Mar. 22, 2021, at 07:12 PM
I have been in and around Executive Talent Acquisition for c20 years and I’ve witnessed the focus on Diversity evolve and grow over that time. Infact, it feels like it has followed me from Investment Banking (where it was already a major focus area as long ago as 2002), into the Asset Management industry and then more recently into Insurance too. I think it’s fair to say Diversity & Inclusion is not only here to stay, but is only going to get an increase in focus as more and more companies prioritise D&I as a business strategy and not just a People one. Of course, there is also a huge push from the millenial generation (and gen Z behind them) as they demand (as standard) to see diversity and equality in the workplace .
During this time, I have seen companies pull every conceivable lever to try and improve hiring outcomes at the most senior levels, and HR departments and of course Talent Acquisition teams are usually on the frontline when it comes to delivering. However, it has too often felt like HR and Talent Acquisition are accountable rather than responsible.
The initial focus has always traditionally been on the SUPPLY side of the equation. It usually starts with employment policies and recruitment and promotion processes getting updated, and then vendors are added or replaced. Diverse slates are mandated, tracked and reported on, and diverse interview panels are also mandated and monitored. Unconscious bias training gets a look in still too. There has always been a lot of hard work and huffing and puffing as the company tries to get out of its own way and wrestles with the cultural changes needed – much of which could be avoided in my opinion.
Executive Search firms have typically come in for a lot of criticism, when they struggled to find female candidates as part of a short list, and this criticism was not unreasonable given so many of them relied on their traditional rolodex, which just wasn’t anywhere near broad or diverse enough, and so any search process just compounded the issue. You could also argue that search firms were too eager to please their clients, who unwittingly continued to provide a mind-boggling set of requirements that only 15-20 people in the talent market could actually meet (of which almost all would be men). Practices have changed for the better however, and Linkedin and the internet have played their part in making talent far more visible.
So what’s the answer?
The quickest route to success (and when I have seen things work best) is when the Board recognises the need for more gender diversity at the senior level, and the Group Executive team not only agree to implement what the Board requires, but (and this is the crucial bit) they actually hold each other to account when it comes to hiring more senior women into their own part of the business and the business as a whole. This accountability needs to be matched by more open-mindedness around the success profile. Senior Leaders in the 21st century need to be Leaders first and foremost after all. Strong industry and/or product customer knowledge helps to a lesser or greater extent in some instances as some roles clearly require more industry specific knowledge and experience than others, but surely transferable leadership qualities are paramount. The sooner that is recognised, the more the talent pool widens out to include other sub sectors and functions (and even beyond).
In other words, you have to fix the DEMAND side of the equation and have the executive team walk the talk and be a role model for change and bring their leadership teams with them. For many years I saw this handed off to HR too quickly (probably because the Executive team have more than enough to contend with), but I’ve always noted that it’s only when the business walks the talk and holds themselves accountable that real change starts to happen. Don’t get me wrong, HR and strategic D&I Leaders are a very important part of implementing and supporting that change and creating the right conditions, but if you address the demand for more female leaders, then the supply will look after itself, as HR teams and Recruiters and vendors rise up to meet that demand.
It sounds so simple (and I genuinely know it’s not), but if you work for a company that talks about Diversity and hiring more women onto the leadership team as a priority, then look the executive team in the eye to see if they mean it and whether they realise that they will need to walk the talk. I’m lucky, in that everywhere I have worked have meant it (if not to begin with then most certainly by the end), but not every company can say the same. More and more companies are hiring or promoting women into senior positions, which is amazing to see, but progress is still painfully slow in places, and that’s because, in my opinion, too many companies go through a much steeper learning curve than they ever expected and waste several years focusing on the wrong things.
Fix the DEMAND, fix the problem!