Lateral thinking to broaden the talent pool in operations

By Kristan De Sousa

Published on 28-11-2016

National Association of Woman in Operations

I was lucky enough to be asked to speak on a panel at a National Association of Woman in Operations (NAWO) Industry Solutions event last Thursday morning. The event was co-hosted by long-time NAWO member and supporter Orora.

The topic: lateral thinking to broaden the talent pool in operations.

I was joined by esteemed panellists:

  • Tim Hart, MD & CEO, Ridley
  • Craig Jackson, Group General Manager Procurement & Supply Chain, Orora
  • Rebecca McGrath, Chairman, Investa Office Management; Non-executive Director Incitec Pivot, Goodman Group & OZ Minerals.

The discussion was moderated by Simon Bromell, Group General Manager, Orora and covered five key areas:

  1. Demand v Supply
  2. The Merit Trap
  3. Lateral ideas to attract, retain and promote female talent
  4. Gender as a consideration in decision making – getting comfortable with this
  5. Basic Hygiene – prevent your hiring process falling into the “bad story” pile

The panel offered too many insights and examples to share them all but I’ve compiled some of the key themes from each area that I felt had the greatest impact.


1. Supply v Demand

Diversity and inclusions strategies are becoming far more prevalent and most of our clients now ask for balanced shortlists for key positions. However, there is still a struggle to populate shortlists with appropriately qualified and experienced women, especially at the senior level and especially in operations.

The panel was posed the question:

“Is there really an issue with supply, or does more work need to be done on the demand side?”

Having recruited senior roles in engineering, operations, supply chain and more recently marketing (within operations) for the last ten years I can confidently say there is a supply issue.

I recently mapped the market for a client to find all Heads of Engineering and Manufacturing in the FMCG and industrial manufacturing industry, after my extensive search I found that only a small percentage were females and even a smaller percentage were open to considering a move.

When advertising for a similar role within the chemicals industry, I received over 100 applications and not one of those were female. I even tried to rework the ad in three different ways.

Driving the diversity agenda on shortlists for mid-level roles is a step in the right direction to combat the issue of supply.

The issue of supply is complex, but one observation offered by Rebecca McGrath was that there is an enhanced loyalty from woman. In her experience woman have a greater tendency to stay with an employer who they have been with for a long time and wait for an internal promotion rather than seek the next ‘big role’ externally.

Rebecca also said that a business will do well if they maintain a strong relationship with senior women even if they leave the business rather than grieving the loss too much. This way you always leave the door open for them to come back.

2. The Merit Trap

Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change recently released a joint report titled ‘In the Eye of the Beholder – Avoiding the Merit Trap.’ In this report they say merit must be redefined to include broader leadership skills and potential.

The panel was posed the question:

“How important do you believe it is to interrogate the definition of ‘merit’ – do you have an example of a time you have challenged a hiring manager’s or your own biases?”

The panel discussed the propensity for hiring managers to recruit in the same image as themselves or the predecessor. So in fact the unconscious bias can be quite a conscious decision in many instances.

“People have good intentions but expediency and demand for filling the role can get in the way of a process.” - Rebecca McGrath

From my perspective it is not just about gender but background. I’ve had many clients say they don’t want to employ someone from a different industry background as it hasn’t worked in the past. However, looking to other industries in order to achieve a balanced shortlist is often the only option. It is then it is up to the leader to set these people up for success. No one said leading a diverse workforce was the easy option, in fact it is the bold and harder option. However research shows this decision can have long-term commercial benefits.

3. Lateral ideas to attract, retain and promote female talent

In 2015 and 2016 Westpac introduced its ‘Equilibrium’ initiative. ‘Equilibrium’ is a program to bring highly skilled women into the financial services sector. It offers a career option for accomplished female leaders, currently working in other sectors, to switch to a new career in Financial Services

The panel was asked:

“Do you think the industries NAWO membership represent should consider adopting a creative approach like this to boost the number of women in senior positions?”

There were some brilliant examples of organisations innovating to achieve their diversity targets.

  • Adjusting shop floor hours to fit in with school drop offs and pick ups
  • Stay in touch programs for woman on maternity leave
  • The use of video technology for FIFO supervisors to supervise remotely
  • Regional roles such as quality management that are not required on site daily, operating from head office

4. Gender as a consideration in decision making – getting comfortable with this

The most important message that came from the panel on this topic is the education of line managers. The diversity agenda needs to be driven from the top but if it is not being lived and breathed at all levels the values will not be embedded.

“Men challenging men is important.”
- Rebecca McGrath

5. Basic Hygiene – prevent your hiring process falling into the “bad story” pile

At NAWO we still hear specific stories from women who have had poor experiences in the hiring process. Examples include;

  • Being asked how they will manage family with travel commitments
  • Being told the position is paying x-y when their male friend, also in the mix for the same position was provided with a considerably higher range for the role
  • Being asked if they have any issues or concerns with working in a male dominated/blokey environment

What do you believe executive recruiters and organisations should be doing differently to ensure these stories become ancient history?

The main theme here was in regards to the processes that are run and who is running them. As Craig Jackson pointed out although supply is an issue, often more needs to be done on the demand side. It is not enough to simply ask for a balanced shortlist, there needs to be flexibility in background and experience.

“If we keep doing the same thing, we will get the same outcome.”



Kristan De Sousa

Six Degrees Executive

For more information, contact Kristan De Sousa on (03) 8613 3508.

For more information on NAWO or membership options contact NAWO.

NAWO is the peak body championing women in operations. Their vision is a world where women and men can be equally represented and valued at every level.