I was speaking at the ICEDR conference in Barcelona last week, presenting a women’s leadership program I have run recently, designed to retain and accelerate the progress of key female talent. As a result, 90% of the participants have either been promoted to the executive level or moved to new and more challenging roles – success indeed! Yet as the questions followed thick and fast after the presentation, I was struck by how they fell into two categories.
One set were about how to make it really happen and overcome the prevailing lack of understanding in their own companies on why it’s important to get more senior women at the top (the research evidence on the improved financial returns for companies with more senior female executives is overwhelming). The second set were somewhat generic, about talent development more broadly. The people attending were some of the most talented learning and development people in the world, from some of the biggest companies.
My overwhelming feeling was one of companies being a bit stuck. If we don’t make this a key part of our development agenda, how are we ever going to change the world of work to be a more egalitarian place? Leadership matters, but gender balanced leadership matters even more – and this won’t happen on its own. As long as programs (whether all female or mixed) on gender balance continue to be, ’nice to have’, as opposed to central to any leadership development curriculum, we will continue to limp along, no further towards our goal. We will continue to hemorrhage critical female talent. Come on Learning and Development Function – help us to make this happen!
I just concluded an event for 300 people in Arcelor Mittal – 100+ in the room and the rest online from offices all over the globe. I was particularly touched that groups in Indonesia and China stayed up until past midnight for the event, which ran at 17:00 European time. In many senses, it was a classic debate about leadership; are leaders born or made; what are our different expectations of men and women leaders; how do the different levels of leadership integrate and align? But there was something especially poignant about seeing a mix of people from new graduates to seasoned hires together, all eternally fascinated with the subject of leadership. Why? Because every global company is struggling to make sense of our world right now. And as organizations struggle, so do their leaders. There is less and less wiggle room, more and more need for tightly aligned leadership from side to side and from top to toe. And I’m not sure that, as simple and flawed human beings, we are fitted for this challenge quite yet.
Is strategy dead? This is not an idle thought. I was contemplating conversations around the world with senior executives from global companies. The overall message seems to be that opportunistic moves work best in our complex, inter-connected and fast-paced business world today. Opportunism implies a whole series of ideas and actions. It implies using a combination of instinct and experience to decide on bold and quick moves; an emphasis on action and experimentation over planning; and shrinking time horizons. No-one seems to have even a five year plan any more; timescales of 18 months are more prevalent. So are we just left with fast, bold and efficient execution as our differentiator? Get it out there and worry about getting it 100% right later? This certainly seems to work for Apple!
We all have strengths and weaknesses – it’s part of the human condition. The only world in which we are not flawed is isolation; if there is no-one else in the room, we are perfect. It’s the interaction with others, who have different values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that shows up our natural human frailties. So to be more effective as leaders, should we focus only on building on our strengths – or should we try and fix our weaknesses, rather than hiring people who make up for us the things we cannot do? I ask leaders these two simple questions; if you are trying to fix a weakness, how long have you been trying? And have you had any success? If the answers are ‘a long time’ and ‘no, not really, my 360 feedback keeps telling me the same old weakness is there’ – then my advice is; stop trying. It’s a waste of leadership energy that could be better directed elsewhere; thinking more, or developing others, or networking, or innovating, or…..the list of options is very long. Don’t waste that scarce leadership energy where it gets no return – unless, of course, the weakness is a killer and will derail you!