Monday 20 January 2020

Quotas are one thing, but women must put themselves in frame for top jobs

Fiona O'Connor

I was recently invited by the National Women's Council of Ireland and the European Women's Lobby to speak on 'Women on Boards – the next steps' and was delighted to join the debate, particularly having spoken last year on 'How to create a culture of innovation in the workplace'.

You might ask why one would speak on two such disparate topics, but to my mind the two topics are extensions of each other.

The laws of natural selection ensure survival of the fittest. Through the passage of time we have seen breeds of animal and plant species that are unable to adapt slowly die.

These same principles apply to business. The most innovative companies are the most successful. The word innovation now appears in over 70pc of the vision statements of publically quoted companies.

One key to creating a culture of innovation is diversity. Having a diverse workforce and management team is seen as crucial to creating an environment in which ideas and innovation thrive. How can any business expect to understand and win customers who are diverse in colour, creed, race, age and gender if their workforce does not reflect that base?

Logically it must follow that the board and senior management of a company, tasked with ensuring continued growth, anticipating risks and problems, foreseeing the potential for growth, ensuring the safe passage of the company through troubled times, should also be diverse.

Innumerable studies and reports give statistics of the improved performance of companies that have a focus on creating a diverse workplace, yet the pace of change has been slow.

In gender, for example, recent legislative efforts and other initiatives have helped bring women's representation in the boardroom to an all-time high. Yet nearly 90pc of the world's board seats belong to men.

A recent Deloitte Corporate Governance publication, 'Women in the boardroom: A global perspective' highlights initiatives spanning 25 countries and six continents.

The report shows that a number of countries have opted to introduce quota restrictions to increase diversity. There may be potential for the implementation of quotas to lead to tokenism on the one hand and bitterness on the other, it could be worth considering other initiatives.

For example in Australia as 2011, companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange are required to:

• Adopt and publicly disclose a diversity policy;

• Establish measurable objectives for achieving gender diversity and assess these;

• Disclose in each annual report the measurable objectives for achieving gender diversity and progress toward achieving them;

• Disclose in each annual report the proportion of women employees in the organisation, in senior positions, and on the board;

• Disclose the mix of skills and diversity the board is looking to achieve.

Steps like these may force debate, thus, slowly change may happen. Another possible step on the issue of diversity on boards that has been mooted is the setting up of an online database of available and 'board ready' women to encourage boards to consider women.

Another option for consideration is a possible need for more rigorous and transparent processes around the recruitment of board members. For instance, a mandatory board skills audit.

This could be followed by issuing guidelines of best practice to be used in the search and selection of those skills.

Ultimately change will only come when it is not about the gender, colour, creed or age but about finding the right person to fill the skills gap and putting in place processes and procedures that ensure this happens.

But what can those interested in board positions do to increase their chances of getting there? Well, at a bare minimum they must have to meet the same criterion that we see in successful board members now.

These include such things as having reached an executive level in business and demonstrated a level of capability, competence, commercial acumen, strategic agility and success, as well as the drive to get things done.

Successful board members are often specialists in their field or sector but also usually involved in multiple businesses and external associations and activities outside of their main area of expertise.

Boards naturally wish to minimise the risk of appointing the wrong individual and may use informal referral.

Therefore, a key factor in getting appointed to a board is that more than one person needs to think you will do a good job. That is to say that it is not enough for you to believe it, other people have to think so too, so being well networked and 'known' in the corporate world as having 'real life' experience, a lot to offer and integrity to carry it off with, is important.

So when someone 'puts down the ladder', having ticked all the above boxes, board-ready executives have to jump up onto it with gusto and show all their capabilities.

Irish Independent

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