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Women on the Board

Attracting and retaining talented women is a strategic imperative for growing companies. The latest figures from Cranfield School of Management (October ‘11) show that women currently make up 14.2% of FTSE 100 Directors, up from 12.5% in 2010. The picture is less rosy amongst FTSE 250 Directors, with 8.9% being women, albeit up from 7.8% in 2010. This is not just a gender issue of course  – research into high performing teams suggest those containing a diverse mix of individuals make tangibly better decisions than teams made up of individuals with similar backgrounds and mindsets.

The Davies Report rightly specifies a voluntary code rather than mandatory quotas, but this brings with it a responsibility for both organisations and headhunters to act quickly and decisively to make improvements. Wickland Westcott was one of the first Search firms to embrace these recommendations, and we have a specific code of conduct in relation to board appointments. But we do not believe that increasing female board representation is simply a matter of will. Rather, we believe it requires concerted effort, action and re-enforcement across a number of fronts. Change, like charity, should start at home, so here we detail the steps we (Wickland Westcott) are taking:

Business imperative

When working with client organisations we invest time to understand their strategy, goals, challenges, and opportunities. We then seek identify and articulate clear links between developing women and key deliverables, so that these key messages can be integrated into our search process. Of course, ideally this needs to be driven at a strategic level with the full commitment and support of the board, especially the CEO and Chair. Increasingly we find boards are already thinking in this way, and if not they are receptive to being challenged in this area. Opening dialogues with high profile women Directors in other sectors can also help the recruiting organisation deepen their own understanding of relevant issues (and occasionally can also turn up candidates).

Search within

It is important to articulate these diversity intentions both internally as well as externally. Often we find that the act of initiating a headhunt brings gender considerations to mind, and whilst Boards are open to recruiting women from outside, some are not always as focused or vocal about promoting women from within. Indeed, research suggests that women CEOs are nearly twice as likely to have been appointed from outside the organisation as from within it. We know that internally promoted CEOs tend to do better over time, so going internally whenever possible has to be the best policy. 

Challenge

Like every other Search firm, we are keen to do business, keen to retain existing clients as well as win new ones. But in these challenging times desperate suppliers can become too conservative in their desire to win the business - too accepting of what is said to them, and insufficiently challenging. Our preference is to retain an independent, albeit respectful perspective. We will challenge clients if we feel their requests are unfair, or equally important, sub-optimal for them over the longer term.

Maintain standards

Incompetent women are as damaging to a board as incompetent men. The desire for greater female representation should not be distorted into a lowering of standards – this is both commercially dangerous and, frankly, patronising towards women directors. The benefits of investing in a rigorous competency and behavioural assessment are well documented – and in senior positions, where the cost of getting it wrong is great – the return on investment from a sound process can easily run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. This process should be fair, robust, and leave the candidate feeling challenged and with a better idea of what the job actually involves. Ideally the assessment process should include an external expert (such as a Wickland Westcott commercial psychologist) who can bring an unbiased perspective to the table.

Open mind

Encouraging clients to avoid being overly-rigid in the candidate specification is also an important role we can play. A willingness to relax some of the technical/experience criteria in favour of potential allows greater scope in developing the candidate pool.  The historical tendency to want ‘every box ticked’ on the candidate specification narrows the potential field of candidates and, inevitably, works against diversity, so we encourage clients and ourselves to be bolder and more adventurous in the choice of candidates.

Flexible approach

By practicing diversity in its truest sense and embracing difference, organisations can gain a competitive advantage. In practice, this can involve introducing and (genuinely) welcoming flexible working arrangements, and also tailoring support packages to the needs and wants of the individual - often an important part of the job offer for candidates. This is not necessarily about the quantity of workload per se. The more successful executives tend to work harder, and for longer periods (whatever work-life balance advocates might say). So, good candidates (male and female) are not looking for an easy ride, but they do need to fit in their home and personal lives, and any flexibility around location, or set-hours is very helpful. Again, we encourage recruiting organisations to do what they can here, within the bounds of customer need and operational requirements.

Supportive ethos

Access to mentors and role models who are able to support, inspire and grow a network of talented women can make a significant difference. We encourage the recruiting organisation to make such support networks available early to new recruits. Again, not a gender specific recommendation – there is growing research evidence of the importance of mentoring in the development of all tomorrow’s stars.

If you are keen to work with a Search firm that takes diversity seriously, or you simply want to see our code of conduct in board recruitment, please call John Dodd or Melissa Davies on 01625 508100.

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