Paul Keel, CEO Smiths Group, in conversation with Tara Cemlyn-Jones on talent pipeline planning and gender balance

 by 25×25 team

Why has Smiths joined 25×25?

It was an honour for us to be invited to be one of the founding members, so we jumped at the opportunity to join arms with like-minded organisations, high-performing groups of people focused on a common goal, in this case specifically to rebalance the gender imbalance in FTSE C-suites. So, our thanks to you and your team for leading the charge.


Tell us about Smiths and its gender-balance.

Smiths is an amazing company. It has been in continuous operation now for 170-plus years. Today, our biggest business is John Crane. It makes highly engineered flow control components for critical industries like energy or water treatment. We brought in a new leader there and that allowed Bernard [Cicut, President John Crane] to make some changes to that team.

When you go [in] a different direction, sometimes you need different perspectives. What got us here may not be what gets us there. And so, in that particular case, of the last four promotions in John Crane, three of those have been women.

Similar at the Smiths Group level. Let’s see, the last four folks that we’ve invited to join our executive committee, three of those have been women leaders. You’ve met two of them today. So, I think those are good examples of how changing course, you know, leads to opportunities for new leadership.

How do you bring balance to your Executive Committee?

I’m reminded of a quote from Ayn Rand [the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged] – she once asked, what led to her success? And she said, ‘It’s not so much a question of who let me, it’s a question of who’s going to stop me.’ And when I think of Clare [Scherrer] and Vera [Kirikova] and Di Houghton, who joined our executive committee, that comes right to mind.
Clare, of course, previously led the Global Industrials practice for Goldman Sachs, arguably one of the most competitive talent pools on the planet. Vera was the Chief People Officer for Rio Tinto, a FTSE10. Di Houghton led Strategy and M&A for Allied Domecq.

These are leaders, who happen to be women leaders, but these are leaders who could work anywhere, for any organisation. And I think the reason they chose Smiths is because of the tight alignment between our values and theirs and the tight alignment of our purpose.


How does Smiths Group manage its talent pipeline?

You need to have real structures that will lead to predicted outcomes. We have a shortlist of top priorities for how we govern our company. It’s a balanced scorecard of the vital few priorities that will have the biggest impact for our stakeholders. Two of that shortlist centre around this topic.
One, for example, is called TPR – the talent progression rate. It’s the proportion of people we promote into feeder roles below the executive committee. So, two years ago, fewer than two in five promotions were made internally. At that time, Smiths’ view was that we needed to bring in more external talent. That’s certainly important.

But when you’re building an organisation for the long term like we are, you need to have a developed capability in growing your own [talent].

Today, that ratio is a little better than 80%. So, we’re making progress there.
The second is really the outcome of that activity – it’s what we call our leadership diversity index. It’s the proportion of folks who sit in those feeder roles to the executive committee who are diverse and in this particular instance, focused on gender diversity first. And we’ve just started that activity, [but] we have much more to go.


Tell us about your personal journey.

I was born in a state in America, Minnesota, it’s in the very north central part of the country, tucked up against Canada, in a little farm town named Prior Lake. And you learn early in Prior Lake that if you want your crops to grow, you have to do at least two things: you’ve got to plant good seeds and you’ve got to let as much sunlight in as you can. I think that’s a good metaphor for having an organisation prosper as well. And we’re trying to do both parts of that equation here.


What do you expect from 25×25?

I expect capable, committed, talented people coming together and getting into motion to make things happen. You know that Margaret Mead quote: ‘Never be surprised that a small group of people could change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ So this is how change happens.


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