Belfast Telegraph

First question for new Invest NI chairperson: Is it a role or a job?

By John Simpson

How important is the role of the chairperson of Invest NI?

If Northern Ireland is to further enhance its reputation as a good location, then this appointment must embody high level qualities that enable him/her to exercise a commanding voice in local economic policy debates.

Well qualified individuals should be encouraged to offer themselves for consideration for this high profile role. This is not necessarily a search for a technocrat, scientific boffin or competent office manager. The ability to harness the talents of others is critical.

The board of Invest NI brings together talented individuals from a spectrum of disciplines.

The non-executive members of the board are there to evaluate overall policies, their delivery and to appreciate the changing external environment and its implications, ranging from EU State Aids policy to the impact of banking crises. The non-executives are not expected to work on executive detail.

The chairperson of Invest NI must be able to articulate coherent analysis and vision in ways that promote innovation, enterprise and competitiveness. The chairperson must articulate a balance between the ambition (and methods) to build a more successful economy and society and also a recognition and acknowledgement that there are some deficiencies to be corrected.

That tension alone makes the appointment more difficult. Persuading the board who may tend either to be over critical or unjustifiably complacent is a diplomatic tightrope.

The chairperson must have a broad vision and a depth of understanding. There tends to be an assumption that a successful entrepreneur would be the role model. Not necessarily and, indeed, that assumption could be misguided, if that entrepreneur only has a narrow vision of how to drive one business.

The role of chairperson has been re-advertised, closing date 12 noon on 16 September. The decision to re-advertise says something about the attractions and demands. It is tempting to say that it says something about the 'job'. Arguably conceptualising this as a 'job' is inappropriate, which leads into other problems and discomfort.

The appointment details refer to the role, not the job. That points to an important piece of the philosophy. The logic of that distinction should be maintained.

Potential applicants to chair Invest NI will find references to leadership of the board and leadership in strategic delivery of purpose. However, in a caution about effective leadership, candidates will also learn that they are accountable to the DETI Minister, as might be expected, but accountable through the Permanent Secretary.

One of the dilemmas of being chairperson is that the minister should not unduly constrain the leadership role.

Potential applicants will be studying the 20+ pages of information and an application form. That may be off-putting.

The chosen selection process must strike a balance between asking for an extensive detailed application and accepting that some potential applicants will be deterred by the perceived excessive essay writing application.

Nevertheless, the format asks them briefly to "please describe the personal experience you have gained, which would enable you to demonstrate a broad knowledge of business, industrial, social and economic development in Northern Ireland".

Then the request is to "please demonstrate your ability, by way of practical example of how your personal leadership has made a positive contribution to the performance of an organisation you have worked for". That leads to parallel questions on Thinking Strategically, and Corporate Governance and Risk Management.

The selection process must be acceptable in terms of Fair Employment. However, there would have been merit in reducing the demands by a careful role for Recruitment Specialists.

Northern Ireland looks forward to a commanding appointment. The procedures are formidable. The right talented person must be encouraged to come forward.