Why we should all be feminists

It’s official.

Men are, on average, more systems-oriented than women.

Women, on average, have higher empathy levels than men.

These were the not-very-startling conclusions to emerge, last week, from a Cambridge University report into gender differences, based on a study of over 700,000 people.

The report’s author, Simon Baron-Cohen, is a professor of developmental psychopathology and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

He is also, more intriguingly, the cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose best-known creation, Borat, was funny because of his unreconstructed attitudes to gender, race and sexual orientation.

In Borat’s world view, a woman was for cooking and children and ‘sexy time’ –  and quite specifically not for any position of responsibility, such as presenting a television programme or running a corporation.

The odd thing is that, if you peek inside the boardroom of almost any FTSE 100 business today, you might be forgiven for thinking Borat’s world view isn’t quite so comical after all.

Of the hundred Chief Executives in those companies, only six are women.

Yet, when you look at the trajectory of the businesses, most of them are having to adapt their model rapidly, to survive in a world where customer experience and reputation are becoming the only measures that count.

It’s a world where empathy is an increasingly important skill. Where humanity trumps efficiency. And where agility trumps process.

And yet it’s also a world where the people setting the cultural agenda are men.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to suggest the only way to make a process-driven business more human is to hire a female chief executive. It’s obviously not that binary. There are plenty of male executives whose empathy levels are well above average (and plenty of female executives who are more at home with a spreadsheet than a friendly chat).

I’m also aware that this may sound like virtue-signalling from a middle-aged white man.

So let me get to the point.

The pace of technological change is getting faster and faster. The life-span of businesses is getting shorter and shorter. Customer relationships are getting more and more important. The only way to succeed in the long-term is to have a business that connects with people in a meaningful way. The only way to do that is by building a culture based on empathy. And women are, on average, more empathetic than men.

So you don’t need to be a feminist to think there should be more women setting the agenda at our biggest companies.

You just need to do the maths.

 

If it ain’t broke…

Douglas Haig was the Commander of the British troops on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918.

He was also a cavalry officer. So he knew the quickest way to win a battle was with a decisive thrust by mounted troops, who could move fast, get in behind the enemy and capture ground quickly for the infantry to consolidate.

That was the prevailing military orthodoxy. That’s what he’d been taught at Sandhurst. That was the way battles had been fought and won for the last 300 years.

So, when military designers approached him in 1915 with a prototype for a ‘land ship’ – an armoured vehicle with caterpillar tracks and guns – he couldn’t see the point. The new weapon was mechanically unreliable, difficult to manoeuvre and nowhere near as fast as a galloping horse.

But, as the war on the Western front continued to be a bloody stalemate, Haig was frustrated. He needed to find a way of breaking through the well-entrenched German lines, so he could deploy his cavalry and win the battle.

So he contacted the designers and told them to send everything they had – at the time, around 50 vehicles (which, by now, were being referred to as ‘tanks’, in a bid to persuade enemy spies they were just for transporting water).

By the time they got to the front, only 32 of the 50 tanks were still working, but Haig threw them straight into battle. It was a qualified success – only nine made it as far as the German trenches. But they did some damage, so he persevered.

Over the next two years, the technology improved. The tanks got quicker and more manoeuvrable. By 1918, they were an established weapon: over 500 of them took part in the decisive battles of the hundred-day offensive that eventually broke the German lines and ended the war.

What’s interesting is the conclusion both sides drew about the tank as a weapon after the war ended.

The British still saw it as a tactical solution to a specific problem (breaking through a defensive line).

Whereas the Germans, having experienced tanks from the sharp end, realised they were a devastating new way of fighting wars – and re-designed their whole military strategy around them.

22 years later, their Panzers came back to Northern France and ran straight through the French and British armies, who didn’t know what hit them.

You see the same thing in business all the time.

Some companies embrace innovation as a way to completely transform the way they work and the experience they offer their customers.

And some see it as a way to keep doing the same things that worked last time, only a bit quicker and cheaper.

Like the British army in 1939, they’re still fighting the last war.

 

What’s that ticking noise…?

In 1958, the average lifespan of a business in the American S&P500 index was 61 years. Today, it’s 18 years. By 2028, it will be nearer 11.

In fact, according to a study by the Yale School of Management, it’s likely that around three-quarters of the companies in the S&P500 today will have disappeared from it altogether in ten years’ time.

No wonder CEOs are jumpy.

They know that, if they don’t keep reinventing their business, it won’t be one of the 25% that survives beyond the ten-year mark.

But they also know that, if they don’t hit their short-term targets, they probably won’t be around long enough to make the changes anyway.

With operating costs already cut to the bone, those targets are getting harder and harder to hit, which means there’s very little margin for error.

And that’s precisely where the problem comes.

When you’re looking for creative ways to reinvent your business, the surest path to failure is to play it safe. A little bit of incremental change here, an extra blade on your safety razor there. These are not the things that will save your business when a disruptive new competitor rips up the rule book and starts eating your lunch.

But, when your primary business focus is on delivering short-term results, you’re unlikely to have a culture where people embrace risk and failure.

It’s far more likely to be a culture where people stick rigidly to the processes and ideas that worked last time. A high-compliance culture, where contribution is measured only in numbers. And where nobody wants to admit that something hasn’t worked.

That’s not an environment where new ideas are likely to flourish. And, unless you can do something to change it, your business will inevitably suffocate and die – sooner rather than later, according to the Yale study.

So, what can you do? How do you take a workforce of people conditioned to be compliant process-followers and turn them into agile entrepreneurs?

Well, the bad news is that there’s no process for it. There’s no template to follow. No lever to pull.

The only way to do it is by changing the culture of your business. And the only way to do that is if you – and every other leader in the business – really wants to.

Everything else – launching a new purpose and values, polishing your employee value proposition, setting up a ‘creativity lab’ – is just a more or less interesting way of avoiding the issue.

You hear that ticking noise?

That’s time running out.

Beware of spurious correlations

Human beings are wired to look for ‘meaning’, which makes us eager to spot connections that sometimes simply aren’t there. That’s never been truer than in today’s era of ‘big data’.

Tyler Vigen is a criminology student at Harvard who set up his own website to highlight how easy it can be to draw ludicrous conclusions from data because of the way we’re taught to look for patterns.

Vigen has loaded up a number of different sets of random data on his site and then cross-related them to identify apparent (but clearly nonsensical) statistical similarities. For example, as you can see above, there seems to be a clear link between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the US.

Similarly, you might say there was a link between the per capita consumption of cheese and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets:

chart (1)

Clearly, there isn’t really a link in either case. But it’s easy to imagine that people might accept there was – and unnerving to realise how readily we accept this kind of correlation when presented to justify a medical or scientific or commercial conclusion.

Vigen calls them ‘spurious correlations’. You can find many more examples (and even create your own) by visiting www.tylervigen.com. It’s quite amusing.

Alternatively, you could look a little harder at some of the ‘facts’ that get used in presentations around your own business and see how many of them actually stand up to robust statistical scrutiny.

Not so amusing, but potentially more revealing.

 

When engagement isn’t engaging

‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure’.

That’s Goodhart’s law (named after the economist Charles Goodhart, who first articulated it to explain why private enterprise principles introduced by the Thatcher government hadn’t worked very well).

I thought about it this morning, when I was going through my emails and found one inviting me to ‘The Engaging Employees Conference’ in London.

Of the 32 scheduled speakers, the one that most caught my eye was the HR Director of Wonga, a business that collapsed five weeks ago and is currently being wound down by the administrators.

Since the sub-title of the conference is ‘Optimising Performance’, having a speaker from a failed business is probably inconvenient for the organisers. But it’s also a timely reminder for delegates of what they should really be focused on.

The fetish for measuring employee engagement has been steadily gaining ground since Gallup first pioneered it in the 1990s, with their Q12 Survey. This invited employees to answer (anonymously) twelve different questions about their experience of work. ‘Do you understand what the business is trying to achieve?’; ‘Do you understand what’s expected of you?’; ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’ and so on.

The idea is that, if you keep asking the same questions every six months, the movement in the scores will tell you which bits you’re getting right, which bits you need to focus on and, ultimately, how engaged your employees are.

According to Gallup, businesses with high Q12 scores demonstrate significantly better performance: lower turnover of staff, higher sales growth, greater productivity, better customer satisfaction scores. Which is why nearly every large organisation nowadays carries out some kind of engagement survey.

The problem, as Wonga and others have found, is that improving your engagement score does not necessarily lead to improved performance.

It’s a perfect example of Goodhart’s law in operation.

An engagement survey is useful if it helps you build a true picture of the experience your employees have at work. As soon as you turn it into a target, you’re blurring that picture and encouraging managers to ‘game’ the numbers so that their score always shows improvement, even though the underlying experience may not. It’s the tail wagging the dog.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m 100% in favour of engaging employees.

I just think the best way to do it is by focusing on the things that will improve their experience of working in your organisation.

Not asking them the same questions over and over again – and then fiddling the numbers to tell a story they don’t recognise.

We’re all in this together (yeah, right)

It’s a funny word, collaboration.

Seventy years ago, it was the worst kind of insult. It meant you’d betrayed your country and helped the enemy. If you were identified as a collaborator in post-liberation Paris in 1945, you’d be marched through the street with your head shaved, so your neighbours could jeer at you and throw rotten fruit.

But times have changed and the word has recovered a more positive meaning. Politicians now speak proudly of ‘cross-party collaboration’, fading music stars ‘collaborate’ with edgy hip-hop producers – and big companies want to unlock a brave new world of creativity by ‘making it easy for our people to collaborate and share ideas’.

The trouble is: why would you want to?

I mean, it’s easy to see what’s in it for the company. They want their employees to be more ‘open’ and ‘giving’, to embrace the hackathon culture of hip Silicon Valley tech companies; to tap into a sparkling well of innovation and value.

But it’s a lot less easy to see what’s in it for everyone else. Employees who do collaborate often find it doesn’t benefit them – quite the reverse, in fact. They see their ideas co-opted by others and used as a stepping stone to promotions and rewards that pass them by. So why bother?

The problem is that we want collaboration, but we encourage competitiveness.

We want people to work as a team, but we reward individuals.

In its most recent annual survey, the High Pay Centre noted that, between 2016 and 2017, the average annual pay of a FTSE 100 boss rose by 11% to £3.93m. That’s roughly 145 times more than their average employee earns.

Now, as it happens, I know a few FTSE 100 bosses – and they are (mostly) smart and charismatic and capable people. Not the uncaring, out-of-touch corporate fat cats lampooned in the tabloid press.

But the point I always try to make to them is that, if you really want people to collaborate, engage and share their best ideas, you need to create an environment where they feel comfortable and appreciated for doing it.

Because, if you don’t, it won’t be long till collaboration is a dirty word again.

I wouldn’t start from here

There’s an old Irish joke about a city boy from Dublin, who comes out to the country for his cousin’s wedding.

He can’t remember the way, so he stops to ask a farmer for directions. The farmer looks at him, scratches his head, thinks for a moment, frowns and says:

‘You know, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’

I feel a bit like that when I’m talking to clients and they ask me (always with the same slightly embarrassed tone) how to make their SharePoint pages more engaging.

Let’s face it, if you were setting up your internal channels from scratch, how many of us would choose SharePoint as the hub? It’s an archive system, originally designed for document retrieval. Which is fine, if you want people to use it like a reference library – but not much use if you want to get them engaged with what’s going on in your organisation.

Not surprisingly, every single comms person I know agrees that SharePoint is, at best, a mediocre solution to their communication needs.

And yet, nearly all of them work for organisations that insist they use it, because ‘it’s the industry standard’. It comes as part of Office 365, it’s easy and cost-effective, the IT people are comfortable with it, it’s a done deal.

So the comms people accept it as a regrettable fact of corporate life. And, every now and then, they give us a call to see if we can wave a magic wand and make people interested in using it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have the work.

But imagine if that happened in your marketing department: ‘We want you to make our brand really cool – but we don’t want to spend money on TV or digital, so we’ve booked you some slots on post office noticeboards…’

Or your logistics department: ‘Yes, I realise articulated lorries are a more efficient way to shift large loads, but the chairman breeds Alpacas, so that’s what we’ll be using…’

It makes me wonder whether these organisations have understood the importance of engaging their people after all – or whether they still think communication is just a box to be ticked.

Because, if you really do want to engage your people, I wouldn’t start from here.

Don’t just do it. Mean it.

It’s been quite a week for Nike.

On Monday, they launched a bold new advertising campaign, fronted by Colin Kaepernick (the star San Francisco quarterback who caused a furore by kneeling, rather than standing, during the national anthem, to protest in support of the ‘black lives matter’ movement).

Clearly, this was always going to be controversial. Conservative Americans, led vocally by their President, have railed against the protest on the grounds that it disrespects the anthem and the country.

By Tuesday lunchtime, the backlash was in full swing, with indignant mid-westerners sharing videos of mutilated Nike products on social media, accompanied by the hashtag #JustBurnIt.

All of which must have had Nike’s brand folks rubbing their hands in glee. After all, what better way to make your product relevant to teenagers than by having chubby, middle-aged rednecks get angry about it? (Not to mention the billions of dollars of free global publicity – they probably only had to run the ad once).

But let’s hope that, before they started all this hoopla, they took a deep breath and re-read the second line of the advert: ‘even if it means sacrificing everything’.

Because it’s easy to believe in something. But it’s a lot less easy to keep believing in it when the consequences escalate.

I’m not talking about a few good ol’ boys cutting Nike swooshes out of their socks. I’m talking about shop windows being smashed. About people being attacked because they work for Nike. About retailers being too scared to sell Nike products – and shoppers being too scared to buy them. About sales falling off a cliff because they misjudged the reaction.

What happens then? Do Nike’s senior leaders apologise and backtrack, in a bid to stop haemorrhaging money? If they do, the brand’s credibility will be shredded for a generation.

I hope that doesn’t happen. I admire Kaepernick – and Nike for having the guts to celebrate him. And I’m confident the backlash will be much less extreme than I’ve suggested above. But, if it isn’t, I hope they hold their nerve and tough it out.

As the advertising guru Bill Bernbach once put it, ‘a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.’

We may all be about to find out how authentic Nike’s principles are.

 

One size does not fit all

A few years ago, some anonymous wag in Amsterdam posted an online Anglo-Dutch translation guide, where apparently innocuous English phrases are explained in terms of their hidden meaning:

WHAT THE BRITISH SAY WHAT THE DUTCH HEAR WHAT THE BRITISH MEAN
‘I hear what you say’ He accepts my point of view You’re wrong – please stop talking about this
‘Perhaps you would like to think about…’ Just an idea – feel free to ignore it This is an order
‘Oh, by the way…’ This is a minor detail… The primary purpose of our discussion is…
‘I’m a bit disappointed that…’ It’s not a big deal It’s a very big deal: I’m really annoyed
‘Perhaps you should think about that some more’ It’s a good idea: keep developing it It’s a bad idea: come back with a better one
‘I’m sure it’s my fault’ He thinks it’s his fault It’s obviously your fault
‘I almost agree’ He’s close to agreement I don’t agree at all

It’s funny because it’s true: the British have turned verbal misdirection into an art-form. What’s less funny is that, if you come from a country where people express things more literally, this can be a real problem.

As more and more businesses become genuinely global, the need to communicate across international borders can pose serious risks.

Management Consultancy McKinsey published a report in 2013, which showed that high-performing global companies consistently do worse than local competitors in new markets. The gap is most significant in key strategic activities, such as executing plans, encouraging innovation and building relationships with government and business partners.

Ironically, one of the biggest problems is that we all speak the same language. English has become the lingua franca of international business, especially at executive level. And, while it may make the process of decision-making faster and less cumbersome, it also tends to pull everything down to a lowest common denominator level that dilutes creativity and promotes bland, generic thinking.

If you don’t believe me, try watching a selection of TV commercials and see how easy it is to spot the ones that were made for ‘more than one market’.

Language is not like binary code: if you take the nuance out of communication, you take the interest out, too. And the results are predictably easy to ignore.

 

 

The dance of death

One of my favourite advertising stories is the pitch made by Allen Brady Marsh for the British Rail account back in the 1970s.

It was BR’s first major foray into advertising and their senior management team was visiting a shortlist of agencies. They knew their account was valuable and prestigious, so they’d become used to a fairly high level of sucking-up from the agencies they visited.

When they got to ABM, however, they found the reception dirty and unwelcoming. The furniture was worn and coffee-stained, the air was thick with smoke and the floor was covered with discarded crisp packets. The receptionist was filing her nails and chatting to a friend on the phone.

‘We’re from British Rail,’ the chief executive announced. The receptionist glanced up, waved airily at the threadbare seats and carried on talking.

Ten minutes later, they were still waiting in reception. No one had come to see them. When coffee eventually arrived, it was served lukewarm and in cracked china. They were livid: enough was enough. They got up to leave.

At that moment, Peter Marsh, ABM’s colourful Chairman, strode purposefully through the connecting doors, his arms outstretched and a warm smile on his face.

‘Gentlemen,’ he beamed. ‘You’ve just experienced what it feels like to be a British Rail passenger. Now let’s see what we can do to put that right.’

It was a jolt of theatrical brilliance, which won the account, by forcing British Rail’s senior team to confront (perhaps for the first time) the reality of their service problems.

It’s what advertising people call the ‘dance of death’: the process of prompting your clients to face up to sometimes unpalatable truths about their brands.

When I talk about this to people who work in small businesses, they find it very strange. Why would you willingly ignore a problem which is obvious to your customers – and which, if left unresolved, will pose a clear risk to the future of your business? It makes no sense.

Yet there’s something about walking through the sliding glass doors of a large publicly-listed corporation that seems to have a strangely lobotomising effect on most people. We hear meaningless, made-up words and, instead of challenging them, we start using them ourselves. We parrot earnest value statements, when we know they don’t have any connection to the reality of our daily working lives. And we accept bad ideas because they come wrapped in a veneer of fashionable buzzwords or backed up with obtuse data.

But customers don’t bother with any of that. If what we’re saying or doing doesn’t make sense, they just go and shop somewhere else.

That’s why we could all use a little dance with death every now and then.