HS2 are yet to find a successor to Chairman Allan Cook. Cook announced his decision to leave in February. With speculation that the timing would allow a new chair to be in post for the critical tunnelling phase.
Yet, the first two tunnel boring machines are now whirring away. Cook has cleared his desk. And the client body could only say this week that a process to appoint a successor was ‘underway’.
It’s important not to underestimate the difficulty of recruiting senior Non-Executive roles.
These jobs are attractive on paper and might generate a high level of publicity and interest. But the challenge lies in tracking down someone who can do the job well and isn’t conflicted from doing it by their other commitments.
So what should you look for in a Non-Executive Director or Chairman?
1. An ability to oversee a heavyweight executive team
A Non-Exec has to provide oversight and advice, keeping abreast of complex issues and providing challenge to the executive team in the right way. On the HS2 board Chief Executive Mark Thurston has held senior positions on Crossrail and the 2012 Olympics build. Along with CFO Michael Bradley whose 25 years in the industry include leading 11,000 people at an offshoot of the MoD.
Any NEDs need to hold the board to account and make suitable decisions. This means candidates having worked in relevant executive roles themselves and ideally also being an experienced NED.
2. An understanding of the sector of operation
Non-Execs also offer guidance on how organisations can become more effective. This relies on significant understanding of the issues an organisation is grappling with.
Facing a particular challenge such as moving into a new territory, floating a company, working with government, or handling a major business transformation can be difficult. A Non-Executive Director with previous success of tackling this type of issue can be a great help. For example, HS2 needing to convince the government of its business case and budget accuracy. So, they recently appointed former MP Tom Harris to its Non-Executive team.
3. An ability to act without conflict
This is the crux of the challenge in hiring Non-Executive Directors. You need to find someone who can meet all the criteria on a part-time basis without any commercial conflict.
This can be much harder than it sounds. You are looking for someone who has worked at an advanced level in the sector and is well respected. But who doesn’t currently have any executive responsibility or financial interest in that field. This factor can significantly narrow down your options.
When it comes to solving tricky recruitment challenges, the key is knowing your market and building a top network.
Once you speak to the right people you can learn whose commitments might be coming towards an end. Or who might be looking for a new challenge.
Using an Executive Search firm can allow you to tap into strong knowledge of your sector and related industries.
If the HS2 body was to insist on someone with high-speed rail project experience, they’d be looking primarily outside the UK. Being realistic about what you don’t need is crucial. As well as setting the bar high on the genuinely essential criteria.
Although six months does seem like a long-time frame, it is often worth being patient for the right person. Appointing in haste can lead to repentance at leisure.