20 February 2014

How Women Lead - RSA - Penny Thompson

Tuesday 18 February 2014
The Sallis Benney Theatre, University of Brighton


RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce):

In the US and Europe, women account for fewer than 17% of board members of large publicly listed companies. There has been no significant change in this trend for several years. In the UK, we have seen some movement with women now occupying almost 19% of seats. In the non-profit sector the statistics are equally low with just 20% of top positions held by women.

So why is it so difficult to get to the top? And what do women leaders say about leadership at the top? Three prominent women in Brighton and Hove discuss their experience and reflections.

Other speakers were
• Anne Boddington, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Brighton
• Caroline Lucas, Green MP, Brighton Pavilion

The event was chaired by RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor.


How Women Lead

By Penny Thompson Chief Executive, Brighton & Hove City Council


How women lead - I was intent on speaking of what I know- how this woman leads. 

I was going to give you references to key texts which had a profound influence on my approach to organisational leadership  ( An example is  Peter Senge " the Fifth Discipline - the art and practice of the learning organisation) . 

I was going to share my approach to developing powerful work objectives and talk about our organisational values - collaboration, creativity, customer focus, efficiency, openness, and respect. ... And how they are driving our aim of a high performing culture and a modernised council which will help us navigate austerity. 

I was going to draw your attention to the recent Dimbleby Lecture by Christine Lagarde - who leads the International Monetary Fund. She spoke with intelligence, humour and offered a powerful thesis in support of international collaboration drawing on the efforts of Politicians and economists in 1944. She offers an international example of a highly effective woman leader. 

- However I understand that Matthew (Chair) is keen that we focus mostly on how women get to lead and indeed fundamentally, why it's so difficult for women to get to the top. 

Well we may want to argue about whether being CEO of a Local Authority ,( even of this fab city) is being at the top! But I won't dwell on that.... I have been invited to speak as a woman leader and I will do my best, trying to address the issue through my experience.

So perhaps I should start by sketching my journey - it started with voluntary and paid temporary public service jobs even when at Uni. I moved from history graduate to LA admin officer, Social Work A, masters grad in Social Work and Social Worker. After 12 years in frontline practice became a manager in the North East, later a senior manager; Director of Social Services in Sheffield and then at the end of 2004 and after almost 30 years in work, my first CEO role at the London Borough of Hackney.  

I joined Brighton & Hove City Council in Nov 2012, having just completed 2.5 years as the CEO of a professional regulator 

What propelled me to Executive leadership - to the top - in Matthews’s terms? 

Was it ambition? Well not of the overwhelming desire for power and control sort. I always wanted to make a really positive impact through public service and as time went on I found that working with individuals and families wasn’t enough. 

I wanted to have more influence; to create the conditions for great work to happen. And to be honest, even the stimulation of being a practice teacher for students and a shop steward wasn't enough.  I came to think that I wanted to be the sort of manager I craved - can do, valuing, creative and experimental, fun!  If I didn't do better I wouldn't do worse!

At this stage did I envisage being a CEO? No. I didn't know what a Director did, far less a CEO!  

Were role models critical to my path to the top?   Well I haven't had a woman manager since 1976! So I didn't model myself on women line managers. 

However I am the eldest daughter of a working mother. I was given the same opportunities as my brother. I was expected to be independent, self supporting and to make the most of my talents. 

And on my journey I have seen leaders that I have admired - impressive men and women directors and CEOs . And I have also had anti models - those I would not want to be compared to in any circumstances.  And along the way I have found myself and my own authentic style and approach.

And was encouragement an important feature in my journey?  Well yes it was. Some special managers spotted, supported and encouraged me. I was given an opportunity to act up when I would not have had the confidence to apply for the role. I was given a place on a senior management development programme - powerful experiential learning was on offer which had a profound impact.  I have received some very powerful feedback. Interestingly these managers who encouraged me were all men....they recognised my potential and wanted me to "go for it”.

And in turn, I have tried to give encouragement to those with talent and perhaps less confidence that they should have in their own ability.  And eventually in my last CEO role I had a female chair, and she was fantastically supportive and encouraging and we were a strong team dealing with a very challenging mission.

 Learning to know and manage you (with help) is key to managing and leading others. And encouragement, trusting relationships, coaching can all assist... And they certainly have for me.

Was I lured by the trappings of high office?  No I don't think so. I have always been focussed on the responsibility and accountability more than title, remuneration, room.... (Though my current sea view is a high point in my career!)  I think I value the opportunity to influence, rather than seeing myself as powerful per se. Indeed working in a democratically led organisation it's important to be clear what you are and are not able to do.  I am focussed on creating the conditions for great improvement and success for individuals, the council, our partners and the city. 

Indeed the implications of high office may be one of the things that put women off.  Long hours; macho cultures; poor work/life balance...... For me the challenge and the opportunity that I relish is to create a culture which spawns high performance - which focuses on our customers, our citizens and serving them well. A culture which is open and values led; that has a clear purpose, priorities and is focussed on outcomes; a learning culture which engages with staff, citizens and partner organisations; which communicate - 2 ways; which develops talent and creativity, takes reasonable risks and searches out evidence of effectiveness and efficiency; optimising digital technology and Social media.

Have resilience and relish of a challenge been factors in my way to the top? Definitely! I have moved around and moved my family around. I've taken risks- moved sectors. I've set up on my own in Consultancy and discovered that the work was so much less satisfying than leading an organisation, seeing it improve, supporting people to develop and achieve more than they thought they could.  I have had to find courage to be who I am (mother, civil partner, a bit unconventional ...) and to take on the unknown and fresh challenges of a new organisation.  (This latest being the good to great mission at Brighton &Hove city council) 

So what got me to where I am? The factors that I have rehearsed have all contributed: 

- Ambition to make a positive impact 

- High expectations of others for me and me for myself 

- Encouragement

- A sense of purpose and learning that I can lead (look after you track record and reputation) 

- Resilience and relish of a challenge - a preparedness to try new things, to move , never to give up , continually to learn , a capacity for making positive, respectful working relationships 

How does that story help us with why fewer women get to the top than should do to reflect the population? 

I am not sure - some very able women don't want the very highest office or the demands and sacrifices that are implied. 

Stereotyping may define leadership roles as more fitted to men and I am shocked at a recent resurgence in all male speaking panels.... Contributors to books of papers etc we recently had no female applicants for our most senior IT post in the authority. 

Appointments often reflect the appointer and so perpetuate a male bias - balanced panels are vital.

The journey takes longer if you have children along the way. (I speak from experience though I know younger colleagues who have taken less time than I did!) 

We don't have enough visible models of female leadership (my colleagues on the panel being honourable exceptions).

Personally, whilst I don't think my journey has a lot to do with my gender, I do think it has something to do with my character and make-up and the relationships I have forged personally and professionally.

I think it tells me that I should do all I can to spot ambition and encourage talent and engender a sense of purpose and to recognise and reward achievement - not just of women , men too, and BME and LGBT and disabled ....  

I think it's vital that I lead a diverse team and fair, inclusive and respectful, learning organisation. 

Let's discuss.....