Why talking tough is critical in today’s workplace by Jon Stretch, ERM Power Managing Director & CEO

POSTED 08/03/2017

You know the type of person – you’ve seen them in the office, or you may even be one yourself. The type who works hard and gets greats results, but does so without fanfare. Not prone to self-promotion, they quietly go about their work, trusting that their outcomes and performance will be recognised and rewarded with promotion and career advancement.

I know this type well. I’ve observed this behaviour in few men, but many talented and capable women at all levels in the many organisations, industries and countries in which I’ve worked. Work hard and the results will speak for themselves. Your performance will be noticed, and you’ll duly be promoted. Have faith that there is meritocracy in leadership.

I’ve hired a lot of people in my time, and, at the risk of generalising, it’s pretty safe to say men are better at self-promotion, consistently selling their strengths and underplaying their weaknesses. Women, I’ve found, are much more concerned about qualifying that any gaps they perceive to a job spec do not disqualify them.

Why start that conversation about a new job or a promotion from a position of disadvantage?

Part of my job as a leader is to set a tone for an organisation that encourages and supports diversity, in all its diversity. The culture we build in our organisations must encourage women and other under-represented groups to confidently step forward into positions of leadership. Think of the tone or culture as the “push” lever for greater diversity in our workplace.

As an executive, I take responsibility for the tone. That’s clear. I can give you chapter and verse on why companies make better decisions through diverse teams. That’s a given. So what can women do, to drive change and help create workplaces that are more diverse?

Many women acknowledge that they find it difficult to talk about pay and the value they bring, and add, to organisations. In my experience, they are uncomfortable with talking themselves up, with self-promotion.

This has to change.

We know that pay equity at senior levels is a big issue, but remember that issue starts in your 20s – perhaps in your first role, when you settle for $5000 less than you think you should be getting. You justify that with the rationale that your performance will surely justify an increase later on. Unfortunately, though, this decision sets in motion a sequence of events that, over the course of their careers, contributes to women being paid significantly less than men.

These hard conversations about pay and performance are the ones that women need to be equipped to have, and the ones they need to focus on, assuming that executives and boards from companies set the appropriate tone.

This is the ‘pull’ lever from women, as they exert their right to deliver a valuable contribution and be recognised for that.

These conversations help create the change we need to create more diverse workplaces.

At ERM Power we have good benefits and practices that recognise needs of diverse employees, and we also have good diversity statistics. One of the initiatives we’ve taken is to mandate that there must be a woman on the shortlist for every appointment made. Why only on the shortlist? It’s pretty simple. Almost every senior woman I have appointed has asked whether they have been chosen based solely on merit, or to hit a target. I want everyone to be able to answer the former.

Our business is making small but positive and important changes. When I joined ERM Power two years ago, we had no women on either our executive team or our Board.

Our workforce is comprised roughly 60% men and 40% women – so what sort of message did that send?

In the past two years we’ve appointed two women executives and one woman to our Board.

Sure, it’s a small step, but once the genie is out of the bottle you aren’t going to force it back in.

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