Diversity targets for the boardroom, senior management and Parliament reflect the importance and challenge of getting the best talent into the roles with most potential for influence. Successfully broadening the talent represented at the top will underpin the strength of the UK economy and of our democracy. The ideas set out below for changing the odds of recruiting non-traditional candidates are research backed, and whilst presented through the lens of gender, they apply equally to diversity of all types.
The current challenge to achieving gender diversity at the top is rooted in the decades during which ‘the other half of humanity’ was forbidden or strongly discouraged from developing their intellectual potential. During this time organisations were built by men for men, based on the assumption of a wife at home. Getting to the top was influenced as much by who you knew and how well you played the politics as by talent and hard work.
Given this legacy of discrimination in education and opportunity and the old-boy-network cultures that resulted, the pipeline of senior white men is inevitably fuller than that of similarly experienced women (and other minority candidates). This does not mean, however, that there are insufficient well-qualified female candidates to fill half the 5,500 public sector board roles in the UK. But it does mean that minority candidates are harder to find and are much less likely to fit the traditional mould.
To improve the odds of successfully appointing from the broadest possible pool of top talent, the research suggests that you need to change your recruitment process. Specifically I recommend:
1. Refine your requirements
Slim down your recruitment briefs to the must-haves for the new board member. In reality this usually comes down to 2 or 3 areas of experience that no one else on the board can provide. But because briefs are prepared by committee they end up padded with everyone’s wish list and a lot of generic skills which are not essential in every member of the board. And the longer the list, the fewer minority candidates will apply [research shows that the threshold for women is when they tick ˜70% of the requirements; men are more likely to apply even when they tick only one third].
2. Anonymise the early selection steps
Recent research indicates that whilst we can each become more aware of our own biases and stereotypes, they are too deeply ingrained to be changed. We will all continue to recruit in our own image whilst being convinced we are selecting solely on merit. So removing candidate names and even university names during the filtering process is the first step. The second is to rank everyone solely on how well they evidence their fit with your 2 or 3 top requirements (point 1 above). Whilst it runs contrary to the human instinct to want to know a candidate’s back-story, these steps are crucial to opening the door to non-traditional applicants.
Blind auditions by orchestras, in which screens were used to conceal identity and gender, provides powerful evidence of the importance of anonymising applicants: “We find, using the audition data, that the screen increases – by 50% – the probability that a woman will be advanced from certain preliminary rounds and increases by several fold the likelihood that a woman will be selected in the final round.” [Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of "Blind" Auditions on Female Musicians” Claudia Goldin, Cecilia Rouse, 1997]
3. Turn on the floodlights
Whilst the Public Appointments website is a useful resource it is only on the radar of a tiny fraction of potential applicants. And whilst headhunters may sometimes turn up a great new candidate, their databases tend to be limited to the usual suspects and their economic models don’t encourage them to invest time identifying the hundreds of others who are equally capable, but harder to find and assess [e.g. referees who are not already known carry less weight].
To ensure every vacancy is widely visible you should combine all the recruitment options: the public appointments website, headhunters (insist on a diverse short-list), social media, and the various free non-executive vacancy boards including Women on Boards. Given the positive impact a well-rounded board can have on organisational effectiveness, you are “investing to save” when you decide to spend additional time and money on the selection of these critical resources.
Chair, Women on Boards
NED Digital Catapult
Non Executive, Cabinet Office Constitution Group