'I look forward to a day when a company lost business because of how they handle diversity'

March 07, 2021 | Nischala Murthy KaushikPhil Fersht

I spoke with HFS Research CEO Phil Fersht for his thoughts on gender diversity and building inclusive organizations, why we need women at the workplace, how the industry has evolved over the past decade, and ideas for the future to make significant progress for the case and cause of #womenatwork.  A one of its kind and exclusive interview in which Phil shares unfiltered reflections and intriguing insights.

Nischala: So Phil, firstly, thanks for your time to do this interview with me. As you know, the topic of #WomenAtWork is very close to my heart.

I’d like to start with a basic question - Why do you think we should have more women in the workplace?

Phil: Thanks for doing this, Nischala. Appreciate all your initiatives around women at the workplace.

Coming to your question - Firstly, I think that there’s a shortage of talent in the workplace, particularly creative talent. I work in a knowledge industry, where we need creative people - good writers, thinkers, and communicators. In many cases, women are outstanding in these areas, especially writing and communicating.

If women aren’t an active part of the workforce, I do feel that we’re missing out on a lot of talent, which is critical for business growth. I do recognize that many women disappear from the workplace when they have kids or caring for the needs of the family - and they don’t come back.  Some women come back, and a minimal number are tremendously successful, but not nearly enough.

Now having a stimulating, rewarding career is essential for many, many people, and they should have a choice on whether they want to continue that or not. So I think we’re in a world where people need to make their own choices, we need to have more talent available within our businesses and companies so we can be successful, and when we look at the availability of talent - it tends to be, often, predominantly on the male side, particularly in technology areas, because of the way these industries have evolved, and the way society has almost dictated how people should run their lives.

Nischala: Thanks Phil for that perspective. You’ve been in the industry for more than two decades. What are some of the differences you see around women at work when you started off to where we are today?

Phil: It’s an excellent question. I don’t think this topic itself was talked about in the public domain when I started working. I think it was more of a private debate.

But when I look back and reflect on the stories I have heard - like the women’s toilets on the top floor and fewer of them in a building, and men’s restrooms on every floor - it sort of blows your mind on how we were back then.

In the early 90s - the sexism that went on was unbelievable; and this is for all industries and in all parts of the world. And so I think the most significant change today is that these issues are much more on the table, up for debate. People understand what is correct and what isn’t correct.There is a lot more awareness, openness, and sensitivity to talk about them. But most importantly, I see a genuine desire to make this a fairer and more equal society and workplace – which is the good news.

Nischala: That’s good to hear Phil. Coming to the company HFS Research, I was pleasantly surprised when I joined to see the such amazing women in the team – across all functions like Research, Sales, Marketing, Operations, and Finance. Can you talk a little bit about how we ended up here?

Phil: Honestly, it’s more by luck than design. I don’t go out of my way in thinking, “I’m going to build a company which is going to be as represented by men and women as possible.” I’ve always been merit-based - with analysts, and salespeople, and marketing people. I want to bring into the company the best talent - whether they’re male or female.

It’s been more recently that you become more conscious of the ratios because it’s more discussed. Right? Also, we do a lot of industry-facing conferences – so when you’ve got half your company on display in front of hundreds of your clients, and hundreds of your network, you suddenly realize, “Ooh, everyone can see what we look like”. And yes, we do want to have a good array of different races,  genders and personalities. The underlying value is that we want to be as equal and fair as possible. And that’s how things have evolved!

Looking back, I grew up in the analyst industry where there’s always been a healthy proportion of women than many other industries. In general - the best analysts I’ve worked with happen to be female. If I could list out the best ten analysts in our industry right now, probably seven of them are women. I’m not going to do it, as I don’t want to upset anybody J. And some of them are in this company. So they do make good analysts and good communicators and good writers and I’m very proud of all of them.

Nischala: That’s great, Phil. What I personally like about you is that you are very vocal about expressing appreciation, and giving credit to both men and women when they deserve it. I was ecstatic when you send me a personal message saying, “I am proud of you” a few days back for the work I did. I think that’s truly remarkable as a leader.

You work with women leaders across the globe – from different backgrounds, roles, cultures and power profiles. What, in your view, are some of the critical skills that make a difference, especially for women leaders to get to the top?

Phil:. What are the skills for women leaders to get to the top?

I don’t think they’re any different from the skills that men need to get to the top, to be honest with you. I think it’s an ability to communicate well, to be socially and empathetically intelligent – so social intelligence is vital these days – an ability to demonstrate drive and hard work and leadership are really the traits that we look for.

At least in our industry - like research and analysis. So a lot of this might depend on industry, and industry makeup, and the way these have evolved, and inherent traditional biases that have come from the past.

Nischala: Sure. That’s an interesting perspective. So what, in your view are some things which organisations can do to forward the case and cause of women in leadership more effectively?

Phil: Well, many things.

So, firstly – let’s start with hiring. There has to be a clear focus on consciously ensuring that women are applying for these positions or want these positions. And if not, understand why? Don’t these women exist? Don’t they know about these jobs? Or don’t they want them?

So one way of doing this could be in the way we shortlist candidates. So let’s say we want to shortlist 4, can we make two of them women, two of them men. Then if they can get some form of racial equality, that’s even better. But just keeping it down to gender means maybe spending a bit more time trying to dig out the gold from the minority of women who applied for that job. And then making sure you’re getting your catchment of hiring working effectively. So if you’re getting all your recruiting off LinkedIn and it’s giving you a very skewed view of men to women, then look for other avenues to get your candidates from as well. There are many, many other recruitment businesses and sites and things that you can source profiles from. So, address your recruiting.

Make sure there’s an equally distributed set of folks who are applying for the jobs. But also there has to be some element of meritocracy. So don’t just give a job to a person because she’s a woman; she also needs to be the best candidate. You just need to make sure you have a balance of candidates that get it right, and then, on the whole you’ll get a better balance of men to women in your business. It may not always be completely 50/50, but you’ll have a balance, and I think getting that balance and consciously trying to get that balance, is how to do this.

The next thing is to care deeply. I honestly will tell you that the reason why a lot of firms in the technology industry are struggling to get their gender diversity ratios right - it’s because they don’t really care. Because their clients don’t care either.

It’s only going to change when the clients actually say, “I’m going to go with this provider or this technology software company because I like how they handle diversity. When a provider is being down selected on a billion-dollar deal, the client needs to look at their diversity policy. I’ve never seen once a client make a decision on a provider that includes diversity as part of the inputs. So people look to leadership’s beliefs and values, and part of those values need to be diversity. Now, if the customers don’t care and they’re still going with providers who don’t have a fair and equitable gender representation, then that’s an inherent problem in our industry and not just the providers who are serving them.

Nischala: I am waiting for a day when this becomes a news headline. That a company lost business because of how they handle diversity. Phil, I would like to ask you  - As a powerful voice in the industry, what are some of the ideas and programs you are thinking about and planning around gender diversity.

Phil: As analysts and advisors and consultants, we have a place in this industry to make this point more prominent and important and relevant.

Some of the key ideas and programs we are driving at HFS Research are below

One, in 2021 we have started a dedicated focus on “Diversity and Inclusion”; and a part of your role is to champion this agenda. We will start publishing a lot more data-based insights around this subject for the industry!

Two, we are including diversity quotient in some of our research work. This means a company’s policies and actions around gender diversity will directly impact the HFS assessment of a company

Three, we are launching a podcast series, “The Shero Diaries”. As part of this, we talk with influential and powerful women leaders across the world.  In this series, we present ideas that matter, real-world insights and positive inspiration based on stories from corporate sheros. All this and more with leaders like Anita Mohan ( Executive Vice President & Chief Growth and Strategy Officer at EXL),  Allison Sagraves ( Senior Vice President, The New Normal, M&T Bank),  Eva Sage Gavin (Senior MD – Talent and Organization Human potential practice).

Four, I firmly believe that we have a unique opportunity in the industry to put the spotlight on women. So for all our events we actively and consciously identify women who can be invited to speak. Many times, when the opportunity presents itself – women lap it up. Interestingly, last year we did a panel on emerging technology with only women. It was not planned or designed that way, but ended up that way because the best speakers for the topic were women. Giving women more confidence to get up, take the lea and speak up is what we have to do here.

Five, we have just announced our first event HFS One Office Symposium this year; which is an exclusive digital conference for industry leaders in business and technology to gain access to the most expansive global community of pioneers, practitioners and peers. We commit that 20% of the proceeds from this event will be used to support two causes we believe in - the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement and the importance of college education

Nischala: As you know, 2020 has been the year of change and chaos, and crisis for many of us. If you had to give career advice to young women professionals who are starting off their careers, what would you say to them?

Phil:

Be competitive.

Have no fear.

Follow your passion.

Don’t get swayed from areas because you feel you are disadvantaged as a woman. If a company is going to hire somebody because they’re a man, then that company isn’t worth working for in the first place. Many businesses out there are very fair and equal with their hiring procedures, and they hire the best. They’re not hiring on race, or gender; they’re hiring on the best. So make sure you’re the best.

Make sure you’re in there, your voice is counted, make sure your views and values are shared as well, and be proud of being a woman in the workplace.

I think this is a good time for women to be more recognized for their contributions. I think smart companies are actively looking for more women because they want to get a better balance and its just better business!

Posted in: Policy and Regulations

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