Lean Forward - Female Executives Leading Change

Diversity is a performance issue. Diversity fosters efficiency, creativity, tempers risk and results in better problem solving.


The SLP Café is a forum for innovative thinkers, leaders, practitioners, and those with a desire and mandate for change to share insight and ideas. The content of this paper were extracted from our September 2014 café on ‘Diversity’.

Q: “I’d like to go back to something you said at the start of our conversation – that many businesses think of diversity as a moral or fairness issue when actually it is a performance issue. Can you tell me more about that?”

A: “Sure, I am happy to expand on that. Quite frankly if diversity isn’t a performance issue it doesn’t belong in business. It is not the primary objective of a business to lead a societal change. The purpose of a business is to make money, to thrive, to fulfil on its mission and to deliver value. And as long as that is done in accordance with the law and respecting the company’s values there is no moral issue. That is not to say diversity isn’t a moral issue for some businesses, as in some cases it is part of their values, and we are seeing much more of this, but it isn’t per definition a moral issue.

On a personal level I would love to see change as much as anybody else. I am committed to my daughters finding a different business world than I found, but in order to have a company embark on the idea of diversity with any kind of real success it needs to be a business issue. It needs to deliver value for the company, the leaders of the company need to grapple with “What is the potential advantage of a diverse organisation for us?” and that advantage can be derived from a number of different areas.

I would recommend that business leaders look at the market that women are: Women make over 70% of purchasing decisions, so developing products that are designed by women for women actually makes a lot of sense. There are already some great examples in the market place of companies having gone down that route, for example Volvo’s XC90 SUV.

Research has shown that diverse teams are more efficient, they solve problems faster than teams that are all of the same gender and background. Diverse teams are also more creative, so anybody who has an R&D team would be smart to pay attention to diversity of their organisation. From a risk perspective diversity is smart because it lowers or tempers the issues that risk taking can bring. The financial sector is a very good example where the male dominated teams got themselves into a lot of trouble. Christine Lagarde, MD of the IMF famously said that if Lehman Brothers would have been Lehman Sisters they might still be around. Excess risk taking is not an advantage but you need to take risks to deliver optimum value so it is a balancing act. It is really about blending rather than one or the other gender. Diverse teams are more likely to consider the downsides of risk taking as well as the upside.

Quite frankly it is nice and good that so many people are talking about diversity at the moment, but for a culture change to happen all people need to find their self-interest in the matter – unless I can see a benefit from changing how I do things, why should I do it? If it is about being politically correct all you achieve is the lip service that I currently observe in many organisations?

You do need to find out what the business advantage will be for your organisation, because otherwise it becomes too difficult to implement it – people are much more likely to change their behaviours and way of operating if they can all see a self-interest in it.

This is where we come from at SLP – what is the business benefit that diversity can bring us? And when that is understood the other seriously important part is: “do we have a sufficiently strong enough commitment to change?”. The business case, however compelling it might be, is not enough in our experience. It takes a group of people to be committed and willing to effectively deal with everything that is inconsistent with the commitment.”

Q: “You have been running a program aimed specifically at women in businesses recently. Why have you focused on women as a group?”

A: “The reason I am focusing on women in business is that if you observe any change in history – large-scale cultural changes like the Civil rights movement or the liberation of India from the British - they have always been lead by the disadvantaged party. The reason for this is that people in privileged positions cannot see the unearned privilege that they have. Let me give you an example from the gender diversity conversation: Men cannot relate to the advantages they get from the fact of being a man. If I ask a man to tell me how much of his career is a function of being a man, he simple can’t answer that question. He will point to things like education and experience but while he may not disagree with the fact that his female colleagues experience disadvantages due to the fact that they are women, he can not quantify his own corresponding advantage. So asking men to make concessions for women to compensate for that is not going to make any sense. He can have empathy with his female colleagues situation but he cannot feel his own advantage.

I therefore believe that women have to lead the change they want to see. Women have to be the change agents of gender diversity in organisations. Therefore I set out to equip the women to lead that change and want to lead that change. Incidentally these tools also allow them to deliver any other kind of result, so it benefits the organisation on several different levels.

I also believe that most leadership programmes are fundamentally masculine in their orientation because a lot of the underlying models that are used, or at least the ones that I have had to privilege to look at over the years, originally derive from the military, so they are very masculine in their feel. They are some version of “how to take the hill” – how do I get a group of people to deliver a result that is extraordinary or that they have not delivered previously. Deliver a result that occurs dangerous (even though the danger in an organisation is to the ego rather then to ones life). Women often don’t feel completely authentic using those tools. So I went to look at what are the feminine leadership principals that will allow women to be authentic and feel validated that what they naturally bring to the table is valuable. When these tools and ways of thinking are married with the male leadership models they become incredible effective. So I lead my whole programme from “Together we are stronger – it is not one or the other. How do we take advantage of both?”

In my experience women use the feminine leadership models but it happens behind closed doors. She just seems to always end up being given the dysfunctional teams to sort out. But I believe it is time we bring them to the table openly and give them a proper voice. This is what I believe brings the value of diversity to an organisation.”

Q: “What would you say is the biggest thing that women who have done your program have gone onto to do in their professional accountability. What different would you say it has made for them and the companies and organisations they work for?”

A: “If I look at the top three advantages that women derive out of participating in my programme I’d say that firstly, the women who have participated have come away very clear on where they want to go. One of the things we confront is ‘Guess what? No one ends up in the corner office by default, it is because they want to get there, so you want to get clear if you want to get there or not. During the program participants answer that question for themselves – ‘what is my true ambition’, and then they back it up with - actually I could get there, it is time to believe in myself as much as the next guy, and then they go after developing the confidence to go after it. One of the results that the programme has produced so far is that just shy of 50% of the graduates have been promoted following their participation. And one of the reasons that happens is that they get very clear that this is what they want and those that want it now go for it.

The second thing we have seen is that they take on leading the change in their organisations. So they start having different kinds of conversations in their organisations – they become vocal, not in a burning their bras’ kind of way, so they are not starting a revolution, but they are starting a conversation about what diversity might bring and what it will take. So they have good business-like conversations about this rather than conversations aimed at expressing that there is something wrong here. They are equipped to lead the change and how one goes about implementing it.

Thirdly, the big change is that I see a shift in the attitude of the participants towards wanting to take on operational P/L responsible kinds of jobs. They do away with the myth that women only sit on a few of the executive team positions namely HR and marketing rather then the big operational jobs. The participants realise that if they want to get to the top they need heavy hitting operational experience.”

Q: “Is there a risk that focusing on a group could actually become exclusive? How for example might men in an organisation support what you are talking about here? As a man, on the one hand I am keen to support it while on the other don’t want to seem like I am being part of the problem and poking my nose it. How might this become something everyone can get involved with and benefit from?"

A: “That is an important question. I encourage men who feel they genuinely want to help and see potential to develop the women they are sending on the programme. One thing they can do is engage in the support process which is build into the programme's design and runs alongside it. So when men genuinely want to support women getting up in the organisation I have not yet encountered a problem.

One issue I do recommend being mindful of though, is that when the number of any minority reaches 25%, and is moving towards 33%, this group is suddenly experienced as competition, in which case they might feel that it is less wise to support the effort because soon a woman might go after my chair. I have observed some strange behaviours during that period, the group of men who seemed so bought into the idea of diversity are all of a sudden not so in favour anymore. This issue seems to quiet down when the numbers move from 33% to 50%, so in terms of gender diversity that is the sweet spot for organisational performance. It is important to engage your teams in conversations about this so they understand and appreciate what is happening. Awareness is your friend in this question.”

SLP are running an open version of ‘Lean Forward – Female Executives Leading Change’, our accelerated women’s leadership program, in London starting Q1 2015. Numbers are limited so please get in touch if you are interested. We also run in-house programs for companies and organisations.

We run SLP café’s on a number of issues that we see as important, pressing and emerging. As well as our café on Diversity we are facilitating conversations on building high performing joint ventures and alliances, especially between competitors and across cultures; the emerging disciplines of HSEQ; and the leadership capabilities required for the new and emerging challenges of the 21st Century. We are also developing a technology symposium looking at how new technologies and techniques can be used to foster collaboration, inclusion and innovation.

I therefore believe that women have to lead the change they want to see. Women have to be the change agents of gender diversity in organisations. Therefore I set out to equip the women to lead that change and want to lead that change. Incidentally these tools also allow them to deliver any other kind of result, so it benefits the organisation on several different levels.