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Driving Gender Balance with Inclusive Executive Search

My decision to move from a senior leadership position in Consumer Goods to a role in Leadership Advisory was linked to a strong sense of purpose, the desire to contribute to leadership for a better world and the wish to put Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) into action. Inclusive Executive Search is one tangible area of impact.

Progress has been made worldwide in terms of promoting diversity in leadership appointments. Nevertheless, the lack of inclusivity remains a major concern. It’s time to challenge some of the established practices that have been in place for decades. Search 1.0, the way leaders are currently chosen, has evolved from this. Progress, for instance in female representation in Boards, largely comes from external pressures and individual efforts rather than the system itself.

How an inclusive Executive Search process drives gender balance

We know that our personal worldviews and core beliefs guide our thoughts and feelings. This is also true when it comes to leadership appointments, which are influenced by all kinds of cognitive biases and group affiliations. Overall, efforts toward greater diversity are too reactionary. Most organisations are addressing a narrow set of diversity priorities and fighting today’s battles, rather than becoming future-proof, thoughtful and comprehensive.

Therefore, we need to support, role model, and demand an inclusive recruitment process. At Egon Zehnder, we call this process Search 2.0: Each step of a senior leadership appointment has been addressed and redefined. With inclusivity at its core, it doesn’t exclude any leader or seek predetermined outcomes and it will lead to more diversity – including gender balance – in Executive and Non-Executive appointments.

How we can make a difference

Let me share a few examples of what YOU can do differently as of tomorrow, starting with the role of the people involved in the search process.

  • Distinctive candidate access goes beyond the ability to reach a candidate. It extends to differentiated non-public insights about candidates. These can only come from the credibility, intimacy and trust that has been built up over time by individual consultants within an Executive Search firm or by in-house recruiters within a big corporation.
  • Though research is at an early stage, current Egon Zehnder analysis shows that female consultants on average end up presenting more female candidates for interviews than male consultants. Research has shown that access to and acceptance into networks that share a certain characteristic (e.g., gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, age, socioeconomics, national identity, regional identity, religious identity, etc.) is positively correlated to possessing that characteristic yourself. Searches led by female consultants outperformed searches led by male consultants by 25 percent in terms of presenting at least one female candidate to the interview stage across the firms’ global searches.
  • Knowledge of DEI is important. Current Egon Zehnder analysis shows a positive correlation between engagement in DEI knowledge, language, capabilities and participation and a higher proportion of diverse hires. Consultants who are designated as DEI champions made 20 percent more female candidate hires than the wider consultant pool, irrespective of their gender.
  • Similarly, client team composition matters. Egon Zehnder analysis shows that if more than 40 percent of the client team is female, there is a 40 percent or more chance of there being a female hire on the project. The sweet spot seems to be a client team that is 40-60 percent female, which roughly equates to 47 percent female hires.
  • Looking at search strategy, precise search criteria can have a drastic impact on the diversity of the candidate pool because of the law of small numbers— the reality that underrepresented candidate pools are not numerous in senior leadership ranks. When it comes to role specifications, it is important to note that cognitive biases can flow through writing styles, for example, by choosing masculine forms of words. Some words may trigger others, evoke an emotional reaction or cause offence.
  • A client interview process should not commence before there is a diverse pool of candidates. Egon Zehnder analysis shows that if a short list is diverse, it materially increases the chances of a diverse hire. For example, having just one female interviewee creates a 30 percent chance of a female hire, increasing to 45 percent when there are two and 60 percent with three.

There is much more that should be taken into consideration. From the way candidate profiles are presented, the role of diversity statistics, the importance of lived experiences to a structured interview process, effective candidate calibration, crafting inclusive terms and conditions, and eventually active support for integration in the first 180 days.

Is there a better way to select leaders? For sure. Is the transition to Search 2.0 rocket science? No. Does it require intention, the willingness to drive change, and discipline in execution? Yes.

Let us together use inclusive executive search to drive the transformation of leadership appointment processes – and benefit from more diverse leadership teams.

Silvia Wiesner, Local Partnerships Committee Chair