Lead change with care

I’ve written before about toxic cultures, but I was struck by the story that I read over the weekend about the legal case being brought against former executives of France Telecom. I’m no expert on the case in hand, but the story sets out a culture of harassment  through constant change and disruption as efficiency savings were sought.

There’s a huge spectrum ranging from the extreme cases detailed in this story through to the ordinary change of organisational life and we need to be careful not to conflate the two, but there are reminders in the extreme that can help us in our everyday practice. We can all argue that, “it’s not like that here”, but it never hurts us to check and be sure.

The first check point is when we stop seeing employees as human beings. You can pick this up through the language that is used in organisations, the way that senior leaders talk about people as a collective. Most organisational change will have a human impact, but when we fail to genuinely recognise that, problems are not far away.

When change becomes a thing in itself, you’re facing a second check point. Organisations that become focused on change, but without realising why. The impact on people throughout is disorientation and confusion, neither of which are good for mental wellbeing. Most people can go through significant change and transition when they understand the why, but struggle when they feel constantly done to.

Finally, when leadership teams lose touch with their teams you’ve reached the third checkpoint. As a leader you can only make good decisions if you are well-informed. One of the most important sets of data is the feedback from the people who work in the organisation itself. I’m not talking about the annual survey alone, but about the informal feedback that tells you how things really are.

Put simply, leaders have an overarching responsibility for every single employee in their organisation. That doesn’t mean we should avoid tough choices or decisions, it doesn’t me would should be change adverse, but it does mean that we need to care. Hopefully none of us will ever experience the extremity of the France Telecom situation, however, each day as we go about our work, we should always check in and make sure we are staying true to our responsibility to our people.

Lionel Shriver is wrong

It was with a level of incredulity that I read the comments by Lionel Shriver over the weekend about the inclusivity agenda being championed by Penguin Random House. For those who know me, I spent the best part of 9 years in the business and would like to think that I was in some way responsible for the creation and direction of many of the approaches – not least the removal of the requirement to have a degree.

Shriver, writing in The Spectator, presents a shambolic and intellectually inarticulate assessment of the work that is being done, summarised by the BBC article here.

Anyone who has ever tried to champion inclusion will tell you that these arguments are nothing new. But they are almost always entirely articulated by those in positions of power. I have yet to hear from an underrepresented group who says, “do nothing, the best people are already in place”. And in a sense, that is the first major challenge that you  face.

In changing any system to be more inclusive and diverse, you are ultimately dependent on those in power to cede their right to that position and to change the system that has perpetuated their dominance. That’s why social mobility has been so hard to tackle, because in many ways you’re asking the rich wealthy and powerful to make things a little harder for generations of their family to come.

The aim of our work, wherever we are and whatever we are doing, is to make the world of work fairer and more transparent. We have to do everything we can to ensure that the best succeed, regardless of their background. That’s what inclusion is about and to suggest in any way it is dumbing down is insulting, ill-informed and naive. The system in which we operate is unintentionally rigged towards certain groups and certain backgrounds and all we are doing is unpicking that bias.

As a note of caution, we do have to be careful to ensure the work that we do remains true to that goal – to allow the best to succeed. Diversity and inclusion programmes that become tokenistic displays of good intention are as unhelpful as the problem they are trying to solve. Where Shriver is right is to call out the risk of losing focus on the real change that needs to be made, increasing fairness and allowing potential to shine, on pretty much everything else she is wrong and woefully out of touch.

 

 

Women on Boards – Let the excuses begin

The interim report from the Hampton Alexander Review caused headlines last week. On explaining why they didn’t have enough female representation on their Boards, the review cited the most commonly heard reasons from FTSE 350 chairs and chief executives:

  • “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment”

I would have some sympathy with this if it were presented as a problem that needed solving rather than a reason for non-selection. There is no doubt that the culture and environment of board rooms across the world needs to progress and modernise, but that’s exactly why more diversity is a good thing.

  • “There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex”

Oh my…where to go with this one? It reminds me of a CEO many years ago who, when asked why there were no women on his board replied, “Why? Are the men doing such a bad job?” Words fail me.

  • “Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board”

This could be true. But how do you know? It certainly isn’t representative of the senior women executives I’ve worked with throughout my career. I’d have sympathy if you’d been repeatedly trying to hire and receiving this feedback, but my guess is that isn’t the case.

  • “Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?”

There is more than one stakeholder group that is important to the good running of a business, and more than that, this is about leadership. Show some leadership.

  • “My other board colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board”

Then you should probably have more vacancies on your board available to women. Can you imagine this conversation being acceptable in any other forum or part of society?

  • “All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up”

Whereas there is a plethora of average, middle-aged, white males?  I admit they “might” be harder to find, they might be less forward about coming forward, less likely to self promote in the board environment (I have no evidence to support this, I’m just being generous). But a lack of good women? That’s far from my experience.

  • “We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn”

If there was ever a response that suggested tokenism, then this would probably be the World Cup winner. This probably worries me more than the other responses because it represents such a complete misunderstanding of the issue.

  • “There aren’t any vacancies at the moment – if there were I would think about appointing a woman”

If this read, “we haven’t had a vacancy during my tenure” I might be able to get with it. Also, maybe not just think about it, but actively pursue a diverse shortlist. Maybe.

  • “We need to build the pipeline from the bottom – there just aren’t enough senior women in this sector”

Yes, yes you do. But not just that. And board representation should pull on experience from different sectors and different backgrounds to ensure good governance and a diversity of background and opinion. So don’t stop the pipeline, but think about how you could turbocharge it too.

  • “I can’t just appoint a woman because I want to”

No. You could appoint them because they’re the best person for the job.

If you’re interested in finding out more, the full and latest Hampton-Alexander Review is published on 27 June.

Technical skills need qualifications too…

My very first, post university, job was as a lecturer of Psychology. I worked evening at the local Further Education (FE) college teaching GCSE and A-level Psychology to adult returners who had either not got the qualifications in their youth, or decided they wanted more later on. The college was a well-known establishment in the seaside location, with a particularly strong focus on caring qualifications, engineering and professions like boat building.

Many of you will know that the FE sector was financially and directionally squeezed over many years, part of which (in my humble opinion) was an intellectual arrogance that aspirations should be greater for our young people. It is no surprise that the expansion of the Higher Education (HE) sector coincided with the diminishing of FE.

Fast forward 20 years and we are debating the lack of technical skills in the economy and the need to increase the focus on technical education. The Government announced, this weekend, the first colleges to be offering the new T-levels, to start in 2020. I’m hugely encouraged by this step and I genuinely believe these new qualifications could play a significant role in opening up career paths to young people. But only if business gets behind them.

In the coverage of the announcement, I was pretty disappointed to read the following quote from Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham, “Parents should be wary of encouraging their children to take them. It must be absolutely clear they will be of value to employers before kids risk their futures.”

One could easily fire the same warning to a whole host of A-levels and numerous degrees – the latter of which would cost you tens of thousands of pounds to obtain. It is also worryingly reminiscent of the early response to apprenticeships – who would want one of those?

Amidst the intellectual and class snobbery that will present in the objections to any type of “vocational training”, there lies a real and genuine challenge to employers. We need to embrace these new routes to qualifications and show not only do they lead to good quality jobs, but meaningful careers as well.

We can’t bemoan a skills gap and then ignore attempts to close it, we can’t worry about future technical needs and not embrace change. If you’re an employer of people then I suggest you have a good look at both the T-level qualifications and the routes to qualification through apprenticeship. At the end of the day, technical skills need qualifications too, and at the moment they are few and far between.