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So you can’t find great women for your organization? Really?

A decade ago, there was a question I was regularly asked by chairmen and CEOs. It went something like this: “I need to have more women on my board and senior management team. But where do I find them?”

The question was usually asked by males of a certain vintage. It was perhaps forgivable then – many of them seemed genuinely perplexed about the challenge of needing to have more women in leadership. Their experience of life and leadership was so male-centred that they really did not know how to proceed to look for senior women executives.

If you’re a chair or CEO still asking that question in 2021, though, may I respectfully say that the times – they have a-passed you by.

Frances Frei is an excellent guide in this matter. Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard Business School (HBS), she focuses on how leaders create the conditions for organizations and individuals to thrive, and is a well-regarded advisor on diversity and inclusion.

I listened to Professor Frei talking about diversity on HBS’s After Hours podcast recently. She, too, finds herself being asked the question about finding senior women. Her answer is worth sharing widely.

How do you attract and retain great women? Here’s what Frances Frei said: “If you don’t know where great women are, great women know where great women are.” Ask great women!

Then, when you have the candidates before you, don’t enter into a negotiation to see if you can pay less and reduce senior payroll. Just don’t. If you want top women on your team, pay what you would pay top men. Don’t let the women find out much later that you pay equally qualified men more. We’re done with that.

Her last piece of advice: if you’re serious about bringing in a great woman, assume that a woman comes with a context. She may have different obligations and home situations compared to the men you are used to recruiting. Recruit the whole context, and be OK with it. Do not whine about things like “it’s just easier with guys.” Do you want diversity or not? If you do, get real about the world and adapt.

Let me chime in with some thoughts of my own. Before you even think about recruitment, ask yourself this: why do you even want senior women on your team? Is it really about diverse talent for you, or just about the optics? Are you serious about wanting to inject different perspectives in your strategy and operations, or are you just posturing? If it’s the former, you will have no problem finding excellent women candidates for boards and senior management teams. If it’s the latter, and you are only interested in boxes that need ticking, you will keep struggling with this issue.

Oh, and you won’t find the great women by looking in golf clubs and members’ bars, or by asking the patriarchs of yesteryear.

The challenge is bigger than just finding more women. As I have written here many times before, the real answer lies in creating a workplace that attracts the right people, period. The real question is internal, not external, and it is this: “Who would want to work here?”

Great employers don’t struggle to find great people. Mediocre ones always do.

If your organization is still resolutely patriarchal and designed to be led by males, then good luck finding any really talented women to join you. Equally, if ethnicity is one of your unspoken-but-obvious recruitment and promotion criteria, why would anyone of substance from the “wrong” groups want to join you?

Mediocrity attracts and retains mediocrity.

You should not be doing diversity and inclusion just to complete a certain look; you should be doing it because it’s the right thing to do, and because it will have a significant impact on your performance. It will humanize and modernize your organization and make it fit for the twenty-first century and beyond.

Be clear about the reason. Success in an age of increasing strategic uncertainty can only be achieved by creating a “hive mind.” The era of two or three dominant minds controlling and deciding things for the collective is truly over. Better decisions come from having a multiplicity of rich perspectives on a situation. You have to increase your organisational bandwidth, so diversity is a must-have, not a pretend-play.

To achieve it, however, requires a redesign and an overhaul of organizational norms. Your recruitment processes, workplace culture and employee experience will all require concerted attention. Get started by bringing in more women, more youngsters, and more unusually educated and diversely experienced people. 

Desisting from saying things like you don’t know where to find them would be a good start.

( Sunday Nation, 13 June 2021)

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