Ask Bullmore: What's wrong with having a 'pale male' management team?

Ask Bullmore: What's wrong with having a 'pale male' management team?

Campaign's agony uncle answers your career dilemmas.

Dear Jeremy, As an agency chief executive, I get a fair bit of criticism from the press and my peers, but it is when I get pilloried for having a "pale male" management team that it bothers me. We happen to be a strong top team and I am not quite sure how to change that. I certainly don’t want to fire any one of them. Any advice?

When you accepted the job of chief executive, you also accepted that if your agency lagged, it would be you and you alone who accepted the responsibility. However strong your team, however collegiate you claim your management to be, that’s the deal. That’s what being a chief executive means.

So if you’re going to accept that responsibility, you must also own the right to run the agency in the way you think makes its success most likely.

Discuss things, of course; canvass opinions; try things out on mates and colleagues. But because you’re the one who is paid to be publicly answerable – to your owners, your staff and your clients – you must run the joint in your own uncompromising manner. And if that means the management team you believe will be most successful are all white males, then that’s the team you must go with.

Taking the consequent flak from the press and peers is part of your job description. To select a management team even partially for PR purposes would be to disqualify yourself from the job you’re paid to do.

But good agencies that want to go on being good agencies; that want to grow; that want to feel comfortable servicing a huge range of different clients, which in turn are hoping to appeal to a huge range of human beings – such agencies, for hardnosed, commercial reasons, need to contain talented people of many different backgrounds.

So you need to be sure that the known existence of your "pale male" top team doesn’t deter talented people who are neither pale nor male from wanting to join you.

If a talented woman is offered a job at two agencies, one of which has at least a couple of women in key positions and one of which is yours, you shouldn’t be surprised if that talented woman turns you down.

You may argue that your management team are intelligent enough and experienced enough to offer equal opportunities for progress to everyone on the payroll, irrespective of gender, colour, educational attainment or any other discriminator – and so they may be. But to anyone who isn’t a pale male, doesn’t that sound exactly the sort of self-satisfied self-justification that pale males have been making all their working lives?

And if there’s an alternative employer that demonstrably recruits more open-mindedly and puts raw ability before all else, doesn’t that sound altogether more attractive?

You’re the chief executive. You don’t have to do what anyone suggests unless you think it would make your agency a more effective place. So what do you think now?

Dear Jeremy, I often read behavioural economists who tell us that consumers form split-second judgments about favoured brands and post-rationalise the reasons why they chose them. It occurred to me: I’ve probably been doing this when hiring people for years. How would you suggest I check my prejudice?

You’re right to be concerned. Here’s what you should do. Choose nine colleagues to join you in forming a candidate selection group.

Between you, identify and codify ten key attributes you believe all aspiring candidates should display. Allocate to each attribute ten notional points. Ensure that, for all vacancies, ten candidates are shortlisted.

Each candidate is then interviewed separately by all ten members of the selection group, who allocate up to ten points to each candidate against each of the ten key attributes.

No conferring is permitted and no discussions must be held: you can all too easily allow subjective judgments to come into play and permit one person’s predilection to influence the opinion of another, thus slipping back into the risk of prejudice you’re so anxious to eliminate.

The rest of the procedure is simplicity itself and, indeed, may easily be automated. The candidate who emerges with the highest overall score is automatically appointed to the role in question.

Please write to me again in a year’s time and tell me how your company’s doing.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@ or by tweeting @Campaignmag with the hashtag #AskBullmore.

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