New Perspectives?

Yesterday I indulged in one of my favorite pastimes, heading out to a collaborative event between two institutions I respect hugely (one a large Swiss bank and the other a top tier university) to engage in a little networking and a lot of learning. The event, ‘Voices of Experience – Perspectives on Leadership and Career Growth’, was an opportunity for the women of Zurich to come together and hear from one of our city’s very successful women. I thought to myself, this is exactly the kind of company I want to keep.

Before I get swept away again in the daily tide of life and work I wanted to try and capture some of the things I took away from yesterday evening, and reflect on what this might mean for me as I (try to!) cultivate my personal brand of leadership and develop and grow my career in this still unfamiliar city.

Firstly, I found my belief in human resources leadership reinforced. It seems our speaker and I share the view that Human Resources can and should be a real catalyst for change, cultural and behavioural, in an organisation. My ears perked up. She talked about how their organisation encouraged and measured people not only on ‘change and results leadership’ (getting things done) but also on ‘behavioural leadership’ (how we do them). Whilst certainly not a new concept, this was still music to my ears.

She described culture as ‘the thing that employees do when no one is watching’, and like the proverbial tree in the forest, questioned whether we condone bad behaviour if no one is around to see, hear or be impacted by it. Again, it seems we share the view that NO we do not. One bad apple ruins the barrel and organisations that believe or act like culture is some abstract concept removed from the day to day lives of its employees will pay the price. Culture is the PRODUCT of the day to day (working) lives and interactions of the employees. It is precious, should be nurtured, and should not just be trotted out as a set of values or principles once a year for the dreaded annual review process.

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Of all the topics covered yesterday; diversity, inclusion, pay negotiations, balancing life and work, this red thread of culture was to me the most powerful message – as it is the system within which all of these other ‘things’ happen. I had hoped to ask our speaker to elaborate more on the informal mechanisms for culture change that she had seen through the course of her career, as a woman yes, but also as a business leader. We must make sure we continue to challenge ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for creating the kind of culture we want to exist in at work. I know it is cliché but ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ seems fitting to pop in here.

I should note however that it was not all wine and roses last night. Sometimes I feel when we have a powerful and clearly successful woman on  a stage (and a roving mic) we fall into the trap of seeing the wood for the trees – that is to say, asking the granular questions about how to negotiate a salary, or whether men should be involved in the diversity agenda (OF COURSE, everyone should!) and often miss the chance to discuss this system within which all of these things are happening, and from which all of these questions are arising.

But if we listened closely, and stripped away some of the more obvious questions around gender and diversity then there were some real gender agnostic nuggets in there that could and should be considered by anyone growing their career. For example;

  • Let’s not decry the value of the old ‘up or out’ management approach to development – it may just be the push we need to challenge ourselves and do the things that we didn’t think we could – after all, if we are honest we learn the most when we are uncomfortable don’t we!?
  • Qualities seen in strong performers and leaders are not gender specific – we can, and should relish and revere both the hard and soft styles – after all, this is what diversity is really about – celebrating and valuing differences.
  • When approaching a new challenge think about ‘who could do it better’ – NOT from the point of view of ‘I can’t do it’ but more so ‘what is it about them that makes me feel they could and how can I build those skills/experiences/behaviours’.
  • Be comfortable with your deliberate sacrifices. Yes, building a life and a career is a stretch, emotionally and logistically, but you need to own your choices and their consequences.
  • finally, SHOW UP. Set positive examples and show strong commitment to your values and the corporate culture you want to be a part of and at the same time are complicit in creating.

This last point is perhaps the most important when thinking about how we influence the culture around us. Coming back to the idea of informal mechanisms for culture change I have to believe it is the collective effort of all of us to lead by example, to be authentic, to genuinely like people, and to be able to see professional and personal satisfaction in the development and successes of others we have supported and empowered. All this is couched in setting clear guidelines and direction, holding others accountable for their results and behaviours as well as ourselves.

So, new perspectives?… perhaps not. However yesterday served as a very valuable and gentle reminder to me that how we talk about culture change, and the role WE play in shaping, leading and encouraging it, is often underrated and that in fact we have a lot more power than we think we do to move the needle. So let’s move it.

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