Tara Cemlyn-Jones is a woman on a mission. The former investment banker wants to help almost triple the number of female CEOs in the UK’s largest companies – and quickly.
A quarter of a century ago, Dame Marjorie Scardino was appointed as CEO of media company Pearson, making her the first female CEO in the FTSE 100. Today, there are nine women leading the country’s 100 biggest plcs. Cemlyn-Jones wants that total to be 25 by 2025.
She is far from alone. Under the umbrella of the 25×25 initiative, a not-for-profit that she founded in March 2020, Cemlyn-Jones and fellow directors, Dame Inga Beale and Kerry Dryburgh, have the support of a dozen blue-chip firms, including GSK, NatWest and Unilever.
Cemlyn-Jones argues that diversity among CEOs, as the “public face” of business, matters immensely in setting expectations and shaping aspirations. If corporate leaders look “exclusively male – or white or heterosexual or not disabled – you’re not going to attract the broadest range of talent,” she says.
The 25×25 campaign is as much about making the business case for change as it is about ensuring fairness. Studies have consistently found that diversity in leadership teams has a positive effect on longterm profitability. Research published in October 2021 by US financial services firm Morningstar, for instance, found that the stocks of UK and North American firms with an equal gender split at board level achieved a 7.52% return on investment over three years, compared with an average of 2.09%.
The reason it pays to have more female CEOs isn’t that women have a different set of skills purely because of their gender, according to Cemlyn-Jones, who is “very loath” to suggest that women or men are anything but the same when it comes to their leadership qualities. Rather, the advantage of having more female CEOs concerns the greater perspective this offers. Gender aside, the more varied the top team is, the broader its range of experience will be, which reduces the likelihood of groupthink. (The fact that the FTSE 100 currently has no Black CEOs is another clear sign of the continuing lack of diversity on blue-chip boards and the risk this poses to the quality of their strategic decision- making.) Cemlyn-Jones adds that women’s historically high representation in the HR function is also pertinent. With the economy becoming ever more service-oriented, the need for business leaders to be masters of people management is increasing quickly, she argues. Given her recent experiences of operating in the fast-growing fintech sector, she thinks this factor is something that big plcs, which have traditionally appointed leaders with strong financial skills, have been slow to grasp.
“When you compare big FTSE firms against tech companies, you suddenly realise that the skills required of a CEO have changed completely,” she says.
The appointment of Unilever’s former head of human resources, Leena Nair, as CEO of fashion house Chanel in December suggests that things might at last be changing. If so, female HR directors could be well placed to benefit.
Nonetheless, meaningful change won’t happen without a push. Before its official launch in November 2021, 25×25 conducted extensive research among business leaders. This found that entrenched cultural biases about who is – and isn’t – suited to the top job still run deep. Such attitudes persist despite a number of government- led initiatives – for instance, the Davies review in 2010 and the Hampton-Alexander review in 2016 – to improve the situation.
This is mostly because the responsibilities of the role are very specific, as are the routes into it. Just because boards feature more women, this doesn’t automatically translate into having more female CEOs. It’s why 25×25 has a strong focus on the concept of ‘pathways’ to the top job – in other words, how firms pick, prepare and promote internal candidates or recruit them from outside.
“There’s been quite a lot of work on gender representation in the boardroom, but it hasn’t moved the dial much in terms of CEO numbers”
Some improvements to the selection process would be relatively simple to make. For instance, having an independent observer sitting in on job interviews could alert the company to unconscious biases, Cemlyn-Jones suggests.
But, in addition to any easy fixes, organisations need to ask tough questions of their talent development and promotion processes, she argues. Consider an oil major or a global engineering company, for instance. The CEOs of such firms tend to have gained broad operational experience in several areas of the business, which is fine on paper. Yet is the expectation on candidates to up sticks and move regularly from posting to posting really fair to women, given its implications for family life and the insecurity of certain overseas roles?
The 25×25 initiative has so far resisted proposing a set framework for companies to follow. Instead, its main request of them is to “continue to question traditional models, which may not be appropriate for the CEO of the future”, says CemlynJones, who adds that target-setting is also vital. Hard objectives can better oil the wheels of institutions and make change more likely. Putting it more bluntly, she says: “If it’s left to chance, we know that nothing happens.”
With this in mind, participating firms are encouraged to set targets for gender balance across the top two or three levels of management.
“It’s very easy for people to say: ‘I looked for a good female candidate and I didn’t find any,’” she notes. “If a senior person then tells them: ‘Look again, this is important,’ they will look again and they will find someone. It happens every time.”
Another 25×25 priority is for existing business leaders to start championing the cause of greater female representation more vocally. At present, a “handful of companies” are pushing this agenda hard, she says. Welcome as that is, if more don’t follow suit, “we will simply end up with the same problem”.
Cemlyn-Jones explains: “If a CEO steps up and says: ‘This is important to me,’ what we find is that proper work then gets done.”
It’s clear that several male CEOs in the FTSE 100 must become prominent cheerleaders for the campaign if it’s to succeed. Having already signed up as ‘lead ambassadors’ for 25×25, it’s an assignment that BP’s Bernard Looney, Unilever’s Alan Jope and BAE Systems’ Charles Woodburn have readily accepted.
So, fast-forward three years and imagine that Cemlyn-Jones’s effort to change the face of leadership in the FTSE 100 has succeeded. What fundamental differences would that make? Perhaps the most obvious impact would be on the sense of opportunity granted to half of the nation’s working population, she says. The more female CEOs there are, the more normal that situation becomes for everyone.
Cemlyn-Jones’s vision is that of a virtuous circle in which “everything seems to work together”: more open doors for talented women, better- balanced leadership teams, happier workers all round and so on. Furthermore, it would mean a more productive private sector in general. By encouraging greater diversity, firms will shake off old habits and start benefiting from an influx of new skills and perspectives.
“We’re doing this because we do actually think [a higher percentage of female CEOs] will deliver better performance,” she says. “If you open up the talent base, you’ll get the skills coming through faster and you can accelerate growth.”
Being a blue-chip CEO is not for everyone, of course. The hours are long, the responsibilities are huge and the expectations are colossal. But everyone should at least have the chance of reaching the top of the tree. That’s only fair – and smart.
Broster Buchanan & Orbbis are proud to have partnered with The Times & Raconteur for ‘The Future CEO 2022′, the latest publication in a series of business supplements.