Women are on their way to the top, says headhunter who blazed a trail

November 26, 2018
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Featuring Carol Leonard, The Inzito Partnership Founder and AltoPartners Global Operating Committee Member

This article by James Ashton was first published on 24 November 2018 in The Times

Carol Leonard turned her gift for interviewing corporate leaders to her long-lasting advantage

The characters that bestrode British industry in the early 1990s were sharply drawn by Carol Leonard in interviews for The Times every Saturday. There was the “tall, slender, handsome and permanently suntanned” Sir Ian MacLaurin, the Tesco chairman, and the industrialist Lord Weinstock, “cautious to the point of being boring”.

Ms Leonard revealed that Sir Brian Pitman, chief executive of Lloyds Bank, “always buys his clothes off the peg and admits to making them last for years”, while Lord Sterling of Plaistow, the P&O chairman, was known for “dating showgirls in his youth, draping mink coats over their shoulders, driving them round town in an open-top Rolls-Royce with his dog on the back seat”.

Such corporate titans have largely slipped from view, but Ms Leonard has powered on. The bulging contacts book that she filled on Fleet Street provided the feedstock for a job that has yielded work for hundreds of chief executives, finance directors and chairmen in 25 years and given her the reputation as one of the City’s top headhunters.

Coaxing someone from one role to another often starts with a text message. “That goes in under the wire and away from the personal assistants,” Ms Leonard said. “I ask if I can speak to them about something. They text back with a time or a number, or they just call.”

At the top end of the market, headhunting remains untouched by Linkedin. Ms Leonard retains a huge volume of information about executives that she may place one day: their family circumstances, aspirations, strengths, weaknesses and cultural fit. There is a physical record, maintained at the Mayfair townhouse that houses her 20-person search firm, the Inzito Partnership, but much more is kept in her head. “A lot of it isn’t data you can record. It is a sense about people, or sometimes they have shared something very confidential they wouldn’t want in a database.”

Search firms have done well from the decade-long corporate governance boom, as a result of which demand for non-executive directors has soared. The full-time merry-go-round is also spinning faster these days. A lot of the shortened tenures for top jobs is down to executives looking to move voluntarily, according to Ms Leonard. When hunting for the next finance director for Rolls-Royce, a role that went to Stephen Daintith, of the Daily Mail & General Trust, Inzito was talking to six FTSE 100 finance chiefs, three of whom had been in post for only two and a half years. “Attitudes to loyalty have changed and people are managing their own careers more tightly.” A typical fee is one third of the candidate’s first-year remuneration, including bonus.

A more obvious boardroom trend is the appointment of women into top jobs. Since Inzito was set up in 2009, a third of the 500-plus appointments it has handled have been women, rising to more than 50 per cent for executive and non-executive roles in the past year. Now Ms Leonard is regularly asked for all-female lists. “Women are getting better at putting themselves forward for roles, which has taken a while. I think the next generation coming up will have a very different approach.”

One industry where women prospered at the highest level sooner than most is in headhunting itself. The likes of Ms Leonard, Anna Mann, Jan Hall and Julia Budd all may lay claim to doyenne status. “It’s the ultimate multitasking job and women are simply better at juggling.” Ms Leonard personally handles three searches a month — and acknowledges that there are some very good male headhunters, too.

Ms Leonard’s parents were Londoners who emigrated after the war. She was born in Quebec and lived in Canada and the United States until the family relocated to Buckinghamshire when she was five. After university, a love of writing compelled her to contact local newspapers for work. Even while she was learning her trade at the Slough, Windsor and Eton Observer, she was working news shifts at the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail. Eventually she progressed to the City desks of the Evening Standard and The Times for the vintage era of Big Bang, Black Monday and the Guinness saga.

Writing interviews was the epitome of years of people-watching. Some captains of industry found it an emotional experience. “One started crying because his mother had died not long before. I was sat there with a photographer thinking I wanted to give him a hug, but it wasn’t professional.”

In 1991, one of those interviews was with a headhunter called Roddy Gow. Miles Broadbent, who ran the rival firm Norman Broadbent, was so cross that Ms Leonard had described someone else as the best in London that he demanded a meeting. They got on famously and eventually, over lunch at the Savoy Grill, he asked her when she was joining him and pulled out his diary to take her through a typical week in the search world.

“As he did so, I thought I could see myself doing that.” The reality was a shock — “They were all men, they all wore Hermès ties and they all had PAs” — but contacts including Sir Harry Solomon, the former Hillsdown Holdings chief, and Sir Geoffrey Mulcahy at Kingfisher put searches her way early on.

When Norman Broadbent ran into difficulty, Sir Harry encouraged Ms Leonard to set up on her own, chipping in £50,000 of seed capital and even sourcing carpets cheaply for the new office of Leonard Hull from Lord Harris of Peckham, the Carpetright founder. The team of six that broke away, all women, form the nucleus of Inzito today.

Her timing looked perfect in 2004 when Leonard Hull was sold for up to £3.6 million to Whitehead Mann, one of the industry’s best-known names, but it masked difficulties at home. Ms Leonard, whose husband, Andrew Hull, also had his name above the door, was looking for some stability. “My marriage was heading for the rocks, which is why I was minded to sell, to get into a safe haven really.”

She stayed at Whitehead Mann two years beyond her three-year earnout, but resigned after losing confidence in the chief executive. Since starting again, Ms Leonard is convinced that small is beautiful. That is partly because of the industry’s code of conduct that search firms must wait 12 months before recruiting from a firm they have just recruited for. Ms Leonard says it can constrain the industry’s Big Five, the Shrek firms of Spencer Stuart, Heidrick & Struggles, Russell Reynolds, Egon Zehnder, Korn Ferry, that have outposts around the world.

Her other strong view, seen through the eyes of numerous overseas candidates that beat a path to her door, is that British boards “are not perfect and we beat ourselves up about them, but they are the envy of the world”. Even if they do not any more contain the larger-than-life figures she once chronicled.

Q&A

Who is your mentor?

Lord King [of Wartnaby]. In the BA box at Wembley for the FA Cup Final in 1992 he told me I should take the job I had been offered at Norman Broadbent but hadn’t done anything about

Does money motivate you?

It doesn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t have been a journalist for so long

What is the most important event in your working life?

Lunch with Sir Harry Solomon at the Savoy Grill when I’d been approached to join another search firm. He told me I had another option, to start my own business, and he would back me

Whom do you most admire?

Martin Scicluna, my other half. He didn’t know anyone when he came over from Malta at the age of 16. English was his second language but he worked his way up to become the youngest chairman at Deloitte and soon to be chairman of two FTSE 100 companies

What is your favourite television programme?

Blue Planet

What does leadership mean to you?

Doing the right thing no matter how difficult or painful but also doing it in a thoughtful way

How do you relax?

Yoga and meditation, the Times crossword and Martin and I are walking the Ridgeway trail through the Chilterns in stages

CV

Born: July 3, 1958

Education: Licensed Victuallers’ School; University of Southampton (politics and international studies)

Career: 1979: local newspapers; 1986: stock market reporter, City diarist, profile writer, The Times; 1993: director, Norman Broadbent; 1999: founder and chief executive, Leonard Hull International; 2004: head of board practice, Whitehead Mann; 2009-present: founder and chief executive, Inzito Partnership

Family: Partner, three adult children from earlier marriage