Language in executive search; are you getting what you ask for?

Language in executive search; are you getting what you ask for?

We are known for exploring left field talent and candidates from aligned markets for our clients. We differentiate ourselves through deep market knowledge – both in core and complementary sectors and businesses relevant to our clients. As many sectors that we work within are so limited by the scarcity and competition for inspirational leaders, this is the new normal.

Diversity and inclusion is a critical challenge for our industry, and as one of the country’s leading executive search businesses we have a responsibility to ensure the right practices are endemic in everything we do. We know that diversity can be hard to achieve when targeting scarce resources, and so it’s critical to ensure your messages to the market aren’t inadvertently closing doors you’d prefer remain open.

Putting this in context, and ‘ripping the Elastoplast off quickly’, we ran a campaign for a client targeting high potential talent which simply failed to engage female candidates. The roles were exceptional – an opportunity for high capability, high performing candidates taken from across industries with a remit to drive transformation in a household brand. The campaign touched c.900 people, delivering a longlist of 30, of which all bar one were male. The captured talent pool was representative of the market at large. So why weren’t women interested in pursuing the opportunity?  Well paid, well positioned and appealing – what went wrong?

There’s only one way to get answers; ask questions! Going back to individuals in the original candidate pool we talked about the influencing factors in their decision making. We were able to gain some valuable insights into what was being perceived or heard when we used terms such as ‘highly transformative’, ‘highly commercial’, ‘brave’, ‘challenge’ etc. To some this sounded like an overtly masculine, macho and highly competitive environment. This translated into perceptions of a business that may not support working parents, offer flexible working, or suit candidates with a desire to strike a healthy work life balance. Telling was the observation that even when these relatively inexperienced leaders didn't have families of their own, they were mindful that they might in the future, and assumed this would this present a clash.

Importantly none of these assumptions were accurate. This is a business that has a healthy gender balance in its senior leadership team.   In putting these findings into practice we adopted a different strategy with all candidates. This saw us focus upon providing real insights into the operational culture referencing the crucial influencers identified in our research; flexibility of working, the success stories of working parents and those who worked a condensed week.  This extended into a more contextual explanation of the culture of the firm; shifting away from describing a demanding and highly charged environment, to an intellectually stimulating workplace where you could enjoy working hard and benefit from rapid progression and rotation.

This simple shift in language generated  a marked increase in the numbers of women progressing to shortlist and appointment; a tremendous result for this client and some critical learning for us.

Korinna Sjoholm is a Principal Consultant specialising in recruiting senior management and leadership positions in the Infrastructure sector at Berwick Partners.

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