Executive search consultant Andrew Hick and human capital consultant Sue Liburd are frequent collaborators. They work – together and separately – with business leaders to spark bigger thinking, the envisioning of new possibilities and to promote equality of opportunity for under-represented groups in ways that lead to proven commercial gains for businesses. In this week’s post, they reveal their modus operandi, how they drive diversity, and also offer practical tips for aspiring board directors.
“Sue’s a wonderful person to collaborate with,” says Andrew, who trained as a lawyer before moving into recruitment.” She creates an energy in a room which people feed off, aids learning and which spurs them to action.”
“Andrew,” says Sue, who runs consultancy Sage Blue, “has gravitas. He’s a considered thinker with oodles of integrity. We are both really values-driven and all our work is evidence-based.”
Searching for & developing business leaders
Andrew now runs Cavendish Hawk, recruiting and coaching executive and non-executive directors. Sue, in addition to her consultancy, also holds a range of non-executive board roles and has taken a road less travelled. She qualified as a nurse, specialising in midwifery and mental health, and subsequently spent seven years in the Army, before rising through a series of learning and development and human resources roles in the third, public and private sectors.
The pair met after a colleague of Andrew’s approached Sue about a job, and noticed their synergy. They got to know each other and, eventually, so as to further their dialogue, started sharing the same office building. “What we found,” Sue explains, “was that there was a consistent theme around our conversations – particularly surrounding the lack of evidence regarding the impact of diversity on business success.”
So, in 2009, working with King’s College London’s HR management learning board, they organised and funded How diversity can drive organisational performance – is there a business case? – a forum at which Professor Janet Walsh presented research demonstrating the business case for diversity. “Because that’s the only thing business leaders will listen to,” says Andrew. “During a market downturn, when they’re feeling vulnerable, they want to know the impact on their bottom line. How are they going to get greater customer numbers? Greater profitability, greater turnover? That’s what we presented to our clients.”
Driving diversity by working with business leaders and holding them to account
Driving diversity is central to all the work Sue and Andrew do, together and individually. Sue focuses on working with boards – people with influence, so she can assist them in “creating those ripples. Businesses can build a better world. They can solve societal problems. They’re this amazing mechanism to do good, really. So, my view is, how do I contribute on a bigger world stage? And I do that by growing business leaders. As trusted adviser, I facilitate, hold people to account, coach, provide business advice and strategies for business leaders and for businesses.”
The power of conversation, building safe spaces and crafting route maps
How does Sue hold people to account?
“It’s the power of the conversation,” she says. “I build safe spaces with individuals and with teams. Then, I get them really clear about what it is they’re going to do, and I stress-test that, to ensure they’re not just in their comfort zone. I ask what they’re going to do? Where do they want to go? What are they committing to? And I help them craft that route map and get them to look at what the results are going to be.”
Sue’s techniques for creating the safe space can sound, she says, “a little bit ‘woo-woo’. First of all, I have to ensure I’m very clear about setting my intent, setting my boundaries. I make sure that I’m vibrating in the right place. If I’m out of kilter, they’re going to be out of kilter. I do the work on myself first, so when I then step in the space, I’m very clear about what I want that space to look and feel like, and about the energy of that space, and then I act from there. People get that beyond their cognitive thinking.”
Executive search: increasing diversity by looking in different places, and really getting to know candidates
When Andrew recruits for a board role, he casts his net more widely than most search consultants, who tend to focus on candidates working in the same sector as the client organisation. And, instead of the usual interview length – 40 minutes to one hour – he spends 90 minutes to two hours with each candidate.
“The reason my interviews are that long,” he says, “is that I want to make people feel safe. I want to see the real person, who they really are, what they’re really about. Most people aren’t heard. The biggest complaint people talk about in professional and personal relationships is that other people don’t listen to them. So, in coaching or recruitment, when you listen, people will talk and then you uncover the real them. And that means that you can think of things that they might not have thought about for jobs, career paths and options, which they find enormously useful, and you discover if the candidate is a genuine fit for the client.”
“I do the same with client companies,” he says. “I spend a long time with them, because then I get the match, and that match tends to last and stand the test of time. We can filter out people who are inappropriate, but whose CVs look spot on, and filter in candidates who the client might not otherwise consider, but who are actually utterly perfect in all regards. This aids inclusion.”
Andrew – the quiet activist
“For example”, he says, “I worked with one CEO who specified that his new Finance Director should be male, white, between 40 and 50 and from their sector. He had a very fixed idea because, in a volatile market, he was feeling really vulnerable. And the moment we could discuss that in a professionally appropriate way, I was able to break down that vulnerability, and he was actually very open.”
Andrew’s status as a middle-aged, middle-class, white man, and the fact that he’s gentle and a good listener means sometimes people project their prejudices on to him. “I’m like a mirror,” he says. “They feel comfortable saying things to me that they’d never say to Sue. They aren’t,” he adds, “necessarily deeply prejudiced. Many of us naturally have unconscious biases and during times of financial or other crises may not have the capacity to think clearly in the moment. People feel personally vulnerable, they feel their organisations are vulnerable. All we need is to be able to see the bottom line evidence for diversity and our unconscious biases usually fall away.”
It is because of their ability to evidence the bottom-line benefits of a more diverse workforce that Andrew and Sue were invited to advise the Minister for Women and Equalities and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills on actioning this agenda.
The skills and qualities all aspiring board members and business leaders need
“All the technical skills,” says Andrew. “The specific skills required for the specific role. They’re a given: particularly around strategy, performance, risk and people management and being able to evidence those skills. Intellectual horsepower too. They’re all givens. Thereafter, what people don’t focus on enough is fit in all its manifestations.”
When clients talk to him about cultural fit, it can sometimes, Andrew says, be code for the c-word: “’clubbable’. People who are familiar. Someone they naturally feel comfortable and safe with.”
The number 1 essential quality for successful board members and business leaders? Emotional intelligence
“But what board members – and all business leaders – need is EQ. Emotional Intelligence. Businesses that have leaders with EQ are much more successful. They retain staff, they keep their intellectual knowledge base within their organisation. People go the extra mile for them. They attract more talented people.
I placed a chair recently who encapsulated it really well. She said, ‘I walk down the corridor, and people call me, Mrs X, or by my first name, or Chair. But I knew I’d struck the right tone the day I turned a corner and the cleaner went “Alright Joy? How’re you?” She felt comfortable calling me Joy. So I knew that if there was a problem, she would whistle blow. And I felt the organisation was safe under my watch, because I wasn’t in an ivory tower, I was down there with the troops.’”
How do you know if you’re ready for a board position?
“That,” says Sue, “is a very interesting question. I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Some individuals think they’ve got all the knowledge, the skills, and are getting feedback that they’re ready, an opportunity presents and they walk through the door. Others, who are absolutely lacking in confidence, are pushed through the door by other individuals who can see their potential. Or sometimes there can be an unexpected opportunity.
That happened to me. And it opened doors to subsequent main board positions.”
Andrew agrees. “It’s not a simple question, and I think Sue answered it really well. I also think there’s something about confidence and about diversity as well, whether we’re talking about BAME, or women for the board or other communities that are unrepresented at board level. And there’s a relationship between entitlement and confidence.
There are a lot of people who have the ability and have the skillsets to work effectively at board level, but if they’re not confident at putting themselves forward, they’re not going to get the role. And if they’re not confident enough in the board room to call out inappropriate behaviour, or raise something they’re worried about, or to ask difficult questions, then they’re not ready.
You need the confidence to question, to make sure that everything is run properly from a governance perspective, because that’s your duty.
But sometimes the wrong people get these posts because their schooling and background give them a false sense of entitlement. It’s about instilling confidence in the right people, so they can put themselves forward and ask the difficult questions without being arrogant, or in any sense entitled.”
3 tips for applying for your first board role
1. Have a go
Sue says “throw your hat in the ring. Have a go. Don’t be reticent, sitting back thinking should I, waiting until you have the perfect CV, the perfect skills and experience. Throw your hat in the ring and don’t be disheartened if you get a knockback. All those knockbacks are learning opportunities, really and truly. I know that sounds clichéd, but they are. As long as you’re learning something on each knockback, and get a little bit further each time. It’s a numbers game.”
2. Evidence your achievements
Andrew says “be proactive, be resilient, and qualify your answers. You need to evidence your experience. And certain people are not good at that, and certain interviewers are not good at drawing that information out of people, so they will let good people fall by the wayside. So make sure you have the evidence.”
3. Remember you’re an equal
Sue says “go in as an equal. Don’t go in there with your begging bowl. You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. This is a meeting of equals.”
4 tips on how to listen effectively
1. Pay attention
“It’s a simple thing,” says Andrew. “It’s about really paying attention. Dropping all your own beliefs and prejudices. Don’t, while they’re talking, sit there thinking about the next thing you want to say.
“It’s also about watching,” he says. “What people say and what they mean are often two different things. Read micro-facial expressions. Pay close attention, because a lot of people will reveal what they really mean through their expressions.
3. Trust your instincts
“And,” Andrew says, “trust your instincts. Learn to build that trust. Test them, but trust them. Because that data is evidence too. “
4. Be in the moment
“The only thing I would add,” says Sue, “and I think it’s implicit in everything Andrew said, is be present. Not in the future, in the past, what’s coming next. Be in the moment. And when you are grounded in the moment, then everything else happens. You’re watching, you’re listening, you’re sensing, it works.”
Andrew Hick pursued a legal career before moving into executive search and coaching. He has a particular interest in how organisations define, identify and develop their executive pipeline in order to create organisational sustainability and resilience. Andrew is a recognised voice in creating understanding around the need for organisations to become truly inclusive workplaces, so they are great places to work and connect with society beyond the immediate communities they serve. To this end he has sat on the board of a charity focused on the well-being and inclusion of the disabled and disadvantaged.
Sue Liburd MBE is an award-winning businesswoman, board director, high performance executive coach, author and human capital specialist with board level commercial and charitable business experience. She works internationally across a range of sectors for some of the world’s leading multinational corporations. She is a thought leader on gender diversity in business, who influences thinking at the highest levels. She is also a Group Chair for the Academy for Chief Executives and has a particular interest in assisting women and other currently under-represented groups achieve C-suite success.
Are you an aspiring board director?
Could Westminster Business School’s new board-focused MBA fast-forward your route to the board? Find out more and apply.