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Selecting a new leader: is a political appointment the best appointment?

Simon Hayward , 15 Sep 2011

Simon Hayward

The appointment of the new Metropolitan Police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, was announced this week. The appointment has caused some controversy, with some critics claiming that Hogan-Howe is a political appointment and not necessarily the best candidate for the job.

Party politics may have played a part in this appointment. But then politics often does play a part in public leadership appointments. In major public sector organisations such as the police force, the politics may be influenced by the government of the day. But in the private sector, different kinds of politics can come into play. All too often, the new CEO may be the outgoing CEO's favoured candidate, or the City's favoured candidate, or simply one of the family.

Media sources have claimed that Hogan-Howe was the preferred choice of home secretary Theresa May and London mayor Boris Johnson. Apparently, the two official panels who interviewed all four candidates both recommended Sir Hugh Orde for the job. But the home secretary has ultimate responsibility for the selection of the commissioner and is under no obligation to take the committees' recommendations on board. Perhaps Sir Hugh's public criticism of the government's proposed radical policing reforms didn't help his case.

Theresa May hailed new commissioner Hogan-Howe as a "tough, single-minded crime fighter" - exactly the kind of police chief many have been calling for in the wake of the recent rioting and looting. However, some within the Met claimed there were doubts about the appointment, claiming Hogan-Howe is too close to the Tories and not a skilled team builder.

It appears that the public is taking more and more interest in the appointments of prominent leaders. Public debate suggests that people are increasingly cynical about how both the public and private sectors are run. Many feel they have been lied to by politicians (particularly following the MPs' expenses scandal) and big business (particularly in the wake of the banking crisis). There is a demand for more open, honest and authentic leadership. This openness, honesty and authenticity should begin with the process of appointing a leader.

To rebuild public confidence in the appointment process for senior public roles it needs to be open, transparent and merit-based. Major leadership appointments are always going to be subject to scrutiny and speculation: organisations can help address this by providing as much information as possible and responding honestly to queries, while maintaining confidentiality where appropriate.

Stakeholders want to be assured that the leadership selection process is fair and focused on what's best for the organisation. The organisation needs to clearly communicate what it is looking for in a new leader, and explain why the leader was chosen to both employees and wider stakeholders. Clear and open communication will help others to understand and accept the decision. If stakeholders respond well to the appointment, this increases the probability of early success for the new leader.

Bernard Hogan-Howe may well turn out to be the best man for the top job at the Met. It's still much too early to tell. If he is successful I suspect the public will forget any concerns about the way he was selected. But if he fails, the public will almost certainly blame politics.

Simon Hayward (pictured) is managing partner of leadership development and employee engagement consultancy Cirrus.

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