Chair of the Deloitte Global Board of Directors on diversity, nurturing talent and working patterns

Chair of the Deloitte Global Board of Directors on diversity, nurturing talent and working patterns

Sharon Thorne, chair of the Deloitte Global Board of Directors, spoke to AJ Chambers about the importance of gender parity in the workplace, and her advice for women entering into the accountancy practice and finance industry.

Chair of the Deloitte Global Board of Directors on diversity, nurturing talent and working patterns

More than a third of FTSE 350 board positions are held by women, according to the government backed Hampton Alexander review which was launched in 2016 to encourage UK-listed companies to appoint more women to their boards and into senior leadership positions. Without this government backed initiative do you believe we would not have seen these gains and do you think we need initiatives like this to achieve parity?

I do think initiatives like this make a difference and without the Government support and also media attention it has had, I don’t think we would have moved as far as we have on the proportion of women on boards. However, it is critical that such diversity initiatives are not seen simply as tick-box or compliance activities.

The business case for diversity is clear – research shows that increasing diversity not only helps create a more inclusive culture, it also leads to better business outcomes. Increased diversity of all kinds and at all levels leads to smarter decision-making, reduces risk, contributes to an organisation’s bottom line, powers innovation, and protects against blind spots, among other benefits. The sooner organisations realise this and increase diversity, the more successful they’ll be.

Gender diversity has always been an area of special focus for me. One of the issues that concerns me the most right now related to achieving parity is the impact the pandemic has had on working women and how the extra responsibilities many women have had to take on has adversely impacted their career progression. Even before COVID the pace of change was too slow – this could set us back decades. There is research starting to be produced on this topic, however, I am afraid we won’t know the true impact for many months.

It’s important to remember that achieving parity isn’t just important in the boardroom – we also need more women around the executive table and participating in strategic conversations where critical decisions are being made.

Drawing from your own career experiences, what is your key piece of advice to women who may either be training or newly qualified and coming into the accountancy practice industry?

First and foremost, I think you have to work out what you are good at and love doing – find your passion. Remember, it is a corporate lattice, not a ladder. You may choose to take time out or change direction and you can still have a fantastic leadership career. It is key that you get personal satisfaction and value out of your work and enjoy the journey; it isn’t all about the destination!

Once you think about what you want, believe you can get there and absolutely go for it. Far too many women – including myself – have experiences with imposter syndrome, which can at times be crippling. And whilst it can be very challenging to overcome, it’s important to recognise that imposter syndrome can be caused (or exacerbated) by the environment you are operating in – which underlines the need for a diverse and inclusive culture. However, I do believe that half the battle is having the confidence to put yourself forward. One of the most important lessons I have learnt is the importance of being your true self at work and being confident to be that person; you’ll be surprised by what you can achieve when you do.

Finally, make sure that you’ve got a sponsor who’s going to champion you, plus a mentor who will support and push you. It can be harder for women to access sponsors, but with more and more companies taking inclusive leadership development initiatives seriously, we are beginning to see change. Sponsors and mentors are key in pushing you out of your comfort zone and encouraging you to take challenging opportunities that you might otherwise shy away from. I personally sponsor several women and I get great pleasure from seeing the positive impact it has on them and their careers.

Skilled finance professionals are in increased demand, now more than ever during the pandemic. Research states companies with diverse leadership teams have better profitability and efficiency, however representation of women in leadership roles across finance and in all industries is still relatively uncommon; why do you think this is?

Women continue to face significant barriers to equality. Around the world, women do the vast majority of unpaid work in the home, workplace cultures are often out of date and not designed to accommodate the needs of women, unconscious bias is pervasive and goes unaddressed, and women don’t receive the same level of sponsorship that often leads to success for their male counterparts. And of course, the pandemic has exacerbated these issues.

All these factors – and others – work in tandem to create a significant pipeline problem: there are just not enough women making it to senior leadership roles across the finance industry – and indeed most other industries.

It is also important to address the pipeline problem, not just focusing on the C-suite.  Companies should also look at the critical “middle” management level where gender inequality tends to become more acute as barriers for women increase, for example due to lack of flexible work options, the performance vs potential challenge (where men tend to be promoted on potential while women are promoted on performance), and the lack of role models at the top. This is where companies can make a difference by launching leadership, sponsorship and mentoring initiatives that provide women with opportunities for advancement. It’s critical that we level the playing field.

At Deloitte we are acutely aware of this challenge and determined to tackle it head on. We have a clear strategy and commitment to increase the proportion of women in senior leadership roles in all of our geographies at Executive and Board level and also in key client serving roles, and I am very proud of the progress we have made. We also know there’s more work to be done, especially as the pandemic has worsened many of the issues for women at work.

Our focus on gender equality does not end with our own organisation. Through a number of our WorldClass societal impact projects, Deloitte aims to positively impact the lives of women and girls outside our organisation. Stories of some of this work around the world are captured in our first-ever Global Gender Impact Report.

What role do business leaders need to take in nurturing new and diverse talent into the market post pandemic?

At a time when the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and injustices, we’re experiencing social, political, and economic turmoil around the globe, and we continue to face the very serious and increasing threat of climate change, the role of leadership has perhaps never been so important. Trust and resilience are critical right now.

We’re at a pivotal point, and organisations and societies must learn from these crises and implement changes that enhance their resilience. We have the opportunity to build a better normal and make sure our workplaces work for everyone regardless of gender, race, ability, sexual orientation, background – or any other factor that makes us all unique individuals.

When it comes to accountability around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), business leaders must set the tone from the top – addressing culture and ensuring leadership accountability for building a truly inclusive environment.

Perception of what makes a good leadership in business has changed, accelerated in part by the pandemic. In your view, what makes a good leadership style and why?

Along with having to adapt to working remotely, I think the current environment has made empathy, authenticity, and trust even more important characteristics of being a good leader. Everyone has been impacted by the pandemic in some way. Some people are dealing with increased anxiety and uncertainty, some are feeling isolated, and some now have increased workloads – either at home or at work – that can feel very overwhelming.

As lives have been disrupted by the pandemic, I have found it’s especially important for leaders to be able to have open and supportive conversations with their teams. I check in with my core team regularly – through one-on-one or small group calls and ask them if they are okay, and I listen and probe and support as needed. And sometimes it’s important to ask are you okay more than once to get to the truth.

Leading with empathy promotes an open and respectful culture that can build trust among employers and employees. Open dialogues can also help leaders understand the short-term constraints their team members may be facing and better support them. I also think it’s important to lead by example and for leaders to be open about the challenges they are facing – to share their vulnerabilities – because this gives team members the psychological safety they need to do the same.

The global pandemic has altered the way we work. What is your view on the new norm of flexible working patterns and remote working, and do you think flexible working patterns will be here to stay?

This period has exposed the positives and negatives of remote working. On the one hand, there are real environmental and personal wellbeing benefits to reducing work travel. And although virtual engagement isn’t the same as being together in person, you can certainly cover a lot more ground in one day. I used to go to one country for three or four days; now I can “go” to five or six countries in one day.

On the other hand, when you’re working from home and constantly connected to technology, it can be hard to switch off, no matter what time of day it is or where you are. It can be hard to know these days if we are working from home, or if we live at work! It’s been especially important for me to prioritise formal breaks and personal time to make sure I am maintaining a good balance between my work and personal life. I also really miss the energy and creative spark that comes from face-to-face interactions and so will plan a balance of being in the office and working from home going forward.

During my career I have learnt that having balance is absolutely crucial to working successfully and finding purpose and value in what you do. Ensuring I have the right team around me at work, and the right support structures at home is vital, and I set aside time to spend connecting with colleagues, friends and family, and seeking support when I need it.

At Deloitte we recognise the importance of prioritising our people’s mental health. In January we co-launched the Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health. This new business-led collaboration will advocate for and accelerate critical change for workplace mental health and enable employees to thrive in the workplace and beyond.

I think in the “new normal,” once pandemic restrictions have eased, most organisations will have some balance between working from home and working in the office. However, it’s important to note that remote working does not always translate to flexible working.

Flexible working can have real benefits for organisations’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. However, to do it right, organisations must make sure they’re fostering a workplace culture that recognises and rewards productivity and performance over presenteeism, combatting the misconception that flex work is gender-driven, and encouraging transparency at all levels so employees can establish work schedules that enable them to prioritise both their work and well-being. People have to feel able to switch off and to take personal time even when they are working from home long-term.

It is well documented that women have taken on the majority of childcare and homeschooling responsibilities during the pandemic, which has highlighted the gender pay gap issue when women have children. Add to this, more women have been furloughed or lost their jobs globally during the pandemic. How do you think this will affect the world of work and opportunities for progression for women and what can organisations do to support the female workforce?

As a recent Deloitte Global report on women and COVID-19 found, the pandemic has adversely affected working women, leading to negative impacts in mental and physical well-being and work/life balance.

We are at an inflection point, seeing as 60% of those surveyed question whether they want to progress at their organisations when considering what they believe it will take.

Organisations need to take action to support the women in their workforces and ensure they can thrive both personally and professionally—or our economy and society could face long-standing repercussions.

Our research demonstrates there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but points to six key steps that leaders can implement to support not just the women in their workforces – but all their employees – during the pandemic. These include making flexible working arrangements the norm, implementing learning experiences that work for employees’ daily (perhaps disrupted) lives, addressing unconscious bias in succession and promotion planning (and considering how this manifests in remote working environments), and making diversity, respect, and inclusion non-negotiable values.



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