Eyes on the prize

With Hollywood awash with Oscar speculation, I have been thinking about awards. It’s hard to think of a field of human endeavour that does not have its own version of the Oscars, and that includes the corporate world. Recently, Catalyst, the US-based non-profit organisation devoted to advancing women in business, announced its 2011 award winners.

McDonald’s, the fast food chain, Time Warner, the media group, and Kaiser Permanente, the US health group, will each be honoured with a Catalyst Award presented at the annual awards dinner, hosted this year by Ursula Burns, chief executive of Xerox, the copier and documents company, in front of 1,600 attendees. Companies are judged against seven criteria that have a proven record of increasing the participation of women in what they do. They include familiar themes, ranging from the engagement of senior leadership from the chief executive to formal mechanisms for monitoring progress, innovation and employee engagement. Assessment is carried out over a full year and includes site visits to global business premises.

Yesterday, I spoke to Julie Nugent, senior director for research at Catalyst.

How global, in reality, are the awards?

Julie Nugent: Very. We’ve seen a huge uptake in Asia-Pacific, and one of our winners this year – McDonald’s – was selected on the basis of a global initiative. Over the past five years we’ve seen a real globalisation of the awards.

What is the purpose of the awards?

JN: We find that it helps bring diversity and inclusion to the fore, and allows companies to see winning strategies in practice. The awards dinner is a great forum for sharing best practice and learning.

Do any of the seven criteria stand out?

JN: If I had to select one, it would be the support of leadership. It just can’t happen without the chief executive being totally committed, and then finding champions at every regional base to help an initiative feed down to the grass roots. In fact, this is so important that for a company to receive an award it must send its chief executive to the dinner in person.

In brief, can you describe one of this year’s winning schemes?

JN: At McDonald’s, there already was a Women’s Leadership Network in place in the US, but [the company] advanced it at a global level. The network is designed to ensure women’s talents are leveraged and that this informs policy decisions. Men and women are champions for the cause. For example, the chief executive in Japan [Eiko Harada] became actively committed to implementing the network regionally, and he was an ideal role model for a country that does not have the best record culturally of including women in management.

How do you select companies in the first place?

JN: We have a strong outreach programme but companies are basically self-nominated. Companies with all-male boards are not eligible for an award, and we are strong advocates of long-term initiatives. Quick fixes don’t work. We know that diversity and inclusion takes time.

With board diversity ratios stalled in the US and Europe, are you an advocate of quotas?

JN: I see quotas as quick fixes that will not sustain themselves. It is also impossible to quantify specific quotas and ratios because different cultural environments have different needs. I believe we need to learn from bright-light organisations that are doing great things and making great progress. The business case for diversity and inclusion is irrefutable, and events such as our conference and awards dinner present corporate leaders with a day of learning. It’s about being a smart business now.

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

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Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

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Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.