Women in business champion

Looking in the mirror

Srikant Sastry, national managing principal, Advisory Services, Grant Thornton US, on why companies need to stop hiring people who look like them.

I had a mirror held up to me recently at a conference in the US. We had a panel on stage to speak about innovation, and in front of a room of 500 people, one of our managing directors stood up and she asked a question: why are there no women on stage?

This brave woman stood up in front of her peers and asked a very simple question. And I committed to doing something about it.

Looking into that mirror is not just about growth, it’s about changing who we are and transforming. And a big part of that is to take a look at our culture. But how good is a culture when only 10% of your leadership are women? I had to ask myself that question.

Yes, we were growing and having a great impact on our clients, but we were really not seizing innovation because we didn’t have the diversity of ideas at the table. So we committed to diagnosing what was wrong, and hired consultants to help us.

We did a survey and conducted a host of interviews with our senior women to get a perspective of getting behind the numbers. At the associate level we were doing well, our incoming classes of campus hires were very diverse, we started dipping at the manager level and then saw contraction at the senior management level until we ended up with only only 10% female partners.

How could that be in a practice that was growing headcount so strongly? We would hire people who looked like ourselves. Who are your go-to sources to find great talent? Well, the places you know, universities, old companies, friends, people you associate with and hang out with. What does that do? They may be great talent, but are you really looking as broadly and widely as you should be?

The interviews were quite telling. They showed lots of unconscious bias among men. On the same sets of questions, we received vastly different perspectives from men and from women.

So we’ve launched four initiatives to be able to build a more gender diverse leadership culture. Firstly, we needed to build trust. How could we get the numbers up if people don’t understand or believe the ‘why’? We can’t be innovative unless we are embracing a full range of perspectives. If we don’t build trust in the organisation going forward, we’re asking people to do things differently.

The second initiative is mentoring and sponsorship. We have to change how we engage with each other, and mentoring is critical so we’re building a mentoring culture, not just to keep employees at the senior manager level and promote them, but also to mentor and sponsor our young female partners to become senior leaders in our firm.

The third initiative is recruiting. We have to stop fishing at the same wells. We have to go out and do the hard thing – hire people we don’t know. We need to get out of our comfort zone and look more deeply for talent.

Lastly, we have to keep score. Good intentions are not good enough. We love to talk about our culture, I think we have a great culture with collaboration, agility, but how good is a culture that’s not gender diverse? It’s about truth, and the truth is our culture needs to improve. And the truth is we all need to demonstrate courage to improve our culture, to improve our firm.

Read our Women in business report or return to Champions home.