Miranda Pode doesn’t look like a hell-raiser; dressed in brilliant pink and wearing high-heels, she appears more of the Sheryl Sandberg school of “Lean In” persuasion than the Pankhurst type chaining herself to the railings.
Yet she’s the sassy headhunter at Egon Zehnder who planted a bomb under the bosses of the UK’s FTSE 100 companies recently by challenging them to hire 25 female chief executives by 2025. So far, so good, she says. “We’ve had masses of positive support. Businessmen say to me how do we achieve this – not why. What they needed was a catalyst. This is a call to action, to get under their skin.”
And since corporate skin is mainly male, pale and stale, she’s going to have to dig deep. There are only five chief executives of the second sex left in power at the top of the FTSE 100 tree, and just six running FTSE 250 companies following the abrupt departure of the colourful Harriet Green from Thomas Cook. So Ms Pode’s challenge is steep to say the least – some would say impossible.
To achieve the 25 by 25 target means that one in six of all chief executives in the UK’s top 100 companies will have to be female within 10 years. Is that possible without some sort of mandatory quota – or all-out war? She isn’t the slightest bit fazed by the scale of her target: “Of course getting to 25 female chief executives by 2025 will not just happen naturally. What we are hoping to do is help companies do more to develop, coach and retain their best women – that is what we think will bring about real change.”
Luckily for her, Ms Pode has a hotline direct to those top bosses, since about half of the FTSE’s 100 companies are clients of the international search firm where she is managing partner of the London office. “There’s a real shortage worldwide of world-class authentic leaders of either sex. It’s a highly pressurised and tough world and only a very few people want those positions at the top. So it’s not smart business to lose some of your best women.”
Surprisingly, though, she doesn’t believe in quotas, even though you could argue that Egon Zehnder has made a judgement call by setting the 25 per cent target. “Goals are better than quotas; you don’t want women, or men for that matter, believing they have got the job because of a quota.” At least Egon Zehnder practises what it preaches: nearly two thirds of all its staff, and 39 per cent of its 43 consultants in London, are women.
Ms Pode reckons the decade deadline she has set gives companies enough time to groom the next layer of female bosses, as most chief executives switch jobs every four to five years. On average, during the course of a year, about 17 FTSE 100 companies change their leaders. Two thirds of chief executives are internal candidates, which suggests to her that it is up to companies to do more to get women into their in-house pipelines. “We’ve got two generations to make these changes. That should be long enough.”
Her idea for the 25/25 campaign was prompted by fears that the debate on executive diversity was lagging behind the one surrounding non-executive directors (Neds). While the number of women joining boards as Neds has shot up to 23 per cent since the Davies review on female board representation in 2011, women make up only 9 per cent of executive positions.
“So we decided to do something about it – something tangible. Everybody here at Egon Zehnder bought into the 25 by 25 target immediately. One of the problems we see as search consultants is that many women leave mid-career – either to take up non-executive positions, which means we will have even fewer executives in the pipeline, or to step aside from the mainstream, usually for the wrong reasons.”
Women and their attitudes have got to change too. “There’s too much of the traditional stuff cooked into us – whether it’s setting our own restraints over things like when is best to have children and how long to take for maternity leave, or the idea that there is such a thing as a linear career. The truth is there is no ‘right time’ for women to have children. Its time we got rid of some of those monkeys holding us back – to be braver. ”
She speaks from experience. While the 50-year-old was working in senior positions at Sainsbury’s, she had her two boys, now in their teens. “Sainsbury’s was a great place to work and I had the most inspiring woman boss, who was deputy chief executive, in Sara Weller. Yet even with fantastic support from colleagues and at home, I only took three months’ maternity leave. It was far too short and I regret that. I see now that was my own limitation.”
Nor is it always realistic that both partners in a couple can manage full-on jobs, she says, adding that her husband stays at home and looks after their boys. Her husband was an American champion swimmer – whom she met at Boston College in the US while studying for her masters degree. “There are no right ways to work out childcare. You have to find your way; my mother helped us. For most people it’s a luxury for one partner to stay at home, as life is expensive. But it made sense for my husband to be the one – he and the boys are crazy about sport.”
As is Ms Pode; she either walks or cycles to the Piccadilly office where we meet. Before running the London office, she led the firm’s financial services and banking practice. Like all Egon Zehnder consultants, she comes from business: she was marketing chief of the £3bn food division at Marks & Spencer and before that head of strategy at Sainsbury’s – and ran its £2.5bn petrol business. Why did she make the switch to search? There’s a tiny silence. “Let’s say I found the culture at Marks & Spencer rather different to what I was used to.”
And what if she fails in her goal? She smiles: “I don’t believe we will fail.”
By Margareta Pagano