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A diverse challenge for the sector

Written by: Steve Guest is Director of Executive Recruitment and Assessment at Solace in Business
Published on: 7 Oct 2021

When discussing senior executive recruitment assignments, one of the questions my team and I are sometimes asked is: ‘How will you ensure a diverse shortlist?’ We should be asked on every assignment.

There is much we can do to create a diverse range of candidates for our clients. Headhunting plays a key part in any senior recruitment, and being part of a wider leadership body means our network of potential candidates is unparalleled. They are our members, attend our events and have been on our leadership courses. If the talent is there, no one is better at finding it, and we continue searching until we find what an organisation needs.

We also regularly review our own approach – be it the way we advertise, the type of testing and assessment we undertake, or the approach to interviews. Everything is aimed at finding the right group of people, with the right skills for your specific place and time.

Yet we know that the diversity of our sector is linked to a wider challenge. The sector doesn’t currently have the pipeline of leaders, with the skills it needs, for the future. In that context, ensuring diversity becomes harder – but also more important.

An ageing workforce, thinned out structures leading to reduced strategic experience and senior opportunities, poorly resourced workforce development strategies and succession plans, and the absence of a sector-wide approach have all built to a crescendo over time, and have  collided with the pandemic to create a perfect storm.

The consequence is a sustained recruitment and retention problem across the sector. According to the Local Government Association, about three-quarters of councils in England have reported problems with recruitment and retention. Our own Solace survey found that a third of local authority chief executives and senior managers do not currently have enough staff with the appropriate skills or qualifications to run services to an acceptable standard. They said the two biggest issues regarding recruitment and staff retention are a lack of applicants, and that they struggle to offer competitive salaries due to a lack of resource. There is a battle for talent that many councils cannot win.

And there are huge concerns about the immediate leadership pipeline with almost nine in 10 concerned about the pipeline of staff with the appropriate skills/qualifications to work in the most senior roles in the council over the next three to five years.

Perhaps most relevant to this article, a fifth of chief executives and senior managers do not believe their senior teams are diverse and representative of the community their council serves.

Solace recently commissioned an independent Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion review, to identify and better understand the reasons underlying the continuing low levels of talent from minority backgrounds in senior executive levels. The findings are informing the practical support Solace offers to both talented individuals from minority backgrounds actively seeking, or aspiring to, senior executive positions, and to local authorities seeking to improve their recruitment strategies and practices.

From a recruiter’s perspective, one of our biggest successes has been at a one to one individual support level. This support has tended to take the shape of dedicating sufficient time to offer bespoke and dedicated feedback and coaching support to individuals from minority backgrounds. It has proven to be a significant listening exercise, understanding the specific barriers and concerns candidates from minority backgrounds may have in securing senior leadership roles. This work requires personal dedication and commitment, but is already yielding results for both the candidates and us as recruiters.

Yet to scale up and have a sustained tangible impact we want to approach workforce from a sector wide perspective to avoid, where possible, the battle for talent becoming one that the sector can only lose from. In Solace’s Spending Review submission, we identified addressing the workforce crisis affecting the local public sector as one of our key asks.

We have proposed a properly resourced national workforce strategy for local government, similar to that for teachers, nurses, and civil servants, which seeks to address both short and longer-term challenges. It is imperative that this overarching strategy should include a workforce diversity and inclusion plan in order to help places develop a skilled workforce which has the breadth of skills required and better reflects the communities they serve. While we don’t reflect the UK, we can’t be the best councils we can be.

This is a generational, societal issue, only magnified following the depth of inequality laid bare by COVID-19 and shocking recent events such as the killing of George Floyd, Sarah Everard and too many others. We need to be brave and mature enough to recognise that there is a problem of which we are all a part, but also that we individually can make meaningful change happen if we want to. 

Steve Guest is Director of Executive Recruitment and Assessment at Solace in Business