Out of touch ‘old school’ leadership

Last week saw a few milestones at of one of the world’s leading professional services firms. Firstly, a Chairman resigned after allegedly showing lack of empathy to COVID working conditions and referring to unconscious bias as “complete and utter crap”. He joins the Chairman of the FA as another leader who’s toxic masculinity is out of touch with contemporary organisational values and behaviour. See last month’s blog on good corporate governance for more on Greg Clark and the lessons learnt. 

Women in Leadership – breaking the diversity Glass ceiling

The second, more significant milestone than another middle-aged executive leaving after expressing unacceptable views. Is the appointment of two female partners to the senior leadership positions of Chairperson and Senior Partner. This breaks a diversity glass ceiling that has existed at the professional services firm for 150 years. 

Although an election by partners for permanent Chairperson may see this change. This double appointment is a powerful signal of intent to the firms 200,000 employees worldwide. Not to mention its clients and the community. It signals a realignment around the firms Core Values and a public statement of a step change in leadership style.

What went wrong, and why is this story so familiar?

The alpha male oversteps the mark either in word or deed. Reputational damage ensues, the media investigates, and insiders or former employees express that they saw it coming or felt powerless to speak or act, an oh so familiar story.

Thus, in celebrating this step forward for diversity, and we should, there is a slight feeling of disappointment. Similar to receiving a glass of warm prosecco. 

For this story looks so predictable. A Chairman described by colleagues to the media as “very tough”, “old school” and “very direct”, crosses a behavioural line in pursuit of performance. Déjà vu. Is it really 2021?

We would like to devote the balance of this blog to celebrating this break-through in diversity. However, there is perhaps as much to be learnt from the circumstances that lead to the appointment of these women. So, let’s focus upon that and perhaps speculate of the cause.

A case of a toxic masculinity culture or simply outlying behaviour by a single individual? 

Even if it was the latter, as a Chairperson or CEO the individual has a powerful influence in setting measures and standards in behaviour and attitude. When associated with phrases like “old school” and “direct” these may have associated negative consequences and may feel threatening. It’s often a fine line in management between being fair yet demanding, unfair and coercive. Leaving employees feeling unwilling or unable to speak up for fear of negative consequence. Any single instance of discrimination, harassment or bullying is bad in itself.  However, it has added significance if this is the manifestation of behavioural norms stemming from a toxic culture. 

According to many sources including the HBC there can be an association between an overly masculine culture and success. Big Tech has seen many examples of toxic masculinity, with resultant damage to individuals and ultimately organisational reputation. Is this due to a lack of diversity within the Tech industry or is the lack of diversity due to the prevailing culture of the industry? The culture needs women to help it evolve but it doesn’t attract them because of the existing culture. An unvirtuous circle. 

Why does toxic masculinity persist?

The term toxic masculinity denotes how certain masculine traits cause harm to men themselves and are also harmful to women as well as organisations. This can be typified by a win at all costs, dog eat dog style contest culture which, if left ungoverned perpetuates. This masculine contest culture is the organisational equivalent of playground football; no rules, no referee, just the score-line that matters.

Participants conflate toxic masculinity with success and behave as gaming addicts, compelling them to continue despite the dysfunctional behaviour it produces in the workplace. An unwillingness to step back for fear of being marked as a loser prevents them from challenging the behaviour even if they know it is wrong. To break this cycle requires an organisation committed to deep rooted cultural change over a sustained period. Failing that a public enquiry, media scandal or criminal investigation is the catalyst. Think GMB union, Ted Baker…

Diversity and inclusion

Put simply the most effective way of preventing a toxic masculinity fuelled corporate catastrophe is to increase focus upon common organisational purpose. The pursuit of which brings everyone together encouraging diversity and inclusion through the attainment of shared goals and core values which determine behaviour. The focus upon everyone is a powerful change agent, provided.

  1. Everyone is encouraged to express themselves, in person or anonymously to facilitate two way communications and enable the organisation to truly understand employee sentiment. Whether it is what they want to hear, or not, they must listen.
  2. Organisations accept that “speaking up” is hard for people so no feedback or complaint is not tacit acceptance of the popularity of toxic masculinity. Good corporate governance requires
    • – Systems to make it easier to speak up and
    • Leaders who publicity challenge exhibitions of toxic masculinity empowering others to voice their previously secret dissent.

Learning from hindsight

Individuals who tend towards toxic masculinity operate close to the line between acceptable and non-acceptable organisational behaviour. Evidence suggests they cannot police themselves. Relying on them to do so is at best naive and at worse, a failure of corporate governance. Eventually resets come and with them hindsight. People wish they had spoken up and organisations tend to invest in:

  • Corporate governance 
  • A speaking up platform
  • Values based leadership development

Today, one of the world’s leading professional services firms is lead by women. It is a cause for celebration. It has moved the dial, increased representation and sent a powerful signal to all those striving for meritocracy.

According to data from IG only 5% of FTSE100 company CEO’s are women and the figure is lower for FTSE 250’s.  If we take into account wider female leadership, in 2019, 23% of executive committee members in the FTSE 100 were women, and the combined number of women in executive and senior positions reached 28.6%. At current rates of change it will take 80 years to achieve parity. 

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