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Women On Top: Make The Journey 'Inspirational'

Posted on May 31, 2012 at 6:55 PM

Let's talk about putting more women at the top of businesses, and not just as non-executive directors in the boardroom. It's important not just because of the need for better businesses and the need to stop the wastage of talent. It's also critical to increase the female executive pipeline because unless we do that in the UK, we are going nowhere. (And nor are we likely to sustain these levels of appointment at NED level in a successful manner).

We are at a point now where there is widepsread recognition among Chairmen as well as CEOs at almost all FTSE-100 plcs that there is a real problem. Many internal company intiatives have been launched trying to find out what women want in order to keep them from jacking it all in as they rise through the ranks. The 'carrot' of flexible working is almost in danger of becoming a 'stick.' 

Know why ? Because very few people are telling the truth when they are asked what they want - and what they don't.

One woman who knows this all too well is Heather Jackson. She is the founder and CEO of The Women's Business Forum which, through its An Inspirational Journey programme, seeks to increase the number of skilled women working at the top of corporate Britain. Launched in May last year, it is sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, whose Head of UK Corporate Banking, Chris Sullivan, recognised a very good business plan when he first had a glimpse of it.

The aim is to unite companies and their male and female business leaders in honest conversation and discussion, in a rethinking of roles that need filling and the skills needed to fill them, in a discussion of the importance of work/life balance and in how to value employees better and make them understand their value. And to provide role models across companies and industry sectors to help others to climb the corporate ladder.

Those are my words, but I don't think Ms Jackson will mind. She has taken the pulse of very many senior executive women at many companies, come up with a business plan for change, and sold RBS into fuelling her initiative. It's all about better sharing of ideas and the active development of role models for women to learn to have the confidence to learn to be who they are, but also to learn to 'play the game' that needs to be played for success in the world - and to help change that world as they come up through the ranks.

Never underestimate the power of role models.

You can find out a bit more about An Inspirational Journey by watching this video here.

And speaking of role models, here's one - Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Asset Management and the founder of the 30% Club. I don't think she would expect you to want to have nine children or be responsible for almost £46bn of assets under management in order to listen to what she has to say. But Ms Morrissey was interviewed in the Financial Times today - in case you can't access by clicking on the link, this is the bit that interested me most.

Asked for her 'best advice to others' she said: "You need to be yourself. It grieves me when people suppress their characters. I think more ideas would come out and we would have a better business culture if people were more themselves." I agree. She is also one of the very few - if not the only- senior female executive to have appeared in that interview slot in the FT's Executive Appointments in the last 18 months to have been willing to talk about the fact that an essential ingredient of support in her life is her husband, who can look after the children around his working life.

I've done a few interviews for that slot - and every woman who has a so-called 'house husband' (an appalling term in itself, apologies, treat it as shorthand) has always asked that it not be mentioned. Why ? Because they worry terribly about how it will look, or they worry about how that husband will feel, or they just don't think it's a good idea to come across as that high-flying woman 'with a house husband.' When you have so many concerns about what you can and can't say, what hope is there ?

And how sad is this in this enlightened country in 2012 ? Very. As Ms Jackson says - The women who have made it to the top in the past have done it despite the environment they found themselves in rather than because of it. Imagine what we can do with the next generation - it's like planting seeds in nurturing, rather than arid soil."

I agree with Heather Jackson - we all need, men and women, to talk and be more honest, to say what we want and don't want, how we want companies to structure those roles so that both sexes thrive, and the business soars as a result.

There are four initiatives under her wing, two of which are already rolling out nationally - The Pearls and The Women's Business Forum. The other two will be live by the end of the year. More as it happens- watch this space.




Categories: Women, Appointments, Chairmen