182. Why the “Best Candidate Argument” is flawed
This is a picture I took at a conference in late 2020.
The number on the left is the position Denmark holds globally when it comes to women and education.
The number on the right?
Women in leadership roles.
A minefield of emotions and dogma
Anyone who has had a discussion about gender and workplace issues will know that it can feel like stepping into a war zone; full of deeply dug trenches, bleeding wounds and constant explosions.
But among the pieces of rhetorical shrapnel flying around, one argument in particular rears its head again and again and again – usually (though not always) – spoken by men. White men, most of all, but also other men to a certain extent.
“It’s about getting the best candidate for the job!”
Boards, Bores and Boredom
The argument is one taken from the ongoing debate about recruitment and it’s usually brought up when someone suggests that we might be able to get more female leaders if we tried introducing some formal mechanisms to make that happen; for example the idea of quotas.
To set the stage, let’s bring in a few facts. These are not in dispute, though what they mean certainly is!
1. Women are extremely under represented in leadership positions.
2. They’re not alone in this. The chances of finding a Director who is black, transsexual and not neuro-typical are probably lower than those of winning a national lottery.
3. Men – especially white men – are quite over represented, on the other hand. History plays a big part here, but can’t be blamed for everything.
4. There are some crazy statistics out there, that illustrate how bad it is. For example, in Denmark, there are more public company CEOs named “Lars” then there are female CEOs in total.
5. There are plenty of studies that show that diversity (in thought, background, etc) in companies is good and shows on the bottom line. So it’s not as if anyone thinks that having a company run exclusively by middle aged to old white men is a goal to strive for in itself.
6. Everyone wants the best possible leaders here. The disagreement is on what that means, not the sentiment itself.
So here we are. In general, we are fans of diversity, gender equality and so on, but when it comes to business leadership we’re still not doing that well.
It’s time to look at the concept of quotas, because a large part of the answer lies here.
The idea itself is rather simple. An easy way to achieving some sort of diversity in a Board of Directors (to take an example) is to simply make it a rule.
“We want to have a good mix of men and women, so we’ll make it a rule that our BoD must contain min. 40% men and min. 40% women.”
Now, I know, that some of you are thinking “Men!? Women!? These aren’t the only options! What happened to LGBTQIA+ here?”
That is valid. But while it is valid, it is beyond the scope of this blog post to engage in that debate also, so for the purposes of this particular argument, we’ll keep it simple (“good enough for jazz”, as some might say).
So back to our fictional Board of Directors, where a suggestion has been made that min. 40% should be men and min. 40% should be women.
And now our friend, the “Best Candidate” argument, is brought to the table.
“Obviously, this is a bad idea! We should select the best candidate for the job. If we made gender an issue, then we might end up with someone who was LESS QUALIFIED. Quotas are horrible and we should never introduce them!”
This is the argument.
Deceptively simple and on the surface very persuasive.
If we rank our candidates from 1–10 and our top three candidates are Lars (9.6), Daniel (9.4) and Anna (9.2), of course we should choose Lars.
Choosing Anna (whose 9.2 sounds impressive, but is nowhere near Lars’ 9.6 or even Daniel’s 9.4) would mean choosing a less qualified candidate.
So, by this logic, having a Board of Directors with a minimum of 40% men and minimum 40% women would almost certainly mean selecting some people who were less qualified in favour of some who were more.
Wouldn’t that be terrible?
For the company? For Lars? And even for Anna, who would have to go to every meeting KNOWING that she was not the best candidate, but just a bronze medalist, who got the gold because of her gender!?
Wouldn’t that be terrible?
Here’s why this is a misleading representation of reality
As you might expect, I disagree with this way of looking at things. Quite a bit, actually. And I’ll let you in on why, using X reasons and ending up with a general statement.
First off, forgive me if this becomes a bit long and over-explanatory. Refuting arguments is sometimes a longer process than making them, and this one is a good example of that.
Second, just so there is no doubt: I am a white middle aged heterosexual cis-gender man who holds several leadership positions (even though my name isn’t Lars). The current system works quite well for people like me, and I have experienced the bitter feeling of being denied something because of a gender quota. Quite a few times. I STILL believe they are a good idea.
And now, the meat of the matter.
- We already have quotas. Whenever we talk about “the best candidate for the job”, we have already narrowed that field down quite a bit due to a range of factors;
- The best candidate who speaks the right language(s). The best candidate who is able to be at the meetings (easier in these Zoom days, but still tricky). The best candidate who is interested in the salary offered. The best candidate who is not working for a competing company (though this one is sometimes stretched a bit). The best candidate who is young enough (plenty of companies have an age limit for the Directors). The best candidate who is… you get the picture.
- Added to this list, we have a few more quite critical ones. The best candidate who hears about the job. The best candidate who is available (after all, people have commitments elsewhere!). And most importantly, the best candidate who actually applies for the position. So the whole “best candidate” concept is one with a pretty large number of built-in limitations. From our example before, Lars (our 9.6 candidate) might not even be in the Top100 on a Desired Candidate list, bur would still be #1 who applies.
- And with the “best candidate” concept starting to look slightly less impressive, the avalanche starts in earnest. Because while it’s definitely possible to score candidates on a 1–10 list and end up with Lars at 9.6 and Anna at 9.2, it’s also commonly accepted that this sort of scoring is imprecise at best. And even if it was hyper precise, deciding what to rate is an exercise in bias in itself.
- Because now things are going to get really annoying. Now, we’re going to look at Lars and Anna ans their fictional scores and rip them apart. Because the all-too-obvious truth is that those numbers are both contextual and relative…
- What does that mean? It means that if you have 15 people on your BoD that are all aged 50–65, male, white, uneducated, rich and Danish, then just getting one guy in there who is 28, poor and just finished his Ph.D is going to add a radically different perspective to the group. And that’s even if he is also Danish and white. Now imagine if just five of those 15 were replaced with people who were nothing like the rest and suddenly you’d see the meetings become melting pots of thought.
- And THAT is valuable. No one denies it. Hell, I get paid quite big sums of money to come into corporate centers of power and contribute BECAUSE I have a different profile than those who are already there. I have been asked to join boards BECAUSE of my different background, world view and expertise. I am invited to speak at events BECAUSE I am different. Diversity is valuable, whatever form it comes in.
- The thing is… diversity is contextual. In a room full of roleplayers, my roleplaying background (I used to own the world’s biggest live action role play studio) isn’t particularly interesting, but my McKinsey affiliation might be. In a room of lifelong banking execs, that same roleplaying background gives me some perspectives no one else has. In some rooms, my being a father makes me stand out. In others, not so much. THIS IS NOT ABOUT MEN AND WOMEN. It’s about variety, diversity and perspective.
- Now, leaving that for a moment, we already have plenty of places where there are quotas – not just implicit quotas, but explicit quotas. Some boards must contain a certain number of students, others a minumum number from specific geographical regions. The United States Senate is one of the most powerful examples of quota thinking, and that comes with its own sets of pros and cons. Ironically, that system is much beloved by quota-hating powerful white men as well, but I guess that just shows we as a group also can be flexible ideologically.
Final thoughts: quotas aren’t a silver bullet, but neither are they vampires
If you’ve gotten this far, you’d be surprised if I now said that I think quotas are always bad.
However, I think some of you may be surprised to hear that I am not a huge fan of quotas in general. I love it when such blunt measures are not needed, and things can be solved with other means.
But to me, quotas are a tool in the toolbox, to be used if needed (even if only temporarily), and while they are a blunt instrument they are sometimes exactly what is needed.
And as for those of you, who have gotten to the end of my text with their “best candidate for the job” argument still in place… for you, I have three final things to say:
- You will almost never get the best candidate for the job, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get one, who is more than capable and will do a fantastic job.
- Defining what “best” means is incredibly hard, but if you want to follow the science on what is best for your business, ensuring diversity should be a major factor.
- If you still believe quotas are the devil’s spawn, then just call them “strong principles” instead. This doesn’t have to be about language, but should be about change. 🤠
And if you find some better (and preferably shorter) text explaining why the whole “best candidate” idea has its flaws, please write me.
I hold no illusions about my text being the best candidate for the job, but until I find something better, it’ll be the best right now. 😉
Claus Raasted is an overpaid rockstar consultant with Viking roots and a big smile. He serves as the Director of the College of Extraordinary Experiences, is a Coach at McKinsey & Company and has 34 books to his name. He also has a past in reality TV, but these days, who hasn’t?