Women a goldmine of talent too often ignored

Wonder Women

By Glenda Korporaal

Australian boards should be prepared to take more risks in appointing lesser known people as directors, particularly women, according to the global head of executive search firm Egon Zehnder, Damien O’Brien.

The Paris-based Australian says executive search companies often put up a list of potential candidates for directorship positions, but women candidates were often omitted because they were not known by other directors.

"You get group-think and the risk-averseness sets in. You get candidates being blackballed because they are not known," Mr O’Brien said during a visit to Australia last week. "But if they are not proven at board level, they are, almost by definition, not going to be known.

"It’s very easy to build a board of grey-haired males."

O’Brien runs the international firm, which has 63 offices in almost 40 countries, from its headquarters in Paris.

He joined the firm in Sydney 23 years ago after working as an associate at management consultant McKinsey & Company.

He was born in Melbourne, where his family founded a catering company.

He studied to become a Catholic priest at St Columban’s College, Sydney, before opting for a career in business, doing an MBA at Columbia University in New York.

Mr O’Brien, who has been chief executive of Egon Zehnder International for several years, recently won the additional role of chairman. The firm has done work for many of the largest Australian companies.

Mr O’Brien said Australian companies tended to make less use of executive search consultants than companies in the US and Europe because of the small size of the market.

"In smaller markets like Australia, where people feel they know the candidates, there is a tendency to work within a limited universe and there is less of a strategic approach to finding directors," he said.

But he said that this attitude was changing in Australia where boards were taking a more systematic approach to appointing new directors and there was now much more awareness about the need to appoint more women to boards.

"The whole discussion about gender has been ratcheted up here, which is good," he said.
"It’s incredible that women are regarded as `diverse’ hires.

"They are half of the population.

"In a world where talent is constrained, women represent an extraordinarily rich goldmine of talent, which most countries fail to use — in Australia and in the Western world."

Mr O’Brien said some Australian companies were now prepared to take some risks in appointing lesser-known people to their ranks. "There are a number of boards which are now appointing individuals who are supposedly unproven, who have stepped up beautifully."

He said the introduction of quotas setting a minimum level of women on company boards, an idea raised by federal sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, might well be a "necessary evil".

But he said it would be "dealing with the symptom and not dealing with the cause". Women often did not have the same traditional linear career paths as men.

"Women do need flexibility. They do need to come in and out of the workforce."

The global crisis had been a reminder of the need for strong boards with a diversity of skills. There was also a shift away from the old autocratic chief executive to having a leader who was more team-oriented.

"The style of leadership in a bull market is not appropriate for this current environment," he said. "It’s a more inclusive, values-based leadership which values creativity."

Article from The Australian, August 16, 2010.

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