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Recruiting executives in tough times

We are in one of the toughest periods for leadership in our modern history. If it feels that hard to you as a governance board member, or a C-Suite executive, you are not alone. By David Hammond, Executive Search Lead, Tribe.

The reality is that the world in 2024 is incredibly more complicated than even a decade ago. This isn’t just for the local government sector: this is for the commercial and public sectors, and for charities too.

Tribe is taking a very different approach to adapting to the challenges of performing leadership in 2024. Over the past 12 months we have put 120 top performing executives through the ringer to test our thinking on high-performance leadership. The aim was to double the evaluation and the validation of executives’ skills and their fit to the sector they are interested in.

The first ‘120 Report’ is coming out soon and will be free to access. But, let me give you a spoiler; we have identified eight common attributes across sectors associated with high performing leaders in New Zealand.

As I have written before in this magazine, there is a difference in strength between some of these skills in commercial versus public sectors and this upcoming report will make this clearer.

Recently, I was called by Newstalk ZB to comment on the imminent departure of a chief executive and the narrative of why they were deemed to have failed in their role. I make it clear that I am not going to get into the middle of speculation like this, where I don’t know the ins and outs of the issues. But I spoke to the reporter about the attributes of chief executives most likely to succeed in that sector and this comes off the back of the work we are doing in our assessment centre. We now have a better understanding of who will likely succeed better, and this is not just on ‘recruiter instinct’ but on solid research.

What I would say regarding the local government sector is – that amongst the eight skills that we identify in the ‘120Report’ – I work with councils on which skills (given the context) need to be ‘weighted’ more than others. This forms the basis of the head-hunting search across our country and overseas. Consistently what emerges in the public sector (and local government by extension) is that a stronger weighting needs to be placed on: Experience with a board and political acumen; strategic ability including ability to execute strategy; strength with stakeholders and other key relationships; and level of complexity in the executive’s track record.

Again, all eight skills are essential, but these four are coming out in the current climate of ‘tough times’. Chief Executive applicants need to understand the complexity and pressure that the governance environment is under, and how that translates to them and to staff.

They also need the experience with forming the trust and relationships to be able to advance difficult projects and to advocate for funding in resource constrained environment. Boards want to trust their Chief Executives, but this needs to be earned. This attribute is not generally associated with applicants wanting their first Chief Executive role, or those from the private sector.

Our public sector clients want genuine strategic expertise coming into the role, where often the board members are ‘generalists’ in the sector themselves. In the degree of complexity they are facing, they want the Chief Executive to make clarity out of disruption and assist the ‘Board with consensus over the priorities’ David Hammond, Executive Search Lead, Tribe. points toward a Chief Executive with the track-record of validated delivery results to time and budget. Applicants always think they are ‘strategic’ and this needs validating. Did they develop strategy themselves, or did they commission consultant to do the work for them?

When it comes to strength with stakeholders (and other key relationships), in the public sector they say, “the currency of Wellington is relationships” and I say that the currency of Auckland relationships is coffee. The point is – to get things done requires the Chief Executive being involved in opening doors and forming authentic partnerships with the likes of iwi and other community partners and stakeholders and ‘invest’ themselves (not just delegate to other staff). And we are looking at evidence of this strength and track-record in candidates.

Lastly, the level of complexity in the executive’s track record is a telling indicator. In the LG sector, commercial experience alone is not a strong launching point, because the drivers are often revenue based, the complexity of work is much less (local government can involve some 26 services compared to a Power Company managing only one service), and commercial companies may have more funding resources.

While this is a generalisation, I think you get the point. If the role is complex in requirements over major capital or operational transformation, we are unlikely to see that from a banking resume.

As always, I welcome the opportunity to speak with you confidentially about your needs in recruitment or advice to a Committee. If you are a C-Suite executive, we can now assess your skills and work out how strong they are compared to the market.

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