Navigating the Internal versus External Selection Dilemma

May 20, 2020
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By Peter Tulau, Director at AltoPartners Australia

This article was first published viathe AltoPartners Australia website, to view the original article click here

I recently helped an Australian organisation navigate a selection process which included both internal and external candidates. The company had created a new global role and, in a bid, to be inclusive, had ended up with a substantial shortlist, comprising quite a number of internal and external candidates. On the face of it, they appeared to be spoilt for choice, but a long short list of this type usually means the company may need to walk a selection tightrope to get to the other side.

This role was all about the ability of the appointee to engage and lead. Relevant domain knowledge was assumed. Given this situation I turned to the Saville Leadership Styles assessment tool and encouraged the CEO, HRD and the Head of Talent, to individually rank the 18 Leadership Styles to create a framework for internal conversation and a clear picture of the ideal candidate orientation.

There was both alignment and misalignment from the choices, but when aggregated the irrelevant bits fell to the bottom, the important stuff rose to the top and a clear picture of the crucial strengths and qualities emerged. Beneficially, the Saville leadership styles also links directly to discreet organisational impact areas so assessment material and interview impressions could be evaluated.

This was a useful framework to tackle the problem of how to narrow a long shortlist respectfully, yet pragmatically in an environment where culture creation, internal messaging and executive aspiration need to be weighed up against the more commercial considerations that ultimately drive business performance.

Over the years in these types of situations (senior internals and short-listed externals) I have heard, seen and felt the following:

  • Clients getting side-tracked with internal candidates where they are tempted to tailor the role to the person, rather than the other way around.
  • Clients often include internal candidates because they believe it will send a positive message throughout the organisation that people really can forge a career there. Balanced against this are fears that the successful internal candidate might not be accepted by their old peer group (who they might now be leading) or their new peer group.

This raises the question of how to support the successful internal candidate as they transition into a senior leadership role. Having strong internal candidates also puts pressure on external candidates to be demonstrably superior in leadership capability so as to bring the team and the unsuccessful internals along with them. I have also seen internal applications used cynically, in the hope that the disgruntled employee will quit or the external person will come along and restructure the entire function.

Add to this complex mix, are the candidates’ own misgivings and aspirations. There are the cynics who don’t really want the job, but are using the opportunity to run their flag up the pole in the hope that they will be noticed or acknowledged; and the person whose ego drives them to apply, knowing full well their experience is too narrow – a factor which won’t prevent them from feeling aggrieved when their bid is unsuccessful.

Then there are the internal candidates who are committed to the organisation and feel they have paid their dues and this promotion is a logical next step for them. If this candidate loses out to an external person, a sensitive and structured debrief is essential or you will most certainly lose one of your most loyal employees – literally, or figuratively.

Equally, external candidates who sense that you are going through the motions, and that they are simply there as a foil to an internal shoe-in, will be watchful for any indications of window dressing. High quality external candidates can also become more emotionally connected to the opportunity when exposed to a rigorous selection process as it gives them the comfort of knowing that should they succeed, they were indeed the best candidate and that the organisation takes its talent acquisition seriously.

The risk of getting caught in the whirlpool of these competing needs makes walking that selection tightrope more difficult. The only way to avoid the whirlpool is to apply a disciplined approach to role definition. For this client, the key capabilities turned out to be Collaboration, Strategic Opportunism and Growth Seeking. So, whilst domain knowledge was important, it needed someone with a collaborative and a customer / commercial orientation to deliver on the roles particular requirements.

Beginning with the end in mind in this way provides a framework for organisations whereby the candidate engagement, assessment and debriefing process allows for:

  • Development and learning opportunities for aspirational internals
  • Encouragement for cynical internals.
  • Equitable process for high quality internals.
  • Firm and respectful management of entitled internals.
  • Best practice process for high quality externals.
  • Process integrity for cynical / wavering externals.
  • Strong messaging regarding career development from the organisation.
  • Antidote to fear-based decision making for the organisation.
  • Justifiable framework for messaging around the appointee onboarding process.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that is because it is. A process such as this is a commitment to quality people processes, and it makes all the difference when it comes to navigating competing interests, aspirations and ambitions. A clear process inspires confidence in the organisation and gives comfort to the candidates brave enough to throw their hat into the ring, and the professionals who have to select the best person for the role.

Peter Tulau has enjoyed a diversified career in operations and production management in industrial and process engineering environments before joining one of Australia’s largest recruitment and human services companies. Over a 25 plus year career, Peter worked across executive search and organisational consulting and led major organisational transformations in the industrial and manufacturing sectors. Peter is currently a Director with AltoPartners Australia and the practice head for the industrial, manufacturing and infrastructure sectors.

Peter Tulau
Managing Partner AltoPartners Sydney