The professional leadership selection committee

Thursday, 5 December 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

The political storm has subsided. A proven veteran has weathered the storm. He is now entrusted with the utmost responsibility to rebuild the nation and to reposition the country in the Asian economic landscape. 

Living abroad, I attentively observed the social and political developments in Sri Lanka, for two decades. It was a bird’s eye view from a distance. I compared local development trends with those of developed economies. I constantly watched the indicators for socio-economic health of Sri Lanka. I could sense the temperature was rising sporadically. However, high temperature is only a symptom. 

An outsider like I cannot pinpoint the causes for the symptoms in specific terms, except presenting generalised reasons. I saw drastic deterioration of social discipline and decline in ethical behaviour of professionals. I painfully watched poor diplomacy in international affairs, lack of consciousness of societal safety and flawed strategic vision of the political hierarchy. I could only propose holistic and in principle social solutions. 

It was up to the local professionals to perform a deeper analysis of the proposed solutions and develop practical action plans. On many occasions, I highlighted the true role of professionals should be, to fulfil societal needs, but the on-ground response was lukewarm, at best. 

The task ahead

The newly elected President is for the whole nation irrespective who voted for and against him. He, himself cannot fulfil national expectations without harnessing support from the whole nation. In developed economies, the elected politicians are given a fair go to prove their worth. Sri Lankans must do that. This is not the time to criticise every action taken by the new President. 

The public should allow time and space for him and his team to begin the sprint and gather the speed. Public should only comment on the proposed “outcomes”, not the methodology, because each leader has own way. Often, public talk about the large number of ministers. Of course, a developing country cannot maintain such an elite group. 

I personally like to see high calibre 15 Ministers and 15 Deputy Ministers. I don’t see the need of having Provincial Councils for a tiny island. I am aware that it was set up due to political reasons such as devolution of power. However, an alternative governance model could be introduced by reformulating line ministries of the Central Government to achieve same, more affordably. 

However, the real issue is not the number but the quality of the appointees. If all appointed 70 leaders have the capacity to work hard collaboratively and deliver the expected results, the number would not be an issue. I think that public must be educated about the project and programs assigned to the Ministers and also about the progress of their performance periodically via an official web page. Consequently, the public can monitor their performances and vote them in or out at the elections. 

Real leaders breed more leaders through delegation, empowerment and guidance. Hence, all Sri Lankans should set aside their narrow personal goals and political affiliations, think about the future of the country and extend their unconditional support to the elected President without clinging to own racial, religious and political ideologies. “One Nation-One Goal’ should be the motto. 

There are no losers in a democratic election process. It is a matter of expressing own preferences, based on their understanding and get on with the choice the majority made. The whole nation has the power to get the best out of the leader. The learned professionals have to participate in the nation development process and lead the leader. 

Leadership style

I am not affiliated with any political party. My personal view is that the elected President is not an autocratic leader. In developed countries, disciplined leaders are not being called as autocratic leaders. 

The issue here is that Sri Lankans are not used to be led by a professional leader. Different situations need equally different responses from a leader. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a situational leader. His leadership style must now be changed to collaborative approach. His challenge is how to control the unprofessional elected members around him and deliver the promised results. People will have another chance at the general election to help him by electing more capable people. 

I personally believe that all the deputy ministers in the cabinet must be professionals of relevant speciality. Deputy Ministers can develop robust policies and the Ministers can add the political flavour. The “National List” could be effectively used for this purpose. In my view, none of the voted-out politicians should come through the “National List”.

Selection of professionals for State-Owned-Enterprises and corporations

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has decided to appoint qualified individuals to run State Owned Enterprises and Government Corporations. He established a professional committee and issued a public notice inviting Expression of Interest for the positions in respective subject areas and also requested the interim Cabinet Ministers to nominate their preferred qualified people to the committee for necessary assessment. 

I saw in social media that Sri Lankans were rejoiced to hear this novel idea. To me, this is the normal procedure adopted in developed economies for any appointment in the Government sector, let along the top executives. I requested such a procedure previously through many of my publications. I am glad to see the “added professional value”, the President brings to the Sri Lankan political culture.

Previously, I published a few articles on the development of Position Descriptions and subsequent Performance Evaluation process. While I have no intention to repeat same subject content, I would like to highlight the finer details of the process, which may be helpful for the Selection Committee, appointed by the President. 

If the media reports are accurate, the selection committee has the right mix of experts. However, I have no idea what candidature screening process would be followed by the committee. Hence, my comments below are based on my personal experience in involving such processes in the NSW Local Government Sector, Australia. I am a qualified Targeted Selection Interviewer, in addition to performing my professional engineering duties.

The selection and recruitment process

Business case: 

The recruitment process starts with a business case development to justify having of such a position. When a position becomes vacant, it should not be filled automatically. The organisational objectives, processes and procedures might have already changed over the years, requiring re-assessment of a role of a certain position. Hence, existence of the vacant position must be justified. 

Basically, every position in an organisation should have a purpose and specific contribution to achieve the business needs of the unit and the organisation. Without filling the position, the easiest option would be the re-distribution of the duties among the rest of the employees. Many counter-argue on this option when there is a need of separation of some duties from the rest of the staff for transparency and self-auditing purposes. 

Overloading of others with additional duties would sometimes negatively impact on successful delivery of already assigned duties. Once a sound business case is developed assessing operational and financial impacts, the approval is sought from the multiple senior management officers of the organisation before initiating the recruitment process. Having a new employee is a benefit as well as a financial liability for an organisation. 

Maintaining an employment costs an organisation. Employees become legal entities after appointment and any mistreatment of employees would also attract financial impacts, through the legal system. Recruitment of a right employee is a costly business as a thorough process must be followed. Getting rid of a wrong employee by deploying a fair and legal process would also cost an organisation dearly. Hence, this is a serious business.

Position Description (PD): 

Next step is to develop a Position Description for the position. There are multiple best-practice methodologies available, but an organisation should select the most appropriate template in accordance with their organisation needs and the maturity level. When an organisation matures, the content of PDs will also to be altered. 

In the past, PDs were full of duties listed with a last line listed as “Any other duties as directed by….” The inherent weakness of the past practice was that the duties will be changed when the organisation grows and the PD becomes outdated after a while. Then the employee starts complaining that he/she was appointed for one and now doing another. 

The present practice is to list the vision and values of the organisation, the strategic purpose of the position, the accountabilities, position capabilities and associated capability levels, focussed capabilities for performance appraisals, financial delegation, relevant policies and codes of conduct, essential qualifications, essential Experience, desirable qualifications and experience and mandatory professional certifications and licences. The position description must be developed by the immediate supervisor with input from the supervisor’s supervisor. 

It must be endorsed by the head of Human Resources (HR) Division. HR Unit must ensure the content of a PD is legally defendable. There should not be any content in a PD, preventing anyone applying for the position. If a position description targets one section of a society, such as a male only, a physical able person only or a person who can speak a particular language/s etc., there should be a strong legally defendable reason for imposing such conditions.

Position advertisement: 

In general, the advertising of positions must be done in a transparent manner allowing maximum opportunity for prospective applicants to see it and lodge their applications. Most of positions are now advertised both online in organisational web pages and on popular newspapers. 

The advertisement must contain a contact person who has the full knowledge of the position, selection process, employment conditions, and the remuneration. If the salary scale of the position has not been advertised, the contact person must be able to reveal the lower and upper limits of the salary on request. The advertisement should explain how the application is lodged and what information should be submitted by which date. 

In the Australian public sector, just submitting a covering letter and resume would not be sufficient to secure an interview. All applicants should prepare a detailed account how the essential criteria of the position would be satisfied by giving specific work examples. 

If the position is aimed at people who do not have previous work experience, the essential criteria will be aimed at testing the knowledge, understanding and the capability in addition to the formal academic qualification. High-performing applicants can address desirable criteria, but the selection for an interview will only be based on the fulfilment of the essential criteria to make the process fair for all applicants.

Interviewing process: 

This is also a scientific process. Among the applicants who satisfied the essential criteria by demonstrating real life examples, the top-rated applicants will be selected for interviews. The records of this decision-making process must be kept for future reference if an unsuccessful applicant makes a formal complaint on the non-selection for an interview. In general, a HR officer gives feedback to all unsuccessful applicants with reasons for non-selection for a position.

Many public sector organisations have recently started using on-line psychometric testing to measure the applicant’s’ mental capabilities and behavioural styles. This kind of testing is important to assess the applicant’s capability to fit into an organisational culture. 

Although I have been a long-term employee with my current employer, I voluntarily sat for a psychometric testing procedure for self-evaluation purposes. At the end of each test, I could not understand how good I was or even what sort of behavioural style I had. As per the end results, I found to be a strong information analyst but had low collaborative approach! Hence, I changed my decision-making style towards more collaboration with stakeholders. 

The unique character of this testing is that it does not give any clue to the applicant whether he or she performs well or not. There are no right or wrong answers to behavioural questions. Mental capability testing gives an indication of the comprehensiveness, ability and speed of information processing of the applicant. This is a comparative measure without indicating whether the level is good enough or not. The assessors who have good understanding of the organisational culture and operational requirements could decide which applicants have the potential of fitting into the work environment readily.

It is important to develop an Interview Guide for each position. It contains pre-populated information about the applicant and detailed methodology of scoring. This is to avoid subjectivity of the assessment as much as possible. The questionnaire starts with an ice-breaking question to make the applicant calm and collected at the outset of the interview. 

There is no point in making the applicant nervous. The interview panel must know the true potential of each applicant before making a long-term investment. Next step is to ask probing subject matter questions. The technical questions are aimed at testing the applicant’s ability to apply technical knowledge rather than checking the technical knowledge because all who have been selected for the interviews should already have the technical knowledge based on specified formal education, training and experience. 

The secondary aspect is to know how deep the applicant’s knowledge is, instead of knowing what the applicant does not know. Knowing what the applicant does not know, is not an indication that the applicant knows the untested rest. 

Next set of questions are behavioural questions. These are asked to gauge the applicant’s level of maturity to deal with real work scenarios. The interview panel looks for applicants’ responses explaining a situation or task, action taken and the result achieved. 

It does not matter if the result was a failure as long as the effort was methodical and approach was planned and holistic. The interview panel score numerically, usually one to five for each response, in terms of “Impact” and “level of communication”.

Additional tools for executive positions: 

When the position to be filled is an executive position like Chairman, Chief Executive Officer or Director, the applicant must possess high level of leadership qualities and the ability to visualise long term and lateral impacts to the organisation. It is very difficult to assess these qualities until the applicant actually performs the job. Hence, ‘role play’ is essential for such a high-end selection process. 

The applicant is usually given a highly complex real-life organisational situation and is asked to play the CEO role to resolve the issue considering all possible impacts and assessing all optional solutions. The selection panel seeks evidences of a matured approach. This way the panel can envisage the level of performance expected from the applicant. In addition to the role play, usually the short-listed applicants are asked to do presentations to the panel what he/she would do to make the organisation a profit-making high performing entity.

Compulsory acknowledgment: 

The final section of the interview guide is allocated for compulsory questions. It is filled by the applicant’s responses whether the PD has been read and understood by the applicant and whether there are any declarations on personal or physical restrictions to perform in the position, if selected. Also, it prompts the applicant to ask any questions or clarification from the interview panel on any aspects of the position.

Concluding remarks

There is no guarantee that the interview panel gets the selection always right because human behaviour at an interview is judged by outward responses and the body language, not seeing how he/she works. However, the above process will deliver more right decisions than wrong decisions. To address this unavoidable error of judgement, a probationary period of three or six months for any position has been introduced before making the absolute final call. 

I believe that the high-level selection panel appointed by the President to select chairpersons/CEOs and directors should follow something similar to the aforementioned process rather than just relying on pure academic qualifications and recommendations. Appointing the right person is only the beginning of the expected outcome as ongoing performance appraisal of the appointee must be introduced. 

Let me finish this opinion piece by saying that the new appointees should develop a four-year business plan and yearly delivery plan for the organisations they will provide their leadership. The plans must be updated annually. These plans could be smoothly transferred to the next leader when any change of personnel occurs. I am certain that the President will lead the way supporting such a professional systematic approach.

(Eng. Janaka Seneviratne is a Chartered Professional Engineer, a Fellow and an International Professional Engineer of both the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka and Australia. He holds two Masters Degrees in Local Government Engineering and in Engineering Management and at present, works for the Australian NSW Local Government Sector. His mission is to share his 32 years of local and overseas experience to inspire Sri Lankan professionals. He is contactable via

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