Fire Knowledge Director Andy Fry reflects on the leadership challenge being created by the current exodus of experienced senior officers from fire and rescue services.
Since leaving Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service four years ago and starting work as a consultant, I have regularly been engaged to assist fire authorities in recruitment processes for senior roles.
During that time, I have seen the executive recruitment market become increasingly difficult – particularly where authority members are keen to attract high quality applicants from other services or sectors beyond fire and rescue.
Whilst it is essential for workforce planning strategies to focus on developing home grown talent to support effective succession planning, it is equally important for senior leadership roles to be competed for by external applicants. Striking an appropriate balance between leadership continuity on the one hand, and the periodic introduction of new and diverse thinking on the other, is a centrally important ingredient in building high-performing senior leadership teams.
So, even with the best will, and most effective internal talent development processes in the world, it will still become necessary at times and, in my view, non-negotiably important for authorities to attract high quality external applicants who can compete on a level playing field when senior vacancies become available. Achieving this, however, has become far from easy and requires genuine commitment, focus and open-mindedness, along with proactive recruitment campaigns and comprehensive selection processes.
From my experience, there are various reasons why this is now the case:
- The sheer number of strategic managers retiring from fire and rescue services is progressively and significantly shrinking the pool of those within the sector who have the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to take on senior roles
- For those who do have the necessary attributes, it has become a candidates’ market, resulting in people being less inclined to pursue opportunities outside their own services, unless they consider them to represent a really strong ‘fit’ – both with professional aspirations and personal circumstances
- High potential senior officers who are relatively early in their careers are reticent to take on the demands of the most senior roles for fear that doing so will place them in a high pressure environment for many years, and destabilise their work/life balance The financial disincentive associated with significant tax charges being generated for those on the Firefighters’ Pension Scheme, when they receive pay rises on promotion to senior positions
- For potential applicants from outside the sector, a perception that ‘glass walls’ have been erected in the way opportunities are advertised and selection processes constructed.
As a result, if you are serious about opening opportunities up to external candidates, it is no longer a sensible option to simply advertise positions on the NFCC website, expecting that doing so will generate a strong field of candidates. Chief officers and fire authority members are increasingly recognising the need to take a far more sophisticated approach. Whether managing senior recruitment in-house, or engaging the support of independent specialists, this should involve a number of sequential steps:
- Producing a Role Profile and Person Specification that meets the specific needs of the service
- Developing and advertising the employment package such that it presents as an appealing proposition for as diverse a group of candidates as possible
- Designing and delivering a selection process that will gather rich evidence about the suitability of candidates in an inclusive way
- People who really understand the fire and rescue landscape proactively identifying and engaging with potentially suitable applicants who may be interested in the post, to enable them to assess the strength of their ‘fit’ from as well-informed a position as possible
- Putting in place post-appointment support to ‘match’ successful candidates with appropriate mentors and/or coaches and other professional development opportunities.
At a time when it is arguably more important than ever to have senior roles occupied by really high-calibre individuals, the fire and rescue sector is wrestling with the challenge of meeting unprecedented demand with a supply of outstanding leaders. In order to meet this challenge and take advantage of opportunities to increase diversity when doing so, an emphasis on attracting talent from beyond organisational and sector boundaries has to become a strategic talent management priority for all fire and rescue services.
Fire Knowledge Director Andy Fry OBE
Andy is a former Chief Fire Officer and served at that level in both Suffolk and Royal Berkshire over a ten-year period. He then spent two years as the Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor to the Welsh Government and HM Inspector of Fire Services in Wales. As a full-time consultant, Andy now works with UK and overseas government departments, as well as other public and private sector clients, to provide a full range of performance improvement consultancy support.