Executive search firms have an essential role to play in helping clients create more inclusive and diverse leadership teams. For Odgers Berndtson, the process begins internally.

To ensure a wide pool of potential candidates is considered, we have created 'Unlimited'. This initiative reflects a methodology, belief and commitment to putting inclusion and diversity at the heart of everything Odgers Berndtson does.

Our Global Inclusion & Diversity Steering Group drives Unlimited’s worldwide initiatives. These enable colleagues – and ultimately help clients – to make more informed choices and play an active part in creating a more diverse workplace culture.

Leading the way

The three principal leaders of the Steering Group are Jane Griffith in Toronto, and Áine Hurley and Stuart Morton in London. They work with Odgers Berndtson offices around the world to ensure that differences are respected and that everyone is treated with dignity and fairness.

Initiatives include recruiting team members to be Inclusion Allies. These are individuals who focus on ensuring all colleagues experience equality, fairness, dignity and happiness at work. This helps activate the essential tenets of Unlimited.

Says Hurley: “Strengthening inclusion at Odgers Berndtson is not just an imperative as an employer. It also allows us to think creatively and broadly about search, to find and attract the best people for clients and challenge clients’ thinking when we need to.

“We need to ask clients the tricky and brave questions, but in a way that’s supportive and ensures that the client has taken the time to think about what the art of the possible could be.”

“As the ‘expert advisor’, our role is to help clients make an even more courageous and unexpected appointment – for the right reasons.”

Unconscious bias

In Toronto, Jane Griffith is working on another specific aspect of Inclusion & Diversity. She explains, “In Canada, we are focusing our research on how unconscious bias pervades language and creates a systemic barrier to entry, promotion and continuation of women in the workplace.”

A recent Harvard Business Review article found that individuals tend to use language to describe people in ways that support traditionally-held stereotypes and beliefs.

The article addresses the words used to describe male and female leaders. The differences are powerful. One study found that women not only had fewer positive descriptors (four to men’s 10), they also had six times the number of negative descriptors (12 to men’s two).

The top positive female words were ‘compassionate’ and ‘enthusiastic’, while the words for men were ‘analytical’ and ‘competent’.

According to Griffith, “These words can have harmful consequences for women as the male words align more closely with business language and descriptions for ideal candidates in many senior executive roles.”

Ultimately, says Griffith, “our use of language can limit gender diversity in the workforce, from hiring, to assessments, to terminations. Biased language can be found in everything from job postings, to candidate screening processes and resumé and performance reviews, perpetuating the status quo inside industries, companies, functions and roles.”

Griffith adds the entire Odgers Berndtson Canadian team (covering five offices across the country) receives training on unconscious bias “to ensure that qualified candidates, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on, are not overlooked because of our own inherent biases.”

Shifting the conversation

Odgers Berndtson’s imperative is to help clients specify roles in such a way that ingrained practices and thinking are removed in order to deliver a diverse pool of talented people.

Odgers Berndtson is shifting the discussion with clients to one where the conversation expands, rather than contracts, the pool of potential leaders considered.

Too often the conversation has been sector specific. A client will say, “I need someone who has 15 years of retail experience for this role.” Whereas individuals from other customer-facing, fast-paced organisations could deliver equally relevant, broader experience and contribute a different perspective.

Stuart Morton believes that increasing diversity on shortlists and giving the client a better and wider choice of candidates is now being driven by a number of factors. “Many businesses face digital transformation, new delivery models, a more flexible workforce and outsourced capability – to Asia for example. All of this enables us to broaden the pool of people and to offer more diverse choice.”

Much of this may seem self-evident, particularly to millennials who expect to see diversity and inclusion reflected in a leadership team.

Increasingly and encouragingly, initiatives like Unlimited are helping diversity and inclusion to be considered as a matter of course and not as an afterthought.

This is part one of a two-part look at Odgers Berndtson’s Unlimited initiative. In part two, we hear about the experience in Australia and South Africa.

A longer version of this article is included in the latest ‘Women, Diversity and the Path to Greater Inclusion’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson global magazine, OBSERVE.

Register to download your free copy

Jane Griffith

Jane Griffith is a Partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Toronto office, focused on the recruitment of senior leaders in the academic, not for profit and broader public sectors. Her clients include some of...

Stuart Morton

Stuart Morton is Head of the Legal & Professional Services Practice, recruiting senior fee earners and business services directors for the professions.  A former solicitor, Stuart’s practice encomp...

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