When done with commercial skill and good judgement, targets and quotas are really succession planning.
Quotas and targets, it is often said, are a blunt and patronising tool to use when seeking to make any organisation more representative in its intake or hierarchy. In the hand-wrung mix are mutterings about reasons for under-representation being complex, and the old line about it being better to only appoint on merit.
And that’s just from signed-up fans of improved equality and diversity. Other commentators on the Gazette’s website are less well-meaning. I have trouble deciding what’s worse about the ‘one-armed black lesbian’ jokes – is it that they are offensive? Or is it the sheer vaunting, talentless unoriginality?
Either way, I can’t imagine knowingly going to the comments’ authors with a complex legal problem – or even for sexist or racist jokes, which would probably be better from a poor-joke outsourcing business in a low-cost jurisdiction.
But let’s get back to what makes a quota or a target a ‘blunt’ instrument.
These are, of course, blunt instruments when they are the only instrument in the toolkit. Where you read about blue chip companies, or a firm like Herbert Smith Freehills, setting targets with apparent confidence, then other things have happened.
These organisations think they have got better at succession planning and ‘talent management’ in general (though the latter is not phrase I like).
On succession planning, the blue chip companies are ahead of their legal advisers. It involves a conscious look at whether the professionals who might take the helm of a department or firm are the ones you’d wish for, with the spread of skills you need – rather than just the pushiest, or those you managed, by chance, not to lose to a competitor.
When this does work – and it takes commercial skill, self-knowledge and good judgement to pull it off – organisations have a choice of who to promote, having worked out how to attract, keep and develop good people.
If, hand on heart, that is what your law firm or legal department is like, then a target is a way of challenging yourself – and if you can’t meet the target, a prompt to look at what else you are doing wrong.
Of course, not everyone wants to work in a clever and commercially astute environment where the future has been sensibly planned for, and self-knowledge is at a premium.
But increasingly that is what the best people do want.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor