“I have an unconscious bias that women are stronger in business.”
Johnny and I are sitting on a giant chessboard under the hanging tress. The castle rises up above us, while around us are discarded pawns, bishops and knights. We could have gone back in time, except Johnny is avidly talking about tech and the importance of diversity, and I know we’ve come a long way. He’s one of the people I’ve been so looking forward to talking to because his passion for diversity is not something you’ll find in every man in the business world, and it feels a lot like progress
What are your first impressions of the show?
I really like it. I was initially worried because there were few candidates and so many advisors. But my perspective changed. The value for me is being able to have conversation with those advisors, and the candidates give us something to focus on. It’s the narrative that we hang some conversations on. If I walk away from this and I’m never on camera or part of the competition, I would have spent three or four days with some amazing people having great chats and I will keep in touch. And that’s super valuable.
Would you do this again?
Would you urge others to come on as candidates?
I think it would be nice to have more candidates. There’s candidates I would go after to get them to compete in this.
Why did you agree to do Top Recruiter?
Because Torin Ellis told me to do it. I know a few people who are continuously involved in it and I trust them. But you know when Torin gets involved it’s serious. He doesn’t mess around.
You’ve worked with Torin previously haven’t you?
Yeah he worked with us on our diversity programme. I flew to DC, we rented a basement Airbnb, set up studio for the week and filmed it with Torin.
Torin is pretty incredible.
Absolutely! And he’s very different from the typical white male out there in recruitment. Some of them are sexist pigs.
But what do we do about that? How do we change it?
You can ask the questions and get different teams to come up with different answers. Instead of just asking general questions, get specific with it.
We need more men like you.
It’s funny because I have conversations with people about empowering women and they tell me about how they talk to their daughters to be empowered. And I’m thinking, you need to talk to your sons.
I think it goes without saying that women can step into the typical male roles, whereas men can’t step into the roles of women. They say if you don’t walk in a person’s shoes you can’t understand them, and they don’t walk in the shoes of anyone but themselves.
Your preaching to the choir.
You know, if you’re lucky and privileged enough to be up on a stage talking to people, you have to take up the cause.
But how are we still having conversations like this after all this time?
God it’s so wrong. When Torin and I were talking I said to him that I have an issue with the word ‘African American’. Because if you’re talking to a black person in Europe, you’re not African American. The words are different. We needed to figure that out. He asked someone what they called themselves in England. The guy replied, British. Even we ourselves can fall into the trap of those labels.
We’ve got a lot of work to do then?
I’d love to have it as a theme. And here’s the thing, agencies don’t give a f**k about diversity. Our diversity product is being eaten up by corporates. Like crazy. Almost no agency wants it. Even if you just think about it from a business point of view, it gives you a competitive edge. If you, as an agency, can provide diverse shortlists and candidates, you can charge a certain fee for that. And the business won’t be trying to discount you for that because no one else is doing it. I was talking to a guy from a major bank and he said they’ve stopped using agencies and the number one reason is because they have the least diverse shortlists. Agencies are being excluded from suppliers because of diversity and they tell me it’s not important?!
You said you’d become really engaged with diversity over the last few years. Why?
I can’t remember what the turning point was. I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about women in business. I did the Harvard test and it says I have an unconscious bias that women are stronger in business.
What did you do about diversity in your business specifically?
A couple of things actually. We started hiring a lot of people who weren’t Irish.
We started out with mainly women in the business. The company as a whole is 48% women. In the sales teams it’s mainly men. And we used to all be on the same floor. The marketing and creative teams were female led and the sales team male led. But then we grew and so had to split up and the sales team immediately started having a different culture. The women in the sales team started saying it’s become very male dominated and laddish and a lot of stupid comments like ‘you wouldn’t understand because you’re a woman’.
And I was thinking we need to fix this straight away. I was chatting to my business partner and he didn’t even see it, which made me realise that the people I’m closest to don’t even see their own bias.
So the best way to solve diversity in a small company like ours is you hire more foreigners and you hire more women. What I’ve seen is that as we’ve grown that sales team 40% of them are non-native English speakers. As opposed to just two of them. And now there aren’t two people that get picked on. Half the company are native speakers and half aren’t. And the problem sorts itself out.
I actually want to write an article called ‘what the Nazis can teach us about diversity’.
Please enlighten me?
Well, when you think about it, what the Nazis and fascist regimes have done well is propaganda. And propaganda gives you the belief that something is true when it isn’t.
But you have to give the impression that the opposite is true, to arrive in the middle. GoDaddy did this. They replaced the posters in their offices with strong women in business Not all of them, 80% of them had strong women as the focal point, and 20% had men. Every second week they would have a guest speaker, and they moved that towards women, so that 80% of the guest speakers were women. The idea was that they created this illusion in the business. So when you worked there, you constantly saw images of successful women. And they now have 38% female engineers working in their business, which is the highest in any industry. Engineering only has 20% females in it as it is.
You can’t just hire women; it’s creating environments that make them want to stay that counts.
Propaganda is powerful because it works. We all have an unconscious bias, there’s no getting away from it. But it’s how you can leverage that bias, and drive it in the opposite way so you start thinking there are more women doing this job than there really are. Because if you start believing there are more women leaders, over time you’ll start accepting that. It becomes a norm.
Who have you met that you’ve really gotten on with?
I’ve had some great conversations with Rick Mare, really get on with him. Great conversation yesterday with Keith Potts. Great egg. I know Anne Swain from some years ago, and she’s brilliant. Verne Davis and Mike Bitar from Protis are really cool.
What are you most excited about in recruitment right now?
A couple of things. 1 – Technology taking all the fat out of recruitment. All the admin and the boring stuff you just don’t need to be doing. And because HR and recruiting have become hot from a VC point of view, there’s loads of money going into it. That’s cool.
And 2 – is the role of recruiting moving into the more business oriented side of things. You know, recruiters helping business make the right decisions. It’s not just a reactive function.
I want to sit and talk to Johnny longer. Hear more of his stories. Get more advice. He’s a candid, straight talking kind of guy, and he’s calling out every bad behaviour in recruitment, and it feels a lot like the future. However, all good things come to an end and we’re both called back into the castle to be back on set, but I’ve got a ton of new things to think about.