Competitive advantage

Want a competitive advantage? Send the lift back down…

4 minute read


I believe in positive capitalism; I have spent my life and my career meeting people in the corporate world who have principles and believe that making a positive impact in the world is not incompatible with professional success and business profitability.  There are examples where greed and following the money have led to appalling stories and an understandable cynicism about business folk but these tales are not the norm.

You can change your world; you can change the world.

Decisions made within the business world can have a direct impact and an indirect one on the wider world. I am inspired by the many business leaders who manage to show how both heart and conscience can run alongside fiscal savviness.

I am writing this on International Women’s Day so it seems appropriate to look at one of the biggest challenges society and business faces: the role of women. Audi made a bold statement with its ‘Daughter’ Superbowl ad recently. This was highly significant in an industry which has traditionally been rubbish at appealing to or positively representing females in its communications, both in the US and across Europe.  Despite women’s increasingly influential role in the purchase or influence over the purchase of cars, dealerships and communications show strong male dominance (as do the leadership boards of the organisations who sell cars). So, it wasn’t surprising that the ad received a great deal of coverage. But it also suffered a backlash as commentators pointed out that despite the advertising’s feminist stance, only 2 out of 14 members of Audi’s board were female. Don’t get me wrong, I am still in favour of the Audi ad but it’s not enough, we live in a world where people look from the outside into organisations. If you want to change the world, you have to change your own world.

Contrast this with the stance taken by P&G’s European Chief Gary Coombe. Gary shows how P&G’s commitment to diversity is not just evidenced in their product development and marketing but also how they act internally. This is very impressive in an organisation which promotes from within; a policy which in other companies would make it hard to hire in diversity at a senior level. Sticking and staying firm to your values (while also hitting your short-term profit goals) is not at all easy. So those who manage to do more with their legacy as leaders than ‘just’ hit the profit targets should be lauded and supported.

P&G’s diversity story is matched with what it is continuing to do on sustainability. It would be wrong to mention this without highlighting the extreme corporate courage shown by Unilever, P&G’s rival, headed by Paul Polman. His unstinting commitment to building a more sustainable future for the organisation has resulted in it becoming an organisation which rivals the ‘sexy tech’ companies like Google and Facebook as a highly attractive place to work. Taking a stand about what you believe in and behaving in a way which is consistent with your values means that others want to be part of it. Unilever’s commitment to diversity is clear and has led to great results – read more here. The quality of people who want to join or the sense of pride their people feel about being part of Unilever’s journey gives the organisation an immense competitive advantage; which comes from their ‘Inside Out’ leadership, driven from the inside, from the heart, not from their PR department.

Compare that with the sad, sorry tale of Susan Fowler and Uber. The stories about rampant, daft sexism within Uber (and within other tech companies) feels so dated and so daft.

Companies that have hyper-scaled have clearly been left not just with a ‘tech debt’ as their products race ahead at pace but also with a ‘cultural debt’ as their leaders have not been grown up enough to understand three fundamental facts:

“In the UK there are more CEOS of the FTSE 100 who are called Dave than there are women.”
1. An attractive company culture builds an attractive company ‘brand’ which recruits and retains the best people. It’s such a basic mathematical equation; if you can find smarter, higher quality people who want to be part of your company you will reduce your hiring costs, improve your retention levels and recruit better people. I have worked with and interviewed a number of leaders of great companies; they all agree that finding the right people is one of the key components in speeding up success.

So don’t be daft and reduce the number of great people who want to ‘get on the bus’ (as Good to Great analyst and author Jim Collins puts it) by screwing up your brand.  Making your organisation less attractive to women or to people who want to work in a respectful, diverse culture… it’s, frankly, such a schoolboy error.

2. Diversity drives innovation and success. It’s not just the cheeky young upstarts like Uber who struggle with this though. In the UK there are more CEOS of the FTSE 100 who are called Dave than there are women. Which is daft when extensive data shows that a more diverse organisation is better for business. For example, a recent study by Mckinsey showed that in the UK alone for every 10 percent increase in gender diversity on a senior executive team, EBIT rose by 3.5 percent.

Today State Street Global Advisors generated worldwide publicity by symbolically unveiling a girl standing down the ‘Wall Street’ bull.  When asset managers are highlighting the need for change so brilliantly, it sends a powerful symbol.

3. Want a competitive advantage? Send the lift back down. If you are an ambitious leader, ‘send the lift back down’ don’t pull the ladder up. Help those lower down within the organisation fulfil their potential show and talk about your intentions to provide opportunity for all publicly. In a world where Glassdoor provides fantastic transparency for the reality of the workplace situation, what happens on the inside of an organisation will attract or repel those who want to be inside an organisation.

Have you checked your Glassdoor score recently? What are you measures about being a great place to work? Have you acted to show the world you mean what you say or do you pay lipservice to diversity. Publicis’ public firing of Kevin Roberts was an example of a business taking a stand on its principle of respecting and encouraging diversity. Are you setting up a culture that makes it as smart as possible to attract brilliant people regardless of what their background or gender is? Because, frankly when some of the smartest tech companies like Uber are making such old school mistakes, there’s a real opportunity to drive ahead by being smarter about your people.

Diversity is the future, because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s the smart thing to do in business. It’s an easy way to show that profit and principles in the business world are not incompatible – and, at the moment, an easy way to score a competitive advantage. Win. Win. Win. Happy International Women’s Day.


© Image courtesy of SSGA


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Sophie Devonshire
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