By Lucia Mabasa
The appointment of Mamokgethi Phakeng as vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town has come into the spotlight in recent weeks following the release of the special report by former Supreme Court of Appeal President, Judge Lex Mpati.
Without getting into the merits of the report, what struck me the most as a human resources practitioner was the report’s injunction to the university to make sure that selection processes in future unearth a candidate with the knowledge and experience for the actual position.
That is precisely what panels are set up to do, but all too often, they tend to do the opposite. Whatever happened after the appointment of Prof Phakeng, both Judge Mpati’s findings and the great gift of hindsight among the legions of keyboard warriors suggest that issues which the panel discovered about the candidate were ignored when she was appointed – so much so that there was even a rider that she be given a leadership coach because her leadership skills were deficient.
It is vital that panels comprise experts who complement the entire hiring process, which begins with ensuring that describing exactly the kind of candidate you are hoping to appoint is done properly.
The panel should be briefed by one individual when they are all together. The panel members can then interrogate the brief and ensure it is equally understood. Setting up those boundaries will automatically exclude candidates who do not meet the requirements on the job spec, whether in terms of their academic qualifications, their experience or, indeed, their leadership attributes.
As I have said before, being a competent candidate does not automatically translate to being offered the job. Every job has its own context. Every company or institution is in a different state of evolution requiring a different type of leader. Some companies need a leader who will have a steady hand and keep the organisation on course, others need a total disruption. Those leaders are very different, which is why it is so vital to set the candidate specifications correctly, because if you choose a disruptor who will slash and burn rather than someone who will guide from the side, there’s almost an inevitability about what will eventually play out. And the opposite is true too.
All too often, job specs say one thing and the composition of a panel says something else.
Sometimes, the personality of one panellist can overwhelm the others, especially when the panel comprises people apparently chosen because their personalities will not challenge that person.
Selecting the wrong candidate for the job can be catastrophic – exponentially so the more senior the position – to both the person and the institution. If someone does not fit the bill, they should not be appointed and that responsibility lies with the panel and the selection process. The results of psychometric and aptitude tests have to be carefully considered. The candidate’s background and qualifications have to be thoroughly scrutinised. The questions that are asked on the panel have to be honest, relevant – and the same for all the candidates.
If this doesn’t happen, then the selection process is flawed. The panel is both truth seeker and gatekeeper, as Judge Mpati pointed out, it “requires an objective, integrated and professional evaluation process encompassing competency, leadership qualities and personality assessment to ensure that the candidate selected embodies the leadership acumen and personal attributes, in addition to the necessary competency”.
If you aren’t able to do that, then don’t accept an appointment to a selection panel. The role of the panel member is to look beyond the candidate in front of them to actually see them in the role you envisage them in the company. This means they have to understand the landscape of that company and where it is in its journey. Is the person the correct fit, yes or no? And then the panel members have to have the courage of their convictions to say what they feel and back it up with evidence.
Being asked to serve on a hiring panel is a privilege, it should not be a chore and it certainly should not be lip service to something that is so serious. The problem is that there are no consequences, when a candidate is appointed but fails, all the attention and all the recriminations are upon that person, never the panel. The only way to change this is to hold the panellists accountable, just as we do everyone else in the business from the cleaner to the board of directors.
Prof Phakeng is by all accounts a highly accomplished person across several fields and an inspiration to many, but she was not a good fit for UCT. That wasn’t entirely her fault, but it is obvious in retrospect that she was not the right person – so why was she appointed?
And when we answer that question, let’s not shy away from the truth, that her case is only the tip of the iceberg in corporate South Africa.
· Lucia Mabasa is Chief Executive Officer of pinpoint one human resources, a proudly South African black women owned executive search firm. pinpoint one human resources provides executive search solutions in the demand for C suite, specialist and critical skills across industries and functional disciplines, in South Africa and across Africa. Visit www.pinpointone.co.za to find out more or read her previous columns on leadership; avoiding the pitfalls of the boardroom and becoming the best C-suite executive you can be.