Misfits and weirdos – high-risk hiring strategies

20th February 2020
Elizabeth James
Partner & Head of Practice

Misfits and weirdos – high-risk hiring strategies

Dominic Cummings’ blog post on January 2nd put the cat amongst the pigeons of recruitment orthodoxy, With a call to arms about furnishing Downing Street with the talent to fix “some profound problems at the core of how the British state makes decisions”; it was effectively a shout-out to talented individuals from a range of sectors and backgrounds. Whilst press coverage of recent appointments has been less than glowing (which this article will not discuss), in an age of vast technological and cultural change, it is worth unpicking some of his thoughts and discussing the merits of such a strategy.

I have written in the past about culture and fit in the workplace, and Cummings’ post undoubtedly demonstrates a drive to do things differently. Putting aside the phrase “gender identity diversity blah blah,” his desire to attract true cognitive diversity is refreshing and certainly echoes the extent to which our clients are embracing difference, albeit in a more structured manner.

The roles that he seeks to fill equally resonate with demands that we see within the job market. Data, AI, computer science and project management are huge work streams across virtually every sector, and at present, demand ultimately outstrips supply, particularly for the brightest and best.

The way that companies set out their stall to prospective employees is often highly nuanced, using tools such as benefits (free on-site gym, anyone?), flexibility (plentiful home-working, hours to suit) and career progression (CPD and sponsored further qualifications). Indeed, the phrase “employer value proposition” (EVP) is now bandied around with a frequency that I wouldn’t have anticipated five years ago.

Cummings certainly sets out an EVP, but it is somewhat different to that which you might normally see. He is completely transparent about the nature of the hours, the impact on candidates’ social life, office politics being a no-no, some of the work being boring and, indeed, the fact that everyone needs to be ‘VERY clever’.

Of particular note is his reference to Downing Street’s USP (you will be involved in things at the age of 21 that most people never see”), the nod to the press coverage of his own character (“by definition I don’t know what I am looking for but I want people around No10 to be on the lookout for such people”), and a play on the public perception of the metropolitan liberal elite (“people in SW1 talk a lot about….” and “people who never went to University and fought their way out of an appalling hell-hole”). Certainly, these don’t feel like the sorts of jobs that Chris Addison’s character Ollie in ‘The Thick of It’ would apply for, which is precisely the outcome he seeks.

In the blog, Cummings doesn’t shy away from setting out what he wants and why he wants it, which is fundamentally a good thing in that it doesn’t oversell or overpromise. However, there are questions that link back yet again to the question of “fit” which go unanswered.  It states that “I’ll bin you in weeks if you don’t fit”, yet equally it speaks to individuals who are by definition ‘disruptors’ who will fully embrace the ethos of not “controlling the narrative” and eschewing “the comms grid.”

This brings us to the crux of the matter; what is ‘good fit’ and what is ‘bad fit’ when you are seeking to attract talent that hitherto you have not needed, at a time when your organisation is going through tremendous amounts of change? Without being churlish, defining what “fit” means and making sure everyone understands it helps to ensure that any given organisation has the right people in the right place at the right time.  Perhaps Downing Street has the capacity to “bin” people after merely weeks, but most businesses I work with would struggle with this from a resource perspective.  Hence they get their hiring right first time via tried and tested means.

But does this compromise the extent to which organisations can attract cognitive diversity?

In my view; possibly.

If we are not alive to how society, the environment and subsequently the economy develops then we run the risk of not appreciating precisely what we need from new hires.  Adapting to that change is an iterative process and businesses need diverse voices to understand what is happening and react accordingly. It is surprisingly hard to attract those thinkers if you use the same messages to the candidate market month in, month out and your proposition does not position you in an accurate light.

In conclusion, Cummings has ripped up the rule book of how to hire people.  Certainly, he is in a highly visible position which means that his ‘reach’ into candidate markets is easier than for most other employers.  Yet even so, the candid nature of his message and the extent to which he is personally present within the communiqué is novel and has captured attention. The scrutiny that is rightly placed on Downing Street will enable us to observe progress, and who knows; there could well be further food for thought concerning the pursuit of true cognitive diversity.

For more information please contact Elizabeth James, Partner and head of the Education Practice at Berwick Partners, specialising in recruiting academic and professional services leadership appointments across the Higher Education sector.

Categories: Education