We’ve kept wishing the world would change.
Almost overnight, the wish has been granted. Only not quite in the way we’d imagined.
Watching the Covid-19 pandemic sweep across the globe, forcibly shunting individuals, businesses, and entire economies into behaviour they’d never imagined possible, I’m left clutching for hope. How can we harness this vast, ruinous, desperately fast change, and extract from it the prescription for leading our world of work into a lastingly transformed future?
So much has been rotten, or stagnant, or behind the curve, or turgidly repetitive: the glacially slow progress towards gender balance; the gender pay chasms (never mind gaps); the unspoken rule that we have to pretend we don’t have families or home-life commitments to juggle; and the rigid presenteeism that’s made securing a genuinely career-propelling flexible or part-time role about as likely as no-one speaking on top of each other on your next Zoom team call.
Fast-forward to these first few months of 2020, and mixed up within all the heartache, tragedy and extreme disruption, there are brilliant, inspiringly inclusive ways of working popping up all over the place, happening organically - from the surge in reliance on the previously untouched video-conferencing platforms, to the creative ways teams are finding to connect, idea-share and (even) celebrate special occasions while working remotely.
The concepts of ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusive leadership’ are really being put to the test right now. Many people are becoming naturally more inclusive leaders, ‘making the effort’ for far more one-to-one and team connection than ‘normal’. Perhaps calling on individuals by name for their contribution during team conference calls, to avoid the dreaded all-speaking-at-once blur. Hearing the voices that wouldn’t be heard. Being understanding of – even delighted by – the small Zoombombing child. Flexing expectations of those with caring responsibilities. Seeing first-hand that 9-5 means very little indeed. Opening eyes to the enhancement in wellbeing that comes from a reduced commuting load – and the productivity gift associated.
‘Don’t waste a crisis’, it is said. Leaders (and I’m not just talking those with a senior-leaderly kind of job title – if you lead any kind of team, project or initiative then you’re an influencer here), now is the time to figure out how you’ll harness the best parts of this new way of working to drive further momentum on inclusion and diversity.
So, what kind of a leader do your people need right now? Not one who’s well-meaning yet misguided; rather, one who is on a mission to take things forward and transform.
MISGUIDED: ‘We need to go back to normal as fast as possible’
ON A MISSION: Focusing on ‘going back’ is always going to be just that – backward-looking. Shift your focus to ‘going forward to work’ and the positive (or simply necessary) changes to sustain.
- Make sure you look different on the other side of this. The world will shapeshift and if you want to still fit, you, your team and your way of operating needs to as well.
- It’s all going to be different, so you’re going to need a pipeline brimming with a different kind of leader to take you forward after this. If we’re moving into a new world, we need to be new, too.
MISGUIDED: ‘We need to be completely democratic, not be seen to single out any specific groups of people to support at the moment’
ON A MISSION: Past crises indicate underrepresented talent will be at enormous risk. Throw all you can at maintaining the progress you’ve already made in developing your female and other workplace minority pipelines, or it is highly likely you will plummet backwards. Diversity improves business decisions and results – now would be the worst possible time to sideline focus on it.
- It’s right to talk about everyone, but women are still the biggest underrepresented talent in the corporate world as a whole.
- Women are being impacted differently by the Covid fallout – particularly women of colour.
- Women are already contemplating not coming back – she’s walking out the door. The cost of someone leaving can be anywhere between 16% of salary for low-paying positions, 20% for middle tier management, and over 200% for executive positions, with female positions being 10-20% higher.
- There’s an argument that women bring just the type of leadership skills that these times of change need – those qualities associated with the feminine (though not just the female) such as ‘bringing the people with you’, collaboration, heart, balance, emotional intelligence. Many have noted that the countries who seem to be leading the way in their Covid response (Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan) are led by women.
MISGUIDED: ‘Phew! The Government’s lifted the reporting requirement on our gender pay gap for this year, and with a gazillion competing budget priorities, cutting our Women’s Leadership Development programme is an obvious quick win.’
ON A MISSION: This is the litmus test for whether your organisation really meant it about wanting to improve gender balance. You risk unleashing a tsunami of cynicism if you ditch your inclusion initiatives the moment the going gets really tough. If you’d been saying it was business-critical, but are now reaching for the chop, you’ll be judged for shallow lip service – as if you’ve proven you didn’t ever want to walk your talk anyway.
- You’ve invested all this money. Side-lining your initiatives now is highly likely to send you exponentially backwards – a wrenching waste of time, energy, and investment.
- It’s not just money. Your hard-fought employer brand reputation risks losing credibility
- Although completely understandable and sensible, it’s nevertheless a dangerous message to suspend gender pay gap (GPG) data requirements. Forward-thinking organisations like Santander, Fujitsu, Barclay’s continue to report progress despite mandatory GPG reporting being on pause for now in the UK. The requirement will return, possibly with a stronger spotlight on it than ever.
MISGUIDED: It’s not exactly the moment to bang on about improving gender balance, is it?!
ON A MISSION: Yes, it is. People are in the mindset of change right now, so harness it, work with it. Momentum is a precious thing. It’s unlikely you’ll be gifted as good an opportunity to shake things up, given everything is already shaken up, in your professional lifetime – there is an unmissable opportunity to improve the way our working world operates, and the mix of leaders it’s run by, that could finally become your legacy to future generations.
- If you’ve never started an inclusive leadership programme, whether targeting females, other under-represented workplace populations, or senior leadership team behaviours, now is a weirdly good time to start! It doesn’t have to be big and expensive.
MISGUIDED: ‘We’re all in it together.’
ON A MISSION: We’re not. Some ‘types’ of employee are likely to be far worse hit than others. Tailoring targeted leadership development to key segments of talent will shore up your pipeline and result in a better workplace for all, longer term.
- Be aware of the disproportionate pain experienced by different groups.
- With many of us thrust home 24/7, women now, more than ever, are squeezed by wanting to be perfect in all spheres. In my coaching work, I am watching out for exhaustion, or even burnout, among women who are trying to do it all – work, care, clean, teach, iron, work, cook, shop, work some more. The myth that ‘we’ve all got loads more time now’ rings depressingly hollow for many. Helping them prioritise and stay connected to their career goals, while balancing their personal commitments, is preciously important.
MISGUIDED: No-one’s got time, headspace or budget for ongoing personal development in the foreseeable future
ON A MISSION: The organisations that will get through this are precisely the ones who somehow carve out time, headspace and budget to support their talent – even if it’s imperfect and not as bells-and-whistles as they’d have liked. If you like to go round saying ‘my people really matter’, now’s the moment to walk your talk.
- I’m hearing a bubbling myth that people don’t have time or inclination for development at the moment. It is true that in the early days of lockdown – and for a few, even now – that furious re-prioritisation had to take place, and in some cases, activities were postponed. But astonishingly quickly I’ve seen a less simplistic reality. The vast majority of people are showing up, incredibly grateful to have the safe space and expert support to draw breath, focus on where they are heading, pause and plan.
- All those fiercely competing options for how you invest time and resource in the coming months may protect a greater quantity of employees or customers from cuts, but in the end, will the quality of your top talent pipeline be developed? Stay strong, keeping a long-term strategic eye to the future. You will be pleased you did, before you know it.
- Your interventions don’t have to look the same; the key thing is keep up that engagement - whatever you can do to keep spinning the wheel.
To ride the storm and be successful (especially those organisations who’ve been hardest hit), you’ll need the kind of leaders who can take you forward through this. The kind of leader who creates the best possible conditions for growing a new breed of think-different, act-different leaders to come. Are you misguided or on a mission to change the world of work for good?
Rebecca Hourston is a Managing Director at www.talking-talent.com, transition coaching experts with a 15-year track record of supporting leaders through change and maximising diverse talent.