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Board-level recruitment: Advertise to attract female talent

A third of companies rely on personal networks for board-level recruitment, but advertising allows you to access less visible female talent

A recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into board-level recruitment and appointment practices in the FTSE 350 found that a third of companies largely rely on the personal networks of current and recent board members to identify new candidates. Half (55%) said that they don’t ever advertise board appointments.

The EHRC asked Warren Partners if we could provide insight into the value of headhunters advertising board positions. At Warren Partners we advertise both non-executive and executive board roles as appropriate. This has increased the number of high-quality women we know and can put forward, and has also broadened our networks in other under-represented groups.

So why are firms so reluctant to embrace advertising alongside the more traditional hiring methods? In part, the mystique around executive search and the power of the ‘little black book’ is to blame. While it is true that our contacts, networks and researchers are central to the value that we offer as headhunters, we need to put to bed the old argument that advertising attracts large numbers of inappropriate candidates. It can actually reveal talented people who we were not aware of before and thus broaden the candidate pool for this or future searches.

While search firms adopted a voluntary code of conduct around gender equality in 2011, which includes putting forward balanced shortlists and helping women achieve their first FTSE appointment, they still need to broaden their networks and databases to identify and target talented women who are not currently on the radar. Search firms working with boards outside the FTSE 350 have a particularly important role to play here because by identifying and championing talented women they’re building the pipeline to fill the FTSE roles in the future.

But it isn’t just the search industry that needs to consider a fresh perspective. While we can strive to present balanced shortlists and challenge clients’ specifications, we can’t guarantee that a board won’t choose a candidate that reflects its existing make-up. So HRDs have a role to play too in encouraging and developing high-potential female employees who aspire to board positions, and in educating their boards that the days of the ‘old boys network’ are over.

This is even more important as far as executive director diversity is concerned, because ED roles are more likely to be internal appointments and so reflect patterns of executive sponsorship and patronage that often disadvantage women.

The message to boards is simple: if you do what you have always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. The old boys' network will only ever deliver more old boys. So it's important to be creative and talk to different people, look in different places and expand the talent horizon – even if that means advertising.

Joëlle Warren is founder of executive search firm Warren Partners, accredited by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for delivering 30% female longlists and 30% female appointments in its board work