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Do C-Suite Leaders really know the organisations they are leading?

Jeff Immelt has some advice for the next generation of corporate leaders: spend more time in factories and less in Davos.’ Immelt, CEO of General Electric, is challenging business leaders to get out of their ivory towers and get back in touch with the needs of their people and customers at ground level. He is claiming that business leaders have become distant from the needs of the ‘real people.’

I don’t dispute that those who occupy the C-suite are busy (although I loathe the term busy). However I’d question what they are busy doing if scandals such as those at UberFox News,  Channel 7CPA Australia and the Health Services Union can go undetected, unnoticed or are swept under the carpet. Particularly when, in the case of Uber, Fox News and Channel 7, the transgressions are related to sexual misconduct and assault against women. Are those in the C Suite asleep at the switch? Or are they just not aware of the organisation they are really in charge of?

Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day

Peter Drucker got it right. Culture does eat strategy for breakfast every day. Assuming it’s the right culture. Because of course, culture is ‘the way we do things around here’. Imagine being a woman working at Uber, Fox and Channel 7? No thanks! Back to Jeff Immelt. His theory is that business leaders are not aware enough of what it’s like for workers in their organisation, because they are too distant from the coal face.

Leaders can be too distant, or delegate too much of their accountability for the issues that affect women. In her book, Stop Fixing Women, Catherine Fox interviewed Martin Parkinson who was (then) head of Australian Treasury. Parkinson had commissioned an external review of Treasury to understand why women were not advancing. The output of the review was, predictably, poor and Parkinson was quoted saying to a colleague ‘we are not leading the organisation we thought we were.’

How did that happen?

I have observed this same behaviour in my many years in corporate Australia and now, in my gender diversity consulting work. I recall in the not so distant past presenting a visual diagram of the gender diversity statistics for every level in my organisation to a group of my predominantly male colleagues. Of the 5 levels represented, only the first (entry) level was balanced, the rest became progressively unbalanced, with the most senior level having only 11% female (which including me, was 2 women!).

Two reactions from my colleagues surprised me. The first was ‘how did that happen?’ The second was ‘I had no idea!’ It was a #facepalm moment, but also an illuminating and defining one for me. I realised, that despite all the HR managers, HR systems, mandatory reporting, employee engagement surveys, unconscious bias training and the list goes on, that leaders were simply not in touch with what it was like to be a woman working in their organisation. They were not focussing on the metrics that matter to advance women.

What Inclusive Leaders Do

Leaders, if your organisation was burning cash, had declining market share, had ballooning costs, you would take accountability, step in, understand the root cause, undertake remediation activity and begin the journey to set things right. Right? The same goes for creating an inclusive culture where women in your organisation can participate to their fullest potential and advance to more senior roles. Just like the head of Australian Treasury did, you need to ask yourself these difficult questions:

  1. Am I really leading the organisation I think I’m leading? (how do we really do things around here?)
  2. Where are the women in my organisation structure? (junior, senior, in HR or shared services roles or running customer facing, P&L businesses?)
  3. Does my workplace ‘work’ for women? (If not, why not?)
  4. What resources (human and financial) have I allocated to gender diversity initiatives? (And how many of the human resources are non-HR?)
  5. Who do I hold accountable to ensure women are advancing at the same rate as men? (Do I have gender targets or quotas at every management level?)

I don’t need to quote any more statistics

I don’t need to quote any more statistics, however, I will. Global gender parity is 216 years away at the current rate. Your organisation is foregoing revenue increases of up to  41% if you don’t do something about advancing women in your workplace.  If that is not compelling you to act, then you may be headed the same way as some of the not so illustrious leaders of the companies at the start of this article!

I advise business leaders and organisations to #GSD on gender diversity. My first piece of advice is invariably, just start! Done is better than perfect. I want business and sporting leaders to understand exactly what type of organisation they are leading, what the actual experience is for women in their workplace and how to develop strategies and tactics to build an inclusive, gender balanced workplace.

This article was originally published by Advancing Women, and authored by Michelle Redfern

About the Founder

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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Director

Jade Collins has 20 years’ global experience in corporate executive Human Resources and management consulting roles in the Mining, Energy and Aerospace industries, leading large scale, complex multi-million-dollar change management programs. Jade finds the combination of her HR, Psychology and MBA qualifications and her leadership experience is invaluable for increasing gender equality in leadership across industries. Jade was a member of the Queensland Government's Strategic Advisory Group for the Toward Gender Parity: Women on Boards Initiative and the 2019 CQU Alumni of the Year for Social Impact for her work with Femeconomy.