Friday, July 30, 2010

(Wo)Men at Work

More women than men are graduating from university. Plenty of women fill middle management positions. Few women hold executive or board positions.

Sports teams recognise that each player brings different things to the game – different skills, strengths, experiences, approaches, attitudes – and from that they build much greater strength, something bigger than the sum of the parts. Not much sense having a team of goalies!

At work women are damned if they retain their difference, and damned if they conform to male-like behaviour. Repeated research shows that management is (unconsciously) biased towards people like themselves.

How much stronger might our businesses be if we learned to celebrate and harness the essential differences instead of ploughing on with the same-old same-old? How much more effective might our businesses be if CEO’s and boards sought out the difference and built a multi-talented, gender-balanced team?

Is it really so hard?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

(Un)Acceptable Alpha Male Behaviour

David Jones, a department store largely staffed by women for women customers, is being sued for $37 million by a young woman who alleges she was sexually harassed by the former CEO. It is to his credit and that of the Board that he resigned promptly - acknowledging in that act the substance of the allegations.

That is not that substance I want to discuss here. I’m more interested in the tone set from the top.

The CEO in question was by all financial measures a star, generating improvement on improvement and rewarding shareholders for their investment in the company and their faith in him.

He is a classic Alpha male - driven to success and instinctively competitive. In the primate world those characteristics would translate into competition for mating rights. And I heard one commentator suggest that we should accept that it would be a really ‘hard call’ for an Alpha male at DJ’s not to take liberties with female staff.

Whether we accept that it is a hard call or not, all organisations reflect the tone set from the top - by the Board and by the CEO and management team. We know that for a senior member of staff to use their position to take liberties is unacceptable. We can probably accept that a person who demonstrates a lack of restraint in one area of their life is likely to be unrestrained in others.

Reports indicate that DJ’s ex-CEO’s behaviour was widely acknowledged. It would appear that it was tolerated firstly as no other woman had the courage to face the scrutiny which comes with making public allegations, and secondly because of ‘halo effect’ - where good performance in one area dulls our ability to perceive the lacks or lapses in another.

The tone from the top seems to have put financial performance well above staff welfare.

Could an organisation with a CSR-driven culture, an organisation that lives and breathes respect – respect for society, people, the planet and profits – have prevented the opportunity for this behaviour?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Corporate generosity trumps legal shenanigans

In the early 1960s the drug Thalidomide, taken by pregnant mothers, caused birth defects in thousands of children around the world.

Thalidomide had been marketed by Distillers, a company which, in 1974, offered and distributed a modest compensation package to the victims. It was a ‘full and final’ payment, meaning that the company had discharged its legal obligations.

Distillers was subsequently bought by Diageo, a multinational drinks company, which has this week agreed to set up a $50 million fund to assist the remaining 45 Australian and New Zealand Thalidomiders who had out-lived the original compensation.

This is a significant example of CSR in action, of corporate understanding and generosity; Diageo has no legal obligation to provide further assistance, however it has accepted a moral obligation for the damage caused in the 60’s. Where many companies would have employed lawyers and delaying tactics, Diageo listened to the appeal lead by the father of a Thalidomider, and responded with compassion.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A message in 12,500 bottles

Plastiki, David De Rothchild’s 60-foot catamaran with a hull made of 12,500 CO2 filled plastic drinks bottles, arrived in Sydney harbour this week, after completing an 8,000 nautical mile trip across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco, California. The aim of the trip was to highlight the quantities of plastic debris found in the oceans (for every kilometre of the world’s ocean there are 13,000 pieces of microscopic plastic waste) which seals, dolphins, turtles and whales mistake for food and ingest.

The trip contrasts,

  • The glory of human ingenuity and innovation (who in their right minds would consider making a 60’ catamaran from drink bottles, let alone setting off to cross the Pacific?)
  • The folly of human hubris (once the plastic is out of sight we classify it as ‘dealt with’ and keep pumping out more).

This gives us two things to think about:
  • What are we doing that is outlandishly innovative and potentially beneficial to the world?
  • What are we doing that involves out-of-sight-out-of-mind thinking, that we could change?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

We should be clear about transparency

Wikileaks has hit the headlines this week – posting 92,201 military, intelligence and diplomatic documents on its site, and simultaneously The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel published analysis. Whatever you think of this exposure of confidential military information what Wikileaks is doing points to one of the most important features of sustainable and responsible business practice – transparency.

In committing to CSR a business sets clear baseline figures, creates 1, 5, 15 year and even longer (I know of one Not for Profit that has a 500 year plan) targets for improvement. There is no benefit in setting the targets and progress towards meeting them, if they are not communicated internally and externally.

Your business might not be perfect (in fact it probably is not) but by honestly telling your story and showing your commitment to change you have the opportunity to engage meaningfully with staff, suppliers, clients and the community.

If you are really lucky you will find your transparency allows others to spot weaknesses and flaws that you have overlooked (that you’ve been too close to see) and by telling you about them give you an opportunity change.

Transparency and open communications are powerful business opportunities.

Monday, July 19, 2010

This ecologically driven farm literally sustains food for thought


For a wonderful insight into balance and sustainability in farming, you must see Polyface Farm in Virginia USA.

Don't expect to see their produce in your local supermarket - they won't transport anything out of the local area. And to travel there to see it for yourself you are likely to carve a considerable carbon footprint. But you can see it sustainably through these videos:

I first read about Polyface Farm some time ago in Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, a real eye-opener that will change the way you think about your next meal.

Tim Flannery, a favourite writer of mine, also talks about Polyface Farm in his book and essay Now or Never: A Sustainable Future for Australia?.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The often-overlooked value of employing someone with a disability


Have you ever worked with someone with a disability?

Have you ever employed someone with a disability?

Have you ever deliberately searched for a disabled (or differently-abled) staff member to fill a vacancy?

Some time ago our local suburban supermarket employed a lad with Downs Syndrome to collect and return the trolleys from the car park to the mall. He was a friendly, outgoing lad, and applied himself to his task with an engaging enthusiasm.

He was quite clearly delighted to have a job, and I am sure his parents were pleased as well. The shoppers were happy because there were always trolleys waiting at the supermarket doors. And without doubt it was a win-win for the supermarket’s management – they had a happy and willing employee, and satisfied customers.

Similarly I worked at a company who employed a young woman with social ease and limited intellectual aptitude to empty the dishwashers, stack and restock the cupboards, fridges and stationery. She could punch holes, fill envelopes, and follow simple instructions.

She couldn’t bind manuals as she had no idea of chronology – pages would end up all over the place. But she could do many things that needed to be done to keep the office running smoothly.

By 1pm each day she was exhausted and went home content. And like most of us, she was delighted to have been able to make a valuable contribution, and to have been paid for it.

Next time you are recruiting – think about the abilities you need for tasks to be done within your organisation, and give some thought to defining and offering a role to someone with a disability.