Women on Boards – Let the excuses begin

The interim report from the Hampton Alexander Review caused headlines last week. On explaining why they didn’t have enough female representation on their Boards, the review cited the most commonly heard reasons from FTSE 350 chairs and chief executives:

  • “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment”

I would have some sympathy with this if it were presented as a problem that needed solving rather than a reason for non-selection. There is no doubt that the culture and environment of board rooms across the world needs to progress and modernise, but that’s exactly why more diversity is a good thing.

  • “There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex”

Oh my…where to go with this one? It reminds me of a CEO many years ago who, when asked why there were no women on his board replied, “Why? Are the men doing such a bad job?” Words fail me.

  • “Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board”

This could be true. But how do you know? It certainly isn’t representative of the senior women executives I’ve worked with throughout my career. I’d have sympathy if you’d been repeatedly trying to hire and receiving this feedback, but my guess is that isn’t the case.

  • “Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?”

There is more than one stakeholder group that is important to the good running of a business, and more than that, this is about leadership. Show some leadership.

  • “My other board colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board”

Then you should probably have more vacancies on your board available to women. Can you imagine this conversation being acceptable in any other forum or part of society?

  • “All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up”

Whereas there is a plethora of average, middle-aged, white males?  I admit they “might” be harder to find, they might be less forward about coming forward, less likely to self promote in the board environment (I have no evidence to support this, I’m just being generous). But a lack of good women? That’s far from my experience.

  • “We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn”

If there was ever a response that suggested tokenism, then this would probably be the World Cup winner. This probably worries me more than the other responses because it represents such a complete misunderstanding of the issue.

  • “There aren’t any vacancies at the moment – if there were I would think about appointing a woman”

If this read, “we haven’t had a vacancy during my tenure” I might be able to get with it. Also, maybe not just think about it, but actively pursue a diverse shortlist. Maybe.

  • “We need to build the pipeline from the bottom – there just aren’t enough senior women in this sector”

Yes, yes you do. But not just that. And board representation should pull on experience from different sectors and different backgrounds to ensure good governance and a diversity of background and opinion. So don’t stop the pipeline, but think about how you could turbocharge it too.

  • “I can’t just appoint a woman because I want to”

No. You could appoint them because they’re the best person for the job.

If you’re interested in finding out more, the full and latest Hampton-Alexander Review is published on 27 June.

We get the leaders we deserve

Many, many years ago I was sat in a room with a CEO and a number of their employees, it was a “meet the ordinary people” type affair. There was a debate about the visibility and availability of the CEO in the various parts of the business, with one of the managers saying that she would like to see them spend more time out on the floor with her team.

It’s the kind of challenge that you hear pretty regularly raised towards leaders and leadership teams. What struck me, on this occasion, was the reply of the CEO.

They went on to explain that they’d very much like to do so. That they’d love to have the opportunity to get to speak to people and interact with them. But they found it really hard to just roll up out of the blue and just start talking and people never really invited them to anything that was going on to help them overcome this challenge.

You mean, CEOs have weaknesses? Well, of course they do. We all do and just because you’ve risen to a position of power doesn’t mean you’re perfect. In the kitchens and copier rooms across the country, we’re busy identifying and outlining the weaknesses of our management teams. We’re incredibly good at diagnosing and highlighting the shortcomings, but what are we doing to help them?

That’s their problem though, you’re not paid to make them better. Right? If you work in HR, I’d thoroughly dispute this but in fact I’d dispute it wherever you work. In many ways, you get the leaders you deserve.

Think about that meeting when you struggled with the P&L for the investment proposal. How would it have felt if someone from finance had come up to you afterwards and kindly offered to take you through the numbers to make sure you were up to speed? What about the time that you were struggling to get your point across in that important meeting? What if someone had asked you questions to help you break it down?

It doesn’t matter what level you are, what seniority you are, how much experience you have, you’re going to have areas of weakness and you’re most likely going to know about them. People pointing them out is often little help, being told what you already know never is. But having people around you quietly helping you to work on them and improve? That’s altogether a different matter.

So next time you want to have a moan about the way your manager, boss or CEO behaves, also ask yourself what you could do to help them cover off that area and be better. You might be surprised by the result you get from them, and maybe also how you feel about yourself and your work.

The outsourcing myth

Outsourcing has hung around our profession for a while. And it is easy to see why it’s an attractive proposition for a number of reasons:

  • For the CFO it removes headcount and overhead
  • For the HRD it allows the focus to shift to strategy
  • For the CEO it provides consistent service and support

Which in many senses is an organisational wet dream.

And whilst many organisations have moved away from the third-party outsource, they are, instead, setting up internal service models to provide HR services back in to the main organization. The insourced, outsource, if you’d like.

I’ve never quite been able to get my head around this. The arguments are simple and yet at the same time completely contradictory to the demands that I hear from line managers, employees and CEOs whenever I talk to them.

  • We want someone there to support us, someone who understands our business
  • We want to be treated like human beings, not part of a process
  • We want HR to be closer to the business

The simple process of moving HR services in to a separate organization, in to a separate location and away from the rest of the organization is directly in conflict with every single opinion trend that there is. Yet still we persist.

For most employees, the only contact they have with HR is on a transactional basis. The way in which we are perceived is based on this and the data that we need to understand our organization comes through these interactions. It just makes no sense whatsoever.

Rather than pushing away the bits of HR that seem like an inconvenience, we should be looking to drive service excellence. Rather than pushing it out in to some shed in the middle of a godforsaken town with “low labour costs” (for this read high unemployment), we should be pulling this in to our core.

Outsourcing has a beautifully convenient appeal. But as a wise person said, “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is”.

HR can’t manage talent

A non-scientific study of CEOs that I’ve recently spoken to indicates one consistent concern; Talent Management. Fortunately, at the same time, the good people at the Harvard Business Review have provided the slightly more scientific back up indicating the same.

Which is good news for HR, right?

Because we’re all over talent. Aren’t we?

It was 1997 when McKinsey first uttered the phrase “war for talent” and whether you agree with it, or not, that’s almost 20 years to get our act together. Yet here we are, still unable to assuage the concerns of our CEOs.

So why is that?

Well it certainly isn’t due to a lack of “human resource”. During the period between 1997 and today, the UK population has increased about 6% and if you extend this to the global population, the increase is greater. So, theoretically, more talent available. Plus, if you look at increased global mobility and broader labour pools on top of this, then that should also help.

And yet not.

HR has singularly failed to address talent management and we’ve done so because of an inability to address the culture of the organisations that we work in.

Instead of tackling the underlying challenges we’ve developed process. And charts. And portfolios. Because talent management calls out for a portfolio more than anything else, that’s well known…..

When the reality is that only line management can truly manage talent and all we can do as a profession is encourage the organisational culture that allows this to happen. Which requires us to focus on the barriers that exist:

  • under resourcing of teams
  • focus on short-term goals
  • unwillingness to take risks
  • narrow perceptions of talent

The fact is that most CEOs could start to deal with their “number one concern” tomorrow, if they really wanted to and understood what the issues were. And that’s where we come in. We need to take the conversation away from the process, away from the god awful 9 box model and start talking about the culture of our organisations and empowering and incentivising managers to grow and develop talent.

Talent management and development happened long before 1997. Maybe we just need to take a look back and work out how we broke the system, rather than measure how broken it is.