We Can Do Better Than Thirty Percent

Amid controversy, Germany just introduced a 30% female quota for company board members. But Spencer Stuart has decided to take it up a notch: from now on, 50% of the names on their executive search longlists will belong to women. Tanja Svjetlanovic tells us how they find candidates in a sea of male CEOs

by Natascha Zeljko | 05 Mar, 2021
Tanja Svjetlanovic from Spencer Stuart

A few weeks ago, legislation was passed for a 30% quota for board members; at Spencer Stuart, you've gone a step further and adopted a self-imposed quota of 50% for your longlists of board appointments. Was this a bold, crazy move – or was it feasible and long overdue?

We've definitely seen all sorts of reactions over the last few weeks. There was a whole spectrum of opinions: some of our competitors said that a 50% quota was totally crazy. People even questioned whether we were really serious about this or whether it was just a marketing stunt. But there was also a lot of positive feedback, especially from the business community. Many managers said: Great, that's exactly what we need right now! So I would say: Yes, it's courageous. But it is also long overdue.

Such decisions are the result of long processes and a lot of perseverance. What was the process like for Spencer Stuart, what were the most difficult obstacles?

At the beginning, we discussed a self-imposed quota of 30%. That was during the period when the debate about the so-called "FüPoG II" legislature was flaring up again. When the law was finally passed, we considered using that momentum to increase the quota to 50%. After all, women make up half the population! It's only logical to fill management positions accordingly. So we decided to introduce a fifty-fifty split for our lists of board members. For the team, this voluntary commitment meant massive changes in some areas, especially for consultants in technical sectors, where it is already incredibly difficult to find suitable female candidates. One of my colleagues said: "It's going to be really hard for me now. But it's the right thing to do, so I'm in favor of it." It has less of an impact on other teams, for example in the consumer goods sector, where the proportion of women is already 50%, sometimes even higher.

The successful candidate doesn't necessarily have to be a CFO in the classic sense, or perhaps you can find a CFO who comes from a different industry and brings complementary skills to the table.

The most common excuse in this context is: "We'd love to fill the position with a woman, but we just can't find any."

As always, it's a question of how you approach this issue. If you work with a very narrow grid, then you probably won't find a suitable woman. But if you open your mind and turn towards different sectors, different countries, then you will find one. Not all countries like Germany with its DAX, where there are hardly any women on management boards. For some years now, we have systematically observed an increasing number of women on supervisory boards at a global level. Generally speaking, we want to achieve the same for our Executive Board through this voluntary pledge. In executive search there's often some time pressure, because our clients urgently need to fill up vacancies. So why not approach this task in a pragmatic and solution-oriented way? The successful candidate doesn't necessarily have to be a CFO in the classic sense, or perhaps you can find a CFO who comes from a different industry and brings complementary skills to the table. Of course, such a search is more costly than the usual approach, which is to supply exactly what companies already know and have in abundance: men over 50. But on a long-term basis, it pays to expand your radius and ensure more diversity. Diverse teams are more successful in the long run – that's no secret.

What's your initial experience with practical diversity measures, as opposed to mere declarations of intent?

We're getting a lot of encouragement from our clients. Not only from women, but also from men. Internally, it's a lot more work, we've set ourselves difficult targets. Nevertheless, the mission statement we wrote in our press release remains valid: this transition takes courage, and the cooperation of decision-makers. Otherwise, nothing will change.

Quotas are important at the moment, because we're dealing with structural issues. But to what extent do the women themselves have to make changes too?

The problem is primarily structural, because these patterns have developed in society and socialization plays an important role here. It starts at an early age, when girls are told to be nice, be modest, don't be too loud, don't be too wild. With boys, it's completely different. And these things always get in your way, even in your professional life. Many experienced female executives have told me that they struggled with this. Although we all know how self-confident women in top executive positions are labelled. "Super tough" is one of the nicer attributes.

What does it mean to be different?

You grew up in Austria as the child of immigrants from Bosnia. How did this impact you? Or to put it another way, to what extent does your background drive you to promote social change?

I am convinced that as the daughter of immigrants, you develop a different feeling for these issues. You experience from an early age that you are different. That things that are normal for you are not normal for others, and vice versa. It can be the little things, like how you celebrate your birthday, or what you eat after school. I have always seen this as an opportunity, as a chance to learn – despite all the negative experiences. Everyone who grows up with this background is confronted with these things at some point. They made me curious. I asked myself: what does it mean to be different? This question motivated me during my studies. It gave me a professional drive. And even now, as a human resources consultant, the question of diversity plays a big role in the business context. It's a success factor, because diverse companies take different routes and are more innovative as a result. Nokia, for instance, is a negative example of a company that ignored these trends. And then you have companies like Apple and Tesla, which have understood that being different is enriching and multiple perspectives are infinitely valuable.

Are we experiencing a cultural shift? Perhaps even the dawn of a new era?

That's a good question. I feel like a lot is changing at the moment – you could say there's a tingle in the air. People have discovered a new passion for diversity. For example, women are speaking out, making demands, raising their voices. And we're becoming more sensitive to problems that we used to simply overlook, because we weren't even aware that they existed or could exist. “Stay on Board” exemplifies this trend. The fact that a board member could also get pregnant was once unimaginable.

What has accelerated all these processes?

Role models have a lot to do with it. It's about the power to give meaning. It's about giving terms a new connotation, such as ‘quota woman’. Janina Kugel did this very cleverly, by pointing out that a quota is simply a part of the Whole. It's that simple. Women like her are infinitely important for younger generations: they make it easier for them to join the conversation. That's how you make waves. I've changed too: ten years ago, even I would have claimed that we didn't need a quota.

The fact that individual women can make it to the top is nothing new. Why is that not enough – and why is it even counterproductive to think like this?

Diversity is good. But what we need even more urgently is inclusion. Harvard professor Francis Frei makes the interesting point that inclusion is not just about being heard in a room of people, but being celebrated for what you say. "Cherish the other's opinion." I mean that it's not enough for a woman to fight her way up to the board, only for the media to keep banging on about this narrative of the ‘only woman’. That is truly a patriarchal narrative; it's more about many women making it and being able to rejoice together, and to be happy for the ‘other’.

If you could make a wish for 2021, on a personal or a professional level, what would it be?

I would like to see the energy that we have just described radiate into other areas of our lives. I would like to see diversity in Germany understood not only as gender diversity, but even more broadly. I would like to see more women in top positions and more female executives in the DAX. For politics to create more equality, for example by reforming the marriage tax credit and closing the gender pay gap. For myself, I hope to be part of this change and to live up to my social responsibility as an HR consultant.



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