Whilst driving back from a customer meeting yesterday, I was listening to a debate on the radio. The discussion was about the number of women in government, specifically: should there be ‘quotas’ to ensure a required percentage of government officials are women? Some countries have taken this approach. As you would expect from a debate, the panel was split 50:50 for and against.

I don’t like quotas. They risk demeaning the person in role: “Oh, she only got the job because they needed more women…” That is such an annoying statement to make because the same base argument can be used against most people in most roles. It makes the huge assumption that the woman is there instead of the ‘best possible person for the job’. How often is the ‘best possible person for the job’ actually in the job? As opposed to the one with the right connections to secure the position. I’m not saying that idiots are allowed to hold positions because of who they know (although… no, I’m not even going there). Rather, there are plenty of people sharing roughly the same level of skill and expertise. Out of them, the one who gets the job is most likely to be the one with the right connections or is the right ‘fit’ for the team.

This applies in pretty much any scenario. Think of the last conference you attended. Was every presenter the absolute leading authority on their subject matter? Probably not. At the conference I attended last week, the final presenter (Jim Benson) made the following comment, to reiterate the value in social networks:

“I’m here because of my blog and social networking, nothing to do with how well I did or do what I do.”

That didn’t mean he wasn’t any good. The organisers weren’t just dragging people off the street to present. Rather, he had connected with the organisers first and foremost through social networking tools like Twitter. They didn’t have firsthand experience of his skills, but his reputation and connections provided enough confidence and trust to ask him to present.

Many human systems have an imbalance of power at the top, usually weighted heavily towards middle-aged white males. Rather than try and force change through quotas, I’d like to see a different approach. First, identify the make-up of your audience (be they citizens, employees or customers). And make-up isn’t just about gender, race and age. It should include aspirations, issues and preferences. (Are Apple products designed for boys, for girls, or for people who love gorgeous gadgets?) Then compare the ratios to your leadership team. Do they match? If not, why not? Have you explored all channels to find people for your team? Or have you relied too heavily on your inner circle (and/or rewarded contributions that got you to where you are).

If the make-up of people at the top of an organisation doesn’t remotely represent the make-up of people at the bottom or the target audience, it is unlikely that the organisation has the ‘best possible people for the jobs’ in the jobs. Either because of corruption or because the current system deters the right people from coming forward. Neither reason is good. You can get away with it, as long as you don’t have any competition… (as depressingly demonstrated in Zimbabwe this week.)

I don’t like quotas, I would rather see leadership teams resolve their imbalances for the better good of the organisation. But in the absence of incentives (particularly true in government), are quotas the only way to break traditions and redesign the ‘fit’ for the team?

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