Comment: Old boys network consigned to history

IN TERMS of diversity in the business world, the CBI employers body is certainly leading from the top.

Ritchie Whyte remains concerned over exploration. Picture: Newsline

The organisation, the mouthpiece for Britain’s major employers, with particularly strong representation among the country’s big industrial guns, has just elected its first female director-general.

Carolyn Fairbairn, whose former posts include director of strategy at both the BBC and ITV, an economist with the World Bank, a partner at McKinsey consultants, and who has a string of impressive non-executive directorships including the Competition and Markets Authority and UK Statistics Authority, takes over from John Cridland later this year. Her background is varied, even taking in a bit of journalism with the Economist, and that should help her master what is quite a wide brief.

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Fairbairn will be helped in her new role by a well-established female deputy director-general at the CBI, Katja Hall. Together, they will be a powerful female duo at the very heart of British business and its interface with the government.

Martin Flanagan

Fairbairn also will not be exactly hampered in a job that needs to mix forcefulness with political tact by a spell in the Prime Minister’s Downing Street Policy Unit.

The strong female presence at the top of the CBI is a development to be welcomed, and should also create helpful mood music for the steady – if unspectacular – progress in getting greater female representation on FTSE 100 company boards.

The new CBI boss will take over at an interesting time for business. As Fairbairn noted yesterday, two of the main issues for business in the next few years will be Britain’s relationship with the European Union and the productivity challenges facing the sector despite the economic recovery.

Take in the still strong imbalance between the services industry – 75 per cent of the economy – and manufacturing – 12 per cent – and Fairbairn will have a fairly full in-tray.

Her work at the BBC, ITV and in print journalism should also stand her in good stead at her new organisation. The sometimes tricky relationship between business and government is frequently played out in the media.

To have inside knowledge of the strengths, predilections and weaknesses of the media industry should help Fairbairn get hers message across.

A word on Cridland, a CBI staffer of 30 years and director-general since 2011, before he hands over to his successor in November.

He has been a tireless advocate for business, particularly high-profile in the past four years, becoming something of a master of the media soundbite (see above) while being unfailingly courteous and unflustered.

If Cridland’s successor achieves as much in terms of public profile and effectiveness for the organisation, the CBI will have much to congratulate itself and its recruitment process about.