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2 Questions You Need to Ask Your CEO

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  • 20 July
  • by Susan Jansen
  • Accountability

There is plenty of media attention about the importance of gender balance and creating inclusive teams. So much talk that even the most passionate advocates are feeling fatigued, disenchanted and a little cynical about the lack of progress. So how do you cut through the talk and see if your organisation is serious, or just paying lip service?

The 2 Questions

You can start by asking your CEO (or boss) two simple questions

  1. Do you have targets to measure progress on gender equality?
  2. Are these targets linked to the financial reward paid to your leaders?

Why So Divisive?

From my own experience as a leader, I know these questions are divisive. There is a group of people reading this thinking yes, bring it on! After all, you get what you measure. I also know there is a group, of both men and women, who are being overwhelmed by internal objections. Their heart rates are rising with a sense of injustice and angry comments on meritocracy and tokenism are being mentally constructed.

I hear you…I was you. In my twenties, I stood strongly against targets and avoided all women’s networking events like the plague. I wanted to be promoted because I was good, not just a woman. My Mum was a trailblazer and I was raised to believe if I worked hard enough I could achieve anything. I didn’t want, or need, any unfair advantage.

When You Realise the System is Broken

As I progressed into leadership, I started noticing the role gender plays. The more senior the role, the fewer women I worked with. Then I started saying goodbye to lots of very talented female colleagues. They weren’t leaving because they had kids, they left because their people leader was awful, they didn’t feel valued or the need for flexibility meant they were scuffled off on the “Mummy Track”. While I watched this with growing unease, I only realised how tough it is for women in leadership when I faced it personally.

It started on my first day of a new role, leading a male-dominated financial markets business. I was ready for that day. I spent a lot of time preparing, had a great introduction, was open-minded and ready to listen. So you can imagine my surprise when I looked out to a room full of expectant eyes and I heard the following introduction

“This is Susan… your token female leader”

I had no idea how to respond to that. I’d love to say I had a snappy comeback, but I was thrown and made an ordinary first impression. As I walked out of that meeting, embarrassed and shocked, I went on to receive four phone calls from my new peers congratulating me, but also telling me I was

“A really smart girl, but needed to let the boys run it for me”

So began the year of my awakening. From undermining my team’s initiatives (digital is a fad, right?), backdoor restructure proposals disbanding my team to finding out I was being paid half the amount of my colleagues in bonus. It was like living in a B grade movie with bad actors, a terrible script, and desperately wanting to wake up. As my latent amygdala went into overdrive, choosing flight was very alluring. But I was too proud and I quickly realised I only had one option, to outperform.

In the first year I ran hard, worked around the clock, implemented 20 projects on top of my day job and slept three hours a night so I could also be there for my two beautiful children. It worked. Sort of. While the numbers showed we were outperforming, I’d attend leadership team meetings and see the bar set higher for me each time. My team’s performance was always under a microscope, while my colleagues could just show up and wax lyrical. It was frustrating, exhausting and totally unsustainable. I knew things had to change.

Thankfully, I had some great coaches, mentors and a very loyal, patient team. It took some tough love interventions (thank you Anna Heywood, Andi Pert and John Matthews) but I learned how to slow down, be less of a maniac, and channel my energy into building a sustainable, successful business and a team where everyone could succeed.

While that first year was shaky, the role went onto be the most rewarding of my career.

How Targets Helped Us Move from 15% to 50% women

1. We Integrated Diversity & Inclusion into our Business Strategy

After my introduction to the team as the token-female leader, I knew I couldn’t have diversity and inclusion as a stand-alone topic and talk at length about it. The team were a savvy, sometimes surly bunch. They had no interest in shallow sermons. I also knew getting the right team in place was only one of the many things we needed to do to deliver on aggressive growth targets and increasing customer expectations. So as a leadership team, we integrated diversity into our broader strategy of growing market share, digitising, making life easier for customers and having the best team in the market.

2. We Set Measurable, Achievable Targets

Just as my leaders had targets for activity, revenue, expenses and risk management, we set targets for getting to gender balance. We factored in different attrition rates and came up with sustainable targets and a set of initiatives required to get there. They were linked to performance and while I supported them feverishly, I also held them accountable at bonus time.

3. We Had Tough, Awkward Conversations and Held the Course

Like in any adaptive challenge, we had some tough, uncomfortable conversations. We held positions vacant for longer than we wanted to, we challenged what customers really needed from our people, now and in the future, we searched wider, we took big risks in the eyes of some of our colleagues. We researched, experimented, failed and tried again. But over a 5-year period our persistence was rewarded with a shift from 15% women to 50/50 at all levels.

4. The Benefits Blew Our Minds

Having the best team also allowed us to launch new products, enter new segments, digitise and turn the business model on its head. As a result, we grew market share by 6%, grew revenue by 300% and had the highest engagement scores on record. This would not have been possible without the right team, and getting the right team meant setting targets. As Tom, one of my favourite leaders said

“Why would you invest in an initiative if you aren’t going to measure the progress? It’s like telling me sales and customer satisfaction are really important this year, but not giving me a plan to work towards or my daily numbers. What gets measured, gets done”

To help you turn talk into action, we put together a guide covering:

  1. Overcoming the Top 5 Objections on Targets
  2. Are You Ready? 5 Step Guide to Setting Targets (they don’t work alone!)

We’ve packaged it up so you can implement it yourself, forward to your leader, HR department or CEO. If you’d like support in doing this we offer 1 to 1 executive coaching as well as a proven change program. This the first story in #turntalk2action, an 8-part series we are delivering to share real stories on what works. Next up is Tim on how to attract top talent. To get it delivered straight to your inbox, you can register here. 

I hope you’ve found this useful.


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