Consultant Insight: Ali Palmer

20 December 2016

Why diversity is the Achilles Heel for telecoms

It has been an almighty year of disruption for many businesses. The political and economic volatility that we have all witnessed only emphasises the need for management teams to prepare and respond to change.

The telecoms sector is no different. The industry has been battling to keep up with the pace of technological development. The arrival of omni-channel has prompted a wave of M&A activity, regulatory shake-ups and new entrants that has radically up-ended the status quo. But, the sector has perhaps forgotten the key to its evolution – diversity.

Technology-focused industries have long struggled to embrace gender diversity, for one, within their workforces. Much like manufacturing and engineering, women have been under represented on the shop-floor and throughout organisations – right up to the board room.

The problem is, in part, structural. The education system is only starting to address gender-gaps in those taking science, technology, engineering and maths-based subjects. These are core skills for many technology careers and, in particular, the telecoms industry. Fortunately, there is a recognition from Government to encourage more girls into these subjects, but also make the bridge into full-time, life-long careers.

But, if the sector is to attract the best talent and forge the leaders of tomorrow – the very people that will help telecoms businesses meet the challenges they face – more must be done to bring women into the industry and keep them there in senior positions.

One challenge is the fast-paced nature of the sector. I was recently invited to participate in the 'Cogeco Peer 1 Women in Tech Roundtable', which explored the problems facing women in the technology sector and what can be done to mitigate these.

One problem I identified was that many women find themselves struggling to return to the workplace after a career break, either after having children or having time out for other reasons, because they feel out of touch with developments. Things move on so quickly in technology that women can lose their confidence, which in turn deprives the sector of valuable female senior talent.

More action is needed if we’re to stop losing this talent. The use of return to work schemes is a welcome sign of a different approach to solving this dilemma but other measures are necessary. We also discussed the important role that HR teams can have in encouraging diversity in the workplace and by promoting the multiple benefits a broader talent pool can bring.

We’ve discovered this on the ground, as part of our goal to provide clients with a shortlist of candidates for senior leadership roles that best matches the skills they need and reflects society and their customers. By doing this, we’re not only benefitting clients but also widening our own talent pool. Historically, the lack of diversity in the pool of talent out there has held many organisations back. But, now, there is a real appetite for greater diversity. Clients are actively asking for diverse shortlists, rather than avoiding the issue. So we need to ensure we can offer diversity in all forms.

Another way to bring more diversity into the sector is to recruit from other sectors. Our own data reveals that 22 per cent of technology interim candidates we’ve placed have a background in other industries – predominantly energy, manufacturing, health and social care. This is a simple way to introduce fresh perspectives to the workforce and should definitely be explored further over the next year.

Diversity offers not only different people, but diverse ideas, perspectives and approaches. All of which are needed for telecoms businesses to flourish at a time of change. With omni-channel transformation, increasing M&A activity and regulation on the rise, telecoms needs all the talent it can get to steer it through the challenges ahead. Hopefully, diverse shortlists of candidates will become the norm in the near future, rather than the exception.

Ali Palmer is a Consultant leading Technology, Entertainment and Communications.


Comments

Nobileau-Forget at 06/02/2017 12:54 said:

Ali, I find your piece insightful and, of course, absolutely correct. I am a returner as described in your article and it was not easy for me but as with many things in business, with some hard work and perseverance you can make up lost time. I did read the comments above and found them all supporting your article which is nice but I think that while many companies do support gender diversity publicly, many only pay lip service to the concept and that ultimately unconscious bias plays a much greater role in the reason why women don't rise through the ranks, get discouraged along the way or don’t get hired at all. In addition, you only have to look at the average age and demographics of many tech companies such as Google and Facebook to see that the next crisis to add to this is age discrimination. So women returners are not only facing the gender issue but the fact that they are over 32 years of age… Perhaps I am a pessimist but I started my career in investment banking when men said what they thought of women. Now men do not express these views out loud but I sometimes wonder if all that repressed thinking is only just that, repressed. Sandberg’s book defined the problem of women extremely well by stating that effective women are seen negatively as oppose to men and ultimately forced out/not promoted. This is the taboo that women and men must break if we are to succeed.

Nigel Lee at 01/02/2017 00:32 said:

It is good to see the concept of Diversity broadened. It is interesting that at AMEX there was a strong positive gender diversity program, but we also spoke about not only gender directly, but that male / female is a very blunt approach and understanding male thinking processes and female thinking processes helps leaders and teams to recognize the contribution of different styles (gender being only one component). Over time this helps to create a culture shift that enables a broader participation of women leading as women (not as men) as the environment becomes more adaptive and supportive.

In my experience, bringing experience cross-industry to ignite new thinking and direction is also a key diversity dimension. Too often we look for the candidate that “fits to hole” and forget that new thinking helps to redefine and re-imagine problems and solutions. Good talent with good skills, mature experience and diverse exposure can (and does) bring value to any organization – if they are allowed to.

Paresh Raval at 31/01/2017 13:09 said:

Great article Ali, I totally agree with your comments “Diversity offers not only different people, but diverse ideas, perspectives and approaches “.

And would add from my experience, provides for better long term, well thought through decisions rather than short term “macho” style.

Giancarlo at 30/01/2017 14:38 said:

Thanks Ali.

I've been working in the Telco sector for 25 years and moved across different functions and geographies.
Overall I agree that the substantial lack of diversity is slowing down the change of the Telc sector that needs change and innovation to compete/survive in the current market.
In my first part of my career I've been in Italy leading Customer Experience and then Finance with an higher proportion of women even among my direct reports.
This mix has created opportunities for change and challenging the status quo.

Moving in UK, and managing rest of Europe, I found quite difficult to increase the ratio of women in my function. Not sure if the recruitment companies are playing an important role here, but the higher % of candidates I was offered was male.

As the % of women in key position is still too low, we'd ensure we really support that to attract talent and ensure the change we really need in this sector

Nick mottershead at 30/01/2017 11:05 said:

I am with Maria on this. Whilst diverse shortlists are a start the greater issue and cause of slow progress is tone from the top where there is so little diversity and insufficient desire for change. Attitudes in many work places whilst seeming to have changed I am sure they have. Go to a city pub or talk outside of the workplace and the 'boys' prejudices and attitudes remain across many levels. I have said many times at Governance events e.g. At IOD, that there needs to be greater encouragement for boards and c-suite changes but not great burning platform from any really of the key advisors to boards which is more than a pity!

Ali Palmer at 30/01/2017 10:56 said:

I am glad that people so feel passionately about diversity in all its forms. Many organisations are working to achieve a more diverse workforce and the benefits that this brings. We know that our talent pool is better for it and as such we can deliver for our clients.
Diversity should be the norm not the exception.

Peter Einstein at 28/01/2017 00:28 said:

Great Article Ali. Thank you! I have worked in the TMT sector for my entire career. Particularly in Media, from my perspective, there seems to be less issues on the diversity front . Personally I have worked with and for many excellent Women executives and have learned a great deal from the experience. For me, Women are equal to Men in the work place; any work place. Period. Any other position should be relentlessly rejected by all!

Harry Cruickshank at 27/01/2017 18:01 said:

Dear Ali,

I enjoyed reading your article and it makes several good points.

My thoughts echo those made by several of your contributors.

Diversity in all forms can only be a good thing – mixing age, gender, background and style will provide a powerful cocktail of ideas, approaches and unique deliverables. As an example, older people can learn much about our new socially-driven digital environment, and the way people behave in it, from their younger colleagues. In turn, the more experienced workforce can provide the perspective, situational awareness and people management skills that a more extended career path helps you develop.

Getting boards to recognise and buy into this is a different matter. Companies that recruit ‘in their own image’, because they feel it’s a safer strategy, are missing a trick. The better recruiters can help them manage this effectively. Most companies I know who have taken on interims, or permanent staff, from outside their sector have benefitted from the experience and would do so again.

Women returning from career breaks have a difficult time – several friends have experienced this. However, these women are raring to go and will be both committed and hard-working, as they’re focused on rebuilding their career and proving their worth once again.

Interims can add great value where there are career transitions or companies are recruiting and may look outside their sector. The interim can ensure projects are moved forward whilst supporting the new people and helping them engage and become productive.

Kenn Walters at 27/01/2017 15:34 said:

Dear Ali,

Thanks for the very interesting piece you wrote, - certainly thought provoking and I hope it serves to make many organisations consider their hiring and interim policies.

I have been seeing a number of the issues you highlighted myself in different companies around the globe, but would add to the ones you state, the old spectre of "Ageism".

As technology and networks converge at an ever higher velocity, and we move more and more into an IoT + Apps world, I am seeing increasingly, younger senior management, or division management, appearing often from high tech/software/app start-up type backgrounds, who are uncomfortable relying upon older but more experienced executives, even if those execs bring with them a diversity of industries or technologies experience. In a number of cases I am aware of, this has led to project problems and business impacts and often is a cause of bringing in consultants at great cost to restore timelines or tracking to corporate plans. The "grey hair to blue jeans divide" is still alive and active in many companies I'm afraid, and in itself serves to limit the diversity you are championing in your article, and should be recognised and combated by senior execs where possible.

Chris Witheridge at 27/01/2017 10:37 said:

Well done Ali.

Continuing to challenge the status quo and ask the challenging questions about diversity is the only way to continue to improve the situation. It's great to see Odgers out in front here.

I’ve worked in the media industry for over 15 years and I’ve seen a shift. Media is often closely aligned with Telecom. But, in my experience it has always been an industry that attracted a more diverse culture and the businesses I’ve had the privilege of working with have continued to evolve their approach to achieving true diversity and equality. We were regularly schooled and challenged on diversity and equality in the workplace and just as importantly, recruitment. It resonated. It stuck.

I’m sure everyone can reflect and recall their own experiences of discrimination, whether it’s against them or witnessing it against others. So, this matter, as you clearly allude to, goes beyond just the role gender in the debate and how to promote gender equality all the way up to the boardroom and on pay. It goes to the cause of diversity and equality for race, LGBT, religion, disability, parenting, etc.

Continuing to influence the industry and choosing to promote diversity and equality through our everyday actions and interactions with clients and suppliers is going to continue to promote the right behaviours and hopefully discourage the wrong ones.

We have a responsibility to use our position of authority as interims to influence diversity and equality with our clients and suppliers.

Karen McKeever at 27/01/2017 06:31 said:

Great article which looks at many aspects of the diversity issue organisations are facing.

Like many of the people commenting, the diversity challenge is one that filters through all the organisational levels, but predominantly starts with the open-mindedness of the Board and Executive teams. The more they appreciate and recognise that diversity in their organisation brings new thinking, positive challenge and is a driver of success, the more likely they will be to encourage diversity.

Part of the challenge in encouraging diversity is that it is seen as an 'HR' responsibility, which only serves to reinforce some of the resistance to diversity seen in organsiations. In fact the encouragement of diversity is not solely the remit of HR, it is the responsibility of all. The sooner everyone looks past 'diversity indicators' and focuses on best skills and experience for the role needed, the sooner organisations will be more diverse.

Thanks for the thought provoking article Ali.

Damon Harding at 26/01/2017 14:58 said:

It was one of the things I really enjoyed about working for TalkTalk. Sadly, I do believe it is still harder for women of equal abilities to get the top jobs. However I have been inspired in my career by talented women in very senior positions who have managed to balance bringing up young children and the relentless demands of their careers. These include (among others) Baroness Dido Harding (TalkTalk CEO), Tristia Harrison (MD TT Consumer) and Amy Stirling (Former CFO of TT - now CFO Virgin Group). Over the years these inspirational leaders have mentored and supported me and the organisations they work for are much richer for them! Perhaps the greatest testament to them is that I have never really thought about it from a diversity perspective - they are just great at what they do.

Duncan Neale at 26/01/2017 14:43 said:

Thanks Ali. It's a great article. The only thing I would add is that more needs to be done in workplaces to see the benefit of part-time work or job shares. Without this there is heightened risk that women who have taken a break to have a child will make that break a permanent one.

And I agree with you that there should be greater use of interims from other sectors as skills tend to be transferable.

Diversity has to been as widening the gene pool rather than as positive discrimination for its own sake.

What applies to women also applies to ethnicity / origin, but I guess there's a risk of trying to make too many points in one article.

Andrew Johnson at 26/01/2017 14:34 said:

I agree with all the comments - Gaining alternative perspectives from high quality professionals with diverse backgrounds can never be a bad thing. Its even more valuable when the insights are delivered by articulate interims with broad experience in many sectors /organisations who can challenge unencumbered by organisational politics.

Erik Lund at 26/01/2017 13:42 said:

The basic challenge remains to make technology more attractive as a career path for women. In Sweden, being one of the most gender equal countries on earth, only 1 out of 4 students in computer science and engineering are women. Thus we see an equalisation, the recruitment base will be unbalanced.

Secondly, until science also makes reproduction an equal opportunity, we need to stop penalising women from carrying and giving births to our daughters and sons. Pregnancy is not a social disease, but a continuum of our life cycle. We need to treat it as such and have companies support decent maternity leave programs, even with paternity leaves, as well as ensuring/supporting good and affordable public or private day care, allowing the mothers to return to work. Add to this flexibility in the work hours when needed.
Plenty of studies have shown that diversity, not only gender, is beneficial to performance and innovation in companies and should be encouraged and facilitated whenever possible.

Maria Ingold at 26/01/2017 13:20 said:

As a media CTO who speaks at a lot of women in tech events, it seems that there's very little discussion about or recruitment which considers senior (C-level) executive diversity.

I find this strange as board-level diversity brings: 1) improved culture 2) increased innovation 3) better ROI.

Almost all of the diversity agenda is on getting women in at junior level or maybe at mid-level management.

I think that the career break / children part of the executive equation is also obfuscating the real issue. I did not take a career break, nor did I have children, nor did many of my STEM friends.

It's a much different recruitment game when you have 25-30+ years' of experience and are at C-level. There seem to be unwritten "rules" that are taught to boy and men, but not to girls and women. This has nothing to do with confidence or cojones or children, but being sponsored and mentored in the "rules of the boys' game" - by men. That's what really needs to be addressed.

Ian McGregor at 26/01/2017 13:11 said:

I agree 100% with the core principles of this article that diversity is critical to maximising and delivering success, whether this is from an employment or a marketing perspective. All too often as individuals we fail to think outside the box and fall into the trap of one size/one type fits all.

Whilst having a clear focus on either the market or the job requirements is also important, all to often we equate this to mean a narrow perspective, when focus actually means that we should clearly define the requirements rather than having a preconceived or even worse, a prejudice perspective of how this can be best achieved.

The narrowing of perspective I believe unfortunately also tends to increase when times are tough, just when thinking laterally is often so critical to achieving success and not simply following a well trodden path which every competitor is also adopting.

I believe the challenge for us all is to continually ask ourselves:
1. What can a person can bring to the table regardless of seniority, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or age.
2. What can we do as individuals to make a difference, remembering that the obvious route is also the well trodden path but doesn't necessarily get you to where you want to go.

Brian Porritt at 26/01/2017 12:41 said:

I agree with your article, especially the point about recruiting beyond the immediate boundaries of a sector. Disruptive competition tends to originate beyond the conventional orbit of the major incumbents in a market. Hiring people who can strengthen the organisation's ability to anticipate these impacts is still counter-cultural in too many companies. The acquisition of sector knowledge usually takes a few months, acquiring the situational skills can take years. It seems to me that recruiters are well-placed to advise their clients on this as the role and candidate specifications are drawn up.

On the issue of creating environments where greater diversity can be achieved, I see a role for interims. When an executive vacancy arises, the interim can cover the day-job whilst actively developing and coaching internal candidates who are not quite ready for the next big step. Companies spending 6 to 9 months in identifying and preparing internal or returning 'high-potentials' as an alternative to, or in parallel with, a lengthy external search could find they have a far stronger and diverse bench than they first thought.

I am also concerned that the promotion of organisational culture, which is very valuable in instilling values, can spill over into template hiring when "cultural fit" is a misunderstood selection criterion.

Victoria Kalugina at 26/01/2017 12:39 said:

Ali, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am in complete agreement with you that "diversity offers not only different people, but diverse ideas, perspectives and approaches". The challenge is to convince Executive Boards to be open to hiring different minded people, who will question the established ways of thinking and bring positive disruption at the Board level.

Jayne Chace at 26/01/2017 11:44 said:

Why aren’t women invited as readily into the boardroom as they are into the bedroom? That question puzzles women who have added value to the corporate bottom line, but still find top management roles elusive - and not just in telecoms. Research proves that companies with leadership team diversity are more profitable, so "just do it"!

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