Michael Buckley is a founder and Chair of the Chairs’ Advisory Board of the 30% Club Ireland, the business network which aims to achieve 30% female representation in senior management by 2020. He is Chairman of KKR Alternative Investment Managers and of KKR Credit Advisers (Ireland) and holds several other non-executive roles. He is a former Group CEO of AIB and Chair of DCC.
This interview was conducted by Aileen O’Toole in September 2017.
What’s your view on the business case for gender diversity?
There is a moral imperative starting point. Talent-wise, up to age 19 or 20, where there are plenty of academic measures, there is no evidence that men are better than women. In fact, there's a lot of evidence to the contrary.
Much of what you read about the business case says that companies with good gender balance on boards, and up to senior management level, tend to be among the best-performing companies. But that's not necessarily evidence that there is a cause and effect connection between gender diversity and company performance.
It could be that company performance is better because they have a good gender mix. But it could also be that the good mix came about because they have a very good business model that produces good financial performance and enables women to develop their talent and to reach their potential in a better way than in most companies.
The best article I read on this was from McKinsey from around 2007 where 250 companies were assessed and the focus was on organisation models and values. The companies that outperformed financially were those with eight or nine organisational excellence characteristics that fed into the performance.
In those companies, there was a culture of really caring about what stakeholders needed. Another attribute was that they had a very broad value to do with nurturing their people. This wasn't just about gender diversity. They saw talent development generally as a strategic imperative.
This is where the moral imperative meets the business case. If men and women are no different in their talents, why leave out 50% of the total talent pool? But you need to be very careful about making sure that what you do about gender diversity fits into a broader approach to talent management in the company.
So why then has progress been so slow on achieving gender diversity at leadership levels?
The glass ceiling is held up by corporate models and unless they’re dismantled, the glass ceiling won’t go into splinters. That’s a huge ask in a world where the standard business model for senior people is “any time, any place”.
You have got to engage CEOs. Signing them up to a principle is not going to change a whole lot about how they spend their time. For gender balance to change at all levels, it actually is going to require a fairly serious CEO time commitment, as well as a mindset change on their part and that of senior management.
As well as changing a lot of processes, you've got to address, carefully and effectively, women's uncertainty about making it (in their careers). And you've got to help them to solve that dilemma of the “dual burden” that they carry as opposed to the male single burden. To me, that's one of the two or three ways to unlock the door.
So I think there are three aspects. There's the mind and heart of the CEO. There's addressing women's uncertainty and their views about how the “dual burden” can best be dealt with. But underlying all that, there's a business model piece that needs to be unpacked. That’s not easy. This “any time, any place” way of doing business means that if there’s something that's happening in China that requires fixing, you get the plane and you go out there.
What has been the contribution of the 30% Club to this agenda?
The 30% Club has genuinely been very important in bringing the awareness of this issue to a new level. It is working well, within Ireland and outside of Ireland, and has set up some really important partnerships, in research and other areas.
I think the challenge is that the Irish 30% Club took its approach from the UK experience but the Irish economy is different. Businesses here are mainly SMEs. So, the challenge is actually to bring all that has been learned and all that needs to be done into a specific SME context. Targeting SMEs is difficult and it is a fragmented space.
What can and should businesses do to develop the female leadership pipeline?
Firstly, address women's uncertainty about themselves and embrace their different approach (to men) to risk. They need to help to establish networks because it's by talking and finding out what others are doing that you’ll get progress. That knowledge can gradually filter across from one company to the other. That will give women the confidence to articulate what’s happening to them — both good and bad. Out of that you begin to unpick the “any time, any place” model.
The other thing is to take practical steps that can get the "dual burden" at least ameliorated. In that context, it is important to develop inter-company fora and platforms for sharing experiences of what works and what does not work. And thirdly women need sponsors – not coaches or mentors.
How would you define a sponsor?
My definition is that it’s someone who —when there is a new job or a promotion under consideration in a company — will speak up, for example: "It has to be Triona and here’s why. Don’t be fooled by the fact that she has two children or three children or whatever. She gets the job done. We might need to give her a development package and a bit of facilitation that she may not have at the moment to do that job. But she can do the job really well.” Men have had sponsors for ages, women less so.
Getting a sponsor is not as cold and clinical as just looking around and finding the right person. You need to make sure that your successes are clear to your line manager, that you are on project teams and that there is visibility of your performance. So it's very much about changing your behaviour a bit in the role you're currently in.
Sponsorship should happen very naturally. If you are more assertive in your current role, insist that you get as broad a possible experience, that your delivery is noticed and is accepted and that your performance review is reflective of that — then all of that helps.
What is your view about gender balance on boards?
I wouldn’t underestimate how far the dial has moved on boards. I'm talking about listed companies now and to some extent professional firms. In the UK, following the Lord Davies report, they hit that FTSE 100 target and exceeded it. I think the targets for the FTSE 250 and FTSE 350 will be hit.
It’s easier to bring about gender balance changes on boards compared with management teams because boards are self-contained. The Chair is in charge, essentially, for board recruitment. If the Chair's mind and heart is in the right place, he (or she) will change the temperature in the board as a whole, including the CEO. If you discriminate in favour of women in selecting board nominees, it doesn't have the same effects on the rest of organisation as a similar approach in the management ranks.
When we had vacancies on boards I chaired, I went to the head-hunters and said: “I need these competencies, sectoral and geographical business experience ticked off first, then give me a long list with the following balance — two-thirds women and one third men.” When it came to getting to a short list, I adopted exactly the same approach.
At the end of the day, if either the board or the management team feel that a woman you, as Chairman, are proposing for appointment to the board, does not have as strong a CV as another male candidate, you just need to remind them of the proven impacts of diversity on the quality of board discussions and go ahead anyway.
Do you believe that there has been a “trickle down” effect from boards to management teams?
I can’t say it’s evident in a big way yet. But, irrespective of their starting point, if CEOs see that board discussions are improved by having that different mix, then that can have an effect on the way they approach growing and building their own management teams.
There is something else that all board members can do to help. All board members have a duty to spend time in the business, meeting divisional and local management teams and walking around chatting to people. If you have the right mindset and use that time to show that you regard diversity in management teams as important at all management levels, it will have an impact.
In this respect, if women throughout the company see women board members in particular engaging with them on diversity issues, including “dual burden” issues, it can be a real force for change.
What about recruitment and retention?
In terms of mid-level recruitment, as CEO you need to insist that there is a majority of qualified women on each list. And then push and push.
How talent development works in the company is also important. Development needs should be assessed for women in terms of the “dual burden”. Development discussions often tend to be skimmed over during performance reviews. Training of management in making career discussions more productive is absolutely vital.
Managers need to make sure that the information they get from this central part of performance reviews isn’t just focussed on the short-term business performance, but that it is broader and leads naturally to women colleagues opening up about their ambitions and about the factors that would help remove obstacles for them.
This is especially important for women when they are about 8-10 years into their career. At that point, the “life” part of the work/life mix has often changed to the point where women are reassessing where they are going, what their priorities are and their career ambitions. A lot of women tend to step back psychologically or to go into maintenance mode in terms of career at that stage.
And that is the point when it is most important for open, positive conversations to take place within companies, with practical steps outlined that can help women see that career momentum does not have to slow. I think that well-designed interventions at that point can have a significant impact. If they do not happen you can lose very serious talent. So, from a company perspective, it’s about preservation and nurturing, about managing what is an existential risk and ensuring that all women have both the confidence and a route to gaining sponsorship, not just coaching and mentoring.
But how else do they effect that change?
Apart from networks and career ambition discussions, I think it's about male managers being grown-up about this. They need to be very conscious that you can lose really, serious talent at this stage. So from a company perspective, it’s about preservation, about managing an existential type of risk.
Managers need to be better at managing their people and managing talent. It’s really important for the CEOs to be very active. The CEO’s job is to set the vision, to ensure that the senior team is bought in and that the message can be carried throughout the business. There is only one good way for a CEO to do this. Be visible and stay visible.
Treat talent management as a strategic project. Chair the Steering Group and ensure it has X% women on it, so you get a gender balance immediately into the group. Then make sure that you create opportunities for women in that group to have open discussions focused on policy changes and other facilitation actions that would make a difference.
Gradually you get to a situation where the women on the ground level feel very comfortable talking to you, because they know that you're bought in, you’re making a personal investment. Change will then begin to happen. You need to stick with that issue and make it your own, not just “kick it off”.