A Blog series by Elise Misse

Blog #1

We need to stop differentiating between male and female leadership. The only thing that matters is good leadership.

It’s no secret that there are many advantages to being part of the LEAD Network. For me, one of the major perks was the opportunity to attend the annual network event in Madrid in November 2019. The personal and professional highlights were varied. For example, I finally got the opportunity to meet with my mentor, Mick Broekhof. Mick is one of the founding members of the LEAD network, and his support and advice have been instrumental to me. Having the opportunity to shake Mick by the hand and converse with him face-to-face was a real delight. There were plenty of additional highlights, too. It was a packed day, filled with exceptional and thought-provoking content. To this end, I am keen to capture some of the take-home messages that really struck a chord with me.

An hour-long conversation with Patrick Smallcombe, Company Group Chairman EMEA of Johnson & Johnson, was eye-opening. Despite his seniority, Patrick was extremely approachable and a veritable fountain of knowledge. Happily, he is also a bona fide advocate for equality and understanding of all employees and their needs.

One of the things that I found interesting about Patrick was that he is a self-confessed introvert. He admitted that this caused him some initial challenges when working within a new culture, as he found that his colleagues were considerably more extroverted than himself. Patrick overcame his own introversion when he felt that he needed to speak up, as he had new perspectives and insights to share. This is something that is clearly important to Patrick. He made it clear that he values expertise, which may stem from different – sometimes external – perspectives.

Patrick cited the Millennial generation, in particular, as being extremely keen on being considered experts in a chosen field. It is hugely important to nurture this hunger and motivation. Expertise is never a bad thing, after all, and we are discussing the next generation of boardroom executives here. The more confident and competent our younger colleagues are, the greater the chances of success in the business world in the future.

The conversation with Patrick was long and fluid – so much so that it would be impossible to capture in its entirety here. I was delighted to discuss the importance of bespoke female leadership programs though. Patrick made it clear that we have all done enough talking about how important female leadership is. Now is the time for action. Patrick agrees that we need to set strong, well-defined targets and take action to bring more women into boardrooms throughout the world. Patrick was fascinating company, and somebody that I’m sure many people have learned from over the course of his career. However, there were many more highlights of the Conference. These too merit discussion and acknowledgement.

The many and varied presentation speakers covered a great deal of information. Some of the key learnings from these sessions included:

  • Barriers are there to be broken through. Nobody – especially professional women – should be too afraid or intimidated to progress or seek a new experience.
  • Persistence is key. You could be told, “no” a hundred times for a hundred reasons before you hear, “yes.”
  • It’s important to be flexible and not beholden to tradition or existing plans. Circumstances and industries change. You need to be prepared to change with them.
  • Mentoring is critical. A mentor will help guide you through important landmarks outside of your comfort zone.
  • Don’t wait until you feel ready to apply for a job – it may not exist by then. Move quickly, take a risk, and be prepared to learn ‘on the job.’
  • Remain resilient in the face of adversity. We all experience testing times. How we come out of them is the measure of our character.
  • If you want something, chase it with all that you have. You control your own destiny.
  • Don’t plan to the Nth degree – things change. Have an idea of what you want but be prepared to change and flex in order to achieve it.
  • Don’t ask yourself, “why?” when a new opportunity arises – ask yourself, “why not?”
  • If you’re in your comfort zone, you’re stagnating. Always look to push yourself and try new things.
  • Women do not need to act like men to succeed in the workplace. Do not change who you are, or how you relate to your staff, because you have seen men successfully behave in a particular way. It’s the culture of the corporate world that needs to change, not the women that work within it.
  • Acknowledge that you have weaknesses, and work on them. Don’t fear or avoid them.
  • Do not fear healthy conflict – as long as respect is maintained, conflict can open up new ideas. Do not work for a boss that refuses any form of conflict or dissenting opinion and closes them off without discussion.
  • Be bold and call out bad or inappropriate behaviour. We need to create a corporate environment where everybody is comfortable and valued.
  • The tone is set from the top. Leaders in business need to take the lead in creating a diverse and unified workplace.
  • Think about the legacy that you leave behind. How will your actions impact your colleagues, your business and your children? We’re making history every day. We should ensure that this is a positive thing.

Naturally, there was also a great deal of talk about women in the workplace. Ian Mumby, Director of Product Supply for Waitrose, struck a particular chord with me. Ian claimed that he often interviews men that are wholly unsuitable for a position but pursue it with confidence anyway. Ian said wishes more women would attack opportunities with the same vigour, rather than waiting until a particular set of boxes are ticked.

Emer Brady, Global Digital Capability Director at Mars, also had some fascinating insights. Emer discussed negotiations and shared statistics that prove women in the workplace are skilled negotiators … when it comes to striking deals for other people. A study conducted by the Ivy League university Stanford found that women outperformed their male counterparts by 23% when negotiating for others. Emer was at pains to point out that we now need to step up and negotiate better for ourselves, and to use these skills to gain that which we deserve. Too many women, it appears, do not play their strongest hand when negotiating for themselves. Emer reminded everybody in attendance that women need to think like their boss and stop using apologetic language when asking for what they are worth. Discussing your experience and accomplishments is not bragging. If you stick firmly to facts, where is the problem?

Caroline Farberger, CEO of ICA Insurance, provided another highlight of the conference. Caroline shared a uniquely personal story that moved me to tears. Caroline was assigned male at birth and began her career while identifying as male. Later in life, while holding the position of CEO, Caroline finally felt ready to embrace her true identity. She began to identify as female, having informed her employer five months in advance of the impending change. She changed her name from Carl to Caroline and underwent gender correction surgery. Caroline pointed out that she did not receive any negativity or hatred from the outside during this process but it remained the toughest time of her life. Many people in a similar position are unable to make it through the process. Indeed, the statistics surrounding transgender individuals are shocking.

Caroline is in the unique position of experiencing the corporate world from both the male and female perspective. While she thought she understood the nature of gender imbalance in the boardroom, it soon became apparent that this was not the case. After she began identifying as female, Caroline found that other women in the workplace were more comfortable approaching her and sharing examples of discriminatory behaviour they had been subjected to. This made it clear to Caroline that the problem of gender imbalance in the corporate world is far from resolved.

Caroline now has first-hand experience of the power imbalance between genders, and male privilege. She explained how eye-opening it was to see how women are treated in the workplace. Caroline notes that women are expected to dress and act in a particular way to convey a certain impression of professionalism, when no such caveats are attached to men. She noted how she now needs to allow plenty of extra time to prepare in the morning too. This could have been a tongue in cheek comment, but it does tie into the issue that the clothing choices of women in business are scrutinised and judged in a way that a suit and tie never are. First impressions have taken on a whole new dimension for Caroline.

Ultimately, Caroline was keen to share a pivotal message. We need to stop differentiating between male and female leadership. The only thing that matters is good leadership. She also stretched the importance of inclusivity and the ability to take on-board opinions from a range of different cultures and perspectives. Everybody around a table has the right to be heard, regardless of whether they are the first or last person to speak. Perhaps above all, Caroline was keen to point that it’s OK to be who you are. Your personal life is just that – personal. If it does not infringe upon your ability to perform to a high level in the workplace, it has no relevance to your business life.

Finally, discussions surrounding talent acquisition provided some very thought-provoking outcomes. Blind CVs, with no data surrounding gender, are becoming increasingly popular. Francis Hoefman and Fabrice Beaulieu of Reckitt Benckiser also shared some interesting insights, gleaned from Harvard research. It is suggested that a vacancy is more likely to be filled by a female applicant when multiple women are shortlisted for interview.
The Harvard Business Review has a great deal more to say on this subject, and is well worth looking into.

I’ll sign off with a closing thought. Diversity in the workplace is our strength and the key to solving problems. We’re taking steps toward a more diverse future but we’re not there yet. The change is still frightening to some. It’s up to all of us to overcome that fear and create a unified corporate world. That was a driving force of the LEAD Network event, and that remains a personal mission for me and countless other working women, and men, all over the world.

About LEAD Network Europe

The LEAD Network Europe is a non-profit and volunteer-led organisation whose mission is to attract, retain, and advance women in the consumer products and retail sector in Europe through education, leadership, and business development. The LEAD Network is run by and for its members, women and men, and we value every individual for their unique perspective. With a primary focus on promoting gender equality the organisation strives for the advancement of women of every race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, educational background, national origin, religion, physical ability and lifestyle. Its vision is of a fair, diverse and vibrant industry where everyone can thrive. A diverse workforce where both men and women are enabled to contribute their full potential and lead their organisations to the next level of value creation. LEAD Network accounts for 18,000+ members – both women and men – from 81 countries.

For more information, please visit www.lead-eu.net