Hiring For A Diversity & Inclusion Agenda

By Cathy Holley

So, it’s official. What we all suspected is now fully backed by all the stats – having diverse teams not only makes the workplace happier, but more productive and successful; your customers will feel a positive difference and ultimately, so will your P&L. What is equally true is that, whether our clients fully embrace the overwhelming evidence or whether they are simply following instructions from somewhere on high, gender balance is hugely important to them. They are quite clear that gender balanced shortlists are no longer a “nice to have” so exploring how we will deliver good quality female candidates is a critical part of the pitch.

Of all the functions within a business where there is a significant gender imbalance, Technology is arguably the front runner. Senior female technology leaders are in very short supply. We estimate that 5% of CIOs and CDOs are female in the USA and UK (frequently lower in less mature markets). This, coupled with the fact that everybody wants to hire them, makes the gender balanced shortlist very hard to achieve. The learnings, therefore, for how to produce a balanced shortlist for senior executive technology roles are useful to both those recruiting within this space but also across the other functions. If we can do it in technology, it can be done elsewhere.

Considerations before the search

While it would be great to place this challenge firmly on the shoulders of your chosen headhunter and go back to your day job, given the size of the challenge, this is going to have to be a team effort. If your chosen partner isn’t teeing you up to play your part, I wonder if they are serious about the task at hand. A balanced shortlist may well require you to make changes at your end in terms of the spec, working practices, interview style and process in general. A lack of clarity upfront may well result in another shortlist of “the usual suspects”. Henry Ford taught us, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” and expecting a different outcome from the same process is, apparently, the first sign of madness. The same rule applies to headhunting. So, what practical steps can you take to maximise your chances of success?

Choosing the Right Role

First of all, if you are keen to hire a female technology leader, pick the role wisely. For example, if you analyse the stats on technology roles more commonly held by women, you will see that hoping to hire a female lead in service delivery/infrastructure or strategy and architecture is tantamount to hunting for the proverbial pink unicorn. Whereas, there are definitely more female CIOs, CDOs, programme directors, heads of delivery, business relationship managers and even a few CISOs. When planning your diversity strategy, do bear this in mind. Bear in mind that some roles might enable you to hire women from a lateral technology function whereas others (e.g. CISO) are binary since the technical skillsets tend to be completely critical to the role. You may be willing to hire a candidate who would be stepping up a level and learning new skills but do mindful that most great women rise up very quickly through the ranks and don’t often dwell in these roles for very long. If they are currently a number two to a CIO/CDO, they will probably not accept a lateral move. Why would they, when another firm will take the risk of promoting them to the top job? If you do promote into a bigger role you might consider supporting them as they develop new skills by offering them an experienced CIO mentor.  

Market Mapping

Once you’ve decided to go out to the market, the first challenge is to identify that there are enough female candidates in the pool to ensure you have a reasonable chance of creating a balanced shortlist. A thorough market mapping (beyond that which is normal for a search) is highly recommended and will create choices where there were none. Mapping identifies every potential candidate in every relevant organisation, globally and where they fit into the overall organisation along with an overview of their skillset. It will instantly tell us whether the female candidate pool is big enough and whether it needs supplementing with more lateral candidates from adjacent fields (e.g. from other sectors/geographies/candidates at the level below who might be ready to step up). Once the market is mapped the available talent is completely visible and choices become clear. Clients can then add layers of filters (key criteria) whilst guaranteeing a good gender blend of candidates. Given that almost inevitably your list will include some basics as such good leadership, commercial acuity, strategic thinking, good culture fit, beware being too prescriptive on specific technical skills or expertise which can easily be added to the team in another way. One thing is for sure – coming up with a huge list of criteria and randomly adding “PS. Must be a woman”, is usually doomed to failure.

Identifying great female talent is, however, simply step one. We then need to plan our strategy for approaching and securing them. When great firms are designing products to take to market, they know that customer-centricity is vital; you start by asking what your potential customers might like to buy from you and work backwards. Why would we not adopt the same approach when seeking to hire these rare candidates? We are, let’s be clear, selling to them.

Positioning the Role

At Savannah Group, we invest a great deal of time in building close relationships with the most senior female technology leaders by running a number of networking forums for senior women. We discuss topics such as encouraging gender balance in the function and careers as well as general business topics. We thus feel qualified to know what is most likely to turn them on (or off). Each woman is unique of course and each has her own personal motives and drivers, but it goes without saying that nobody, male or female, wants to be hired solely because of gender. Of course, any hint of this would be deemed patronising, but they do all understand that given we are where we are in terms of gender balance, a new approach is required to deliver a change and that in practical terms, they will now inevitably receive more calls than they used to. Many embrace these new opportunities of course, and why not? It does help however, if your hiring partner is truly involved with them on an ongoing basis, not just calling them out of the blue because they tick a box which can be perceived as unwelcome tokenism.

Closing the Candidate

Once we have persuaded them to consider your firm’s proposition, they will naturally be looking beyond the interview process into the specific role and whether your company could be a potential happy home. When they meet you, they will probably ask what greater diversity of thought would bring your firm and what new outcomes you seek. You need to be able to articulate this clearly. Great leadership involves painting a vision of the future and you will need to work a bit harder to ensure this vision is really attractive to a candidate who has many choices.

Their level of choice also means you will need to be more open-minded both in terms of compensation (yes, I’m afraid you pay more for the rare diamonds than the run-of-the mill), and flexible working. In the current market, if you cannot give them what they are looking for, someone else will. Of course, money isn’t everything and organisations who show genuine interest in the candidate as a holistic human being and their wellbeing and potential, are more likely to attract women who (yes, I realise this is a generalisation) often prefer and need a better work life balance. Speed of process is also critical; you can be fairly sure that any woman on your shortlist is also on others.

In Conclusion

So, if I leave you with only one message it is this; please help us to help you. We are proud of our track record in placing outstanding women tech leaders and delighted by the attention we garner when we do so, but it’s absolutely a team effort. We’ll be glad to share with you our thoughts on how best to play your part. In 2018, 35% of the candidates we placed in technology functions were women and we won’t rest until we’ve achieved a 50:50 split.

About the Author

Partner, Digital and Technology Leaders Practice
Cathy Holley co-heads Savannah’s Digital & Technology Leaders Practice with Vicky Maxwell Davies. Cathy was also co-creator of the Savannah/CIO Development CIO mentoring programme and speaks at the top industry events for organisations such as Gartner, Deloitte, Leading Edge Forum and the Digital Transformation Club.
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