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Time To Look Hard At Recruitment For The Boardroom

Posted on September 11, 2013 at 4:50 AM

I blame George Osborne. As the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer hogged media attention with his claims that we are seeing a 'broad-based recovery' almost everyone missed an important piece of news.

The UK's Business Secretary Vince Cable announced that he was launching a review into the process of appointments for the boardroom - as reported by James Waterson for CityAM. These have failed miserably to widen the search for talent in order to ensure better representation at the top of UK plc - and diversity not only by gender, but by ethnicity, social class, age and background. 

The boardroom appointments process continues to fail in achieving better representation, and its potential benefits of better competitive advantage. At the heart of that failure lies the recruitment process, which includes the attitude and bias of headhunters - and their networks. 

I won't go on about headhunters, but their role in all this has been a major theme in this blog all along. They get paid a small fortune, often for doing very little. It is an unregulated industry. Too often they enjoy cosy long-term relationships with the chairmen they serve. It's self-perpetuating 'groupthink' big time.

Vince Cable has launched this review just days after the roundtable he held with business leaders from the financial services sector, which I attended - see last post. At that event someone mused out loud: "I must say, I walk around London and look at the faces - and then I look at our boardrooms...' There was an awkward silence, but no response. (I was meant to be merely observing. I tried very hard not to snort in Sandra Bullock style - very unladylike).

By the way, I think there are three black non-executive directors in the FTSE100.

So- good for the Business Secretary in launching this review. Let's get down to the nitty gritty. If you want change in boardrooms you need to look very hard at the appointments process- and think creatively.

Charlotte Sweeney, a former head of diversity for Nomura,  who is leading this three month review, is an excellent choice. The City AM story says she "has been appointed to investigate whether the executive search industry is sticking to the voluntary code of conduct agreed back in 2011." 

It took headhunters six months or more from memory to even come up with that 'voluntary code.' I think is a laughable piece of paper - as no one within the industry feels bound by it - with a few notable exceptions. It certainly has not changed much. When you make something 'voluntary' while seeking fundamental social change, that's not surprising.

When the Business Secretary asked the roundtable whether headhunters were abiding by the voluntary code, there was a lot of shuffle and waffle in the response. Someone finally articulated something to the effect that it was just an important start, a 'setting of tone.' I think Vince Cable was listening hard to all the glaring silences.

About Charlotte Sweeney - she has substantial experience in working for diversity in financial services so she will know the barriers. Here's a bit of her LinkedIn Profile "Charlotte is an experienced and pragmatic change agent with over 20 years experience of leading significant change programmes in large global organisations, coaching, facilitation and training. She is a strategic thinker with expert knowledge of equality, diversity, inclusion, health & wellbeing, change management, employee engagement and corporate culture shift at a global and local level, with a clear link to business performance."

She holds a number of non-executive positions - including President of the European Professional Women's Network London Chapter. Twitter #@EuropeanPWN. 

So here's the thing - I didn't think I knew Charlotte, but I do - that's social media for you. EPWN has picked up some of my pieces in its newsletter. 

At any rate, I see that her brief is to talk to chairmen, headhunters, investors as well as directors. If she wants a list of aspiring women NEDs who have tried very hard to 'get on the radar' of headhunters with no success, I can help. It might take more than 10 minutes though.

And as for media attention - today it is all about 'Cabinet split' as Vince Cable pours cold water on George Osborne's economic enthusiasm. John Cridland, CBI Director General will give a speech today which pretty much says the same thing as the Business Secretary on the UK economy - 'let's  make sure we think long-term.'

Indeed. Because until we change the process and the thinking around recruitment for the boardroom, we won't change the faces that end up in it. At least this review will be done by December.

Categories: Scrutiny, Appointments, Headhunters