catering, and working with children and adults in care.

Socpo’s Jobs Week aims to build on this idea by heightening awareness of all public sector jobs. “We’re trying to give people more information about all jobs across the sector, as people just don’t understand what these jobs involve. For example, nurses and teachers are doing such important jobs, but there is no explanation given to the wider public about what it is they really do. It’s about changing the reputation of public sector jobs from being low paid to being jobs that really make a difference,” says Warner.

Last year, Jobs Week involved a big commercial campaign, where bulk job adverts appeared in magazines and newspapers. It was also delivered in partnership with the Employers’ Organisation, the NHS and the Civil Service. Next year it will be building on this and hopefully create more media attention by showcasing the results of Warner’s talent management research.

“This is the first time the public sector has done something about recruitment problems collectively. It’s about filling vacancies, but also about increasing awareness of the vital work going on within the sector,” he says.

So is Warner confident that Socpo can turn around the public sector’s fortunes and boost recruitment in some of the hard-to-fill roles? “It will be difficult and it does require us to think differently, but improvements can be made,” he says. “There is an esteem problem in the public sector, especially with lower paid jobs. We need to change this mindset. There are people out there who want to do something they enjoy, but can also accept that they will not become rich doing it. We need to provide more information so we can reach these people. I’m not sure if I could do a lot of these jobs, but the key is that there are people out there who can do them brilliantly, we just need to find them,” he says. 

Alan Warner’s CV

  • 1998- : Hertfordshire County Council, director of people and property
  • 1986-1998: Hertfordshire County Council, senior HR roles, becoming director of personnel in 1987
  • 1979-1986: London Borough of Brent, various HR roles
  • 1974-1979: Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, HR manager

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