How and why appropriate gender balance is an immensely promising business opportunity
This is one of two books written by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox that I have recently read, the other being Why Women Mean Business published two years earlier (2008). Although they examine many of the same socioeconomic issues and core concepts, it would be unfair to both books to suggest that one is a prequel or sequel to the other. There is much to be said for reading both, perhaps WHY first, but each can – and indeed should – be judged on its own merits. At least that is the approach I now take.
In a perfect business world, all organizations are pure meritocracies. Only the best people recruit, interview, hire, and then train only the best candidates. Those hired then become evangelists for the organization while helping to ensure that- at all levels and in all areas – operations are productive, efficient, and profitable. Moreover, the organization has a steadily growing customer or client base, all of whom are evangelists.
In the business world as is, however, there are inequities and imbalances as well as ignorance, arrogance, incompetence, fraud, waste, etc. The best that leaders can do is to drive a process of continuous (albeit imperfect) improvement in terms of what is done, how it is done, and by whom. As the book’s subtitle correctly indicates, what Wittenberg-Cox offers is a “step by step guide to profiting from gender balanced business.” Only an organization’s leaders can - and should – determine the nature and extent of what that balance should be. As she correctly notes, “This is not about the advancement of women: gender balance — a relevant mix of both men and women — is simply better for business.”
These are among Wittenberg-Cox’s key points that caught my eye:
o There is no glass ceiling. Rather, “gender asbestos” that prevents organizations from creating “a relevant mix of both men and women.”
o The annual “20-first WOMENOMICS 101 Survey” (reports on the number of women in C-level positions in 101 largest companies in US, Europe, and Asia)
o A gender audit answers three Qs: “What’s our balance now”? “What do others do?” and “What does our balance now say about us?”
o There are four phases of the process to achieve gender balance: Audit, Awareness, Alignment, and Sustain.
o The key drivers of gender balance are leadership (individuals and teams), talent (best available), and markets (influence of women)
Re this last point, according to recent research, decisions by women account for at least 85% of all consumer purchases including everything from autos to health care. For example: 93% of food and OTC pharmaceuticals, 92% of vacations, 91% of new homes, 89% of bank Accounts, and 80% of healthcare.
o Employee training in establishing and then sustaining appropriate gender balance (Chapter 8)
o Six ways to “make a difference” in recruiting (Pages 239-247)
o Measuring performance, progress, and impact of gender balance initiatives (Chapter 12)
I commend Avivah Wittenberg-Cox on her brilliant use of various reader-friendly devices throughout the book. They serve two separate but interdependent and important purposes: they focus on important points, and, they facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of that material later. (That is why I highlight key passages and urge others to do so.) These devices include a “Checklist” of reminder questions at the end of each chapter as well as dozens of Figures and Tables, boxed mini-commentaries on real-world situations or major issues, and checklists of bold-faced key points or action steps to consider. Here in a single volume is just about everything a business leader needs to know about HOW to profit from gender balanced business, but also to derive substantial non-monetary benefits that include but are by no means limited to those who comprise the given workforce, viewed as a human community.
Two points are worth keeping in mind. First, it is no coincidence that most of the same companies listed annually as being the “most highly regarded” and ”best to work for” are also ranked among the most profitable in their industry and have the greatest cap value. Also, the results of dozens of major research studies indicate that feeling appreciated is ranked either first or second in importance to both employees and to customers. What about compensation and price? They are ranked anywhere between 9th and 14th.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Amy C. Edmondson for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare. This gap is not due to a lack of commitment to learning. Managers in the vast majority of enterprises that I have studied over the past 20 years—pharmaceutical, financial services, product design, telecommunications, and construction companies; hospitals; and NASA’s space shuttle program, among others—genuinely wanted to help their organizations learn from failures to improve future performance. In some cases they and their teams had devoted many hours to after-action reviews, postmortems, and the like. But time after time I saw that these painstaking efforts led to no real change. The reason: Those managers were thinking about failure the wrong way.
Most executives I’ve talked to believe that failure is bad (of course!). They also believe that learning from it is pretty straightforward: Ask people to reflect on what they did wrong and exhort them to avoid similar mistakes in the future—or, better yet, assign a team to review and write a report on what happened and then distribute it throughout the organization.
These widely held beliefs are misguided. First, failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated. Organizations need new and better ways to go beyond lessons that are superficial (“Procedures weren’t followed”) or self-serving (“The market just wasn’t ready for our great new product”). That means jettisoning old cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success and embracing failure’s lessons. Leaders can begin by understanding how the blame game gets in the way.
The Blame Game
Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures. Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame. That is why so few organizations have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized.
Executives I’ve interviewed in organizations as different as hospitals and investment banks admit to being torn: How can they respond constructively to failures without giving rise to an anything-goes attitude? If people aren’t blamed for failures, what will ensure that they try as hard as possible to do their best work?
This concern is based on a false dichotomy. In actuality, a culture that makes it safe to admit and report on failure can—and in some organizational contexts must—coexist with high standards for performance. To understand why, look at the exhibit “A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure,” which lists causes ranging from deliberate deviation to thoughtful experimentation.
Which of these causes involve blameworthy actions? Deliberate deviance, first on the list, obviously warrants blame. But inattention might not. If it results from a lack of effort, perhaps it’s blameworthy. But if it results from fatigue near the end of an overly long shift, the manager who assigned the shift is more at fault than the employee. As we go down the list, it gets more and more difficult to find blameworthy acts. In fact, a failure resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generates valuable information may actually be praiseworthy.
When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and then to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits—perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.
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To read the complete article and check out a video of an interview of Amy, please click here.
Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management and co-head of the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School.