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John Dodd

John Dodd



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Thought Leadership


Private Sector Skills into Education

The 157 Group, a consortium of 30 of the UK's largest FE Colleges, recently invited Search Consultant John Dodd to share his experiences recruiting in the education sector. The key points from John’s talk are summarised below.

Across the senior education vacancies we have handled in the last two years, 65% of the successful candidates come from within the sector, most of them bringing a curriculum background. The remaining 35% of recruits come from outside the sector, instead offering a fresh perspective combined with valuable commercial skills. These private sector candidates certainly do not have all the answers, but if you can attract the right people they can add enormous value. Here we share our experiences.

What private sector candidates can bring

Broadly, there are five main benefits one can gain from this type of hire:

Commerciality – This can include knowledge of funding structures, tapping into new revenue streams, an entrepreneurial approach, the ability to sell concepts, and the ability to speak the language of employers.

Strategic Capacity – Seeing the big picture, understanding the national agenda, accommodating constant change, bringing progressive, innovative and creative challenge. Essentially, if you are lucky you can get game-changers who can shift existing paradigms.

Leadership Skills – The ability to lead by example, building teams that are collaborative, excellence in terms of communication, taking people with them.

In our book, they are the big three, but we also look for:

Quality and Standards – An unswerving emphasis on quality, so that the change-agenda is balanced with a focus on delivering excellence, and not allowing standards to slip. Meeting and ideally exceeding customer expectations is essential. Many (not all) private sector businesses have very deep customer insight techniques and methodologies.

Dexterity of Approach – The ability to flex one’s approach to fit the audience being served, be it stakeholders, shareholders, employers, customers, or staff. This political awareness is vital if the candidate is going to make a successful transition.

What makes a great leader, and what we look for

Based on Wickland Westcott’s 35+ years’ first-hand experience in this area, combined with continual reviews of the leadership literature by our team of in-house Chartered Psychologists, we prioritise the following factors:

Brain Power – Intellect, ability to analyse complex information, and make sound judgements.

Hard Work – The best leaders tend to be more industrious. They work harder and get more done. It may be possible to lead a significant organisation through times of great change whilst retaining excellent work-life balance, but we have rarely seen it done.

Emotional Resilience – The ability to remain emotionally stable and balanced, retaining clarity of thought amid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and changing government policy.

Interpersonal Warmth – Engaging with people, building relationships and showing genuine empathy. Walking towards other people, proactively building alliances.

New Ideas – Being open to new ways of working. This is not always about developing the best ideas oneself, but it typically involves spotting them, contextualising them to your environment and propagating (and crucially embedding) them across the organisation.

What is the ‘sell’ to attract private sector candidates?

What might attract the commercial hotshot - how do you hook them in?

The Ability to Make a Difference – The people you want are motivated by making a difference to an organisation, be it from an intellectual, personal growth or transformational perspective. Be aware that initially, it is likely to be your organisation (rather than the education sector per se) that is of most interest to them. Share your mission and aspirations. The opportunity for them to be empowered to deliver genuine change is central to your compelling offer. If the mandate to drive transformation is not yet fully established (for example, if they themselves will need to help create this) then you need to be honest, but equally you must be willing to sell the role and the excitement it promises.

Improving the Life Chances of Others – Once they are intrigued by the opportunity, we start to talk about improving the lives of others. Most of us have had learning experiences that were less than ideal. Good candidates can relate emotionally to this period in their lives and are motivated to improve this experience for others. If the candidate does not get energised and excited by this opportunity, then they are best left alone, as they are unlikely (in our experience) to be right for the education environment. Their heart must be in it.

A Challenging New Environment – Making the step across sectors and in particular the learning opportunity this offers, is always attractive to the right candidates. Even today, most careers stay within a specific sector and few individuals get the opportunity to make a genuine change.

The pitfalls of cross-sector moves and how to avoid them

There are two particular watch-outs when making hires of this sort – the first is that the new recruit will fail to get traction and the second is that he/she will underestimate the stakeholder complexity in their new environment.

Manage Transition and Get Traction – The transition into the new role and sector requires careful planning and management, both on behalf of the candidate and their manager within the new organisation. Proper induction is essential and should cover these well established areas :

  • Goals – Clarity in terms of objectives with clearly defined KPIs
  • Roles – Ensure they understand their own role, and those of other key people
  • Processes – Explain how information is communicated and how decisions are made
  • Behaviours – What are the cultural norms and expected behaviour patterns?

A mentor can add enormous value here, especially in helping the new recruit get to grips with the language and culture of the educational environment.

Stakeholder Complexity – The stakeholder matrix facing the joiner is likely to be more extensive, more complex and more subtle than any which he/she has been used to in their previous private sector role(s). Many (not all) private sector businesses have a relatively simple and well defined shareholder base, and clear customer channels. Learning to understand and navigate the education landscape is a vital skill and in our view new hires should be offered early help in orientating themselves for success in this critical area.

In conclusion

The advantages for bringing commercial skills into the education sector are clear, and we hope to have provided some useful steers regarding how to do this effectively. However, we must add that, whilst there are lots of benefits to bringing in outside talent, one should not underplay the pool of expertise and rare skills that already exists within the education sector. A priority for today’s leaders is therefore to identify those high-potential individuals and then:

  • Expose them to excellence
  • Give them honest and constructive feedback
  • Continually stretch them (always ‘give them a coat one size too big’)
  • Ensure they have a career plan
  • Involve them in defining, articulating and (ultimately in) delivering the mission

In our experience, in terms of sheer contribution to the cause, a star is worth 9 or 10 average performers. So recruit the best you can, steer your scarce development resources towards those who will make most use of them and remunerate your best people appropriately. We do understand that this approach may challenge the perfectly reasonable, egalitarian values of some. But in our experience, attracting and retaining high performers is a selective business. Not everyone will be (or will want to be) a star, but if you don’t have a few, you are unlikely to achieve your organisational goals, particularly when operating in a competitive environment.

If you would like to learn more about our Education Practice, please call John Dodd on 01625 508100.

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