Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Boys Have It - What the Brexit debate can teach us about Boardroom success

Tory Mums Sam and Sarah at the Opening of Parliament in 2010

The forthcoming EU referendum might seem to have little to with winning influence in the Boardroom.  But this week's revelations of a spectacular catfight between two of the UK's leading political players has highlighted a key issues that holds many women back.

David Cameron was reportedly angry and hurt when his close friend and political ally Michael Gove announced he would split from the official government position to become a leading voice of the 'leave' camp. But it's not their drama that's hit the headlines - rather that featuring their wives.  Both are high profile women in their own right. At a party in February, the PM's wife Samantha Cameron and Mrs Gove exchanged four letter insults over the issue.  Mrs Gove responded later in print under her professional name Sarah Vine.   A well-known national journalist, she penned a 'more in sadness than in anger' piece putting her point of view defending her husband's decision. 

Close friends
Political arguments aren't unusual. What makes the Cam/Vine spat  noteworthy is that the two families - and the two women - have been close friends for many years.  They've shared holidays and were neighbours in West London before the Cameron's moved to Downing Street. Both their daughters attend the same London school and Ms Vine is the godmother of one of the Cameron's daughters. Since the incident in February there has apparently been no contact between them.
You might expect the two men to be distant.  But they seem to have put the issue to one side and continued their ongoing friendship. Infact in the last couple of weeks Gove supporting Cameron unequivocally over the Cameron family taxation row thrown up by the Panama Papers.
Video: Michael Gove - Criticisms of David Cameron are politically motivated -

Why such different reactions? The media seem amazed that the women are taking this so seriously.  I'm not remotely surprised.  It's one of the key differences between men and women and one that I think really advantages men in their career progression.

Emma Gleadhill
These differences between the sexes seem to start early. Helen Rumbelow explored this in an excellent article in this week's Times. It featured an interview with Emma Gleadhill who teaches and speaks about adolescent mental health issues.  Her lectures and courses are informed by her background - most recently spending six years as the deputy head of Godolphin and Latymer - a leading London girls'
school. Rumbelow quotes Gleadhill in the article: 

"Whether “it’s nature or nurture” is up in the air, but girls do arrive at adolescence ready to make their friendships the heart and soul of their life. “All teenagers are heavily invested in fitting in with their peer group...this occurs as they transfer some of the intense childhood bond with their parents to their friends. However, boys typically arrange their friendships around a “third element” such as sport or music. Girls have shared interests too, but the friendship is the “currency”.
 “So trading secrets about who you think is not very nice, analysing other people’s behaviour, will be part of the way in which girls bond. It is very interesting the way people focus on girls as bitches. Boys are equally capable of having competitive rivalries, nastinesses and put-downs, but in terms of their intense relationships there is also that third element, which takes the heat out of that personal connection.”

High stakes
Betrayal of trust is a make or break issue for both sexes.  But for men, that trust typically isn't tied up in issues.  They naturally separate the act from the actor. They can fight and argue and utterly fail to reach consensus.  And then go happily to the pub and have a great evening.  It never ocurs to them that disagreements might threaten their relationship.  It can actually be bonding.  But women often  find it extremely difficult to separate the issues from the individuals that hold them. They vest much of their social currency directly in their group of friends.  Belonging is everything. Nothing must threaten that and this leads to conformity and agreement to maintain this.  Suppressing disagreement can easily become a habit.

I recognize this.  I think it started around the time  I moved to secondary school aged 12. I went to an all-girls boarding school and my friendship group immediately became a replacement for my family.
But even girls in mixed-sex schools living at home tend to do this by their mid-teens. As we leave education and start our adult lives most of us deepen these relationships further and so reinforce this behaviour learned in childhood. Once we hit the workplace this ingrained desire to maintain the harmony that comes from a tightly knit group takes over.  It manifests as avoidance of conflict and confrontation.  But sometimes issues need to be surfaced and avoiding them can lead to deeply suppressed anger which holds us back. I can often hear the voice in my head saying "this issue just isn't getting resolved.  I should say something".  Then my 'teenage girl' voice says "if you confront this you will be seen as negative and aggressive".  It's a daily tension for most women and not just at work.  But if you want to progress your career into senior management you have to find ways to let that inner voice out on issues that matter to the organisation.  If you consistently suppress it, you won't be seen as a future leader.

Maybe this is one of those things - like childbirth - which is just hardwired into the X and Y chromosomes.  But I think we can overcome nature by nurturing new skills.

Ask open questions
Something that works well for both sexes is asking open questions. If you find yourself  in a meeting feeling that familiar sense of frustration that comes with feeling that no one is addressing the underlying problem at hand, don't seeth silently.  Try asking the project leader questions like "what are you most confident about with this project and what most worries you? When they tell you what worries them, ask them a supplementary question like "how do you think we should tackle that issue? What do you need from me/us to help you to mitigate that risk? And then follow up with a question about expectations and results " how do you think we should measure the work? "

All these questions need to start with words like "How" or "Why do think" .. or "What if?" It doesn't matter whether you are the boss, peer or subordinate in this discussion.  Well-phrased and crucially open questions encourage honest non judgemental discussion about solving problems. They help to prevent confrontational behaviour by separating the action from the actor. And they have the additional benefit of airing key issues collaboratively that are holding up progress and helping  to move things forward. 

So next time you hear that teenage girl's voice in your head - ignore it. And feel the satisfaction of seeing problems start to get resolved.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

"With my independence I thee wed"

The Queen's grand-daughter, Zara Phillips, has announced that she is finally becoming Mrs Mike Tindall.  After five years of marriage and one child, she has decided to leave her royal nomenclature behind.  Given that she is a successful women in her own right, it is particularly surprising news.  Her reasons aren't known, but it's an interesting decision and one that bucks the trend.
The numbers of brides keeping their maiden name is rising dramatically. According to research done by Facebook of their UK users, nearly 90% of the over sixties changed their name but that drops to only 62% in brides in their twenties. Perhaps this is not just a feminist act, but also a reflection of how much we now use our names as our personal brands as we increasingly curate and share our lives online. We've become masters of telling our own stories - with ourselves at the centre.  For those of us who changed names before Facebook came along - no problem.  But many of us use our names as our tags online, so if we've established a strong social presence with one name, the price of giving that up and confusing or losing your followers might be unacceptably high. 
When I tied the knot in 1990 the trend for keeping your own name was just gaining momentum.  When I told my then boss that I had got engaged, he asked me if I was planning to change my name.  I told him I was. Although I hadn't gone as far as practising my new signature, it had never seriously occurred to me not to change my name.  As luck would have it, my passport was due to run out just before our planned honeymoon so it seemed as though the fates were conspiring to encourage me to head into married life with a shiny new name to match my new passport. Keeping one name for work and another for everything else seemed complicated and likely to cause major confusion.  Horrified, he said I was betraying the sisterhood and giving up my hard won independence.   I was taken aback but went ahead and changed my name anyway.  Today I might have double -barrelled - Greenway-Costerton/Costerton-Greenway? Or even meshed - Costerway? Greenton? Is that really any less complicated?
Perhaps it just depend how silly it sounds.  Shawn Knowles-Carter (Mr Beyonce) sounds pretty good.  But although I love both Chris O' Dowd and Dawn Porter, I still haven't got used to Dawn O Porter.

Friday, 19 February 2016

White House Women - can the Presidential Election provide a spotlight for change?

As the US Presidential primaries get underway, much of the discussion has been about  the Trump phenomenon - and whether Bernie Sanders can 'do an Obama' and steal a march on Democrat front-runner Hilary Clinton.

There's been far less discussion of the historic opportunity of the first woman in the White House and the momentum it could provide to deliver real progress on gender equality in the US.  I hope that's about to change.

I can't think of a better platform to discuss the real issues that face women aspiring to leadership positions in society.

It's not just Hillary herself who raises interesting issues of female leadership and influence.  Many may not realise that the vice-chair of her campaign  is also a woman who is the topic of debate in her own right.

Huma Abedin has worked for Hillary for twenty years - since she was a 19 year old college student. Like her boss she has had to endure being publicly let down by her high profile political husband - in her case former congressman and failed New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. In common with many women she is now the major bread winner and she now has to provide for her - probably unemployable - husband - and their son.  Her solution is to 'lean in' and allow the world to see her life play out.  It's a risky gamble, but as Hillary discovered, there are votes in standing by your man.

Film Shows Clinton Aide's Own Struggle With Anthony Weiner Scandal

Hillary has demonstrated calm leadership in the face of bitter criticism - and not just of her husband's judgement.  Time and time again she has been pilloried for her choice of clothes, her hair, her 'blue- stockinged' attitude, her money and her choices of friends. But she has mastered the art of gliding through it all with grace and dignity.

There was an interesting piece in this week's FT looking at how she handled defeat in new Hampshire.  She was not expected to lose - and certainly not by such a large margin. A less experienced leader might have shown surprise, sadness or regret.  But Hillary knows better.

 How Hillary Clinton crafted a kind of victory out of defeat -

I've always thought she gives off an old school feminist vibe. I'd like to see her champion women in her campaign. But it needs to feel fresh and relevant. Humour has worked well for her. I loved the 'texting' campaign as did many people and it made me see her in a different light.  Less the slightly earnest survivor - more the pithy modern female leader.  It started in 2012 but has kept on going - recently even featuring Abedin's unfortunate spouse.

Hillary of course already knows the gritty reality.  She needs plenty of strong support to win the nomination and avoid a last minute inside dash from Bernie Sanders.  She needs to play to her advantages as much as she can. 

Sarah Palin  Getty Images
Over with the Republicans, I'd largely forgotten about Sarah Palin - the professional 'hockey mom'. But she's back looking like she'd never been away.  This time she's trying to persuade us to put Donald Trump in the oval office. Her fashion choices have always attracted criticism and that continues.  One British fashion journalist rather unkindly described the leather jacket she was wearing on the stump as 'looking like she'd climbed inside her handbag'.   She attracts plenty of attention for her controversial views as well her eccentric style. I wish she'd killed Trump's campaign stone dead by turning up to cheer-lead for him. But I fear that those voters who find Trump's proposition appealing are likely to warm to her nationlistic, family-first jargon.

Better advice for women in powerful jobs comes from another US political leader - this time a fictional one, VEEP Selena Mayer. Played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the character finally becomes president in Series 4. VEEP has been described by Washington insiders as a very realistic picture of life in the top job. It comes from the same writing stable as The Thick of It which satirised the Blair years in Downing Street.  The writers created the term 'omnishambles' for the show - which became so popular with political types that it entered the Oxford Dictionary in 2012.   Selena has to juggle constant firefighting, a complete loss of personal space and having to rise above a group of argumentative, point-scoring, almost exclusively male advisers to get anything sensible done. Ring any bells?

What can we take from this Presidential show as it plays out that  through the Spring and Summer?

If you're a women leader, your fashion choices are going to be scrutinized - and criticised by all and sundry.  It's unfair and irrelevant but it will happen anyway. You need a very clear narrative.  It needs to speak directly and powerfully to women as well as men - right across the age ranges if you're going to win.

And finally you need self belief, tenacity and and incredibly thick skin.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Why Aren't There More Females CEOs in PR?

How encouraging that Aarti Shah's piece "Why Aren't There More Female CEOs In PR?" was the most popular long read on the Holmes Report in 2015. It's a great article and I hope its popularity is also a sign that this issue is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Why Aren't There More Female CEOs In PR?

Despite the high-profile gains for women in management positions across the PR industry, only 30% of global firms are run by women, according to last year's World PR Report, the definitive global study of PR industry size and trends.

The UK's new shared parental leave rules introduced in April 2015 were a big step forward. This followed the success of the model in Scandinavia.  It took a while to get started.  Even in Sweden, Dad's took time to adjust to the idea. But after four years, close to 90% of Swedish fathers were taking an average of seven weeks paternity leave. Anecdotal evidence suggests that UK PR firms are welcoming the change. Let's hope it will become the norm in due course.

But many of the world's largest agencies are headquartered in the US, and so must battle against the notoriously stingy US maternity leave rules.  I applaud H&K Strategies US move last year to lead the drive to decent maternity leaves.  My ex-colleague Mike Coates is their US CEO.  I've long known him as an early adopter of creative talent policies. You can read more here in his blog.

How the UK's new rules on parental leave work - BBC News

New rights allowing UK parents to share leave following the birth or adoption of their child have come into effect. Up to 50 weeks of leave - 37 weeks of which is paid - can be shared by parents if they meet certain eligibility criteria.

Aarti's comprehensive article is a good primer.  She looks beyond maternity leave topics to behaviour and unconscious bias. She talks in particular about the need to shift focus to improve gender balance in agency leadership teams.  Weber lead the pack with women taking two thirds of their leadership team seats. It's so important to get women 'in the room - making decisions' as Edelman's Gail Becker says in the article. This is key to encouraging those women to want the top job.  If they're kept outside, they are far less likely to stick around.  I agree with Tim Dyson whom she quotes saying;
“The glass ceiling doesn’t exist at the CEO level — it’s below that. There is an industry-wide issue of great talent not being recognized and that tends to happen around the VP-level. Women will notice it’s an all boys network at the top or there is a feeling they can’t control the work-life balance so often they will start their own agencies.”
Thank you Aarti for giving us all so much to think about.  I hope we see more on this topic - with more women making it to the top table - in 2016.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Smart, stylish and affordable - celebrate the new working year with a classic hat

The last of my family has been packed off back to their homes armed with left overs and new Christmas sweaters.  The dishwasher labours yet again through the last of the family holiday meals.  My thoughts are starting to turn to to the return to work.  Every year I soften the blow by browsing the sales.  Fashion columnists are all telling me to  'invest in a classic coat', but there's only one thing I'm searching for before the new work 'term' kicks off in earnest. And that's a great new hat.

I became a convert to hats a few years ago.  At the airport heading to Moscow in snowy November, I  realised  I had nothing to keep my head warm on arrival.  A Muscovite fur felt too Dr Zhivago, so I invested in a practical  plain cream beret.   I was completely converted to the idea of keeping warm, looking smart and and protecting my hair from a light drizzle or stiff breeze.

Of course this is not a new discovery.  Hats were de rigeur until about thirty years ago.  Who could imagine Jackie O without the trademark pillbox? But sometime in the mid 1970s they fell out of fashion.  The only headgear featuring in my childhood was my mother's Mrs T-style  headscarf worn  to protect a blow dry after the weekly trip to the salon.

I soon branched out to a fedora which had the same effect as sunglasses.  Almost everything looks better with it and you look instantly pulled together.  For a couple of years I admit to being something of an oddity.  But to my delight, over the past couple of years, hats have undergone a major resurgence.

Hats for all ages
I put this down to a mixture of  the popularity of Scandi-noir driven 'cosy chic' and  the Vintage trend.  Kate Moss has certainly been an influence.  Who doesn't envy her effortless rock chick look?

Whatever the cause, hats are back for women - and men - of all ages. After much experimentation I've settled on two styles for work.  Firstly - that beret.  Available in lots of colours to match different outfits, they are particularly good on windy days and are small enough to fit in your handbag.

Secondly a fedora (Mossy's favourite) - or it's smaller cousin the trilby. The primary difference here is the size of the brim and the height of the crown.  Try several variations to find the combination that suits your face shape and hair. There are huge amounts of different colours and types in the High Street and they won't cost a fortune. These won't fit in your bag and, like umbrellas, you need to remember to pick them up in restaurants.  But they win hands down in the impact stakes.

Happy hunting.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Was Life Really Better in the 1970s? The good, bad and downright ugly
Every day we read that our children will be the first generation to be less successful than their parents.  We're told hard work and  good qualifications  won't be enough to secure them good jobs  and a roof over their heads anywhere within commuting distance of London.

1970s food groups
Their conclusion? Life was better in the 1970s and we won't see its like again.  I wish someone had told us that at the time.  Born in the mid-sixties I spent much of the '70s thinking- is this it?   My parents had missed the note telling them to entertain my brother and I.  The internet was still twenty years away.  We had three television channels. Choice was so limited that there was a non-ironic kids show called "Why don't you switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead?". For any of you unlucky enough to have missed this cultural wonder, here's a clip. Most days my mother told us to go and  'play in the garden'.  If we grumbled, she explained the boredom would encourage our creativity.  Something had to.

The Clangers
There were rays of light such as the gentle world of The Clangers.  Inspired by the moon landing, the series kicked off in 1969 and became a favourite. It was my tea time treat - watched with a jammy dodger.

Last week I was catching up with a school friend.  We were reflecting on how these childhood influences have affected us. After a successful career and with two children growing up, she's just taken three science A levels.  Impressive. And particularly because our friendship was  forged in the bottom O level maths stream.  We were both so bad at maths that when I scraped through my exam my parents were delirious. We were also banished from the lab where our peers were studying chemistry and physics. Aged 13 science became a strange land.
So I have spent the past 30 years believing I was just useless at maths and science. Somehow I've run multi-million pound budgets and my eldest child is an accomplished scientist with a Masters in Engineering.  I put this down to luck and my husband's C-grade in A level maths.

So how on earth did my friend manage to pull off this amazing academic coup? Simple she told me.  We were taught badly. This time she benefited from a supportive group of mature students battling to beat their childhood hang-ups. She experienced modern teaching methods - and she blossomed.  Now she's pursuing a new career.

But school did have a big upside.  We were taught to believe we should go out into the world and build careers.  That nothing should stop us (apart presumably from good science qualifications).  And I took that idea and ran with it.

And just as I don't think the 1970s were the perfect past everyone wants us to believe, I don't believe the future is bleak for our children either. For one thing, the Clangers have been brought back after 45 years by the wonderful Michael Palin.  For those of you who remember the adventures of tiny clanger and the soup dragon - you'll love this.

We were encouraged to build careers but had so few options to choose from.  Medicine was out due to my appalling science record and that left lawyer,  journalist or teacher.  Or PR as I later discovered.

But all that has changed. The  concept of today's youngsters as a 'lost generation' is a myth. They will be able to build their own careers in a way that would have been unthinkable for us.  The most valuable growth jobs tomorrow are jobs most of us haven't heard of yet.  And if they want to feel superior, they can even raid the You Tube archives for 70s television clips.  And send a prayer to the inventors of the internet.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Hot Feminist - Why George is our new role model

How great is this? Clooney thrilled to be marrying Alpha Amal
He's spent the last twenty years being praised for being the world's ultimate Alpha Male, so it's good to see George Clooney emerging as strong voice for women in the driving seat. Clearly thrilled to be  married to Alpha Amal, he is happy to tell anyone who will listen how much he admires her work and how she is far more intelligent than him.  Earlier this year he was even interviewed on Women's Hour.  In a cosy interview with Jenny Murray,  he sounded as one with the sisterhood as he explained how his production company, Smokehouse Pictures,  is run by 'smart, strong women'. He's supportive of raising awareness of the gender pay gap - citing revelations about pay disparity in Hollywood as 'the only good thing that came of the Sony leak'.

Ageing naturally?
Further evidence of George's commitment to gender equality were his comments in the interview about the ageing process. He predictably denied any unnatural interventions saying that surgery actually made men look older and advocating an accepting approach to ageing.  Very convenient if you happen to be one of the world's most attractive men for whom grey hair is actually enhancing, but terrifying for most of us for whom the thought of facing the world with grey hair, VPLs and unwaxed legs is right up there with dreaming you're giving a speech naked.

It's very hard to feel like you can take on the boardroom boys club if you're not feeling confident in the way you look.   Self-confidence is a huge part of success.  And I'm certainly muddled about whether my urge to avoid the seven signs of ageing (really - only seven??) is fatally at odds with my equally strong desire to see women treated equally.

Since the seventies we've been presented with the idea that we can't be supportive of gender equality and looking good at the same time.  Most of us associate feminism with role models like Germaine Greer and Erica Jong.  Interviewed recently for the launch of her new book 'Fear of Dying', Jong was angry about the progress on gender equality since her classic 'Fear of Flying' was published over forty years ago.  She described it as a constant battle saying "we have made a third of a revolution, a half of a revolution. I really believe feminism is like democracy -- when you stop fighting for it, it slips away".
Greer still fighting.. Huffingtonpost

Greer is also keeping herself angry - swearing liberally several times in a particularly punchy
interview with Kirsty Wark on last week's Newsnight about why Greer has been de-listed by her old Cambridge college because they don't like her controversial views on transgender politics. 

At least you know where you are with these two.  You can rely on them to celebrate the traditional feminist values of anger, a casual attitude to underwear and a general air that women who celebrate their femininity are letting down the sisterhood.

We owe them a huge debt.  Their hardcore attitudes raised awareness of women's inequality and provided the foundation for the widespread acceptance that women should be entitled to the same rights and rewards as men.  I'm a strong supporter of their legacy but truth be told I've never been very comfortable with the anger. Amazingly, even high achiever Amal was subjected to criticism by the feminist lobby - for changing her name to Clooney. Like many women, I'd like to support the ideas but dial back the anger and make the best of myself without feeling guilty.

Wife of Bath for the 21st Century 

Polly Vernon - a 21st Century Wife of Bath?   EveningStandard

Searching for a middle ground, journalist Polly Vernon's recent book with the great title 'Hot Feminist' - caught my eye. Central to her  argument is that you can be a feminist and be interested in clothes and make up.  It was destroyed in the Guardian - in a lengthy and brutal review Helen Lewis said "What you cannot do is rewrite feminism into a sloppy self-help movement whose main aim is to make you feel better about your thighs". Louise Carpenter in the Telegraph was kinder, describing Vernon as the 'wife of Bath for the 21st Century', concluding that Vernon loves women and is rooting for them - citing Madeline Albright's famous comment that 'there is a special place in Hell for women that don't help other women'.

Judging by Amal's emergence as a fashion icon I doubt she suffers from wardrobe nightmares or sports a drawerful of Spanx.  But for those of us dealing with the day-to-day realities of succeeding in a male dominated workplace  anything that makes us feel better about wobbly thighs gets my vote.  It's a a stretch to celebrate cellulite as a feminist act and I'm happy to leave most of the anger to others.  Instead we can be thankful to our mothers for burning their bras and relieved that we don't have to - celebrating instead that the finest minds in the fashion industry have turned their attention to jeans with artfully placed pockets and clever dyes that make us look pounds lighter delivering a great confidence boost at the same time.