Caring for my staff keeps me up at night – One of the more complex and unsung aspects of business leadership is the people factor. Part of this means adapting to reflect a New Zealand market that is highly diverse, in ethnicity, culture and gender.
Just this July, our global Executive Committee reached the milestone of 44% members –seven out of 16 – who are women, up from zero in 2006 and just one in 2010. However, female representation among our 128,000 colleagues overall is lower than we’d like. What are the lessons for leaders in this evolving environment?
Shout out diversity and inclusivity as core values of the business
Many businesses, such as in the trades, are highly male-dominated (and still seen as a very blokey industry) and there is a huge opportunity to address gender balance. Schneider Electric has proactively worked to introduce many more female staff into the sales force, where it has historically been hard to attract women – but we, like many industries, need to challenge ourselves to do better.
Once you have brought new people in, make sure they have the support they need to be safe and thrive at work, and ensure leaders are actively identifying and stamping out any inappropriate behaviour, harassment or unconscious bias.
We need to make an industry wide commitment, that inappropriate behaviour is called out, as it happens. If we don’t call out inappropriate behaviour, nothing will change.
If it doesn’t stop immediately, then we don’t support that business – to quote C.S. Lewis, integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. For many companies, this may require external specialist support for a time, and boards need to ensure that senior management is fit to lead a diversity and inclusivity transition.
Understand that it takes time to evolve
For most larger companies, achieving true diversity can take years of strategic planning, targeted development, and awareness and accountability mechanisms. A lot of effort is required to erode the gender pay gap, to combat unconscious bias and boost a spirit of inclusiveness, and to adjust family leave and flexible-working policies, to make life and career development easier. Achieving greater diversity and gender balance requires the public support of everyone in the organisation, from the CEO through to anyone involved in hiring or promotion decisions.
A cultural mindset shift of this kind requires a holistic toolkit of approaches and actions, like workshops, learning sessions and policies, with continuous monitoring of progress and implementation.
Recruit from everywhere
Not everyone is going to go down the university path, and many people prefer to learn hands-on in industry rather than in a classroom. There used to be a mindset that learning a trade was a last resort for the non-academic, but this couldn’t be less true – some of our most successful business owners are qualified electricians and significant employers. A lot of people in our management team started their careers on the frontline in electrical services or electrical wholesalers and now they are industry leaders, proving that these careers can open a multitude of doors, especially with the explosion of digitalisation and software specialisation, which many electricians have moved into and are earning high incomes.
Give practical support to the pipeline of diversity
Many sectors are crying out for more skilled workers, and there is a huge opportunity to support more women in construction, engineering, and various trades, including apprenticeships. According to University of Auckland data, the current percentage of female electrical engineering students is 29% but has dropped as low as 16% in 2017 and 2019 (the figures for 2018 and 2020 are 24%). Of 56 total Part IV (final undergraduate year) students in 2021 to date, just 16 are women; still better than 2017, when 10 of 62 were women.
There is clearly room for improvement of gender balance and equal representation and participation, and companies can work with universities and other organisations on sponsorships, scholarships, and other financial and practical solutions to increase diversity in training and qualifications.
Internally, make components of leaders’ bonuses contingent on delivery of equal pay, ethical conduct, and people feeling safe in the environment – and make sure the business is empowered and structured so those leaders can deliver.
Look at leadership
Diversity is not just about staffing – it goes right to the top, where decisions are made, and those decisions need to reflect what the market looks like.
We have committed globally as part of our 2025 sustainability goals to ensuring that 50% of new hires by 2025 are women, up from around 43% at present. We want 40% of our frontline managers, and 30% of our senior leaders, to be women by then – up from about one-quarter now. The good news is that having more women at the top makes it easier for equality and gender balance to filter through the organisation, because leaders (the most visible people in a company) are setting the priorities and the standard for inclusion.
Invest in mental health
We might assume this is a given, but there is so much more businesses can do. St John does excellent mental health training in workplaces, and courses can be run on a semi-regular basis to provide refreshers and give people opportunities to report when they are under undue stress. There are key times in people’s lives when they need more support or are at risk – health issues, bereavement, returning to work after parental leave – and centring mental health in everyday awareness makes it easier for people to flag (and solve) issues before they become big problems.