The Token Man: David Grigson, chairman at Trinity Mirror talks to Emma Perkins about 'individually making things better'

Token Man David Grigson

Our latest The Token Man interview finds Emma Perkins, executive creative director at MullenLowe Open, interviewing David Grigson, chairman at Trinity Mirror – home to an award-winning portfolio of newspapers, websites and digital products, and employing over 6000 people across the UK.

EP: Perhaps a good place to start is to tell me what you understand about the Token Man initiative – and why you wanted to be involved?

DG: I wanted to be involved because gender diversity is an important but unsolved problem. And I’ll admit that wasn’t always clear to me – certainly not earlier in my career.

I started out in accountancy – where as many women as men qualify as accountants. After I qualified, I worked with Esso and then joined Saatchi & Saatchi where there were a number of very successful women. It wasn’t until the mid 90s when I joined EMAP, a successful young media company, that the male/female divide seemed more glaring. At one level, it was fine - the men worked on things like motorbike magazines while the women worked on the women’s glossies. The ethos was: just get the right people to do the job. But what was obvious was that very few women made it to the top. For my first few years in EMAP, there were no women on the board.

EP: Why do you think that was?

DG: Well, in subsequent years I found that part of the problem with recruiting to board level was the limited size of the pool for diverse talent – particularly the small number of women with experience at that level. Which is why the number of women on boards got stuck at similar levels to the number of CDs in the creative industry – around 12%. Things are on the up though. The Lord Davies report in 2010 showed us how we needed to change this, and the good news is that six years later, that figure is over 25%.

EP: Yes, it’s true that women do now make up 26.1% of FTSE 100 directors, up from 12.5% in 2011, but over 90% of the female directors appointed in that time have been non-executives. So is there a danger that the recruitment of female directors is seen as tokenistic, rather than a proactive strategy to improve business performance?

DG: I don't think it's tokenism and we have to start somewhere. I know a lot of chairmen who would say it’s a meritocracy; we’ll simply appoint the best person for the role and if that person happens to be a man, so be it. The argument against is that it’s also the chairman’s responsibility to get the best mix of people on the board, and if you only focus on the person who particularly fits a particular role you’ll usually appoint a man simply because there are more of them.

EP: What strategies have you considered to redress this imbalance?

DG: I think there are two simple things that chairmen can do to recruit more women to boards. The first is to change the selection criteria. You have to take the usual requirement for board experience off the headhunter’s brief for a start. Don't just insist on someone that the city already recognises. The fact that chairmen often specify that the recruit must have some board experience narrows the field too much.

Secondly, you have to work with forward-thinking headhunters. There are emerging search firms – people like Claire Johnson of the UP Group – who work especially hard to find strong female talent in the non-public company space, the digital space, the private company space.

The key thing is to recruit with a blank sheet of paper; open up the brief and don’t specify too much; reject a shortlist dominated by male candidates. Then you’ll see the talent that’s out there starting to emerge.

And last, but also very importantly, the more experienced members of the board (and especially the women) must be very proactive in mentoring the less experienced new female board members so they can learn their trade as company directors.

EP: With that in mind, there are still only five female CEOs running FTSE 100 firms, a figure unchanged throughout the Davies era. Why do you think this figure remains so static?

DG: Well, firstly these things take time. The opportunity to change someone at board level is not very frequent - it has taken me over four years to completely refresh the Trinity Mirror Board. But I also think women need to be more vocal – in the way that men are – and let it be known that they want these jobs. In this context, the work of organisations like the Glass Ladder Programme is critical in helping to boost women’s core capabilities and confidence to put themselves forward as potential non-executive directors. I have seen first hand too many very capable female executives turn down the opportunity to step up to the main board because they were more concerned about the risks than they were excited by the opportunity.

EP: So is it about women needing to be more like men? You mention risk aversion, women lacking aggression and confidence. From your experience, how have you helped women to build confidence?

DG: That’s a difficult one. I don’t like thinking in terms of male or female traits. I think we need to work on the problem both from the top down and the bottom up. Where I can bring the most influence to bear is obviously top down. If up-and-coming executives can see multiple females on their board, they’ll be more likely to believe they can achieve the same.

I look forward to the day when people don’t even talk about gender mix at board level, because it’s so obviously something that works. That may be a couple of decades away sadly. But in the interim we can be bolder in our recruitment; use the right recruiters; and when we have diverse talent on board, make sure they get the help they need. In the absence of experience or role models, we can show them how to be effective in the role through 1:1 mentoring.

EP: Reflecting on your own experience as a board director, what do you think the impact is of having more women on boards?

DG: I recall our first female board director at EMAP – Karen Jones, the brains behind the Pelican group chains like Café Rouge – a very successful business woman and an outstandingly good board director. She was the first person I noticed to change the whole environment with her presence alone. It became much less clubby. There were a lot of people who really appreciated the change she brought.

EP: And that’s just one woman. Research from Catalyst suggests that three women on a board can be the tipping point to significantly improving business performance. What do you make of that?

DG: It would dovetail with everything I’ve learnt over the years. Two is definitely better than one and at least three should be everyone’s target.

EP: Turning now to your industry: in many countries, the majority of high-profile journalists and editors are still male. Women are noticeably in the minority in the top journalistic roles despite making up the majority of journalism students.

DG: 44% of our journalists are women. Our editor-in-chief is a man, Lloyd Emberly, but the deputy editor-in-chief, Alison Phillips, is a woman.

EP: I’m conscious that the conversation around work/life balance, and particularly family life, always ends up being about women. How do you encourage both male and female parents – in fact everyone – to take advantage of flexible working?

DG: Well, it's true that we’re seeing the husbands of very successful women take on the domestic role entirely. I’ve personally known a male CEO who insisted on doing the school run every day – he decided that was a piece of his life he wasn’t prepared to give up. And today, there are many more men who get this – there’s a generational shift – so we have reasons to be hopeful. All we can do individually is try to make things better and leave a positive legacy for those coming through the ranks.

EP: What are the percentages of men to women on the Trinity Mirror board today?

DG: There are eight of us in total and two are women. Of the eight, six are non-exec.

EP: How do you feel about those ratios? And would you ever consider positive discrimination?

DG: It's less than optimal. Every time a seat becomes vacant my priority is to try and fill it with a woman. I start with that bias.

EP: Is there more boards can do to help organisations attract more diverse talent groups?

DG: Boards can encourage organisations to broaden their criteria and work with recruiters with a different approach to where to look for talent. Having Steve Hatch (MD, Facebook UK) on our board has been great, as he’s been guiding our HR director on how to re-examine our approach. I also think my upbringing – I was brought up in Sri Lanka – has given me a broader perspective of the world.

EP: You must do a lot of public speaking. Have you ever used a quote by a woman and if so, can you please share your favourite?

DG: I’m not sure who said it – man or woman – but my favourite quote I read recently is: ‘when women win, we all win.’ When you think we may soon have a female president in the US, and we have female leaders today in the UK and Germany too – there’s already a shift change.

EP: What’s the one thing you think men can do tomorrow to make a difference to helping women thrive in the workplace?

DG: Support awareness of unconscious bias and help organisations see the business benefit of diversity.

EP: Finally, what’s the one thing (if any) you commit to doing as a result of this interview?

DG: Continue to ensure we are hearing female voices and supporting the business in increasing diversity.

EP: Thanks David for being one of our Token Men.

Token Man is an initiative from the founder of Creative Social, Daniele Fiandaca. Previous interviewees have included Facebook's Steve Hatch.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.