A headhunter on a mission

Janice Reals Ellig, the co-chief executive of Chadick Ellig, the New York City-based executive search firm, has made it her life’s work to get more women on corporate boards.

As a headhunter, she focuses her practice on the recruitment of diverse senior-level executives. She is also the president of the Women’s Forum in New York, an invitation-only group of high-ranking professional women that aims to advance female leadership.

“This is really part of my DNA,” she told me recently. “If I’ve accomplished anything in my life, it will have been to change the landscape of corporate boards.”

We spoke only days after the publication of a report, The State of Women Business Leaders in New York State, which showed a slight upward trajectory in the inclusion of women in key executive position at top New York companies. (True, New York is but one state, but in terms of US corporate boards, it is an important one.)

According to the report, which was published by the Women’s Executive Circle of New York in partnership with the Columbia Business School, women hold 15.9 per cent of all board director and executive officer positions in the state’s 100 biggest public companies. This is an increase from 15.5 per cent in 2008 and from 14.7 per cent in 2006. The study showed that 32 of the 100 companies have boards and executive suites in which at least 20 per cent of positions are held by women. Meanwhile, 15 of the 100 companies have no women serving on the board of directors or as executive officers.

According to the numbers, much more work needs to be done. First, says Ellig, nominating committees and board chairman need to work harder at projecting an air of inclusiveness towards women. “The tone has to be set at the top,” she says.

Second, boards must broaden their pool of possible candidates. “We have to get away from the notion that only someone with a CEO title is a viable candidate for [board membership],” she says. “We can still look in the C-suite, and we don’t need to compromise on quality. We should look at entrepreneurs, or someone who has great international experience. Evaluate the needs of the company and then figure out the best possible nominees. The pipeline is there; it’s bulging and it just needs to be tapped.”

Third, Ellig says that external parties need to press the issue. She points out that some institutional investors, including PAX World Funds, have said they will not invest in companies with all-male boards.

Regulators ought to play a bigger role too. She notes that the SEC has now requires listed companies to disclose their policy, if one exists, regarding diversity in the selection of board members. Ellig says the SEC ought to go a step further by issuing a formal requirement for firms to create a board diversity policy. She says the SEC should also require that firms provide regular updates about steps being taken towards achieving diversity goals.

Lastly, Ellig says that women who are on boards need to become proponents of other highly qualified women. “I am cautiously optimistic. But we need to put the pedal to the metal.”

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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.

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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.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

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