How can government avert catastrophe by appointing skilled leaders?

Government needs to make sure its recruitment practices are aligned with what it wants to achieve.

Leaders can build or destroy the organisations they are mandated to lead. Selecting a leader without the proper due diligence can invite trouble – at worst, catastrophe –  whether the organisation is a corporate business, government department or non-governmental organisation.  

Nowhere has this been more evident than the selection of the ANC’s new leadership. Their ability to fulfil the roles they have been placed into will determine whether the country can transcend its current junk status or deal with the many social issues it has been plagued by for decades.

As South Africans contemplate a future under new leadership, the country’s citizens would do well to interrogate how its leaders are selected – not only presidential candidates, but leaders at all levels of government.

For any organisation to succeed, it must have the right recruitment practices in place. A bad leader can corrupt an amazing team or compel the good people to leave. A strong leader will either turn people around or know he or she cannot keep them in the organisation because they don’t share the same corporate culture.

Consider Woolworths, by way of example. The company has based its core values on the quality of the product it delivers to its consumers. It would not make sense to employ a leader who is only concerned about moving stock and not focused on the quality of the products. Leaders employed in the organisation need to live, breathe, walk and talk quality.

The recruitment of corporate leaders is generally a highly sophisticated process, involving a series of interviews, psychometric testing and a host of checks such as criminal, qualification, ICT and reference checks. Most importantly, when recruiting leaders, it is paramount to establish whether the person is a good culture fit for the organisation and whether they are aligned with the organisation’s value system.

Digitisation is playing an increasingly important role in the recruitment process, with many tests administered online and interviews conducted via platforms such as Skype or conferencing facilities.

There are, however, instances where organisations try to avoid what they perceive to be costly recruitment practices by bringing people into the workplace without following comprehensive processes. This can have devastating consequences for the organisation, especially if a poorly matched person is appointed to a senior management role.

The reality is corporate leaders are becoming increasingly refined. They are just as interested in how their positions will advance their careers as they are in the how much they will be earning.

Knowledge workers, in particular, are highly sought after. They are highly employable because of their skills sets. They are the type of people many organisations want to employ, but must work hard to retain. This is because knowledge workers want their own aspirations to be matched with the corporate culture of the organisation.

There are arguments in favour of employing more mediocre operators, if their values and ethos are aligned with the organisation, as opposed to those who are high achievers, but who have a contradictory value system. Because they are high performers, they may bring their own personal agendas to the workplace, creating factions within the business in pursuit of what they want out of the organisation.

This is why many organisations invest significantly in making sure they recruit the right people, especially in the current economic climate where there is immense pressure on organisations to remain profitable. They simply cannot afford to appoint people in positions that they are not qualified for.

The question is, what appointment processes do political parties follow? Often South Africans hear months or years in advance that a particular person will be the next president or minister or politician. It seems that many appointments are predetermined and not necessarily based on the best man/woman for the job or the requisite skills set or expertise.  

While it is probably true that political parties employ people aligned to their beliefs, it is less evident they are employed for having the appropriate skills to conduct their jobs properly.

When it comes to employing corporate leaders, recruiters are usually required to sit with the management team to establish exactly what type of culture fit they’re looking for, what they stand for, and how many years of experience they require from the leader they are looking for. They can get highly specific, requesting that we find someone who has at least 10 years’ experience, ideally working for one off, say, five companies they have singled out. In other words, they go to extreme lengths to find 100% what they are looking for.

If government is not recruiting the right people with the suitable skills sets and relevant experience, who are driven to serve the people – as opposed to serving themselves – then the country does not have a great chance of prospering. From a political perspective, there is even greater responsibility to recruit the right people for the available positions, because to do otherwise is to invite catastrophe. Unlike corporates, who are responsible for a much smaller set of stakeholders, bad choices by government can have devastating effects on the economy, healthcare systems, schooling and entire generations of people.

Unlike companies that need to meet the demands of their stakeholders and generate profits, government is answerable to its people, who want to prosper, receive decent medical care, schooling and other services. Like reckless trading can kill businesses, reckless behaviour by government can kill the economy. More than ever, South Africa needs to recruit excellent leaders, who are responsible, up to their tasks and in tune with the expectations of the communities they serve.

Jennifer da Mata is the Managing Director of Strata-G Labour Solutions.

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