Executive appointments in publishing: industry expertise or fresh perspectives?

Opinion - Publishing Monday, 04 September 2017

Abigail Barclay of Inspired Search & Selection discusses the factors involved in executive recruitment


Recruitment agency Inspired Search & Selection has published a white paper on executive appointments in publishing. The research shows that nearly half of publishers' hires from outside their companies come from outside the book industry.

Describe how the report has come about, and its methodology.
Abigail Barclay: The report is a product of a wider piece of research that I have conducted on the senior management and executive level landscape within publishing. For this, I reviewed over 800 profiles on LinkedIn, looking at people's current roles and how long they had been in them. From there, I looked at those who had been in their roles less than a year and where they were prior to that. It was clear that most of them had entered their current roles as a result of internal promotions, highlighting a strength in our industry to retain and promote our staff.

Delving deeper into the profiles of those who had been in their roles less than a year and were coming from other companies as external hires, I found that a significant proportion were coming from other industries. To me, this warranted further exploration, as it challenged the received notion of publishing as a "small world"; furthermore, it put the hiring process into the spotlight as a key part of a publisher's business strategy. Hiring in from other industries at this level indicates that businesses have recognised a need for different skills and perspectives. And so, if we need new skills, how do we look for them, interview them and integrate them into our companies?

I conducted several in-depth interviews with CEOs, MDs, directors and HR directors to gain a variety of perspectives on these questions. These and the quantitative research fed into the report, which is also influenced by other data sources that I thought would be relevant, such as those from the Office of National Statistics.

My guess is that a similar survey 15 years ago would have showed fewer appointments from outside, and that there are two factors behind the current figure: a need for greater diversity, and a need for new skills in the digital age. Would you agree?
Abigail Barclay: I would absolutely agree. Diversity means so many important things, among them a diverse range of skills - so your two points go hand in hand. If we do not open up ourselves to the possibility of a diverse range of skills, we may find it difficult to make change happen, to create new products and to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. Our products have also diversified and, with that, so have our audiences - and it is certainly the aim of many publishers to continue to broaden the market for their books. If we are to understand customer behaviour well, we need to understand how people interact with other products and media that books might be competing against. A great way to do that is to hire people with that expert knowledge.

When might it be a good time to recruit from within the industry? And when from outside?
Abigail Barclay: Of course, in several instances, hiring from within the industry is the right thing to do, as you need that expert knowledge. This is partly why so many hires are made internally at this level, I think.

There are three main areas to consider when deciding if to hire from outside or not:

* To what extent does the role rely on having immediate, expert knowledge of the process by which the product is published or created?
Quite often, a new hire can draw on the expert knowledge of the existing team, especially those who manage and deliver the work that is accountable to the role, such as other directors and "heads of". In these cases, it can be a good opportunity to look outside the industry.
* Does the business unit require drastic change?
If the new hire will be accountable for a section that has been underperforming, this business unit will require change. In order to fill the vacancy, we could look at industries that currently perform well in that particular area.
* How do you engage with disruptive business models and technologies?
Sometimes the necessary skill-sets simply do not exist in the publishing industry, particularly when the role involves emerging technology and "disruptive" business models. In these cases, hiring from competitors will likely remain ineffective.

Hiring people with no publishing experience may be more risky than hiring an industry insider. How do you minimise the risks?
Abigail Barclay: It starts with a really clear view of what skills and experience your business needs and ensuring that the people you are considering carry the relevant ones. By doing so, you'll be looking at the industries and individuals that can make positive change happen in the direction you're planning for your business.

From here, the interview process needs to be one in which someone from outside the industry can succeed, and it needs to show, as accurately as possible, what working life is really like at your company. References and testimonials will of course help, but the real key to success is the onboarding process, which needs to allow for as much learning as possible for the new hire. Equally, the existing staff need to be prepared to be open to learning new skills and gaining new perspectives from the new hire.

For a free copy of "Making an executive appointment in publishing: hiring industry expertise or fresh perspectives", contact Abigail Barclay: 020 3668 6727; a.barclay@inspiredselection.com.

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