By Carole O’Neil

On 14 June 2018, I found myself in our boardroom in London, along with six other women (and two men), all drawn from our next generation of talent. The occasion? Our first “Boardroom of the Future” event.

As part of our diversity and inclusion strategy, we are working hard to increase female representation at a senior level within the business; the shortage of women in senior roles is a recognised issue across large parts of our industry, and one that we have committed (as part of our wider strategy on sustainability) to addressing. In our own business, 75% of our current Management Board is male. Against this background, we wanted to explore what the future might look like, so we decided to “flip the balance” and bring together a cohort of (mostly female) future leaders to debate a key business issue.

The timing of the event was not coincidental. As part of our partnership with the Women’s Engineering Society, we always do something new to recognise International Women in Engineering Day (it’s on 23 June), and our Boardroom of the Future experiment was this year’s key event.

Participants were drawn from across the UK and Europe although, unfortunately, technical issues on the day meant that we didn’t get as much input as we would have liked from colleagues across the MENA region. Of the women who attended, two of them are currently away from the business on maternity leave, so it was great to see them using their “Keeping in Touch” Days to contribute to the conversation. Within the rest of the group, we had one participant who works primarily from home, having recently relocated to a part of the country where we don’t have an office, and two people who will be heading off on maternity leave later this year.

The meeting started with a quick review of some of the reasons cited by businesses in a recent BBC news article for not having more women in senior positions. Whilst some of these, at first, seem laughable, it was sobering to note that most people in the room had heard similar comments being made by male leaders in our own industry. The work that is already underway within the business (including the introduction of mandatory “unconscious bias” training for all, the establishment of an LGBTQ+ network, the setting of clear, measurable targets to increase diversity in senior roles, analysing our gender pay gap for the whole of our international business, and reviewing our “family friendly” policies across the group) will be critical in breaking down these gender stereotypes, and delivering the proven benefits of a more diverse business.

Another key piece of work in this year’s HR strategy is a comprehensive review of our competency framework and, as part of this, a review of our core leadership competencies, to ensure that they do not inadvertently discriminate against particular groups (whether consciously or unconsciously). We took the first step on this journey in our Boardroom of the Future, asking the group to debate the leadership competencies that they consider critical for the future leadership of our business, and make some recommendations.

The discussion within the group was wide-ranging and energetic. It was really encouraging to see everyone contributing with honesty and openness about their individual experiences. In our main Management Board meetings, where the men outnumber the women, it is noticeable that, at times, the women can find it hard to make their voices heard. At this event, it was great to see everyone participating fully. Whilst no one individual dominated the group, I noticed that the group naturally rotated the “chair” role between the members, with different individuals stepping in at different times, to bring focus to the discussions and ensure that clear agreements were reached.

There were some really interesting and valuable debate around, not just the competencies themselves, but how we express them. Some members of the group felt that some of the language could be off-putting to some people, not specifically as a result of their gender, but because of their natural behavioural tendencies. For instance, one of the hotly-debated competencies related to “Interacting and Presenting”. One of the more naturally introverted group members suggested that this would be off-putting for them when considering taking on a leadership role. Through discussion, we concluded that there were ways of expressing this competency to allow individuals to bring their own natural style to bear, in a way that demonstrates the competency, whilst remaining authentic for them as individuals.

In terms of the outputs, the core competencies identified by the group as critical for successful leadership were not vastly different to those set out in our existing framework, with one notable exception. The group felt strongly that a competency around “Supporting and Cooperating” was missing from the existing framework, and that this should be included. In light of our commitment to behaving with integrity (which is enshrined as one of our core values), and the importance of our people to the delivery of our vision, it seems absolutely right to me that this should be included, and I’ll be making the case for this as we do further work on the competency framework in the months ahead.

Just as a final observation, we’d invited all event participants to complete a “motivational map” questionnaire prior to the event, to shed some light on the factors that motivate each of them as individuals, and the group collectively. This wasn’t a core part of the day’s discussions; instead, it was a developmental take-away for the participants, by way of a modest “thank you” for their contribution. Nonetheless, an analysis of the outputs was fascinating, with the most interesting (to me) thing being that the core motivators in these group seem to be pretty similar to what I see in my senior-level colleagues; a genuine “servant leadership” mentality, whereby leaders are motivated more by their desire to provide opportunities for all, and leave a positive legacy by delivering outstanding work, than by any real search for personal gain or recognition. At the suggestion of the future leaders group, I plan to test my intuition on this by inviting my Management Board colleagues to complete the same questionnaire, so I await with interest the results of this exercise!

A month or so ago, I stood up in front of this year’s Graduate Engineers to introduce our annual Graduate Conference. In doing so, I said (quite honestly) that that event is one of my favourite days of the year. Whilst this remains true, last week’s event, as well as January’s “Future Leaders” event in Asia Pacific are now very much on that list too!

They say that “every day is a school day”, and this event certainly got me thinking about what good leadership should look like in the boardroom of the future. Whilst all of the competencies that we currently value for leadership were considered by the group to be important, it’s clear that our future leaders will need to be ever more focused on their responsibilities for supporting, nurturing and developing the people they lead. This will present both challenges and opportunities; for our current and future leaders, as well as our HR and L&D teams. I can’t wait!

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Carole O'Neil, Cundall Initiatives, Women in Engineering

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