‘Beyond the usual suspects’ – executive recruitment and the ongoing diversity challenge

Results on diverse appointments have been slow in coming in both the private and public sectors. Jonathan Swain, Managing Director of McLean Public, explains why he’s optimistic new targets on diverse hiring will be met, but only if organisations and recruiters employ new methods to get ‘beyond the usual suspects’.

Results on diverse appointments have been slow in coming in both the private and public sectors. Jonathan Swain, Managing Director of McLean Public, explains why he’s optimistic new targets on diverse hiring will be met, but only if organisations and recruiters employ new methods to get ‘beyond the usual suspects’.

As a gay man, the woeful lack of diversity in leadership positions has been a passion of mine since I started my working career way back in the 1980s and personally experienced the discrimination rife at the time. In my first role, post-graduation, at Willesden County Court I was told by my manager to be less “flamboyant” and to “tone down” my personality – these were some of the more pleasant comments. Times have moved on, of course, thankfully. There has unquestionably been progress worth commending, highlighted for example by the results of the five-year Hampton Alexander review, which found the FTSE 350 had achieved a target of ensuring at least a third of board positions were held by women. 

Yet there remains much to do. Official figures suggest female board members at FTSE 100 companies are paid about 40% less than their male counterparts. Meanwhile, almost a fifth of FTSE 100 boards still lack any ethnic minority representation whatsoever. In the public sector, the number of out LGBT+ local authority chief executives can be counted on just over one hand.

In the private sector, companies are now feeling the heat from both shareholders and regulators, and the desire to get beyond the usual suspects during the recruitment process is evident. Similarly, public sector organisations are committed to being representative of the communities and customers they serve.

I am optimistic these ambitions will be realised, though the speed at which they will be achieved depends on how much organisations commit to more rigorous (and often challenging) methods of recruiting their leaders. At McLean Public, the push to offer clients a more diverse set of candidates is long standing and, though there’s more to do, we are making progress. Across the broader public sector, 70% of our appointments are Global Majority, female or LGBT+.

Our commitment and particular approach have given us a unique perspective on which methods work and which are less effective. By widening our net of candidates, we have developed connections to a deeper and more varied network of senior diverse individuals. Meanwhile, our position as trusted advisors, rather than recruiters, means we have the market intelligence to spot the best candidates in non-traditional pools of talent. Together, those factors are producing our growing track record, which means our clients take our shortlists seriously.

That runs both ways. Candidates, too, know we take their candidacy seriously. We will not put candidates forward unless they are right for the role, which builds trust on all sides. There are other factors worth considering. Coaching candidates can go a long way. Although it’s changing, interviewees are still too often judged against interpersonal skills honed at public schools and Oxbridge universities, which don’t always correlate with success in a given position. 

Also, it remains important that employers continue tackling bias in the recruitment process – and I’m not just talking about unconscious bias, as is often the focus. There remain problematic attitudes to age and life choices, or outdated attitudes to education that require challenging head on. At McLean Public we seek to be meticulous about the wording of job descriptions, for example, which are often soaked in subtle – and at times not so subtle – gender bias.

The recruitment industry is moving in the right direction on this issue, but without more work to get beyond the usual suspects, the step change everyone is hoping for simply won’t happen. 

If you’re struggling to diversify your organisation’s leadership team, please get in touch as this is something McLean Public can support you with.

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