Balance in Business: Who leads? Who ‘still’ cares? The CEO Perspective

The first of a series of three events of the INSEAD UK Alumni Balance in Business Initiative took place on 25 November 2020.  The event was held online, attended by 116 attendees and brought together outstanding speakers to discuss with them why ‘Balance in Business’ matters, how to implement it and to recognise the value it can create.

After a great introduction by the founder Florence Hamilton about the programme, which is built on three pillars: Impact Mentoring Programme, Partnering with Organisations and Sharing Experiences; the host, Aparajita Ajit, VP, Genpact, welcomed the audience with a few words and introduced the CEO panel, including Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO, 20-First as the moderator and the three male CEOs:

Our Speakers

Ronan Dunne

Executive, Vice President and Group CEO, Verizon Consumer

Charlie Nunn

Chief Executive, Wealth and Personal Banking HSBC

Tiger Tyagarajan

CEO, Genpact

Avivah commented on what surely most (female) participants thought in the audience: ‘Why do we have three men on the panel if this whole discussion is about gender balance?’

She quickly explained that CEO’s in the biggest companies of the stock market are still male and that they need to be brought into the gender balance conversation so the world can see what they are doing in their companies and thus to learn from them.

Avivah mentioned that the gender balance shift has already started a few years ago and that gender has become especially more balanced at ‘board level’ but still has a long way to go at the ‘executive level’. Perhaps, the current Covid-19 crisis will help with the shift? Avivah continues to say that ‘framing’ is key and that companies normally frame it as a HR issue, rather than a CEO one. Should it also not be part of an overall 21st century shift such as climate change?

For Avivah, there are three main things that help in building balance:

  1. Leadership
  2. Shifting Culture
  3. Systematic Adjusting

Aviah, then goes on to ask the CEO panel’s opinion about the Why, What and How.

First, the panellists talked about their own personal moment of awaking and why they think there is an imbalance in gender.  For example, Ronan talked about his grandmother who owned a grocery store in Ireland and who was a business woman in her own right – this made him aware. He then goes on to say that the ‘talent is distributed fine but the opportunity (for women) isn’t.’
Charlie has been on trading floors years back and noticed the major imbalance then. When he had a consulting role in San Francisco years ago, where he put teams together, he quickly noticed that gender diversity helps with business and thus helps with a better outcome. Tiger agrees and said that he’s been trying to shift gender balance in the last 15-20 years and that still more needs to be done.

Ronan adds that it is a fundamental issue but thinks that the ‘Why’ has often been addressed in companies. He believes that the practicality is an issue and that the ‘How’ needs to be addressed more. For example, companies need to address the practical environment for women.

Tiger then goes on and says that ‘companies and people still don’t get it’. Charlie agrees and says that ‘HSBC talks a lot about gender balance but often doesn’t act on it.’

Charlie remarks that the main obstacles to prevent people from acting on gender imbalance are people’s mindset and they simply don’t know ‘how’. Ronan offers a solution and says that it would help to ‘identify roles and key competencies of employees’ and to ‘look at the nature of work/ look structurally at what kind of business you are in’ and to ‘address biasness’.

Avivah’s question: ‘Do women try to be more like men to succeed?’ and ‘Do women decide this or the culture of men?’ seems rather controversial but Tiger responds and says that ‘gender is one aspect of a bigger picture, there are cognitive differences with men and women.’ Charlie agrees and says that this is a problem and finds it difficult to ‘role model more senior roles for women.’ The women normally don’t want to become like men, they want a balance between job and family for example. This is where ‘flexibility becomes very important’, Charlie concludes and Ronan adds that sometimes: ‘rules need to be broken’ to achieve something.

The next question from Avivah was about quotas and targets: do these measures and metrics help with achieving gender balance? 

Tiger refuses to ‘have hard metrics on this topic’ but adds that the ‘CEO on leadership team has to have their own narrative about why’ and ‘leaders need to signal they share the same’, however, it ‘needs a broader team to succeed’. 

For Charlie, ‘targets are fundamental in gender balance change’. He uses ‘incentives, training programmes, propositions for women,’ and is ‘looking cross functional’.

Ronan disagrees in this instance and says that ‘most decisions shouldn’t be made from the top and that he ‘creates the context and gives space to develop’ e.g. companies should make it easier for women to return to work with a transition programme.  He also adds that perhaps post-Covid-19, there is an opportunity in terms of flexibility of ‘where’ to work, which would help a lot of women with family.

A main conclusion from the event can be drawn which is:

If companies don’t build a gender balanced team, they’ll lose out from the talent perspective!

More diversity = better results.

Florence concludes the event and adds one final encouraging thought:

“Each individual can do, emphasis on DO something to make a difference and together we will have impact, we will bring about change!”

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