Office politics: how to find the best candidate

How does a woman respond when she’s being recruited for a top job that may prove to be just too much of a stretch? And how is that different from how a man reacts in the same circumstances?

I recently asked Karena Strella, the US co-managing partner for Egon Zehnder International, the executive search firm, that very question. She told me:

“I’ve noticed that when you reach out to a woman for a potential job, she will immediately give you a list of other people’s names that might be worth considering. This doesn’t happen with men,” she says.  “There’s a gender difference in how readily women see themselves in some of those top jobs.”

A similar thing happens when Strella asks executives about ideas for potential candidates in a given field.

“When we reach out to sources and ask: ‘Who would be the best person for this job?’, we get only names of men. When we ask the follow-up question: ‘Who is the best woman, or person of colour doing a job like this one?’, they will give you a list of other names, but with the caveat of ‘I don’t know if she’d want it’, or ‘I don’t know she’d move’. That mindset hasn’t yet shifted. When you ask someone to think of the best engineer, the best head of development, or the best GM they know, the image that comes to mind first is a man.”

And yet, says Strella, who works with Fortune 500 companies all over the world, her clients are more and more seeking candidates who have a traditionally “feminine” skillset, which includes attributes such as communication skills, social intelligence, empathy, consensus-building, and flexibility. Clients are giving more weight to candidates who possess these “soft” skills, which often leads them to consider more women for senior roles, she says.

“What clients are looking for are people who can manage in these uncertain times, who can work cross-culturally, and who can develop and retain the right talent as employees get stretched in their daily lives and companies are asking employees to do more with less. There is a recognition that these soft skills are increasingly important.”

Strella is optimistic that the number of women populating senior positions will rise considerably over the next decades.

“I’m ever hopeful because I see the enlightenment happening. When you talk to a male chief executive or a male senior executive who has a diverse management team, they will tell you how much richer an experience it is for them personally, and how much it meant to the business. Then they perpetuate it.”

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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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About our bloggers

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.

Rebecca Knight

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.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

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