Kim Thomas
May 17, 2021

Recruiting people from atypical backgrounds is not always a smooth process. Michael Dobson should know: as head of the central government practice at executive recruiter GatenbySanderson, his job is to seek out the best people for a leadership role, regardless of the sector they’re currently in.

He cites an example of a candidate he hired from a commercial background to a senior leadership level in defence: “It took him six months to learn the environment – the acronyms, the labels, the initials – and he called me probably monthly for the first six months, asking, ‘What have I done? Where am I going?’ But after that, it all clicked: “He was able to translate some of the commercial experience he’d had into that public sector environment and make a real difference.”

Sectors such as the civil service and higher education have a reputation for playing it safe when hiring, but this caution means they can miss out on excellent candidates, says Dobson.

Jenny Liebenberg’s career path demonstrates the benefits for employers of casting the net a bit wider.

Brought up in South Africa, she began her working life in a communications role for a civil engineering firm. After moving to the UK in 2002, she continued working in communications, first for the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner and then for the main civil service. Switching for a while to a policy role in the Ministry of Justice, she then retrained as an HR specialist. These days, Liebenberg is director of people, culture and skills at the Money and Pensions Service, an arm’s length government body created in 2019 that helps people access the information they need to make the right financial decisions.

Her own success at switching careers has made her receptive to bringing people from different backgrounds into the organisation. “It’s the skills we have that enable us to choose to do different things. It’s about breaking down what you’re good at. I know that I’m really good at asking probing questions and taking complex information and making it quite simple, and getting to the heart of what motivates people. That works really well for me in HR, but equally it worked really well for me in comms and in policy work.”

The recognition that skills are transferable across careers informs her approach to recruiting leaders for the Money and Pensions Service. Liebenberg works closely with GatenbySanderson, and a major part of her requirement is that “they go out as far and wide as they can” in their search for talent.

When the Money and Pensions Service is looking for new leaders, it asks for five key competencies (leadership, stakeholder management, technical knowledge, culture change and strategic mindset). Hires with these competencies could come from a wide range of backgrounds, says Liebenberg: “It opens up the market and the possibilities.” The key requirement, however, is that recruits should share the organisation’s values. Working together, the Money and Pensions Service and GatenbySanderson have developed a psychometric test that assesses how closely the potential hire’s values fit with that of the organisation.

It’s important that people coming from different sectors are given the support they need to flourish. Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images

Dobson says he prefers to think about the kind of individual who could perform a particular role rather than the sector they should come from: “It’s more about looking at those core experiences, so they have to have done X, Y and Z, as well as their behavioural fit, rather than that they need to be a financial director in a FTSE 100 or in the Treasury.” Recruiting a transformation director, for example, would entail asking questions about how effective they are at leading large teams and at taking staff with them through the transformation process.

The resulting “diversity of thought and diversity of experience” can, says Dobson, add real value to an organisation. That’s certainly been the case at the Money and Pensions Service, where a commitment to open-mindedness about new hires has led to having a mix of senior leaders who have come from the civil service, the debt sector and the third sector. It has also resulted in diversity of protected characteristics such as sex and ethnicity – it is one of the few employers that can boast of having a small gender pay gap in favour of female colleagues.

Successful applicants who change sectors or roles will need support, however. “If you land in a role on day one and you’re just left on your own, then it’s an incredibly complex thing to navigate and get to grips with,” says Dobson. “Induction support and that continuous learning journey are critical to making it land successfully. We offer a programme of support to appointees six months into their role to help with their transition into the role.”

Liebenberg believes that identifying and nurturing people’s strengths are key to making the process work. She has benefited from good mentoring and now aims to be “a good mentor and coach to other people”. Her advice to other employers recruiting senior leaders is “to think about what is at the heart of your organisation. Look for people who share those values because people who share the same values will not necessarily have the same background – quite often they don’t.”

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