If there’s an opportunity to learn from Australia’s top female leaders who demonstrate credibility, expertise and integrity when it comes to leadership, then big businesses ought to be there. I was grateful I had the opportunity to moderate two panels at the 4th Women In Leadership Summit held last December in Sydney, designed for experienced women leaders and aspiring “next generation” leaders who want to advance their career and learn from successful leaders. The collective brain-trust of these women, as well as a few outstanding male leaders, was incredible.
We discussed and challenged traditional and current work practices to lead change and help smart, skilled and savvy women, who have what it takes, rise to the top so they can make a positive impact on business as well as its people. These speakers ranged from esteemed directors, C-Suite executives and senior managers from both profit and non-profit sectors. Although mostly women, several male champions of change in support of women leaders were invited to share their insights and experience when it comes to greater diversity and gender representation at senior level. It was agreed that knowledge alone about these issues isn’t enough. As Peter Gooding, Director of People and Future at AON shared: “Knowledge doesn’t change behaviour, behaviour changes behaviour” and this change needs to start from top – at CEO and executive level.
There are many incredible male leaders who are ready to challenge the status quo and clear the way for women to sit on boards, run companies, and give them the chance to express their ideas, apply skills to innovate, create change, implement and impact. But before we can see this happen so that it becomes the norm, corporations need to be willing to embrace change and step out of their comfort zone. These male leaders needs support and the green light from across board.
Tony Stuart, a CEO at UNICEF, whose team is made up mostly of women running UNICEF offices all over the world, says “we ought to be past this as a society”. Reality is that we have a long way to go before gender and diversity cease to exist as seperate divisions within organisations. Many would agree with this and want to see change happen but when it comes to implementing changes there’s a big gap. In Norway, on the other hand, a failure to have at least 40 per cent of female company board members leads to the company being delisted (Source). So it’s clear that the first step is mandating quotas, but is that enough?
What else can be done to ensure that businesses are on the right track when it comes to gender equality?
Several ideas were shared throughout the summit, some of which were already being implemented by some companies. Here are seven of those:
Take greater risks by investing in female talent pool – more often. If you keep doing things the same way expecting different results no change will happen. Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know until we take bigger and bolder risks. Peter Gooding from AON says “we need to make sure that we are leveraging the best talent instead of getting tied up in long-term vs short term outcomes”. Organisations that are more diverse outperform by 35%. (Source). Taking risks helps organisations learn about its own weakness and strengths. This is powerful knowledge that companies can use to grow and increase their impact in the industry- for the better.
Adapt your language. Whether it be interviewing for new talent or getting ideas for a new project, you can get more engagement and collaboration from women when using language that is familiar and natural to them. For example, Max York, General Manager for South Pacific GE, said when interviewing women he uses specific words that like creativity instead of innovation. Listen to your female counterparts and note the language they are using. You can then reflect it back to them in conversation and you might be surprised to see how much more you engage with them, gain their trust and their valuable ideas.
Ask for feedback. If you truly want to step it up as an organisation and develop better engagement with your people, Rosemary Milkins, Former Deputy Chief Executive to Fire and Rescue NSW, says ask your employees for feedback. She was big on asking her employees the question “How do you see me”? She learned a lot by asking this question. It takes a courage and true leadership to ask this questions and the feedback you get could prove values and be the key to change and growth.
Set up community initiatives. Set up fun and creative initiatives to engage young girls (and women) when it comes to understanding business. Tony Stuart from UNICEF says that we underestimate the importance of giving young girls operational roles and opportunities early on. He shared a wonderful example with me of giving a young girl a chance of a lifetime for raising money for UNICEF: to be his PA for a whole day. Furthermore, teach them how to set up and operate small start-ups by setting up something like a pop-up store or a stall at a community event. The point is to get them involved.
Encourage women to be themselves. As challenging as it is, women have to set new standards for what it means to be a female leader in the 21st century. Women need to act less like men and more like themselves. Lynelle Hales, CEO at Sydney Northern Health Network says “You have to stand up, take ownership and be seen”. Women, like men, need to stay true to their values, purpose and to who they are because only then can they engage, inspire and influence those around them. It’s about being yourself, and this means having the self-awareness to know when you are not in your integrity. As a psychologist and coach whose worked with many corporate women leaders, I can attest to this being the key when it comes to leading with authenticity. This is also the missing link in many of Australia’s businesses. Chris Pash commented recently “companies are confronting the reality that senior executives without the requisite soft skills and leadership competencies will kill their business, quickly or slowly”. (Source)”
Challenge the culture. As a leader don’t hold back from challenging the culture. It takes a leader to create a ripple of change. Don’t be afraid to speak up in what you believe in when it’s for the higher good of all. This becomes your testament to your willingness to be vulnerable, powerful and inspiring. Leadership is about inspiring others to see what’s possible.
Learn from others. When it comes to learning what we don’t know we need be willing to learn from those who are daring enough to pave way for change. Westpac seems to be the leader of the pack when it comes to increasing female representation and diversity through their Equilibrium program. In fact, Grazia Pecoraro the Senior manager at Westpac’s Inclusion and Diversity division says that by next year they want to have 50% ratio of women in leadership roles. What makes this possible at Westpac is commitment to change from their leadership team. Furthermore, Samantha Brown, Director of Business Development at Cancer Council Australia, says innovative partnerships through shared value and aspirations can create a real capacity to influence and make change for the positive. Create opportunities with other organisations to make a difference in the community.
One thing was clear at The Women in Leadership Summit: Australian organisations have a long road ahead when it comes to gender equality. Small but significant steps can be taken now. Corporations have a responsibility to their community as well as the younger generation to implement change now. They need to be willing to take bigger and bolder risks, break tradition, and collaborate with other organisations who hold similar values, to pave way for change. I leave you with the remarks of Lynelle Hales “It’s not a failure, it’s a journey”. Every risk we take, becomes a journey, and in the journey lie the opportunities if we are willing to keep moving forward by adapting to change.