Contributed by Morice Mendoza, Editor,

Imagine a board discussion at a large multinational company. One of the directors, a smart forward-thinker, makes a presentation in which he says that the company could achieve a 112% higher return on invested capital if it made one transformational change to its organisational structure and culture. The board would jump at the chance to make such a difference to its performance, ensuring the change programme is a number one priority.

Now, put this discussion against the context of the current economic climate in which the smartest brains in the financial world have managed to shed billions of dollars worth of corporate value because of their over-extended risk-taking behaviour. Also, set this against the context of several decades of management thinking, which has put shareholder value above everything else, even if it meant getting rid of 100,000s of employees or damaging local communities.

This board, however, has realised it can make a massive difference to its performance by making one change. It won’t be easy but the result will be revolutionary and it can be done in a sustainable way.

The change is, of course, ensuring that the company raises women to the top levels of the organisation and the 112% higher return in invested capital comes from Catalyst, the US-based research organisation, in 2007 based on its study of the Fortune 500 Companies, in which companies with three or more women directors on their boards were found to have out-performed companies with lower female representation at the top.

The change will result in a balance of women and men at the senior levels of the organisation, which studies from Catalyst, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and others have shown will lead to higher corporate performance. It will enable the company to attract more women, the majority of graduates, and make it more likely the company will retain and develop them to the best of their abilities. It will add greater marketing power to the company, making it better placed to understand the woman consumer, who dominates in world markets.

It seems like a no-brainer. But then imagine what happens when the director concerned mentions the notion that the revolutionary change involves advancing women. Then the board is likely to go in one of two directions. It might choose the progressive path and decide to make it one of its priorities. But it is probably going to set a woefully low and limited target for change. For example, it will set itself the goal of increasing the percentage of women in its top 500 leaders from the present figure of 7% to 20% in five years. This is realistic, they will say. But if the change can really bring about a revolutionary boost to performance, isn’t it better to aim as high as you can and push hard for the change to happen?

The other direction they might take is of course to do nothing or very little, believing that it is something that will evolve gradually as more women come through the leadership pipeline.

We need not bother with the second response, as this leads to a glacial pace of change and the exit of talented women to other more attractive destinations. But the key point about the first response is that it is inadequate. It lacks urgency and it lacks conviction. You can sense the almost embarrassed sidelining of the issue to the Diversity department, the smiles at the award ceremonies where the company is recognised for its good work and the lack of urgency in management ranks. Is it a ‘nice to have’ policy or a business imperative?

I would suggest that the first key step to successfully creating a gender bilingual culture is to treat the issue as a business imperative.

Then, with that conviction and drive coming from the top, the issue will cascade down the organisation. It will lead the company to devise its own methods to make the change happen. All managers will be held accountable. It won’t just be a matter of saying, “Oh, well, George, try better next time”. It will be a matter of saying, “This affects your overall performance rating.” If a manager cannot recruit and keep the best women talent, aiming for a 50-50 gender balance in his or her team, then something is wrong with the management approach. That must be brought home in very clear terms and in a way that has an impact on the manager’s pay packet.

The outcome of this change will then spread through the organisation creating entirely new cultural norms. I suggest a few of them here but what happens depends on the company itself, on what kind of organisation it is. But the result will be a company that promotes the best talent, both men and women, and has a balanced leadership all the way through to the top. And the result of that will be better performance on a significant scale.

  1. The often hidden notion that an employee gives his entire soul and life to a company will become ridiculous. Think of all those old films about cops or detectives in which the character, a maverick, a loner and usually a man, works for his work. The result is a damaged home life, too much drink and so forth. But the romantic implication is that he does end up solving the crime because he is dogged and always on the job. But the fact is no company should demand that kind of commitment from its people. At worst, it leads to burn-out and at best, to an effective worker but a narrow-thinker. It wants balanced, healthy individuals with interesting and fulfilling lives outside. Therefore, a gender bilingual organisation will use the impetus provided by women (who cannot and mostly will not throw out their commitment to family and friends) to create a new culture. Flexibility, working from home as well as at the office, working around family commitments, no more ‘presenteeism’ and so on. The change will be refreshing to everyone and men and women will both be trusted to give 100% and manage their outside lives. Not so much balance, as being able to achieve great results while also having a life. This could mean working in the evening, after the children are asleep. But who cares? The job will be done. And eventually, men as well as women will work this way. That will enable dual-career couples to thrive in both of their careers.
  2. The idea that people are not taken seriously as high-flyers because they work in this way will also go the way of the dinosaurs. Results, effectiveness, vision, imagination will be the currency of the new leaders, not how much time they are prepared to over-extend for their bosses, at the expense of everything else they hold dear.
  3. The old boys’ club will decrease in significance. It won’t disappear but there will be an old girl’s club too, equally important, and it won’t waste hours in a bar at night but will meet at breakfast or at lunch. This is already happening but in the new organisation, this network will matter as much as the men’s one and there may even be a joint male and female network.
  4. The managers of this new company will be sensitive to the gender differences. They will be more wary of the men pushing themselves forward for new jobs and less judgmental of the women who do not. Rather than asking women to go against their nature and become as aggressive as the men, the managers will make sure everyone gets a chance to apply for new opportunities. They will make sure that women feel comfortable coming forward and that this greater reluctance to try out new jobs (even though they might be better qualified than the men) will not be seen as a weakness. It might even be seen as a strength.
  5. Loud, charismatic leaders will have their place but so will quieter, more humble ones. In this mix, men and women will equally be considered for top executive positions. A recent Harvard Business Review (“Women are the Vision Thing”, Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru, January 2009) showed that women scored better on nine counts out of ten in terms of leadership quality including such critical leadership traits as being able to energise people, build teams and design and align the organisation with the outside world. They were scored poorly though by their male peers in relation to the  “envisioning” skill. The new company will recognise that women have immensely valuable leadership skills and that in most areas they might be better performers than men. This will be valued and drive the company to make every effort to promote women to the top. It won’t lead them to say, “No envisioning, no good.”

The new gender bilingual organisation will recognise that men and women are different and that by bringing those differences together in an organisation in which they can both thrive, will lead to better management, more diverse thinking and significantly improved performance. But the penny must drop first with the leaders at the top, whether they are men or women. They must take this up as a business imperative and drive it through with all their energy and enthusiasm. The rest will follow.