The BBC crisis: a failure in recruitment

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012 - Executive Recruitment

Why I conclude that the BBC crisis

is a failure of recruitment

It’s November 2012, and we have a crisis at the BBC. In the space of four days, the Director General, the Head of News and her deputy have been dismissed or been asked to step aside. Before that it was the producer of Newsnight. What’s gone wrong?

The root of all this trouble is the Savile affair, and I’d like to start this article off by saying that we shouldn’t forget the victims of this whole situation, the children and now adults who were abused. Anything after that is very secondary.

But after that, the BBC – and Newsnight specifically – seems to have swung from under reporting Savile, to over reporting false accusations.

As a recruiter, how can I be confident that the BBC crisis is a failure of recruitment? Let me explain.

We need a new Director General….

Mark Thompson had a two-stage career at the BBC:

  • 1981-2002: trained journalist, rising through the ranks as a producer and finally to director
  • 2004-2012: after returning from a stint running Channel4, appointed Director General

Thompson is criticised by some media professionals as “sending a demolition ball” through the BBC, but at the end of his tenure the BBC had a more integrated multi-channel approach to news and programme creation/linking across platforms, as opposed to the previous silo (ie: radio v TV) approach.

But with new regulation structures in place from the incoming Conservative government, a new BBC Trust chairman, and having spent nearly 10 years in the position, it was time for Thompson to turn his career over. When he resigned he didn’t know where he was going, but was recruited by the New York Times for his integrated multi-channel approach.

Problem1: The Brief

The first problem in any recruitment exercise is to define the brief, which lists the key and secondary skills/experiences that the new post holder requires to complete the job successfully, not just adequately. In most cases the Recruiter/Head Hunter or HR Professional will end up with a list of primary and secondary criteria. While in blue, white or professional positions this most likely will be technical skills, in executive positions these will focus more on business situations, ie: Start-Up; Growth; Profit Improvement; Change Management; Save the Titanic!

So the question has to be, what were the BBC Trust briefing their head hunters for? One of the clues that you can garner is from the later press releases re Entwistle’s appointment, where Lord Patten talks about the value that Entwistle brings re Thompson, as he’s on a much less significant salary.

Let’s put this in context: the BBC turns over £5Bn, and employs 23,00 people. Thompson was paid close to £1M, or 0.002% of turnover. Halving that may seem like a Wow! saving, but its less than one hour of income.

Problem2: The wider brief

The wider brief of any recruitment exercise, particularly in executive positions, brings in a number of key issues:

  • Business focus (and track record of applicants in deleivering this)
  • Strategic Vision
  • People fit

But here’s a problem in the wider brief: what is the role of the BBC Trust? The Trust apparently has two roles:

  • Regulator
  • Shareholder representative

There ae various rumours skirting the media that the Trust wanted closer control of the BBC than the charter of the Trust allowed for, closer in fact to the previous BBC Board of Governors. I don’t know if this is true, but if the wider brief was unclear, then a poor social fit of the chosen executive will be the result.

Problem3: the previous position holders

One of the clues as to who is most likely to get a position, is to look at the combination of track records and recruitment roots of the previous incumbents of an executive position. The five previos DG’s were as follows:

  • Mark Thompson: ex-BBC trainee, recruited in from Channel4
  • Greg Dyke: media executive, recruited in from Channel5
  • John Birt: media executive, recruited in from LWT
  • Michael Checkland: accountant turned resources controller, internal promotion
  • Alistair Milne: BBC producer, internal promotion

On average, a BBC DG spends 8 years in post. So for the past 20 years since 1992, the track record shows that the BBC have gone outside the corporation to recruit its new DG. Why?

I conclude its because, as Lorainne Heggarty (ex-Controller of BBC1) explains, that its a position which requires a rare combination of:

  • Leadership
  • Management
  • Editorial skills

An external recuit also comes from the commercial television background, where if something works it stays, and it it doesn’t its cut – quickly! In other words, they are more focused on value for money than the core BBC Reithian roots of “Inform, Educate, and Entertain”. The latter can be learnt and accepted; the former is tough to teach inside an environment managed on the principles of the latter.

Problem4: a shifting environment

This problem is one often encountered by Recruiters and Head Hunters, but normally in its micro as opposed to the macro environment.

The micro environment is that associated with that company or organisation. Think people and teams. The key in any recruitment exercise is to get yourself in front of the Hiring Manager as soon as possible – unless there is fit there, then there is no point in continuing an application for that position. However, once that is achieved you need to understand who else is influencing the hiring decision, and their influence/weight in that process, ie:

  • Human Resources
  • Managing Director/Chairman
  • Company Board/Non-Executives
  • Team

The problem that most recruiters don’t have to deal with is the macro-environment, ie: market, companies competion, media. Normally these are set or encompassed within a clear brief. However, in this case the environment was shifting quickly due to Savile. Not only had the new incumbent needed proven PR skills, they also needed a fast take-up of the brief. Effectively, the recruitment brief had shifted.

The 54 days of George Entwistle

From everything I have heard and read, I think George Entwistle is a good and honourable executive, with a highly regarded level of creativity.

But he was the wrong person in the wrog position at the wrong time.

I personally wonder if he had the skills in the first place to move and lead the BBC forward in the first place? The first internal promotion in 20+ years, to whom on annoucement of his appointment Alistair Campbell text’d: “Congratulations. Good Luck. And get yourself some decent suits.”

But he got met by the perfect storm of a PR disaster within days, to which David Mellor brutally summarised the thoughts of many commentators when saying on the BBC Daily Politics show: “Poor George had the leadership qualities of Winnie the Pooh!”

After a series of BBC-only disasterous interviews on the weekend, when he looked and sounded like the condemned man, the inevitable happened to the honourable man. He fell on his own sword.

Getting the next recruitment brief right

The question now is, where next and who to recruit?

It is personally interesting how many have so far excluded themselves from the position, from David Dimbleby (I’m too old) to Lorainne Heggarty (I’m happy in my current job). Has a difficult job now become a poision chalice, or even worse become too big for one person: the positional brief of leading the BBC forward; plus PR and inquiry/legal handling?

I think not, and the recruitment of Stephen Hester to the CEO’s position at RBoS at the height of the Global Banking Crisis should give a clue as to what needs to happen: a strong hand on the tiller of those making the recruitment brief.

Yet here like many, I conclude that Lord Patten is probably not the person to achieve that, or lead the new recruitment exercise having failed so spectacularly in the last brief that he led. Patten has to go.

Personally, the answer has to lye outside the BBC. The question is where? While the more commercial aspects of American media will not suit a great fit, the search should now be extended to those with experience of the less voratious Canadian and Australian markets. Secondly, while PR skills can be greatly strengthened with a good team behind you, leadership can not be faked: vision, style and strength should come high.

Having failed once, I hope that this gross failure in a high-profile executive recruitment exercise is not fouled up again so spectacularly.

Good Luck!


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