Identifying long-term talent in the UK water sector

With an upcoming election potentially dictating radical changes, it’s an unsettling time in the UK water sector as we approach AMP7. The potential of nationalisation, aligned with competition for talent across other major infrastructure sectors (think rail, airports and energy) makes it difficult to know what people capabilities are needed, and when.

Searching for senior managers and executives – It goes without saying that unsettling times generally lead to unexpected changes on leadership teams. It’s therefore crucial to expect the unexpected, and have a plan in place for when it does. Succession planning is key, but sometimes water companies don’t have big budgets to run large-scale strategic talent planning initiatives; sometimes, you have to be reactive and recruit people on a case-by-case basis.

If the need arises to run a search across the external market, you must prioritise your long-term business requirements. It takes a methodical and structured approach to ensure a search is run effectively and to feel confident that you have identified the best possible candidate. Cultural fit, personality, diversity, technical capability, salary expectation and availability are all equally important factors, and having a partner who can assess all of these factors is crucial. This is a professional service which is designed to facilitate a long-term, value-adding hire.

Investing in a full process is essential; Imagine the long-term damage it could cause to your business if you accelerate the initial search process too quickly, resulting in a hire who has the potential to disrupt your internal teams and miss opportunities to maximise operational and commercial success. On the flip side, imagine you had invested an extra 3 or 4 weeks to turn over every stone throughout the search process and identify a candidate who perhaps required an extra £20k in their basic salary, but directly or indirectly delivered an additional £500k of commercial value to the business.

On some occasions, you may not be sure whether the business is ready to embark on a full search process; nevertheless, you require an understanding of who might be available or interested in a potentially high-profile role on the ExCo. The water industry is fairly incestuous, so when the likely candidate is sitting in one of your competitor or supplier organisations, this must be treated with the utmost sensitivity and confidentiality. Running pre-search due-diligence is an effective way to gather an initial understanding of the external market and appetite of candidates to consider a move, without necessarily advertising your own company name or a specific job profile in the external market. This de-risks the hiring process and again, enables a more strategic mindset when the need to hire does arise.

“Out of sector” talent

This is a difficult one, as there are many occasions where specific water sector experience is a must-have. That being said, it would be narrow minded to think that this is always the case. My advice is to ensure you take a balanced approach to the make-up of a whole team, rather than focusing on the individual hire. Take asset management as an example; if you have a Head of AM with 25 years’ experience in the water sector, and a generally strong sector competence within the team beneath, this would be a prime opportunity to calculate where you could implement 2 or 3 strategic hires from other asset-based industries who can offer a different mindset and set of experiences that you would never gain from another water specialist. However, if you had a diverse team of Asset Managers from different sectors and unexpectedly lost the Head of this function, it might make most sense to do a targeted search to replace this individual with a water sector expert to ensure the competency level remains balanced in the team.

Pipelining for talent – The water industry is just one example of a sector where the same faces have circled around the same companies for years, and sometimes decades. It is also an industry which has found it difficult to engage and retain the best talent. Due to the cyclical nature of the industry’s capital programmes, it is likely to see a huge thrust of activity at the start of each AMP which excites and engages employees. However, 3 or 4 years down the line when capital has been allocated and projects are in full flow, some employees may start to think “what next?” and are at risk of being enticed by another exciting opportunity in an alternative company or sector.

We know it’s always difficult to find good middle management in areas like engineering, operations, asset management and project management, so how can you be more proactive to ensure you’re prepared for the inevitable fluctuations in your workforce?

Developing pipelines of talent aligned with core functions is an effective way of ensuring you know where the best talent is, and how easy that talent is to access. This facilitates a more strategic mindset around who should be hired and when, whilst enabling an efficient hiring process once you have made the decision to bring a new face into the business. Additionally, there is a back-up plan should you lose someone unexpectedly from one of your critical business functions.

Pipelines of talent can also be aligned to specific succession planning requirements; for instance, do you know that one of your executives will retire in 2 years’ time? Rather than reactively recruiting, there is an opportunity to run the exploratory market mapping and initial engagement in advance to ensure you have planned effectively for future changes and can react accordingly once the time comes.

In summary, senior level recruitment in the water sector (or any other energy/utility sector for that matter) doesn’t always have to be reactive, but when it does, you can prepare yourself in advance to ensure the hiring process doesn’t become an overwhelming hindrance. Each business has different capabilities and requirements, so a bespoke approach to your long-term talent planning is essential. It requires strategic thinking, and a genuine recognition that without the right people, the business will not perform to its full potential and customers will ultimately feel the impact.

Norman Broadbent Group provides a range of Talent Acquisition & Advisory Services to the water sector. This depth of sector expertise and successful track record makes us the partner of choice for many businesses.  If you’d like to hear more about our track record, or to discuss a specific assignment, please contact Chris Smith via or on +44 (0)20 7484 00000.