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Breaking the stigma of internal and external hires

Written by: Rebecca Hopkin is an Associate Consultant with GatenbySanderson’s local government executive search practice
Published on: 7 Mar 2024

Is there an internal candidate?’ This is one of the questions we are most commonly asked by senior candidates when they are considering their next opportunity. Needless to say, the answer they are looking for, is a firm negative! There is often a perception in the minds of prospective candidates that an internal person starts with an advantage and the job may already have their name on it. Should they then invest the much-needed time to apply themselves? We know from our own experience that internal candidates do not create a foregone conclusion, though understand the questions it poses for both the internal person and our external market.

Let’s look at this from each party’s perspective, starting with the internal candidate and the pros and cons of applying for a role within your current organisation. While there are the obvious advantages of being known and (hopefully) respected by the recruiting panel, incumbency means there is nowhere to hide. Most people find it harder being interviewed by people they know than strangers. Interview examples and reference points cited that are impressive and fresh to an unknown interview panel may be received more subjectively or scrutinised when given by an internal candidate to the panel. 

From the perspective of internal candidates themselves, a common reaction to an open recruitment process is to question why – especially if they are currently acting up into the post and doing it well – there is any need to look at the external market. Why look elsewhere when you have someone right here and now?

Credible internal candidates are frequently serious contenders for senior roles, with many taking a pragmatic and philosophical view of their expected success within the process.  Many candidates feel participating in a senior recruitment process is a valuable experience in helping their wider career progression, regardless of outcome (perhaps giving them the confidence to go and seek a role elsewhere if unsuccessful here). Even more common is the perception that failure to apply might indicate a lack of ambition, and/or that applying will be a good way to show a current employer they are hungry for future opportunities.

Now, let’s take a look at this from the external market’s point of view. The decision to apply for another role is not one taken lightly. There is much time, research and effort that goes into a credible application, and a key determinant of whether to apply is understanding your likely chances of success before investing so much of yourself. You put your trust in us as the executive search partner to give you a true and transparent assessment of the rest of the field. We take this responsibility very seriously.

We support you throughout the entire process, from application stage, preliminary interviews, through to final panels, often with elected members. We are committed to providing a world class service, and regardless of outcome, we will have an honest, personal conversation with you, looking you in the eye, knowing that the best person throughout the process was the successful candidate.

Having seen the inner workings of local government as an officer, it is fair to say the very best processes I’ve witnessed are those where the entire market is tested in respect of the role. Good executive search, done well, offers a significant return on investment when finding the right senior leader, who will shape an organisation for the better: my own lived experience has witnessed this transformative change.

From a client perspective, internal candidates can present hiring panels with a challenge. What signal will it send if we do not interview our own people? And what signal will it send when they do? Here is where our advice is invaluable.

Working in partnership with our client organisations, we help navigate the complexities and nuance of internal candidate management. Do we get a sense that recruiting managers are worried about disrupting existing good relationships? Might they be avoiding a difficult conversation advising that the internal is not ready yet? Do they (a pet hate of mine) want to give the internal ‘a test run out’ and exposure to an executive search process? It is our responsibility to seek and deliver a fair recruitment process for all – period. Equally important, we act as independent advisors supporting all those involved in the process. We can offer sage advice to those not ready yet, or guide and mentor qualified internals through what can be a rather nerve-wracking experience.

Managing unsuccessful internal talent, post process is often neglected. It is important that, if not appointed, internal applicants know there is a pathway to other opportunities, otherwise they may feel they have no option but pursue external roles elsewhere. With talent pools already tight, talent retention is a priority, and organisations should feel free to lean into the support and knowledge we offer in terms of leadership development and market insight. 

One of the most important elements in running the process is that all candidates, whether internal or external, should receive the exact same treatment throughout. We do not assume that internals already know the role, know the key attributes deemed most favourable by the recruiting panel, nor how to successfully navigate an executive search process – particularly those taking on the role for the first time. We hear from our candidates that the end-to-end support we offer makes all the difference and is hugely beneficial to their development. This is particularly true of the honest and open feedback we provide.

Our advice to anyone considering a role, whether internal or external is do not talk yourself out of an opportunity based on a perceived outcome that you have already written. We can point to multiple examples of senior leaders choosing not to pursue a role for this very reason, only to instantly regret that decision when another external candidate is appointed. Equally, internal candidates appointed can be secure in the knowledge they have been rigorously assessed in line with all other applicants and were the best person for the role.

So whether you are considering a move inside or outside of your organisation, reach out to your consultancy team as we hold a huge amount of industry knowledge, client insight, and you can expect unbiased transparency, support and guidance. Ultimately, our role is to serve our client organisations and the wider local government sector, to ensure the best person is matched to the right job.

Rebecca Hopkin is an Associate Consultant with GatenbySanderson’s local government executive search practice