Putting More Women in the Boardroom

women hiring women for the boardroom
Elena Terol (3rd from right) with her team at Cornerstone Madrid

In 2005, long before Norway had begun to implement quotas for women in the boardroom, Elena Terol stepped out of a distinguished corporate career in talent acquisition to start her own executive search firm in Spain. She knew what she wanted.

Elena hired women partners for her company, ExcellentSearch, the Cornerstone member company in Madrid. The company grew; and so did the global discussion about the disturbing lack of women in senior executive roles and, more acutely, in the boardroom.

So in 2009, Elena and her team started, from scratch, a division dedicated to increasing female board members and executives in Spain. “We wanted women to be more visible.”

Elena’s team diligently built a database of over 300 talented women in all functions. When the new owner of the global telecommunications company Jazztel arrived in Spain, he asked Elena to present women-only candidates for an opening on the board. ExcellentSearch did not have to scramble.

Elena presented four female candidates for the position. The CEO was so impressed that he hired all four of them: one for the board position and the other three in tech, marketing, and human resources positions.

Jazztel later became a reference brand of Orange, a company where 8 of its 15 board members are women.

We presented four women for one position and he was so impressed with their talent he hired all four.”

Jazztel believed in women. But many other businesses fail to move beyond diversity speak and therefore continue to lag behind in hiring female executives — despite the claim that a more balanced leadership bench improves the bottom line.

In Room at the Top: Women Leaders and the Role of Executive Search, the London-based Recruitment & Employment Confederation blames the inaction on “ businesses not listening to advice from executive search firms to widen the talent pool and to question historical practices when it comes to senior appointments.”

A Larger Pool

Elena urges businesses to undertake a more rigorous search (“not just taking the recommendation of a friend”) or to hire a headhunter that can provide a larger, more objective pool. As with Jazztel, businesses are becoming increasingly explicit in asking search firms to provide a diverse set of candidates.

In Elena’s practice, her team typically talks with a sub-set of 10-15 candidates and in the end presents 3-5 to clients. She likes 2-3 of them to be women.

Changing the Climate

Voicing a commitment to hiring more women is inadequate. Spain, along with other countries, is hiring more women into senior roles but there is a long way to go. As for women on boards, the reviews on quotas are mixed.

While they’ve clearly increased the number of women on boards (Norway is slightly above its 40% mandate), quotas alone cannot tackle the underlying need for businesses to transform the organizational climate for women. Businesses must truly believe that women in leadership roles are major assets – and that means confronting the challenges of change.

The irony is that, in Elena’s view, women are more apt to challenge norms and raise the difficult questions in the boardroom. Sometimes it takes women to hire more women.

Making Women Visible

Women play a role in making themselves more visible, in part because they don’t always know how to sell themselves. They tend to be much less aggressive in their branding and fail to ask for what they want. In the inner circles of women mentoring one another, it’s called the “don’t ask, don’t get” phenomenon.

Elena’s advice? Don’t be afraid to ask for a specific position if you want it. And prepare for what it takes.

For percentages of women on boards in your country between 2010-2016, see Female share of seats on boards of the largest publicly listed companies produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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