Nudging Open the Black Box of Board Appointments

New research sponsored by Sapphire Partners reveals women candidates get advice while men get sponsorship
12 March 2015, London

At a launch event hosted by KPMG in London today, executive search firm Sapphire Partners released the findings of ‘Opening the Black Box of Board Appointments’, a research project funded through an Economic and Social Research Council PhD studentship at King’s College London. The pathfinding research aimed at understanding how women and men experience the search for Non-Executive Directorships. Speakers at the report launch event included Helena Morrissey, CBE, CEO of Newton Investment Management and Founder of the 30% Club; Robert Swannell, Chairman of Marks & Spencer; Carola Hoyos, Recruitment Editor of the FT; and Melanie Richards, Vice Chairman of KPMG.

The report reveals that women are being encouraged by their networks to seek NED roles and are targeting a seat on a FTSE board – yet 70% of the 1292 appointments in the FTSE 350 over the last three years have gone to men. The research highlighted the chasm between perceptions that women are getting more NED appointments, and reality – men still get the lion’s share. The research also revealed that women mainly target FTSE boards whereas men target a wider set of boards. At the same time, nearly half of the men (46%) in the study aspired to Chair the board, compared to just 28% of women.

Helena Morrissey commented, “Many women approach me mystified by what’s entailed to even be considered for a board role – it’s good to see the ‘black box’ being opened up through this timely research. There’s clearly still a wide range of approaches being used by companies and search firms to source candidates. The research highlights issues that remain, including critical differences in the perceptions of men and women as they seek that often elusive first board appointment. I think the research provides some really helpful practical suggestions, too.”

The research found prior board experience to be a significant success factor, mainly because of the access to NED networks that comes with being part of a board. This is particularly relevant for women, who report a ‘flurry’ of offers after they secure their first board appointment. For both men and women, personal networks remain key, but men’s networks play a more active role in recommending them to boards or introducing them to a major board influencer. Men have powerbrokers, who sponsor them for board roles. By contrast, women’s networks offer advice, but not such a practical ‘leg-up’. Elisabeth Kelan, Professor of Leadership at Cranfield School of Management and one of the authors of the report, comments: “Our findings show clearly that women receive a lot of advice but men reap the benefits of sponsorship”.

The report concludes that there has been progress in the years since the Davies’ report, both in increasing the number of women on boards and in challenging often opaque appointment processes. However, continued efforts are needed to champion robust processes and to ensure that the key role played by sponsors and personal networks does not present barriers to diverse candidates. Kate Grussing, founder and Managing Director of Sapphire Partners who initiated the research, said “It is incumbent on all Chairman and headhunters to continue to push for diverse candidate lists when the 25% target for women on FTSE boards is reached, or the UK could slip backwards again very quickly”.

Robert Swannell commented, “Well documented research which brings transparency to a process designed to help achieve diverse and effective Boards is a real plus. So this new research is a welcome addition. There has been real progress in the systematic way in which Boards achieve the right balance of skills, experience and diversity over the past years. Of course there is still more to do to achieve the best performing and diverse Boards, but in many ways this is the easiest part of the journey. The key to sustainable success is to ensure that talented women are given the opportunities to develop their careers to the full so that the executive pipeline of senior women is increased substantially in the coming years” .


For further information, contact:
Kate Grussing
Managing Director, Sapphire Partners 0207 292 9970 / 07818 427 221

Professor Elisabeth Kelan
Chaired Professor of Leadership and the Director Designate of the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders, Cranfield School of Management Media Relations Office 01234 754425 or

The full report is available under

Notes to editors

Sapphire Partners is a London based executive search consultancy founded in 2005. In Sapphire’s 10 year history the firm has brought a fresh approach to executive search. Sapphire’s passion for diversity (the firm places 50% men and 50% women on average) made the firm a forerunner in promoting diversity, in boardrooms as well as in executive roles. Sapphire was an original signatory to the voluntary code for executive search firms active in promoting women on boards and in September 2014 was one of a subset of firms to receive recognition from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills for its impact in promoting women on boards.

Report Authors: The research was conducted by Scarlett Brown, a PhD scholar in the Department of Management at King’s College London; Professor Elisabeth Kelan, Chaired Professor of Leadership and Director Designate of the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders at the Cranfield School of Management; and Dr Anne Laure Humbert.

Research Funding: The research was funded through an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Collaborative PhD studentship (CASE Studentship): a collaboration between Sapphire Partners and King’s College London. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Research Design: The research tracked a cohort of 30 exceptionally well-qualified men and women, aspiring to their first appointment to a FTSE or other UK corporate board, over a two year period. In-depth interviews and a survey with over 180 women and men captured their motivations, aspirations and strategies, as well as factors that contributed to the success of those who secured the role they were looking for.