Leadership and performance consultant Claire Walton delivered a hard-hitting speech to delegates at an event held in the North East of England to examine why so few women make it onto company Executive boards.
Claire, founder and Executive Director of Leaders Are MAD (Making A Difference), which offers change leadership consultancy and coaching, challenged companies to change their defensive cultures because it discourages many women from rising to the top of their profession.
She was speaking at an event for female leaders in business, run by PWC, attended by sixty business leaders and held at Rockliffe Hall Hotel in Hurworth, near Darlington.
Claire, who was asked to speak about how to tackle low numbers of women coming through into Executive board level roles, told delegates: “I have worked for, and with, several good leaders but, unfortunately, I have also worked for some people who I cannot comfortably call leaders, not as I understand the role of a leader.
“They were … mainly men as there have been more men in these Exec roles. “I am not, by the way, saying all men are poor leaders. What I am saying is that most Exec teams have a large majority of men and, in my experience, there have been Execs who have behaved in a way where protecting their position, their bonus and their opinion are more important than doing the right thing. “There seems to be something about getting into a top team position that brings out this need to secure the position and all that comes with it, and this often creates aggressive defensive behaviour and, of course, sometimes passive defensive behaviour, too.”
She researched the problem as part of her MBA at Newcastle University, during which she wrote a dissertation on the lack of gender diversity on boards.
Claire told delegates: “I was, and I still am, concerned that we ignore the real issues relating to a lack of gender diversity in leadership roles because we mask the issue with increasing numbers of female part-time NEDs (Non Executive Directors). NED’s are rarely experienced by people outside the board and, therefore, cannot create the same influence as a role model to other people further down the corporate ladder.
“The women I interviewed were or had been, either Exec Directors on corporate Boards, or NEDs. Common to all of them was a feeling they had a choice to climb the ladder and accept the consequences or not to climb the ladder and accept the consequences.
“My secondary research suggested men generally do not feel the same degree of choice. They still feel more pressure to climb the ladder regardless and reach their potential, increase their earnings and have bigger and better cars as well as continuing to be the main bread winner in a family unit. Although this is changing within the millennium men coming through.
“The women I interviewed were confident women yet still freely admitted to their insecurities. A common core value was their desire to “make a difference”, to create positive change in their organisations, change that would have positive effects on people and not just to increase the profits of the organisation and their personal bank accounts.
“However, they were voting with their feet. Once satisfaction with the Exec role stopped, when they questioned how much of a difference they were making versus the compromises they were making, they were turning to Non-Exec roles instead. At the same time, this meant they could have a life outside of work and regain their sense of self again.
“Rather than change women, we need to change the people currently leading organisations, both men and women. I am an advocate for equality but it doesn’t mean we should all be the same. The whole point of increasing diversity is to encourage differences so let’s not develop women to behave like their male peers. This is unfortunately where In my experience the current emphasis is on this subject.
“If the vision aspiring men and women had of board level roles was one of people leadership rather than one of boring meetings, aggressive defensive and passive defensive behaviours, bureaucracy, long hours and a place where you have to leave your personality and individuality at the door then we might have more women making that choice.
“Behavioural change always needs to start with those in leadership roles. Often these people fear changing more than anyone else as they believe the behaviours that got them there are the behaviours they need to keep them there. However, in order for them to lead the organisation towards even greater success, they will need to change, too. To change the behaviour of the people below you need to change your behaviour.”
After her address, Claire said: “I think the problem is broader than just women. If we do not change the culture at the very top of organisations and encourage men and women to bring their true self to work, then we will not be benefiting from their unique contributions.”
Claire has held many senior positions during her career, including directorships with major companies, and more information on her business is available at firstname.lastname@example.org