In a room of seventy or so bright, eager women, Steve Lake leapt out as the lone trouser suit at Carillion’s biannual ‘women in leadership career development day.’ It was a rare, topsy-turvy situation at this male heavy construction firm yet one I think he relished, which became apparent when he told me later how he’d come to be there. Steve was a welcome addition at the session we ran for the parents (and intending parents) focused on how to signal career commitment and still meet family needs. Keen to hear more about Steve’s attitude to keeping, supporting and stretching female employees I caught up with Steve a week later.
At the end of our conversation I’m left wondering just how significant early experiences of working within a successful team of mainly women, are for men’s later attitudes around supporting female colleagues. Steve’s career began at Marks and Spencer as a teenager where, as a male, he was in the minority – an experience he says set him up to be a supporter of women’s career advancement. As a man at Carillion, Steve is in the majority and he quipped that for many men at this Midlands-based construction firm, working with other men is all they’ve ever known. (A gentle reminder that women haven’t had the easiest of times getting on here and have fallen away significantly at the child-bearing stage).
Steve’s invitation to join the all-female career development day came via a colleague whose praises he was keen to sing on both occasions we talked (he believes she was a key part of Carillion winning a pitch recently and describes her as ‘driven, focused, energetic and bringing a welcome and different tone as a woman.’) And therein lies the first of Steve’s habits that are helping women at Carillion get on: shining a light on talent. The others are: open-mindedness and willingness to do things differently; encouraging women to share the load at home and being a vocal champion for retaining women. To each in turn:
1. Shining a light on talent I picked up a sense that Steve is generous in the way he gives positive feedback to the people he works with (as an aside, research suggests no less than a 3:1 ratio of praise to constructive criticism from line managers to their people keeps performance on track). More than that, he is keen to speak positively about talented people and shine a light on opportunities they could reach for, whether or not they are under his direct line management. Another seminar participant flags him as her line manager, saying she’s recently come back to work for him. He tells me that he makes a point of keeping in contact with the ‘great people’ who have worked for him and that’s how this re-hiring came about.
2. Open-mindedness and willing to do things differently
About 12 years ago Steve was asked by one of his newly returned direct reports (from maternity leave) if she could reduce her hours and work from home one day a week. This was the first flexible working request made of him, and, being a new parent himself, said yes on the basis that he trusted her and believed that working flexibly wouldn’t affect her ability to continue to do a good job. She lived up to expectations and Steve continues to take a results-orientated approach in the way he works. ‘Bums on seats’ is the antithesis of his style and although a results-orientation is something the vast majority of managers say they adopt, when you observe how they manage in reality, the picture is different.
3. Encouraging women to share the load
More than being up for flexible working, Steve’s aware of how it plays on the minds of many a working mother and is at pains to reassure potential recruits at interview stage that flexible working is something he embraces. I imagine this kind of empathy goes a long way to allowing candidates to get on and shine at interview once those very practical worries are assuaged.
He comments that he tries to help female colleagues ‘not let the detailed practicalities of parenting get in the way of getting on’ (at work) and has had coaching-style conversations with direct reports about how they can involve partners more and share the load. He’s happy to share a male parent perspective and encourage others to broaden their thinking as to how things can get done to allow both parent’s careers to flourish. I am almost melting at this point in our conversation and wondering how Carillion can amplify his approach.
4. Being a vocal champion for retaining women
And on the note of amplification and sharing best practice, I ask about anything Steve does to help other managers keep, support and stretch female talent. He talks about encouraging other line managers to think about the impact of letting female colleagues leave. Specifically, he draws their attention to what can happen to morale among the female population – in a male dominated environment – if someone is leaving when perhaps they’d really rather stay, if only things were different…. He’s suggested to other managers in such situations that that all eyes are on them, watching what happens and for that reason, to tread carefully.
I suspect there’s more Steve does that’s valuable and probably others too within Carillion. Being at the women leaders career development day, listening to what the participants were saying and telling them it’s been useful and what he’s learned put a visible smile on faces. The challenge is to amplify the actions of people like Steve because whilst women’s networks and special days dedicated to female career development are positive, helpful and supportive to the individual, they won’t change the culture overall.
Is there someone in your organisation who’s making efforts to keep, support and stretch female talent that we could shine a light on? Go on, make their day and put us in touch with him or her.