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Hold The Conversation (Even If You Need To Shut The Door)

Posted on July 2, 2013 at 8:00 AM

I was having a good conversation the other day with a clever headhunter whom I rate. Yes, they do exist and yes, it does happen. She has just about had enough of the 'conversation' on getting more women into the top echelons of British business. 

She had lots of interesting things to tell me. Including this little fact: Chime Communications plc - the public relations, advertising and communications group specialising in creation, management and monitoring of brands and reputations. Chairman; Lord Davies of Abersoch, the well-known 'face' of the government's initiative to get more women represented at the top of British business.

Take a look at its board of directors. Notice anything ? Media and communications is a sector absolutely stuffed with women, but I don't see a single one here.

Doubtless there are many reasons why this is the case, but it's worth noting. Because it is only very recently that there have been sharp ideas emerging amid a lot of hot air expelled around the 'diversity' debate over the past two years. It has taken that long for people to start saying what they think.

Yes, of course we must try and set reasonable targets, measure and track diversity at all levels of  a business, make sure top management buys in, mentor and sponsor and encourage and provide flexible working for both sexes etc etc.

But I hate to tell you, we were quoting Catalyst's very worthy slogan  'what gets measured gets done' back in 2003, when Laura Tyson, then Dean of London Business School, wrote her report on the Recruitment and Development of Non-Executive Directors. You'll find my name in her introduction - I was there, somewhat younger.

Fast forward a decade plus.

The drive launched by the 30% Club has certainly picked up momentum, and on Monday I lent my time and effort to publicising the launch of the #30pcglobal initiative - taking the business case for gender diversity global. I was struck there by a few strands of very practical advice on enabling women to get appointed to top levels of business.

One was from Ffion Hague, who used to headhunt but now offers board evaluation. She suggested that boards - and chairmen in particular - could break out of the 'chicken and egg' argument around 'but she hasn't been on a plc board' by providing a certain amount of training and mentoring to a new NED first-timer on a plc board.This is an obvious answer to the 'lack of skills' argument we keep hearing about again and again in British business. Why not train people in the right skills? 

And no, I don't buy the 'because people don't have the time' argument - also famously used by Lord Davies to defend the need for headhunters and in counselling against the advertising of NED positions because it would be 'too much process for a plc to handle.' And certainly not at FTSE100 level.

Moving right along - the other - and in my view only real way to increase more lateral thinking about NED appointments is to keep the pressure up from the institutional investors on diversity. From conversations I have had with those concerned about this issue in the United States, I can pleasingly report that they are very envious of the pressure being put 'behind closed doors' by institutional investors on plcs to do something about their boardrooms.

It's fine for it to stay behind closed doors, as long as it does not relent. At a 30% Club event quite some time ago, I remember being struck by Helena Morrissey hinting very clearly that she could use her power as CEO of Newton Investment Management in this direction to good effect, with clients.

Read a good piece in The Glass Hammer newsletter on this very same subject not that long ago.

We all agree now that this is a global issue - here's a Canadian solution.

Suddenly we are all talking about sustainable and reponsible business - perhaps because we realise it's the only kind to aim for, going forward. Mark Robertson wrote this in The Guardian last year and I don't think I can put it any better: (my emphasis)

"Investors are ideally placed to challenge the composition and diversity of boards. Through direct engagement, shareholders can put pressure on companies to take affirmative action in moving towards a better gender balance at all levels in their organisations."

So come on, institutional investors- transparency is better, but if you're convinced you will achieve more behind closed doors, fine -just do it. Because chairmen really need to walk the walk - as well as the talk.

Categories: Women, Appointments, Leadership