Unlocking the talent box – how we can secure a more sustainable future for our professional services

Richard Calvert, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University, argues that we are failing to keep pace with a fast-changing talent landscape, and that the solutions lie as much with professional service leaders as they do with our HR specialists.

Many of us are facing an ever bigger challenge in attracting and retaining the right talent for our professional services. A more competitive recruitment market, changing expectations around work patterns and locations, and tighter budgets across the sector all combine to push the talent challenge higher up our list of leadership concerns.

But how well equipped are we to respond with the vision and agility that we’re likely to need, and is there an opportunity within this for a more strategic reset of how we and our academic colleagues think about professional services?

Starting on the front foot

Let’s start positively. We’re marketing one of the most innovative and successful sectors in the economy. We offer locations across the UK, and often around the world. And at our best, we combine strong public sector values with the more entrepreneurial mindset which often eludes those within central or local government.

Indeed some may argue that the current challenges are just a temporary blip, and that we’ll soon be back in a world of low turnover and long lists of applicants.

My guess is that this is a high-risk view of the post-Covid world, but also one which exposes the increasing divergence between best practice approaches to recruiting, retaining and developing talent within the HE sector, compared to those increasingly seen in the wider economy.

Why are we slipping behind the curve?

A combination of factors underpin this – some cultural, and some reflecting the challenge of keeping pace with a fast-changing world. Some of this is for our HR professionals, but much of the responsibility lies with those of us in wider professional leadership.

The professional service elephant…

A critical factor is whether we as leaders think about professional services cohesively, or just as a collection of service areas united as much by what we’re not as what we are. If we don’t think and lead in a joined-up way across professional areas, we’ll struggle to sell an employment offer which makes the most of what we can offer.

It’s true that senior structures have always fluctuated, and many of us no longer have – or maybe never had – a unified professional service model. But if we use that as an excuse for not taking a more joined-up view, we’re failing to recognise this as a cultural as much as a structural issue.

The case for a broader offer

We also need to be clear about the kind of career paths that we aspire to offer. Of course it’s possible to have a rewarding career in a single service area, and I’m not arguing against that. But we have the scale and range of roles to offer much more, and we could attract and retain a wider range of staff – as well as very likely offering a better and more rounded service – if we thought in a more integrated way about our resourcing needs and the varied career options that we could offer.

Some of this is about attracting candidates who are consciously looking for a range of experience before deciding where they want to specialise. But it’s also about helping current staff develop new skills and experience, and a wider perspective on the organisation. This doesn’t need to be about giving up a professional career anchor in a particular area. Short term secondments, shadowing and job-swaps can all facilitate different perspectives and open up the kind of cross-functional working to which many of us aspire, and which many of our service users expect.

Higher and Degree Apprenticeships could form a part this offer, enabling us to develop talent at all levels within professional services.

Tools and techniques

As well as having the vision and culture to underpin a more cross organisational perspective, we also need the right toolkit.

A culture which focuses primarily on jobs – rather than cross-professional service careers – can often take us into over specified job descriptions and competencies, as well as inflexible contracts. Not only can these be cumbersome and inefficient, but they also discourage breadth and movement. Siloed approaches to budget setting, combined with often risk-averse processes, all put up barriers to a more joined up approach to recruitment, retention and development.

Unless we can reset our toolkit to support and enable a more flexible and agile approach, we will continue to sit behind the curve.

Closing the gap

So what might a more competitive resourcing model for professional services look like? I’d offer four tests.

First, can we define our offer?

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s becoming tougher to do in an ever more competitive job market. Expectations are changing, and applicant pools are increasingly fragmenting.

Finding sustainable solutions to this, rather than simply getting sucked into a bidding war for scarce talent, will require us to understand better what different groups of potential applicants, as well as our current staff, are looking for. And we then need to develop an offer that speaks to this more diverse workforce.

Part of this is about responding to the impact of hybrid and remote working, as well as changing generational expectations. Flexibility in working hours and location are important, but the latest research also tells us that it’s about more empathetic leadership, genuine inclusivity, and a sense of belonging that works whichever generation and career stage you are at.

Working out our response to this, and being able to articulate a compelling offer, will be an increasingly important differentiator – not just for the sector, but also for professional services as a career path within it.

Second, is our offer authentic?

We need our offer to be authentic, not just words on the page. If we promise an attractive development offer, we need to deliver one. If we commit to rotation and flexibility, we need to live up to that commitment. This means empowering leaders and managers, and putting resources into our offer so that it’s not the first thing to get squeezed when resources are tight.

It also means getting the basics right, and at the same time freeing up our HR teams to support and enable a more ambitious career and development offer, rather than being bogged down in often risk-averse and over specified processes.

One relatively simple thing we’ve done at Hallam is to align our approach to job descriptions and capabilities. Historically, job specs often ran to several pages, listing every conceivable duty and competence. This discouraged candidates without direct experience in the area, and made it hard for such candidates to get over the bar even when they did apply for a role. By putting in place a set of 10 core capabilities across all professional service roles, plus a standard format job description, we provided a simpler and more manageable process, while also opening the door to much more cross-service movement.

Third, are we future-proofing?

Unlocking the talent box isn’t just about how we fill today’s vacancies. Equally critical is how we manage performance, plan for future resourcing needs, and provide leaders with the tools and support to build a talent pool with the breadth and experience to take on new or more senior roles.

And that takes us back to issues about culture and joined-up thinking.

Culturally, we need to become more confident and comfortable with the tools of talent management. Those unfamiliar with talent processes are often suspicious that they’re about picking winners and excluding those not “on the grid”. While that’s something to guard against, my own experience is that the more structured approach of a well-managed talent process creates a stronger and more evidence based dialogue around long-term potential.

Just as important is to turn the telescope around, and focus not just on the potential of individuals, but on re-shaping roles and expectations to encourage and enable a wider talent pool. Do we truly embrace flexible working, including at the most senior levels? Are we rethinking team structures and ways of working to accommodate different expectations? Do we see value not just in pulling in expertise from outside the sector, but also in actively rotating staff across different professional service areas? All of these are likely to be part of the future toolkit. But none of them can be fully realised without a shared leadership vision and commitment across professional services.

Fourth, are we walking the walk as sector leaders?

I’ve talked a lot about taking a more collaborative and cross-organisational approach within our individual institutions. But should we also be doing more as professional service leaders at a sector level? One of the striking things about the current landscape of professional service interest groups is that there are so many of them, and that so much of our focus is on profession-specific engagement. Even AHUA, dare I say, struggles to provide the platform for broader cross-professional engagement which its title might suggest.

Indeed the fora which increasingly pull together genuine cross-professional service discussions are those organised by consultancy groups, rather than our traditional sector interest groups. More structured approaches are also being offered by the subscription consultancies that combine UK, US and Australian insight and intelligence. Is it time that we challenged ourselves at leadership level not only to develop a more joined-up approach within our institutions, but also at sector level?

In summary…

The challenge of recruiting, retaining and developing professional service talent is not one we can afford to ignore.

Our traditional approaches, which were already looking tired pre-Covid, risk becoming unsustainable in an increasingly fragmented and re-balanced labour market.

There’s undoubtedly a challenge for us here. But just as important there’s an opportunity to reset how we think about professional services, not just within our institutions but also as leaders working across the sector.

If we can find the key to unlock this challenge, it may just be the most important thing we do over the next few years.