Untapped Leadership

We all know plenty of companies with an all-white male board, whereby the average age resembles one you might find in a retirement home. It not only makes a pathetic group photo but sadly also stands for a dysfunctional governance model, where a conservative world view dominated by groupthink fails to capture the potential value of the company. Enlisting one or two women as a shield against justifiable criticism only serves as lipstick on a pig. They figure as trophies rather than as leaders. Given the dynamic nature of today’s economic environment, the enormous challenge digitization causes and the speed of change a company needs to keep up with, any board should consist of agile customer-centric leaders who embrace new business models, champion transformation and mothball the old boys network where incrementalism rules. BeBoldForChange, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, is never something a board will propagate or defend. Forgive me the cheap paraphrase but Boards live by Be Bald and only Change when all other avenues are closed.

The board is however only the tail-end of the problem as it is practically never a catalyst for change. The real issue plays at the executive level and below. There companies clearly do not pull from the fullness of their talent pool. While everybody agrees that diversity leads to better results, the underrepresentation of women in middle and senior management remains striking. Clearly the executives in the last 50 years have lacked the courage and dynamism to address this issue.

The question remains what companies can do to avoid any loss of talented women on the career ladder so gender parity at the executive level comes naturally. Equal career-path development and remuneration are not enough. Nor are reinventing the workplace, CEO commitment and company-wide change programs. Although important and contributing, soft targets and awareness initiatives do not move the needle. The only thing that really signals the commitment of a company to diversity is its direct correlation to pay. Only hard targets, where variable pay is won or lost, will motivate lower, middle and senior management to address the issue. Treating the diversity target the same as a revenue or operating margin target from a reward standpoint is a prerequisite. Missing the diversity target should weigh as strong as missing revenue or operating margin.

There is more companies can do. The traditional leadership style and the traditional performance model are not helping. There’s a strong male bias to both. There is also more that governments can do. Creating the conditions and legal framework for equal opportunities never stops.

I have been lucky in my career to meet and work with great female leaders. I cannot thank them enough as they’ve enriched me beyond recognition. Sadly, I’ve seen too many not get the recognition, reward and promotion they deserved. This blog is for all of you. You represent an ocean of untapped leadership. Forty-five years ago, John Lennon sang ‘Woman is the nigger of the world’. It would have made an obvious piece of music to conclude this blog but today, I want executives to think.

Leadership opportunity

The need for change has never been so obvious. Nor have the opportunities ever been so numerous.

The Euro crisis formed a unique opportunity to transform Europe from a mere union of money and numbers into a humane political, social and economic project.  The interim solution as it stands today fails on all fronts and condemns Greece to decades of poverty.

The Syrian refugees offer a new opportunity.  Europe responds with solutions of the 1930’s. Climate change, youth unemployment, the masses of older people living in solitude, … how many more opportunities do our European leaders need to understand that none of today’s problems can be solved on a national level? That the framework of countries within Europe claiming sovereignty on all fronts is outdated and outpaced?

When I see Europe, an economic force of 500 million people, struggling to integrate and provide a future for up to 4 million destitute refugees, I can only conclude that Europe has some work to do. Four million doesn’t even amount to 1% of Europe’s current population. While the current inflow might be disruptive, its long-term effect will be positive on all fronts. If Europe can’t cope with this, how will it provide a future for 25 million young unemployed? How will it provide care for the tens of millions of septuagenarians (and up)? How will it keep from being marginalized on the world’s stage?

If I didn’t know any better, I would have to agree with John Gray’s claim in Straw Dogs (2007) that progress is a myth and morality is a fiction. However, the spontaneous flow of support for the Syrian refugees has corrected Europe’s political course. We need to build on the momentum and continue to seize the opportunities. Our economic, social, political and cultural challenges are excellent drivers for change and growth. All we lack is leadership.

You would think that leadership would be available in abundance. Over the past 50 years, no subject has been better studied and documented. Gazillions of leadership books, courses, consultancy programs and guru’s have created a leadership industry. Is Leadership such a hard nut to crack?

In its simplest form, Leadership is about embracing the need for change, developing a framework for a better future, elaborating a strategy to implement the journey towards that future but above all it is about transforming the people’s mindset to set the change in motion. Leadership is about maturing people’s minds to different ideas, capitalizing on random opportunities. Leaders rise to the occasion and people respond.

Our European leaders seem to have none of this, not even the thought leadership. They clearly have lost sight of the objective of Europe as they only see obstacles in the form of nationalistic barricades. Managing these obstacles with recipes of the past might prove popular but is penny-wise and pound-foolish. It’s time for Europe to step up. The leadership opportunity knocks…

Today I leave you with a satirical reflection of Randy Newman on the Great Nations of Europe, just to add some historical perspective to our glorious past. Don’t we want to do better from now on?

Great Nations of Europe by Randy Newman

The picture by courtesy of the Huffington Post.