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The Bad, the Ugly and the Opportunity

I have watched and read all of the great posts outlining the progress that we have made and ought to make around gender equity. It is important to get to a time when there will be no difference, real or perceived, in the opportunities available to both women and men. In Canada, we are not close to being there.

I am normally pretty optimistic about progress. We (society, business, etc.) usually evolve in a way that creates more hope, more optimism and better outcomes for all of us. The changes are never as quick as some would want but generally speaking, we progress in meaningful ways.

Community Social Responsibility (“CSR”) has evolved to a broader topic around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (“DEI”) and/or Environmental, Social, Governance (“ESG”). I would suggest that this continuation has extended new, promising thinking and, therefore, expectations for businesses, governments and societies.

While the aspiration in these discussions helps motivate us, the raw data particularly as it pertains to gender equity in business is not very promising at all. In fact, a few recent data points stand out for me as troubling:

  1. A recent Globe & Mail article recently detailed how the pandemic is being disproportionately felt by women in the economy. Since the pandemic began, much has been written about the much larger economic impact being felt by women. We know they are paid less on average and they have typically have more career interruptions to either raise children or act as care givers. Those interruptions have increased dramatically through COVID-19. We also know that women today are more likely to work in jobs affected by lock downs. If we know that women retire with, on average, 30% less in pensions and RRSP’s than their male counterparts, and we also know that the pain of the global pandemic is not being felt equally then we know we are losing ground.
  1. Another Globe & Mail article from February of this year detailed how a very prominent business law firm in Toronto had male equity partners earning 25% more than female equity partners. The review of this particular law firm also highlighted how “over 80 per cent of men got a bonus, while only 44 per cent of women did.”
  1. A World Economic Forum Global Gender Report from 2020, shows similarly troubling data. Canada ranks only 19th in the world on overall gender equity and below such countries as Rwanda, Latvia and Namibia. Even more disturbing is that we are losing ground to the rest of the world having moved from 16th place to 19th place in the last 12 years. Perhaps more damning if you read further in that report, the authors outline that it will take 151.4 years, at the current level of progress in North America, to get to complete gender parity. Let thank sink in…..151 years……from 2020……..sigh…..

So, we know that the problem is real and we know that what we are doing today is not nearly good enough and won’t solve this problem in our lifetimes.

That said, let’s not give up. Let’s get together, get past the yelling and the shouting of social media and find ways to accelerate progress. Let’s make it the mission of more leaders to take accountability for how their organization can become gender neutral.

In our ongoing discussion and thinking about this at Conexus, we have had some successes and some “do differently’s” as we have explored this topic. I want to share a few observations in the interest of helping others and also in the interest of learning from others, who are better than we are in this area. If you have ideas that have worked in your business or industry, please comment on the blog for others to read and learn from.

Here’s a few observations from our Conexus journey in this area:

  1. Organizations don’t change, people change – Whether you want to change your innovation quotient or gender equity, leaders cannot just hope and “will” the organization to change. Change will result from some targeted changes in expectations, behaviours and outcomes. What gets measured gets done and leaders cannot just hope they get better without some material action, target or change in accountability.
  2. Men need to be champions of gender equity – If men currently dominate leadership positions in organizations (including Government) and therefore, are the ones designing, supporting and funding leadership programs, they need to be mindful of their own biases. The leadership programs that created today’s leaders (mostly male) might have unconscious biases that favour producing more male leaders. I suspect that it is not intentional but the data doesn’t lie. Part of the challenge is then to have male leaders find ways to become more conscious of the differences that exist and to ensure that programming takes these subtle differences into account.
  3. Some of the learnings for men will be very uncomfortable – I wrote before about some of the very uncomfortable things I have experienced in mentoring female leaders. While uncomfortable at the time, the discomfort has led to a more enlightened perspective for me as a CEO. I am likely to have another one of those moments this coming Tuesday. A number of Senior Leaders from Conexus are taking part in the YWCA Upstander training. The training is meant to help males learn about harassment in the workplace and how to be a better ally for others around us.
  4. Female and Male professionals age differently – I had a conversation with a female colleague recently about the “seasons of careers”. My colleague was very open with me about the changes taking place for her physically as part of her journey. I had to ask some very stupid questions to better learn but I am very thankful that she tolerated the questions and helped me explore how our work environment could be more adaptable to these changes. A learning for me was how the flexibility of work environment with COVID might be a very powerful learning that we can use as we find new ways to support female leaders.
  5. Data matters – At Conexus, we measure gender parity across a number of dimensions and that data is really important to take away the assumptions of how the organization is performing. Today, at Conexus, we can certify if any gender pay gaps exists at any level in the organization. We can look at the number of applicants for all new roles and how many of each gender were considered. We can examine how our benefits programs were accessed by each gender. We know how many mentees each of our leaders has and whether they are male or female. We know from our succession analysis what the mix of the next group of leaders might be and whether we are gaining ground or not. We know how many of our Cultivator resident companies are founded by females and how we can profile and grow more of them. When I speak to groups about leadership development and our work in learning more about gender equity, I lead with data.
  6. Delivering to a segment of one – The evolution of customer experience design (“CX”) would suggest that companies organize themselves to deliver to a segment of one. In other words, the experience that a customer receives should be uniquely curated to them as an individual if at all possible. The same is true of leadership development and the path to gender equity. Leadership and development experiences can most certainly be curated and designed for the individual and be unique to their needs and most surely, their gender.

If building more diversity doesn’t appeal to your moral compass, it should most certainly appear to your financial one. Some McKinsey data correlates ethnic and gender diversity to financial performance and the conclusions are crystal clear and unambiguous.

The science about the impact that diversity has on business performance could not be stronger. The graph above shows that there are material differences in performance. I don’t know about you, but I am always interested when I can find ways to accelerate the performance of our organization. It might make you uncomfortable, but much like the blog topic from two weeks ago, the discomfort will lead to new learnings, growth and ultimately more progress. In fact, it might be one of the easier ways to accelerate performance of your organization.

What are the ways in which you have been able to materially change the gender equity in your businesses? I’d be interested in learning from you……

The “Either / Or Paradox”

I have been watching the last few weeks / months with great interest. Election season is everywhere it seems. Where I live, we have just finished a provincial election, a municipal election is coming next week, there has been threats of a federal election and of course, there is the US election next week. I am not sure how Fox News and CNN intend to appear on the US ballot but they are surely trying 🤷‍♂️.

All those elections have rightfully dominated news, social media feeds, water cooler chats and of course, discussions with my colleagues, friends and even my kids. I am fascinated by politics. Not the stuff that makes all of us shake our heads, but rather the process to make change and bring policies forward that address the challenges we have today in our city, our province, our country and our world. I get to chat regularly with those elected to various political offices and I have asked several of them if they have a “take a friend to work day” and if so, I’d sign up right away. I’d love to see the inner workings of the process to create ideas, debate their merits and then turn the best of them into regulation, policy and laws. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I love to debate and at times, get very carried away with passionately exploring ideas. To be clear, that is the only interest I have in politics. The other parts of politics, I could do without, but I digress.

Watching the exchange of ideas lately has me wondering how we became such an “either / or” collection of humans, incapable of listening and exploring the ideas of others. When did it become such an (a) or (b) discussion? Did I miss a memo?!? I started to think about places where the “either or” discussion has allowed us to be less accountable to each other to work together, to learn and to solve real issues or exploit real opportunities. Here’s a few on my mind:

Climate Change -Clearly, the changing nature of our planet is something we all need to address. I had a chat with a young finance executive on Friday. We had good discussion about both the opportunity for financial institutions to participate more fully in the change but also the practical economic challenges for all of us to produce less emissions. It was an interesting discussion in which I felt like my own thinking evolved a bit while at the same time, I felt like I was able to share some views in different ways which he hadn’t considered. Watching this debate around the world, it has been reduced to a discussion about whether the world would survive the with only fossil fuels or how we should completely shut down any source of energy that produces emissions.

Gender Equity – I have written previously about my personal biases towards creating more gender balance in finance and business. I shared how my personal biases have created some interesting discussions with both men and women as I have lived these choices. I have also heard comments like “burn the patriarchy” communicated by some to highlight how frustrated and angry they are about the issue. I don’t pretend for a minute to argue validity of the frustration and emotion, but I do wonder how that emotion will get translated into a better tomorrow. I spoke in the blog above about a conversation with a male colleague and my regret at the missed opportunity to enrol him as an advocate for change. I believe the eventual outcome does lie in enrolling more advocates (both women and men) into this discussion and finding a better path forward.

Racism / Black Lives Matter – I watch the media reports and see demonstrations on both sides of this issue. The demonstrations can be violent and hurtful. I am reminded of Charlottesville and feel like I am watching the ugliest part of humanity. Conversely, when I attended the large BLM rally in my community earlier this year, I was moved by the optimism and by how much the conversation had changed to a “we” discussion from an “us/them” discussion. An “and” discussion versus an “either or”. I was more optimistic leaving that event than I ever had been as it relates to BLM and BIPOC.

Why have the debates / discussions become so unproductive and how do we create a better forum for engaged discussions, learning and solutions? What has been the catalyst for taking such complex discussions and reducing them to “either or” statements meant to incite emotion? Is it just the stress of 2020? Is the now 280 characters that social media forces us to make our arguments within? Is it that our frenetic, busy lives have caused us to “fire our statement out there” and then just as quickly move on and not listen or engage with anyone else in a really curious way? The challenge with this kind of emotionally charged “zinger” is that it creates less accountability in others to listen, like really listen, to your thoughts. They are easily able to dismiss them or argue back with a similar level of emotion. We just yell at each other. In essence, aren’t we letting them off the hock for having to really think about your view, to consider it against their own perspective and then to thoughtfully engage with you.  Aren’t we just lowering the level of accountability to critically think about your view and give it the thought it deserves? Maybe you aren’t looking to debate your thoughts but then at the same time, don’t expect anyone else to do anything with it other than dismiss it completely as being different than their own.

HBR published an article a few years ago that highlighted the challenge for business leaders in managing paradoxes.  Here were a few of the questions:

  1. Are we managing for today or tomorrow?
  2. Do we adhere to boundaries or cross them?
  3. Do we focus on creating value for our shareholders and investors or for a broader set of stakeholders

Isn’t the answer to all of these clearly “both”?

The article goes on to talk about how leaders must create a dynamic equilibrium in their minds to hold multiple ideas in their head while exploring each of them. A recent book I read, Loonshots, talks about loving the artists (the innovators) and the soldiers (the current do’ers) in the company equally. The book goes on to ensure that leaders are focused on watching for the P-type loonshots (there’s no way that could ever work – and then it does) and the S-type loonshots (there’s no way that could ever make money – and then it does) even though they are probably predisposed to one kind or the other.

Could you frame those social challenges above as absolute paradoxes in the same way?

  1. Are we reducing emissions or supporting current jobs?
  2. Are we advocating for female leaders or male leaders?
  3. Are we exploring our own privilege or reducing the systemic biases apparent for others?

Clearly the answer to these questions is again…..both, and….

The next time I am engaged in a discussion with a colleague about complex problems like this, I am going to try very hard to listen well, to hold space for their idea while I consider their views and compare it to my own before responding. As a leader, I get it…..it’s hard. Like really hard. I know that better than most and have failed miserably in trying to do this well all of the time. I would rate myself as a 6 out of 10 on doing this consistently well. My coach would tell me that the goal is to try and be a 6.5 next week and go from there. All of the circumstances (lack of time, high stress, social media, etc.) are true and hard to ignore but at the same time, the solutions of the future, will demand a much more curious exploration of ideas and new solutions that we haven’t found yet today.

For the business leaders reading this blog, good luck in raising the bar, if only a little, in managing the paradox and equilibrium that next week will bring.

For those elected and re-elected to office this election season, share your ideas broadly, listen closely and fully consider the ideas of others. Do what you can to thoughtfully explore the ideas different from your own that might help move us forward and solve complex problems. We are behind you following your lead.

 

I mentor primarily female leaders. Here’s my why and my awkward moments…

I have been involved in mentoring for almost 15 years. I was inspired early in my career by all of my mentors and the impact that they had on my growth. To this day, I rely on the things I learned from them and will forever grateful for their investment in me.

One mentor in particular made me promise that when I was in a position to make a difference, that I would “pay it forward” to invest in others. So here I am, in the midst of mentoring relationships 87, 88, 89 and 90 working hard to live up to his expectations.

A few years ago, it dawned on me that this was also a great opportunity to help bring more diversity to leadership within finance and more broadly within business. I started to think about the choices I had made in terms of the mentoring relationships that I pursued. Suffice to say that for whatever reason, I had not mentored many emerging female leaders in my first 20-30 mentoring relationships and I didn’t know why.

Fast forward to today – I am pretty direct with those interested in working together that I have “a default” to supporting the growth of female leaders through mentoring. There are lots of reasons why I have decided to “put a flag in the ground” and be so open about this both within Conexus and in our community. Here are some of them:

Better Performance: The academic science is clear that businesses with more diversity (gender and otherwise) outperform. Period. I present regularly in the GBus 875 class at the University of Regina and I usually start by citing work from the likes of McKinsey and Zenger Folkman on the correlation between gender diversity and business metrics like return on equity and leadership effectiveness. My role as a business leader is to help our organization perform better. This is an easy way to make that happen.  For the record, our organization is gender balanced both at the Board and Executive levels and while we still have work to do in development programming, we are making great progress.

Systemic Leadership Development Bias: The recent #BLM discussions in our community have highlighted the systemic biases that are present as it relates to race / ethnicity. If you look close around us in business and in society, there are many. In my opinion, the same is true for leadership development. Through all of the discussion about growing the number of women executives and directors, the systemic biases have received less attention than the pure numbers of women in these roles. I propose that the development programming, having been largely constructed and approved by the male leaders that were predominantly in place for years within organizations had a bias towards programming that inherently produced more male leaders. In our organization a number of years back, we experimented with development programming built purely to support the growth of female leaders. Some of it worked well, other parts not so much. That said, it was a fascinating experiment that helped me appreciate how the men and women potentially learn and grow differently. I also learned about the ways in which organizations can support and encourage females differently from males. I recognize the risk of over-generalizing the learnings but suffice to say, there are differences. For those of us of the “XY” group that are leaders responsible for building other leaders, it is important for us to understand and appreciate the difference. How we encourage the growth and development of all leaders is based on our appreciation of the differences that exist.

Coaching & Development of Leaders Needs to be Customized: In my experience of recruiting, hiring and developing some exceptional leaders, I have been more aware of looking for the subtle differences that existing when directly coaching, leading and growing successor candidates from both genders.  These differences are now starting to show up in how we discuss succession in our organization and it has also directly led to the growth and attraction of exceptional talent.

My Family Why: I have three teenage daughters that I hope someday will grow into superb community leaders, engaged in making a difference in areas they are passionate about. They deserve the same investment, coaching, support and mentoring as others and then they should have to compete for opportunities based on their ability to add value.

My journey has also included some more challenging conversations. Here are a few samples:

I had a prominent business leader reach out to me one day and ask about my advocacy and support of women leaders. He was quite curious that I would be so open and direct about working with female leaders. He was quick to connect my work to his potential fears in the context of the #MeToo movement and how any suggestion of impropriety might destroy my career. He was VERY clear in the discussion that for him, it wasn’t worth “the risk”. I was quick to point out that I wasn’t mentoring anyone over a martini, in a dimly lit bar, at 11:00 PM. I also pointed out that my mentoring relationships with other leaders (male and female) were largely the same in terms of specific development areas and the format of the meetings (coffee shops, business offices, time of day, etc.). He was not convinced and suggested that he would not “put himself in that position”. I have thought about that call several times since then. I am discouraged by his misplaced fear and also discouraged in the loss of another potential advocate for more gender balance.

I had a graduate student from the University of Regina reach out and ask me to mentor her. I met with her a couple of times and she was quite interested in my public statements about my mentoring choices and gender balance. She asked me if I had ever mentored a woman of colour.  GULP.  I hadn’t and I readily admitted that to her. While I am proud of my mentoring work, I didn’t feel very proud then. I wondered about whether I had ever had the chance or sought to source potential opportunities from other groups less represented in leadership ranks in our community and if so, why hadn’t I pursued those with the same energy. Perhaps that will be my next foray but suffice to say it was a powerful moment for me to recognize that advocacy can’t stop with just gender. Thank you Michelle for being so direct with me.

I have had more than a few fantastic male leaders (some in my own organization today), openly challenge me on my decisions to potentially exclude them from consideration of a mentoring relationship. Again.. OUCH. For someone who prides themselves on developing others, it was hard to hear. I completely understand their emotion of experiencing bias that excludes them. I also sympathize with females who have likely felt that way much longer and in more profound ways. I also wonder about how hypocritical my position appears to be as my career would likely have been very different had I not had access to the mentors I did  (who were almost all male). However, I feel strongly about my why and will press on. I do try to help ensure they have access to a mentor that will add value for them, even if it might not be me. For me, it’s a way to appease the guilt that comes from saying no and that I have disadvantaged a certain group. It is also not lost on me the experience some female leaders have had repeatedly in their careers. While the healthy challenge likely won’t go away (and it shouldn’t) the conversations aren’t always easy.

I attend lots of events in our community that are designed to support the growth of women leaders. Organizations like WESK, RaiseHERCo, YWCA, Women’s Leadership Forums, etc. are doing great work to create places to encourage and support the development of leaders. When I attend, I am usually the only guy there or there is only a handful of others. It makes me feel a bit misplaced and there are times when it is hard to connect. I am getting more comfortable with it over time and when it feels awkward, I remind myself of how it must feel for women leaders when they are one of only a few in the room for other business functions.  I use those feelings as a way to empathize about the feelings it creates, to learn and to appreciate how that might be the same to what others in our community experience. Being the token “dude” has become a bit of a badge of honour but there are lots of times when I have had to push myself to attend as I know it might feel awkward or uncomfortable.

I am mentoring a colleague today and recently, we got into a very deep discussion about the physiology of humans and the differences between XX and XY as we age. It was a very strange but powerful conversation. Afterwards, the two of us talked about how we might share our conversation more broadly within our organization to highlight how awkward it was initially, but how interesting it was to explore and learn from each other. I admit that I never was coached on how to have a conversation about aging (with other male leaders let alone my female colleague), but it was an indication of how the world is changing and it renewed my optimism about the potential for us to better support each other as teammates as we experience life and all that it brings us. Was it awkward? You better believe it. Was I scared shitless? Yes! Did I learn? Lots. Do I better appreciate the differences and use that in my discussions today with other leaders? You betcha. Thanks Nicole for your courage in having that conversation.

This journey is far from over for me. I remain super passionate about using mentoring opportunities to advocate for and develop more female leaders. I have learned to revel in my own discomfort and to accept that it will be hard, uncertain and I won’t know all the answers. I will also continue to be motivated by “my why” and to use the chances I am afforded to make a small difference in bringing more gender diversity to business through mentoring.

Lastly, to my own mentors – Dave, Dave, Jeff, Sean, Paul, Kim, Ian, Dean, Bruce, Alisdair, Laurie and Howard – thank you for everything 😀

For those active in mentoring, does any of this resonate with you? What would you add to the discussion?