Perspectives 02 - Of Threats, Dances and Deeds

My second blog post on the people I have met, the places I have been and what it made me think about education, women in business and how we make a difference.

Like Comment

The Windsor Academy Trust kindly invited me to their annual conference in Birmingham. It was a wonderful event. Highlights included an incredible cross Trust student choir, dancers, acrobats, @MaryMyatt (the noted expert in what makes a world class curriculum) and Sir Ranulph Fiennes (arguably the greatest living explorer).

I was ready to crawl under the seat completely.

Mary Myatt reminded the audience that we are a challenge seeking species; that we all respond to an “aspiration rush”. What we don’t respond well to is high threat situations or consequences. She illustrated this beautifully by saying to a room full of educationalists that she would give us a short quiz. Everyone leaned forward, engaged, ready to be challenged. Then she said, she would score the answers and we would all be asked to file back into the conference hall in order of our results. Everyone leant as far back as possible. I was ready to crawl under the seat completely. We wanted to be challenged. We did not want to be publicly exposed.

One of my nephews could identify a dozen dinosaurs with their multi-syllabic names and describe them in two languages at the age of four.

So for pupils, a world class curriculum must be challenging – truly demanding for all our learners. We need to teach it in a way that is low threat, capturing and celebrating curiosity, not stifling it. Mary cited various research papers and experiments proving that children thrive on exceptionally demanding work. Reflecting on this, I remembered that one of my nephews could identify a dozen dinosaurs with their multi-syllabic names and describe them in two languages at the age of four.

In disadvantaged areas, schools have too often settled for lowering their ambition, underestimating what their children are capable of, compared to those from more affluent backgrounds. One of the many things that I admire about the Windsor Academy Trust is that they are having none of that. They have high targets, and then put in place the “support and scaffolding” to ensure that all learners succeed.

It was incredibly kind of Windsor Academy Trust to invite me, the Chair of another trust to join them. That spirit of generosity seems to run through everything that they do.

Good is good even if nobody does it, bad is bad even when everybody does it.

The brilliant Kaitlin Fritz invited me to join a panel with Joseph Brown, Devika Wood and Kriss Baird to talk about leadership to their Founders of Start-Ups group. Joseph is a commanding officer of the British Army. His leadership decisions quite literally have life or death outcomes. Devika is one of Forbes top 30 under 30. Not only did she co-found Vida but she is an active campaigner for ending domestic abuse. We had varying amounts of formal leadership training, attitudes to innovation and perspectives on the best ways to lead others. 

We were in absolute agreement on one thing: the need for ethical leadership. Joseph quoted Ben Cattermole saying: good is good even if nobody does it, bad is bad even when everybody does it”. 

One of the attendees pushed back. He asked if it was really possible to be successful and good. He cited stock market darlings and titans of industry who are demonstrably not very nice people.

I understood, and understand, his question. I have worked (briefly) for men who were misogynist bullies; men who ruled by fear; who surrounded themselves with toadying acolytes; who were about the shimmer not the substance, and whose self-regard and self-promotion knew no bounds. I have met depressingly more of them at conferences and award ceremonies. And yet: I have also met and worked for exceptional women and men who are ambitious, brave, curious and thoroughly decent; who surround themselves with diversity; who listen actively; who care deeply about excellence and who see their role as developing a community of stars. So I know categorically that the answer to the question is yes, it is possible to be successful and good. It is also preferable, and more successful in the long run. While the shared traits of the good and bad leaders: clarity of vision and purpose, obsessive attention to detail, willingness to take risks, competitiveness and drive, can allow ‘bad’ leaders to succeed for a while, unethical leadership eventually falls over itself. Just look at Satyam, Enron, VW, Olympus, Wells Fargo, Bell Pottinger, Ted Baker and Theranos to name but a few.

The Foundation is launching a podcast on Women in Leadership, Kaitlin will star in one of the episodes. I agreed with the wonderful Nikol Chen that I would be a guinea pig, so that she could test out the recording equipment and practise her interview techniques.

I choked on my tea. When I was sufficiently recovered, I explained to him the flaw with that analogy was that men were still doing the inviting .

She asked me why women are still discriminated against in the workplace. I think I may have rather unhelpfully ranted about people paying lip service to diversity and not accepting that their behaviour actually needs to change. Sometimes there is absolutely no malice aforethought. It is just a complete lack of awareness. An example: I was talking to a genuinely kind and thoughtful Dean of an Ivy League business school. He was explaining to me how much he believed in not just diversity but inclusion. For instance, he went on to say, it isn’t enough for us to invite women to the dance, we actually have to invite them to dance once they are there. I choked on my tea. When I was sufficiently recovered, I explained to him the flaw with that analogy was that men were still doing the inviting and I really felt quite strongly that women should be able to dance when and where they wanted without being invited to do so. To his credit, he understood but I would have been more reassured that he was planning to act on that understanding if he had been just a little bit mortified.

I told Nikol that if I read one more pious white paper from an executive search firm who is actually perpetuating the problem, I would scream. We need people to act, not talk, or to quote Helen Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett, we need deeds not words.

It occurred to me afterwards that that wasn’t entirely productive. So to make amends, here’s my list of top 10 things that leaders can and should be doing for gender equality (many of which also apply more broadly for all types of diversity) in their organisations:

  1. Ensure gender pay parity in your organisation by role. The same job, whether it is done by a man or a woman, should pay the same. If it isn’t, make it so. You may have to make some tough decisions around how to fund any increases (do you cut some salaries or find cost savings elsewhere) but if you are a leader, you are paid to make the tough decisions. JFDI.
  2. Ensure gender pay parity across your organisation. Don’t use as an excuse (as an appalling number of professional services firms do) that we would have pay parity if we had more women in senior roles. Look at why women are hitting a glass ceiling by sub-group and put a plan in place to address it. In some cases, unlike point 1, you may not be able to fix this by the end of 2020 (if you are a university, and need a pipeline of women PhD's, for example), but you can put in place a five year plan, with clear targets and make sure that you are moving in the right direction.
  3. Make sure all voices are heard. Some people can dominate a meeting, talking over others, not really listening, barely waiting for a pause in the conversation, hogging the limelight. I saw it at Kaitlin’s event. One quiet founder, who politely waited her turn while others spoke up and over each other. Your job as a leader is to ensure that everyone in the room contributes, and everyone has a chance to shine. You need to do this actively.
  4. Avoid task stereotyping. Notice if for example women are disproportionately being asked to bring the coffee or organise the lunch or take the minutes. Call out and correct the stereotyping.
  5. Provide mentors. Identify your rising female stars and check that each has a mentor who will support and champion them. If they don’t, make introductions and be sure that they do.
  6. Give feedback. If you see that a senior man is disproportionately giving junior men development opportunities, speak to him about it. If you notice that a woman had been willing to allow a man to take credit for her work, speak to her about it. If you notice that senior women are pulling up the ladder behind them, or questioning whether a woman is “nice” rather than “good”, have a very direct and firm conversation. I am completely with Madeleine Albright on this one: “there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women”. If you have never given anyone in your organisation any feedback about gender equality and do not have a fully diverse executive board and gender pay parity, look harder and start providing the necessary feedback.
  7. Review your promotion criteria. Check that your promotion criteria is not inadvertently biased. Make sure it is as empirically based as possible. If you ever find yourself saying, as I heard a group of well-meaning but spectacularly complacent partners explain, that the reason you have not promoted more women is because they are not assertive enough, recognise you are probably confusing good debating skills with good character and outcomes.
  8. Recruit blind. Try as we might, we apply different standards when we compare men and women. So don’t. Take names and other identifying features off of CVs before determining who will come into interview or complete tests and projects. When orchestras began to audition behind screens, it made it 50% more likely that woman would advance to the finals. Think what else you can do in your organisation to avoid unconscious bias.
  9. Get rid of presenteeism. I know of a firm where the Chairman likes to come into the office at about 7 or 8pm, after a day of visiting clients, and wander around and talk to whoever is there. Many of the young account directors, knowing that they will need to be there late, chat and disrupt those who are trying to get their work done during normal hours. Parents who want to leave on time to pick up children from school or help with homework are doubly disadvantaged. They are disrupted during normal working hours and the Chairman discounts them for promotions because they aren’t in the office when he is, even if their clients love them and their billables are high. When the head of HR tried to explain the concept of presenteeism, he got quite angry [sigh].
  10. Have plenty of female role models. It sounds trite, the mantra that “if you can see it, you can be it”, but it has merit. Look at the surge in women’s football (soccer) with the success of the England Lionesses. Make your women leaders visible, in every department.

Oh yes, and if you are that Executive Search firm churning out white papers on the subject of diversity, you might promise, never, ever to work with a firm where the only woman on the Executive Board is the HR Director, or who will only add women to their non-exec board who have sat on other boards and are vouched for as “no trouble”, and who doesn’t commit to receiving gender and ethnicity blind CVs and a thoroughly diverse shortlist for every role.

Happy holidays. And if you are looking for some #NewYear’s #resolutions, how about committing to doing these 10?

Susanna Kempe (she/her)

CEO, Laidlaw Foundation

A graduate of Cambridge University, Susanna’s professional experience includes over 15 years in senior leadership roles in international B2B and learning businesses. Susanna began her career at the Institute for International Research (IIR) where she first worked with Lord Laidlaw, rising to Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). When IIR, which was the world’s largest organiser of commercial conferences, was acquired by Informa plc in 2005 Susanna was appointed CMO of the enlarged group and also led the public company’s investor relations programmes. She subsequently joined Emap Ltd as Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer and CEO of Emap Networks, that group’s conferences business. Later she became CEO of the fashion industry forecaster WGSN and was latterly Group Content and Marketing Partner of the leading strategy consultancy Brunswick Group. A German-American raised and educated in the UK and a committed internationalist, Susanna has been involved in globally trading businesses throughout her career, directing activity in the Americas, across continental Europe, and the Asia Pacific. Susanna has been extensively involved with education and professional development over many years. She was Head of Group Training and led the commercial acquisition and integration of a portfolio of corporate training businesses whilst at IIR; and created learning academies at both Informa and Emap. She believes experiencing and appreciating different cultures promotes better global understanding, creativity and leadership. She is passionate about the power of education to transform lives; and believes that we need to develop a new generation of diverse leaders who are curious, bold and devoted to decency, truthfulness, and innovation. Susanna is committed to diversity not only as a societal imperative but as a critical component of commercial success. As an advisor to the trustees of the Foundation, Susanna first learnt about its purpose and programmes before becoming its Chief Executive responsible for the Laidlaw Schools Trust, the Laidlaw Scholars and its other education programmes. Susanna read English and Philosophy at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. She has five half blues in swimming and water polo; and played netball and rowed for Newnham.