Headhunters being shown how to hire more women

Published: 26 February 2014

Last week, I read with interest the comments from Jenny Willott, Junior Minister for Women and Equalities who also holds a role in Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs. Jenny told the Work & Family Show 2014 that the Government will be working with headhunters (like us I assume) to help appoint more women to senior leadership roles here in the UK. 

Jenny’s view is that we “tend to go for people like ourselves”. Does that mean there are no female headhunters? Economist Vicky Pryce was also speaking at the event. She believes that we have a narrow view on what makes a potential candidate and also that we discriminate against people who do things differently. Fair enough, there are potentially a lot of headhunters who think firmly within a small box.

There are two issues at play here - 1) Females getting leadership roles and 2) How headhunters operate. This is an incredibly broad topic but at the heart of it lies one key issue - do organisations (and therefore headhunters) want to hire on current capability and experience or on potential?

Let’s create a scenario; The CEO of a FTSE100 organisation has just resigned and the organisation has approached a headhunter to find a replacement. The brief might be that they will only consider candidates who are currently a FTSE100 CEO. At the time of writing this means that females will have a 4% chance of being successful in that process and that’s only if Angela Ahrendts U-turns her decision to join Apple.

In order to increase the chance of a female being hired, the brief would need to be, “we would like to hire someone with the ability to become a FTSE100 CEO and we are willing to consider candidates who have not yet held the top role”. One organisation that I assume had this mindset was Severn Trent Water. Last year they hired Liz Garfield in to the top role. Liz came from from BT where she ran one of their divisions; Openreach. BT Openreach is as big and complex as many FTSE100 organisations however she was still not number one in BT terms yet had the potential to be.

Assessing potential is a lot more challenging than asking someone whether they have done something or not. It requires a complete understanding of what it takes to be successful in the role. Many organisations now have a wealth of data on their people from performance to skills and everything in between. Through effective analysis of this, companies can build a picture of what makes people in the organisation successful both generically and in a particular role. This data must be analysed and then interpreted so that the competencies required are understood.  

Thought must also be given to less tangible factors. These include the environment in which the role operates and the culture of the business. You might notice that at no point here is this about creating a job description. A list of responsibilities does not demonstrate an understanding of what makes someone successful. If a list is to be created (everyone likes lists) then this should be about what the person must achieve, rather than a presumption of how they should achieve it.

Once the role profile is understood, an appropriate assessment methodology can be created which will involve detailed interviewing, testing, referencing and if appropriate, psychometrics. This will not only ensure that the potential talent pool is a lot broader but also gives a far higher chance of finding someone that will be successful in the role.

A genuine understanding of what makes a person successful in a role will ensure that more women are considered seriously for new positions and will be successful in role. With the amount of data available I think now is the time to give such an important area of business more thought. Hiring someone who has done the same role in a similar company prevents genuine innovation and change. This is true for anyone at any level within a business, not just at the very top.

Analysis and thought before a hiring process begins is critical. This will ensure access to a better and more inclusive talent pool and a more successful appointment.

Tim Baker is a Consultant in the HR Practice at Berwick Partners

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