working women

What Executive Recruiters Can Tell Us About Female CEOs and Directors

Today I read (yet another) article trying to explain why there are so few female CEOs.  The short answer: there isn’t a strong pipeline of women in “line” or “operational” roles, which typically precede winning the CEO job.  In other words, women achieve senior leadership in roles such as HR, legal, PR, or finance where they haven’t been responsible for a P&L.  Therefore, they hit a management “ceiling” b/c CEO candidates tend to come from the head of business units, sales, or operational roles.  

This pipeline or “grooming” issue has been noted in most serious studies of women in corporate senior leadership so I didn’t think the article said anything new until I read the following quote:

“I don’t think there is a bias, a lot of companies are specifically looking for women to put into these jobs,” said Wood, who has helped place more than 200 CEOs and directors. “If you haven’t been thoughtful about evolving and developing your talent, you may find that you narrow your choices beyond what you should if you had more actively managed people getting new assignments.”  

The speaker in question is John Wood, none other than the vice chairman of a major executive recruitment firm, Heidrick & Struggles.  Presumably his loyalties are to his clients so I was surprised at his comment because most companies don’t make public statements about how they are looking for a CEO of X gender or Y race.  In fact, companies do the exact opposite and say generic things about finding the “best” candidate or one that maximizes shareholder value.  In fact, I cannot think that a large company would ever say anything so explicit about finding a candidate of a particular gender.  But it did make me wonder: what’s said behind closed doors?  It made me think about all the companies who might be dealing with an image problem and what they say about the need for diversity after a scandal.  For example, American Apparel’s Board recently appointed its first female directors after ousting a male CEO who’d been embroiled in sexual harassment allegations.  Maybe executive search firms whose clients tell them they are “specifically looking for women” in fact, have a lot of experience with bias that they’re explicitly trying to counteract by hiring people of certain types.  

This is only speculation on my part, but I think Mr. Wood’s comment is actually a lot more revealing than he intended and I would be fascinated to hear more from executive recruiters about the candidates that companies seek for their CEOs and directors.  It would be especially interesting to understand why a company would be “specifically looking for women.”  


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