What can OD offer D&I?

After spending two days at the ODN Europe conference last week, my answer to that question is – lots!  Admittedly, I went to the event looking for new insights into organisational change from theorists and practitioners at the cutting edge of OD.  And it’s easy to feel evangelical after a stimulating conference with great speakers, interesting participants, convivial networking.  But from the opening address onwards, I was hooked.  With each speaker, workshop, conversation, paper, I heard a bit more about current thinking on how change in organisations happens – or doesn’t.  And with that dawned a new perspective on why progress on diversity and inclusion is so slow.  Let me give you an example.

The first speaker at the conference was Professor Ralph Stacey from the University of Hertfordshire, talking about complexity and change.  The main message that I took from his hour-long talk (given without notes, slides or a microphone) was about the potential of tiny changes in organisations to make a huge difference.  Now there’s nothing massively radical or innovative about that you might think, but in delivering the message he contrasted that approach with one which relies on a top-down, plan-driven prescription for change – a prescription which often enough is shown to be ineffective in practice, but which people continue to act out in the service of the change they are hoping to bring about.  And why don’t such plans work?  Because, he argued, the control and order which having a plan implies is a fiction.  Because at a deep and personal level we all have different plans, spoken or unspoken, and what actually happens happens at the ‘interplay of all our different plans and intentions’; because change at the macro level emerges and is made real at the local level, at the unpredictable, messy, emotional level of identity and human relationships – and conversations.

As Stacey said all this, I couldn’t help thinking about how we in the D&I profession also appear to rely on what feels increasingly like ‘sparse and repetitive thinking’ (his words) about how change happens.  You probably know what I mean – the oft-repeated formula of a compelling business case linked to organisational objectives, senior level commitment, clarity about accountabilities and responsibilities, communication, networks, sponsorship, development programmes etc etc.  The thing is – this top-down thinking and planning may be theoretically right, but in practice it’s not having the effect we’d hoped on diversity and inclusion, any more than it’s working for other kinds of change.  Stacey helped me visualise another approach, which challenges and refreshes the somewhat jaded conversations about diversity in many of our organisations, and encourages a much more energetic, complex, messy, local approach.  I don’t mind admitting, I’m not yet sure what this really looks like in practice – but I’m now on a mission to find out!

Lessons from the guttering

Hiring Will to sort out the gutters in our leaky Victorian terrace reminded me of some important lessons about consulting.

I hired Will because he loves roofs, has spent a lot of time on them and bothered to explain to me how mine is constructed, what the difference is between a fascia and a soffit, and could answer pretty much any question I asked him about drains and downpipes.  He gave me lots of photos of roofs he’d worked on and gutters he’d transformed, plenty of options and a detailed and competitive quote.  He seemed keen as mustard, busy and ambitious – and pleasant.  He was friendly and polite to me and my family – and to the cat, and to the neighbours, even the ones I don’t like.

But all that counted for almost nothing in the end.  Not just because the rain water is still splashing down the walls, the vent from the bathroom is now half covered in a brand new fascia (or is it soffit?) and there’s still a tree growing out of our chimney.  But because:

1 Over-promising and under-delivering is much, much worse than not promising in the first place.  All I wanted was the fascias, soffits and gutters replaced, but along the way Will somehow implied he would not only replace the gutters but hunt out the rot, dry out the felt, fix the tiles, uproot the tree.  When all he did in the end was fascias, soffits and gutters (and not even that very well) I felt let down.

2 Not keeping to the original schedule isn’t necessarily disastrous (our gutters have been leaking for months).  But how you reschedule, matters.  Will rescheduled alot, each time for a couple of days ahead.  Each time I think he genuinely believed he would be there.  But after the first few times I stopped believing him.

3 Pointing out the obvious (‘you know you’ve got rot, don’t you?’) isn’t always the same as insight.

4 Letting your client know you’re ‘fitting them in’ doesn’t make them feel grateful for your services.  It pisses them off.

5 Avoiding the client when things get tough is a very poor strategy indeed.  It makes you look cowardly, and it’s much, much worse than rescheduling.

So when Will rang today promising to come round and fix a few final things, I took it all with a pinch of salt.  And when he told me he’d covered up the rot he’d found, but it really ought to be dealt with, I was thinking I’d find someone else to deal with it.

And I’ll be able to afford to.  Because, Will, you may not have fixed the gutters but in the end you’ve saved me a lot of money.  Some of what you do I recognise in me.  You’ve saved me a fortune on my own professional development, by reminding me of some important lessons in consulting.  Thank you.

Getting diversity right for Generation Y

One of the things I observe in organisations is how generations think differently about diversity.  So I was really interested to read John Harris’ recent article on ‘Why has Generation Y become so right wing?’.  His article’s not about organisations.  But it highlights generational differences towards individuality and collectivism, and provokes some interesting questions about the future of diversity and inclusion in organisations that will be headed up by the Gen-Yers of today.

Here’s the dilemma.  On the one hand, as Harris says, ‘Gen Y is admirably socially enlightened: its support for gender equality and gay rights is overwhelming, and on such ideas as the wearing of traditional dress in state schools, its live-and-let-live mores tower over those of older generations’.  In my experience this is true of the workplace too.  Generation Y employees struggle significantly less with individual expressions of diversity and difference than their Gen X colleagues.  For Gen Y people know that clothes and piercings and tattoos – and gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, working patterns – say nothing about someone’s ability to do their job.  From that perspective, I’m optimistic for the future of diversity and inclusion under the leadership of Gen Y people.  Surely a generation that’s so easy-come, easy-go about individual difference would support workplace interventions that make the expression of difference easier?

On the other hand, Harris describes a generation for whom ‘postwar collectivism is increasingly but a distant memory’ and who think that ‘joblessness is usually the result of character failings rather than the state of the economy’.  He’s talking about Gen Y hostility to the welfare state, but it made me think about the objections I’ve heard from many Gen Y people (not only from Gen Y people, of course) to collectivist workplace interventions on diversity and inclusion – to things like women’s networks, for instance, and minority ethnic development programmes.  Many Gen Y people are simply not interested in getting involved in anything that smacks of lefty identity politics at work, which is often how action on diversity and inclusion is (mistakenly) perceived.

From that perspective, I’m concerned for the future of diversity and inclusion in Gen Y’s hands.  If the prevailing view of Gen Y is that failure comes from not trying hard enough, what sense will be made of the careers of those female, black, gay, disabled colleagues, who don’t make it to the top?  The reasons may be to do with institutionalised racism, or the universal challenge of combining work and family, or any of the other systemic barriers to diversity and inclusion.  But without a collectivist lens, will the story go in the future, that they just didn’t try hard enough, or simply lacked the ambition to succeed?

Four myths about women on boards, exploded

The Female FTSE Board Report 2013 (subheading ‘False dawn of progress for women on boards?’) was published last week by the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders, along with the government’s report on Women on boards April 2013.  The Cranfield report in particular is a very good read.  I especially appreciate the way both reports explode a number of common and pervasive myths about women on boards – and about the progression of women into senior roles more generally.

Myth 1:  It’s just a question of time before more women make it to the top

Usually used as a justification for inaction, the reports clearly show that it’s not just a question of time before more women make it to the top.  It’s a question of time, plus action – and the more action that’s taken, the less time it’s going to take before women make it.

There’s been a lot of action since the publication of the first Davies report in April 2011 – taken by government, business, recruiters, investors and of course women in the pipeline.  And guess what?  The pace of change has quickened.  In fact, ‘the rise in the number of female board members in just 18 months is equivalent to the increase in the whole of the last decade’.

Myth 2:  These days, women can get onto boards whether or not they’ve got any previous experience

Usually spoken by people wanting to discredit the quality of women being appointed to boards.  In fact, ‘almost all’ the women who made it onto FTSE 100 boards this year had held board seats in major companies, with an average of three board seats each.

Myth 3: If you’re a man looking for a FTSE board appointment, forget it.  Boards are only interested in appointing women these days

Simply not true.  Men continue to dominate in the appointments to board positions; only 26% of recent FTSE 100 board appointments have gone to women.  74% have gone to men.

Myth 4:  Women don’t have the operational experience to make it onto boards

In fact, over a third of the women appointed to boards in the past year have operational roles (divisional/ regional Chief Exec and Chief Operating Officer roles).  27% have a banking and finance background, and 8% come from HR – long considered a career cul-de-sac as far as board appointments are concerned.  (Interestingly the report also goes on to say that ‘the assumption that HR is dominated by women is not confirmed at executive committee level, with women constituting 52% of HR executives’ – disproportionately low compared to the representation of women in the HR profession overall.)

Diversity on corporate websites

Looking through the external websites of some major corporates this week, three things struck me.

First, how few references there are to diversity and inclusion on corporate homepages.  Even for those organisations avowing that diversity is ‘just the way we do business’, it’s surprising how many bury diversity and inclusion deep in their careers section, well away from anything to do with customers and clients.

Second, most organisations describe why they ‘do’ diversity and inclusion in exactly the same language, whatever the sector, and however differentiated the organisations may be in other respects.  They make reference to ‘widening the talent pool’, to ‘helping people achieve their potential’, to ‘recruiting, retaining and developing people irrespective of difference’.  It’s not that I’m unconvinced by these arguments for diversity – far from it.  It’s just that such over-worked words suck from it all the passion and the excitement, and end up meaning very little.

Third, how few organisations dare to link their motivation for action on diversity and inclusion to anything to do with values and ethics.  Anxious about accusations of social engineering, soft-minded liberalism and positive discrimination, organisations have been at pains to point out that their commitment to diversity is built on the business case, on competitive advantage and market differentiation.  Yet whatever the commercial benefits, diversity and inclusion are – surely, at some level – still about fairness, and justice, and doing the ‘right’ thing.

So three suggestions for organisations wanting to communicate a heartfelt commitment on diversity and inclusion to prospective employees, clients, customers, shareholders and partners:

  • Put a link to diversity and inclusion on your corporate homepage
  • Ask employees why diversity matters to them, and use their words to bring it to life
  • Link the reason for action to values, ethics and corporate governance as well as to the bottom line.

Successful women: what’s not to like?

At Davos last week Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, reminded the world of the ‘likeability’ penalty that women pay for success – that ‘as a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked, very importantly by women and men, and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked’.

That add-on – ‘very importantly by women and men’ – got me thinking about the successful women I know, and why I actually rather like them.  Some of them I’ve known since before they were successful, and their success hasn’t made me like them less.  Some of them wouldn’t think of themselves as successful – and some of them you might not think are successful either.  But I do, and I have to say, I like them all.

So here, based on my own experience, are 10 reasons why I like successful women.  What’s not to like?

  • Successful women are usually fantastically good at their jobs.  They have to be.  Not one of the successful women I know has ever got to where she is just because she is a woman.  I like them for their ambition and their achievement and – yes – their gutsy success.
  • They are happy with themselves and who they are.  They’re self-aware.  They don’t pretend to be infallible, and they’re (usually, not always) the first to admit when they’ve got it wrong.
  • They’re not inhibited by hierarchy or fazed by power.  They’re pretty much the same person, whoever they’re meeting with.
  • They’re great at relationships and very well networked – and not only with people in positions of influence.  They have friends as well as colleagues at work.
  • They can be tough and uncompromising when they need to.  They are no push-over.
  • They’re optimistic – about themselves and their organisations.
  • They are great role models for my teenage daughter, and also for my son, both of whom found the question ‘Would you prefer to be successful or liked?’ almost impossible to answer.
  • They talk about their families, and they’re up-front and unabashed to let you know how much their children matter.
  • They’re generous with their success, giving up their time to mentor other women, as well as men.
  • They speak out about being a woman at work and about the barriers they’ve faced.  They rarely pretend it’s all been a breeze.

Four of the best

Last week The Huffington Post published its list of The 24 Best Moments for Women in 2012.  I agreed with several of them (the list included Adele – for winning six Grammys and for being a ‘body image hero’; Melissa Meyer for being appointed Yahoo CEO, and Hillary Clinton for being herself).  Whilst best moments for women are worth celebrating wherever they happen, overall the list probably had more resonance for women in the US than it did for me.   It did get me thinking though – what were the Best Moments for Women in the UK last year?  Here are four good ones, in no particular order.  But I struggled writing this.  Are they the Best?  What do you think the Best Moments were for UK women in 2012?

1                    Women on Boards becomes a big issue

2012 was the year that the low numbers of women on corporate Boards really grabbed both corporate and media attention in the UK.  A lot of coverage was given to small gains in the number of women in non-Executive directorships.  The question of quotas moved from an outlier preoccupation to a proposal supported by the likes of Richard Branson.  The even smaller number of women in Executive roles and in the pipeline to senior positions was exposed.  And with another report just out showing that the percentage of women on the Boards of private companies is even lower than those in the FTSE, it looks like unstoppable momentum for 2013.

2              Equal pay gets teeth

The UK Supreme Court ruled in favour of 174 former employees of Birmingham City Council – mostly women employed as cooks, cleaners, caterers and care staff – who had alleged that the council failed to pay bonuses awarded to staff in male-dominated jobs such as refuse collectors.  The Supreme Court ruling means that equal pay cases can now be heard in a high court – extending the time limit for making claims from six months to six years.  And the 2012 Opportunity Now benchmarking report finds that women are better represented at senior levels of organisations that carry out equal pay audits, compared to those that don’t.

3              Women win gold

With the biggest-number ever of women athletes taking part, outstanding performances by the UK’s women athletes at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics created so many best moments – not just for women but for sport and for the world.  Who can forget the awesome achievements this year of Nicola Adams, Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton, Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey – to name just a few?  The London Olympics also marked the first Olympics when every participating country had at least one female athlete.

4                     All-women literary shortlist

So many great books by women this year.   My personal best moments include reading Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal on holiday in the sun.   And this year, for the first time ever, women are winners in all five category awards for the prestigious 2012 Costa Book Award.  2012 marks the 41st year of the Book Awards.  The overall winner will be announced at the end of January 2013 – and one thing’s for sure.  A woman’s name will definitely be on the winning cup.