Overcoming the talent shortage in the public sector

In these challenging times the public sector needs courageous, innovative and diverse leaders, says Martin Tucker, Chief Executive at GatenbySanderson

2017 is posed to be a big year for the public sector. Whitehall has the task of overseeing and implementing Brexit, which seems to present new challenges on an almost daily basis. The NHS is at a critical juncture, local governments are trying to establish a new way of working with Whitehall, housing demand outstrips supply by a long way and almost every other sector is on the precipice of major reform. At the same time they are facing budget cuts or reductions in revenues.

To be successful the public sector needs clear vision. It needs leaders who can guide it through a period of great change. However, feedback from industry suggests there is a significant skills shortage at a senior level. GatenbySanderson analysis of search and selection executive roles, advertised across the public sector, suggests that opportunities increased by five percent in 2016. The analysis also suggests the number of senior roles advertised has increased each year for the past three years. While part of this can be explained by the trend that the average tenure of a public sector leader is getting shorter, it also highlights how the sector is looking to bring in new skills.

With the challenges the sector faces this year competition for the best talent is only going to intensify. What can public sector organisations do to help overcome the skills challenge?

Establish a clear framework for a new approach

It is clear the next generation of leaders will need more diverse skills and backgrounds, rather than fitting an established public sector mould. Our leaders must be open to new ideas and way of working – from being open to new partnerships, to changing to more flexible work practices to accommodate preferences of an upcoming millennial workforce. Experience beyond a single sector is a way to bring new life into public organisations, and an avenue to bring in those collaborative, commercial and digital skills the sector craves.

One hurdle that public sector organisations face is their rigid structure and processes, which can be detrimental to the search process. These rigid structures can suffocate new approaches to find and assess the best people to guide an organisation through periods of change. Boards and decision makers should dare to re-think their current process – from how they identify skills gaps, job descriptions, the application and selection process, and the criteria upon which candidates are being measured. As part of this we need to re-think how we assess and develop leaders, not just through the lens of organisational objectives, but specific behaviours. This extra level of detail will help deliver a leader that is not only capable of bringing about change, but can also engage teams in the process.

Understand that change isn’t always smooth sailing

New approaches need courage, however, and that requires new leaders who are brave enough to make decisions and take considered risks. Change has to be more fundamental, embedded deep into the organisation. This takes time and happens more by increments than large leaps. Those looking for more theatrical, superficial change are unlikely to cut it in the complex, challenging and highly regulated world of public services.

New approaches may not succeed the first time around. The measure of a good leader is how they learn and adapt their approach to bring about positive outcomes.

If the sector is to thrive in this period of change, we all (both as consumers of public services and those working in the sector) must applaud those who strive to improve our communities and accept that sometimes things will not go exactly to plan. Running a public sector organisation is different to managing a football team. We cannot call for the manager’s head at the first sign of adversity. We must allow our leaders to learn from the challenges to create new iterations that will lead to success. Unlike the premier league, most organisations do not have multi-million pound budgets to invest; quite the opposite, most need to innovate to cope with reduced levels of funding and increased demands. It’s no surprise in 2017 that we are seeing an uplift in both ‘transformation’ roles and ‘finance’, as organisations need to balance the books while delivering more.

This becomes increasingly difficult in the current media landscape. While increased scrutiny in the public eye is a positive move for transparency, it can also make attracting the best talent to lead public sector organisation even more difficult. Leaders must certainly be held to account, but we must also allow room for innovation – because a new way of doing things is going to ruffle a few feathers.

Final thoughts

If we live in a brave new world, we need leaders that are capable of making brave decisions. Finding these people to lead the public sector, in what is shaping up to be an even more challenging year than the last, requires a new approach from all involved. If the search is to be successful in 2017, organisations need to be clear about the skills and behaviours they are looking for and establish a framework that facilitates introducing greater talent and diversity. We must also understand that truly great leaders do not shy away from adversity or simply give up, they iterate and the overcome the challenges. However, to do this they must be given a chance.


Martin Tucker

Chief Executive





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