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Achieving Balanced Leadership: what really works?

By Steve Deverill. Published on 29 April 2015

The Drawing Room, Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly 23.04.2015

Eton Bridge Partners gathered executives and business leaders together to discuss the challenges and opportunities of achieving balanced leadership. Diversity authority and Chair for the event, Alison Maitland steered the discussion around the practical and personal experiences of the esteemed (and suitably gender balanced) panel, enabling the audience to benefit from case studies that included BT, Williams F1, PepsiCo and Standard Bank.

Ellie Rich-Poole, Partner, Executive Search, Human Resources, Eton Bridge Partners

Alison Maitland, Author and Journalist

Expert panel:

  • Chris Ainslie, formerly VP and MD Regional Government, BT; now Leadership Consultant
  • Jenny Knott, Strategic Adviser to CEO’s, Standard Bank Group
  • Louise Evans, formerly FD, Williams F1; shortly joining Braemar Shipping Services as Group Finance Director
  • Matt Freeland, Senior HR Director European Snacks Supply Chain & European Labour Relations, PepsiCo

Speakers WIL April 2015

Balanced Leadership; the story so far

Britain’s top boardrooms may be on track to meet the women on boards target set out in the Lord Davies review, but results are mixed and long term sustainability is still a concern:

  • 23.5% of FTSE 100 boards have female members (up from 20.7% last year), with 263 female-held directorships across the FTSE 100. Only 17 more female appointments are needed across the FTSE 100 boards to reach the target of 25%.
  • Representation on FTSE 250 boards has also risen to 18%, but whilst 65 companies have met the 25% target, 23 still have no women on their boards.
  • Forecasts suggest that women’s representation on FTSE 100 boards is likely to stagnate around 28% unless businesses act now to introduce aspirational and measurable targets for women at all levels.

The benefits of achieving balanced leadership

Aside from the statutory requirements around equality and the demands set out in the Davies’ report, the business case for focusing on balanced leadership includes:

  • Businesses will be competing for a talent pool that is increasingly female; it is estimated that 2 out of 3 graduates by 2020 will be female.
  • Achieving business goals and competitive advantage simply requires the best talent – growing the female talent pipeline should be high on the agenda for every board, CEO and executive committee if they are to avoid missing a large tranche of the market.

“Limitations on businesses in the future will be the availability of talent; we have to access that talent and not waste it once we have it.”

WIL - Alison M - April 2015

Success factors for balanced leadership

Both the panel and audience were generous in sharing their personal, as well as professional experiences. Eton Bridge Partners is pleased to summarise emerging themes whilst respecting the confidentiality of attendees.

1.  Ensure the agenda is not just about gender
This challenging issue is ultimately about business success through diversity. ‘Women in Leadership’ is just one part of the agenda and will gain more support and traction if viewed as part of a wider business initiative.

2.  Leadership
Success stories share
d had a common theme: an unquestionable and often inspirational commitment from the CEO and leadership team towards either a) building the very best, balanced team to facilitate clear corporate goals or b) diversity.

3. Meritocracy with substance
A true commitment to meritocracy from an organisation is key, but on its own will not guarantee success if the female talent pool is u
navailable, not yet ready or are unwilling to push themselves forward. Talent development is not a women only issue, but organisations that wish to grow the future talent pool from grass roots must identify where, and why, they may be losing talented women professionals.

“You have to question an organisation that puts gender before performance. Performance has to be first.” Louise Evans.

4.  Experience and confidence through opportunity and support
Hand in hand with the above is the need to create the opp
ortunity for women to develop their experience at board level. Jenny Knott believes strongly in the benefits of mentored exposure to boards and is keen advocate of Women on Boards who provide workshops, networking and mentoring. Women are not looking for favouritism but may seek support.

5.  Meaningful measures of success
Determine what it is your organisation really w
ants to achieve through diversity. Is it simply a question of balancing the books or are you genuinely looking to move the pipeline up and have more women in senior roles? Matt Freeland explained how the award-winning programme from PepsiCo ‘Strategies for Success’ demonstrated the benefits of knowing what it is you are ultimately trying to achieve, and having measures in place.

6.  Flexibility and practicality
Flexible working practices which r
espond appropriately and with empathy to the challenges of modern family life can stem the flow of professional women who leave after having children. Chris Ainslie believes that flexible working often goes hand in hand with ruthless prioritisation and it was felt by the audience that many individuals working flexibly are high achievers.

7.  Recognising gender differences without stereotyping
A woman may have the same goals as her male counterpart, but this does not mean she will adopt the same behaviours to achieve them. Research has shown th
at in interview situations, women are more likely to talk about a team’s achievements than those they have been responsible for personally. Women are also less likely than men (even when equally qualified or experienced) to put themselves forward for roles if they believe they do not tick every box.

This was highlighted in an example from the floor:  In a review of women who had opted out of applying for a talent programme, they explained that they met ‘only’ 7 of the 10 criteria. By contrast, men applying for the scheme and meeting the same 7 criteria said they met ‘most of them’.

8.  Cultural reputation
Diversity or talent programmes will face an uphill battle if the underlying culture of an organisation is at odds with their objectives, or
creates an environment within which talented women deselect themselves. Jenny Knott highlighted how Standard Bank’s reputation as a progressive and dynamic organisation increased upon her appointment as the UK’s first female CEO of a bank. As a result of ‘being known’ for diversity and progression, the number and the quality of candidates interested joining Standard Bank increased.

WIL audience April 2015

Food for thought

Following the panel discussion, delegates were invited to share their experiences and reflect upon the personal role they might play in achieving balanced leadership. Themes included:

  • Reinforcement (indeed nervousness) that this should not be about women only.
  • A startling realisation that many organisations lack clear accountability for balance and diversity.
  • A commitment from many to personally lead the agenda, day to day, whether a business mandate exists or not; line managers can set the tone for the inclusivity and flexibility that can keep women in the talent pool.
  • Recognition that achieving balanced leadership requires strategies for employees at all levels.

Ellie Rich-Poole leads the ‘Achieving Balanced Leadership’ series for Eton Bridge Partners, as well as working as a Partner for the HR Search practice. Summing up she said:

“By creating an environment of inclusion, and becoming known for it, we can attract the best talent irrespective of gender in a talent-poor world.”

WIL - Ellie - April 2015

If you’re interested in attending any future events, or to arrange a meeting, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Contact Ellie at: Ellie.Rich-Poole@etonbridgepartners.com or @EllieRichHR

Follow us on Twitter @EtonBridgePtrs

WIL images

Steve Deverill


As Managing Partner, Steve supports the business and leadership team to deliver the vision of being the most trusted partner in executive search, interim management and consulting.
Steve took on the responsibility as Managing Partner in January 2022 and is keen to build on the strong foundations already put in place and develop the business further. He is passionate about leading and growing the already outstanding team of people to take the business through the next phase of growth.