As discussed in my last blog, I have identified 4 critical areas that every company should ideally have in place before they will be able to embark on a successful gender balancing programme. The first step, and the most critical, is having the full and unqualified support of the CEO for this initiative.
During the course of my work, I have been privileged to liaise with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, author of several books on the subject of gender balancing and one of the world’s leading experts in this field. Her advice to me was: “If the CEO isn’t 100% behind the programme, don’t even consider working with the client … walk away.” In her experience, without the full participation and drive of the CEO, a lot of time and money might be spent, but the programme will most likely fail.
Why is the CEO so important?
It’s necessary to understand the size and scope of the change that companies will need to make to be successful at gender balancing – it’s vast. Any major change in a business is difficult and a social change (such as gender balancing) is even harder. Gender balancing will dramatically change a corporate culture and there are bound to be a few casualties along the way. Without the full backing and guidance of the CEO, the chances of a business giving up and simply reverting to the status quo are high.
A committed CEO knows the business case behind gender balancing – ‘he’ (in over 90% of cases, it will be a ‘he’) knows that it’s probably the greatest business opportunity of the 21st century and that the first companies to truly achieve a successfully gender balanced organisation will have major competitive advantage over those that don’t. He knows that women comprise a larger talent pool than men; that women, worldwide, are responsible for 70% of consumer spending; that the risk of bankruptcy by having women executives is greatly reduced; that corporate governance is hugely improved when there are women in senior management positions; and that profitability with just one woman on the board is, on average, 28% higher than those companies where all directors are men.
He will also know that the world continues to change and that most companies now need to operate in a global and multi-cultural context – thus, the homogenous Boards of the 20th century are no longer able to relate to the needs of a 21st century marketplace. Consumers have also changed – they want a more intense relationship and enhanced dialogue with the companies they buy their products and services from. Women are ideally suited to meet these new requirements, mostly because 70% of their consumers are also women. So, the CEO knows that the issue of gender balancing needs to remain in the hands of the top team, which maintains a helicopter view of the organisation.
Laurent Blanchard, the VP of CISCO in Europe says: “Today I definitely see gender balance as a strategic issue. I am in my management position to deliver performance, not to be a nice guy! Currently, my job is about reducing operating costs, improving revenues, and differentiating the company. Now, how do I do this? What are the leadership skills I need from my top people? I believe the situation requires different leadership skills from people who can change the way we are driving companies. [Women] would utilise a more team-based, collaborative way of thinking; not a top down approach. . . . My key driver is to improve performance. And to do so, we need to have more women.”
How should the CEO lead?
- He should lead conspicuously from the front – not only by showing full support for the initiative but by issuing regular communications both internally and externally. What is important is that the communication should present gender balancing as a business issue – not as a diversity issue or a women’s issue. He needs to ensure that gender balancing forms an important part of all key strategic business meetings, and that his key messages are continually reinforced.
- He should make certain that all staff are aware of the business case supporting gender balancing. Investing in this, and taking time to ensure that all staff understand exactly why this needs to be done will be time and money very well spent. As the Chairman of Royal DSM says: “It’s important to keep linking the reason why you wanted gender balancing in the first place; which, in our case, is linked to our innovation strategy. If you don’t do that, the initiative can easily get derailed.”
- The CEO needs to actively participate in strategic workshops along with the senior staff – but here he needs to lead from behind. Listening carefully to all the views expressed will give a clear idea of who is really committed and who is paying lip-service to the programme. This will help him be aware of potential obstacles that could sabotage the programme.
- He needs to ‘put his money where his mouth is’ – and to ensure that there is no disconnect between what he is saying and doing. A good example of this is a CEO of a major European bank who has initiated gender initiatives for many years, with little success. Recently, at a top management conference, the CEO surprised his managers with a new determination to press forwards on balance. The financial crisis and its fallout seemed to have made him personally committed to fundamental culture change; and he saw gender balance as a lever in supporting the shift. But even though the CEO made it look like the policy would be driven seriously ‘now’, the managers still expected that if he was serious, he would send the clearest signal by changing the composition of his own team. But he didn’t, and still hasn’t. As a result, gender balancing in this bank has made no progress to date.
- Don’t let up. According to Michel Landel, the CEO of Sodexo: “My colleagues smiled at the beginning, thinking I was importing political correctness from the US. But we have worked at educating and demonstrating that we live in a world with two genders. And I have not let it go. We started with the Executive Committee, where we carried out both training and personal objectives on gender. Then all the managers that report to the members of the Executive Committee were trained as well. But still today, if I let the pressure off for 30 seconds, it’s over.”
Gender balancing will never be easy – there are too many deeply entrenched practices and behaviours that need to be changed for this to be a simple transition. Having the CEO lead the charge and keep an overview of the process with clear guidance and conviction is the only starting point that makes any sense.