DISCUSSION Interview with Margaret Heffernan

by Yolanda Villafuerte _______6th November 2012
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Margaret Heffernan is an international businesswoman, author and former BBC executive. Her first two books focus on women in business, her third book ‘Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril’’ was shortlisted for the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2011.

Her new book, which explores competition, is out in 2014. Mirroring some of the voices heard at our Tomorrow’s Value lecture, at a talk at Bath University Margaret said, “The promise of money, the allure of power and the threat of competition drives high performance. But they incur dangerous side-effects.

How far are we motivating people the wrong way, with the wrong incentives to the wrong ends? What better ways can we find to build organisations characterised by innovation, ingenuity and purpose?”.

Earlier this week, I managed to catch Margaret for a quick telephone call asking for her opinion on some of the questions that Tomorrow’s Company is exploring at the moment. Tomorrow’s Company is running two major programmes, the first of which is Tomorrow’s Capital Markets which sets out new incentive structures for a sustainable, prosperous & equitable world. The second, Tomorrow’s Global Leader: How to ensure women reach the top, seeks to provide the answers and solutions behind why women aren’t maximising their potential in most businesses.

In an article that Margaret wrote for the Huffington Post, she said that ‘You cannot achieve cultural change without structural change’. I asked her what she thought were the structural changes needed in the banking system.

There are two areas that need change. The first is the need to change the hierarchical structure in banks. This structure encourages an organisational silence that can lead to events such as the ones seen in Barclay’s LIBOR case.

The second is the imperial-style leadership in banks.

Margaret also wrote in her article that “Knowledge that banks have is so siloed that half the time it doesn’t do the good that it might. People are accountable either to too many people or not enough.

I also asked Margaret, what she thought was preventing women from progressing to the top positions of most companies.

There are a few reasons but it narrows down to two things, bias and the assumption that women aren’t ambitious. There are neurological reasons why we prefer the familiar. People tend to hire people who are like themselves, and similarly, appoint people onto boards who are like themselves. People think that this unconscious bias makes one a bad person but it is a human weakness that all of us have whether we recognise it or not.  The way to get around it is to recognise it exists and have a cross-sectional balance of people with different biases.

The other is the assumption that women are not ambitious. I am confident that this is a wrong assumption. Women are ambitious. However, women will not put themselves forward if they think it will be futile. It ends up being self-reinforcing where fewer and fewer women reach senior positions and more women count themselves out as they feel they do not have a chance.  “

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