Four ways to filter feedback

Not all feedback is useful That's why a filter is needed.

The candidate had just delivered a winning ‘stump speech’ to a large audience of potential voters in her local town hall. By the end of her pitch, she could feel the support of the audience behind her and left the stage elated.

As she packed up to leave the venue, a friend approached her and said, ‘I want to give you some feedback about what you should have done…” Her heart sank because what followed was a critique of everything the candidate had supposedly done wrong that night; from what she was wearing to what she had not talked about. Her friend thought he was being helpful but his ‘feedback’ risked derailing and deflating the candidate.

Luckily, this candidate was a coaching client of mine. The next day, as we discussed what happened, I was able to share with her a simple and helpful ‘feedback filter’ to consider when receiving feedback. And I want to share it with you too.

Unwanted feedback vs useful advice

Have you ever felt ambushed by someone’s opinions about your life or work – even when you haven’t asked them to comment on what you’re doing?

Let’s face it.  Feedback – even when delivered with the best of intentions – can get your back up.

I’m not talking about useful advice, that’s provided in a helpful way by someone who knows their stuff. There’s a difference. For example, check your reaction when someone who knows nothing about your area of expertise says, “I want to give you some feedback” compared to an expert who asks, “can I give you some advice?” Most people will brace for the inevitable negative comments that come with the first statement, yet are curious to listen to advice from an expert.  

It’s important to accept while that feedback can assist you, not all advice is good advice. Too much ‘white noise’ of others’ opinions can paralyse and confuse you, especially when it’s not asked for or comes from people who don’t know what they are talking about. 

To help you sort the useful feedback from the dross, what you need is a feedback filter.

The Feedback filters 

Motivational speaker Matt Church provides a straightforward way to filter feedback from the helpful to unhelpful. In his book NEXT he advises

“Not all feedback is good, constructive or useful. Take control and be strategic about who you listen to and what advice you take on board.”

Church’s model is simple and effective approach to classifying feedback into four categories:

  • 1) SOLICITED advice is when you ask for feedback from someone  
  • 2) UNSOLICITED advice is when someone just gives you advice, even when you didn’t ask for it.
  • 3) The people you receive the feedback from, are either an EXPERT in the topic and experienced or knowledgeable (i.e. qualified to speak on the topic). Or
  • 4) They are NOT EXPERTS, just someone who’s unqualified, giving you their opinion.  

To understand what category feedback falls into, Church suggests you ask yourself these two questions:

  • Did I ask for it?
    and
  • Is this person qualified to have an opinion?

If the person is unqualified to have an opinion and you didn’t ask for it, you have the option to ignore it. On the other hand, even if you didn’t ask for it, but the person is qualified, you may want to consider the feedback. If the person isn’t qualified but you asked for their feedback, there is an opportunity to take the information on board as data, that may or may not inform your action.

The real gold in feedback comes when you can ask an expert for feedback and they are willing provide you with advice.

That’s the sort of feedback worth acting on. For candidates in political campaign-mode like my client, it is crucial to have a team of trusted, expert advisers around you (often known as the Kitchen Cabinet) who can guide and provide feedback for action.  

How to respond to feedback you don’t seek

If you’re tired of getting unsolicited ‘feedback’ from unqualified people with plenty of opinions, try  these polite replies:

  • “Thank you for your opinion”
  • “Thank you, you may be right”
  • “Thank you, however, I need to focus right now but next time I want your advice I’ll be sure to ask for it”
  • Simply smile, nod and move on

And for yourself, next time you feel a desire to give someone feedback, consider if;
a) you are qualified and experienced to pass it on and
b) if the person has asked for it.
If it’s just a random opinion and the person has not asked for feedback, then maybe hold your tongue! 

Ultimately, feedback and advice can be useful, especially for showing up blind spots that you may not be aware of. However, feedback should lead to an improvement in your work, not hinder action or knock your confidence.

Ruth McGowan OAM is an experienced political campaigner at a local and federal level and a Councillor Coach. She is author of Get Elected; a step-by-step campaign guide to winning public office  

Victoria Leads the Nation in Female CEOs

When it comes to women making it to top leadership roles in local councils, Victoria is leading the nation.

When it comes to women making it to top leadership roles in local councils, Victoria is leading the nation.  

In the past three years, the number of female Chief Executive Officers leading Victorian #localcouncils has doubled.  One third of the 79 councils are now led by a female CEO, including interim and acting roles (26 women and 53 men). 

The rise in female CEOs is up from 14% in the 2000s, to 16% in 2017 to 33% in August this year.  

Compare this to the national average for #LocalGovernment of just 11% of council CEOs and general managers being women and only 6% of CEOs in ASX 200 companies are women. 

What is Victoria doing right? A few things

  1. There are more women councillors making the decision to recruit a female CEO (38%), which means more, talented female CEOs are being employed
  2. Leadership and advocacy for gender equality by the female CEOs and Presidents of the three peak bodies in Victorian local government, MAV, VLGA and LGPro 
  3. A strong pipeline of talented women coming through council management teams 
  4. Advice for Councillors on how to lift gender equality at all levels of councils from Local Government Victoria’s Best Practice Guidelines for Gender Equality (which I authored in 2018, along with a comprehensive Research Companion)

When employing CEOs the Best Practice Guidelines encourage Councillors to consider steps such as:

  • Develop inclusive job advertisements
  • Work with recruitment agencies who are committed to gender equality and can source gender balanced short lists
  • Balanced selection panels of Councillors
  • Oversight by an independent chair 
  • Grow the talent pipeline within the organisation so women leaders can step up into CEO roles

Progress on gender equality can be precarious, especially in politics. But this milestone, is one to be celebrated.

Campaign tips for COVID times

To get elected, competitive campaigners need to keep going, even when the going gets tough.

Campaigning for public office is challenging at the best of times. Now, with COVID implications, it’s just got a lot harder.

The requirement for physical distancing and the ongoing uncertainty about when this pandemic might end, has turned traditional campaigning on its head.  

When you can’t shake hands with unsuspecting voters, or face the hecklers at large public meetings, or even kiss babies, what’s a would-be politician meant to do to be heard?

Turns out you can still do quite a lot!

In 2019, when I published Get Elected the first national guidebook on how to run a successful political campaign, my goal was to assist women and candidates from diverse backgrounds to Get Elected. At the time, few were predicting a pandemic!

This year in Australia, COVID is posing a challenge for many candidates seeking office. No more so than in Melbourne, Victoria where Stage-4 restrictions are impacting the approach taken by many candidates contesting the upcoming local government elections in October.   There, Local Government Victoria has issued Safe Campaign Guidelines to help candidates understand how to comply with the directions of the Victorian Chief Health Officer to stay safe.  

In response to requests for advice on how to cut through with a campaign in a pandemic, and garner the attention of voters, I have developed a 2-page guide on Campaign Tips In COVID times.

Tips to cut through

My advice for candidates seeking the competitive edge for their campaign at the moment covers the following strategies

  • No 1 – Stay compliant. Keep updated on what you must do in a pandemic by following the advice of your Chief Health Officer, Electoral Commission, and various government departments.
  • Go online – With physical distancing requirements, online is the main platform to promote you and your message to voters.
  • Cut Through – With so much news, you need to work hard to be heard above the plethora of pandemic news
  • Tell The Story  – Explain your personal story. People want to hear from candidates. And tell the story of the election where you are standing. Most people don’t know about it.
  • Write Letters – In these digital times, letters still make an impact.
  • Advertise – In election campaigns, the Candidate is the product. Go out and sell yourself, online and in traditional media.
  • Promote your image – In times like these, you will need to work even harder to put your face in front of voters and raise awareness about your campaign.
  • Fundraise – Fundraising is tough at the moment, yet it is worth asking for support to boost your reach.
  • Be Inclusive – When more than 21% of Australians speak languages other than English at home, make an effort to communicate with diverse voters.
  • Stay Connected – there are several resources out there that can help with tips and advice on campaigning in challenging times.

To download a copy of Ruth’s Campaign Tips in COVID times; and get help to cut through with your campaign https://ruthmcgowan.com/free-downloads/ visit and subscribe to Ruth’s newsletter.

When I met Australia’s first female PM

Once upon a time we had a female Prime Minister

It’s been ten years since Australia had our first female Prime Minister, the Hon. Julia Gillard AC and she remains a role model for women in politics.

When it comes to dreaming about getting into political offices, every young woman needs to know it is possible because it has been done before.  

In the years since June 24, 2010, every little girl -and woman – who has dreamt of entering politics – can look back and know that from 2010-2013, our country was led by a woman.

However, we haven’t had another women PM since then. Why not?

Australia’s international ranking for the percentage of women in politics has slipped to 55th in the world, down from 26th, when Ms Gillard was first elected in 1998 (source: Inter-Parliamentary Union) Currently, we still have fewer than one-third of women in the Lower House in Australia’s Federal Parliament.

This week I spoke to the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) Australia about what needs to be done to help more women Get Elected so we can reach Gender Equality in Australian Politics.

You can be what you see

Visible leadership of women in power, at the highest level, means all women aspiring to public office can now see what is possible. I am grateful to Julia Gillard for being ‘the first’ in this area of female political leadership.

I first met Julia Gillard in 2009, when she was Deputy PM. I was the local Mayor for Baw Baw Shire Council. It was the days following the Black Saturday bushfire disaster that devastated my community. Julia Gillard came to visit the fire-affected areas, speaking first-hand with survivors and local officials to learn about the impact of the fire and understand where support was needed. She listened to stories of survivors and heard about the impact this unprecedented natural disaster had on peoples lives and the challenges for local government services. As a result, support and additional funding came in the months of recovery ahead. This was welcomed by those trying to rebuild their lives.

I was delighted to meet Julia Gillard again in February this year, at Victoria’s Government House. She spoke at a gathering of Pathways to Politics alumni and chatted with dozens of admiring women afterwards. I was thrilled to gift her a copy of my book Get Elected, written to support more women to run for public office.  This meeting has been a highlight of 2020.

Ten years on, let us celebrate this milestone in Women’s leadership. I hope that we won’t have to wait too long to see the next female Prime Minister.

Political savvy is a critical competency for astute leaders.

To be an effective CEO, community leader or project manager, it is not enough to be smart, strategic or empathetic. Modern leaders must […]

To be an effective CEO, community leader or project manager, it is not enough to be smart, strategic or empathetic. Modern leaders must also be politically astute, with a truckload of ‘political nous’.

Calling for Political Astute leaders

In the past year, I have noticed a change in the language of the position descriptions for local-government CEO vacancies. Increasingly, the Key Selection Criteria for these plum roles are seeking leaders who can demonstrate they are ‘politically astute’. This is a ‘must have’ skill for leaders of large, public sector organisations who also have to deal with elected representatives.

In a local council, aspiring managers need to demonstrate that they have:

  • The ‘project skills’ to deliver on strategic council plans.
  • The ‘people skills’ to engage with a wide range of diverse stakeholders and successfully collaborate on project delivery
  • The empathy to inspire hundreds of skilled staff to commit to a service-orientated culture.

The modern CEO also needs to add:

  • the ‘political skills’ that ensure productive relationships with elected representatives and the ability to create a positive people and culture environment for managing workplace politics.

It can be hard to define ‘politically savvy’ but you certainly can tell when someone doesn’t have it!

What is ‘political savvy’?

I suggest people seek to answer this question by thinking of a leader(s) they admire and reflecting on the importance of political skills to this leader’s success.

Conversely; think of those leaders who despite great promise, ultimately failed in the role. It was most likely because they didn’t ‘get the politics’ and lacked ‘political nous’.

It is tough to deliver transformative change, operational excellence, stakeholder engagement, a thriving culture … and all the other outcomes expected of a senior manager or community leader without a high level of political intelligence.

That’s why all successful leaders have the smarts, the strategy and the savvy.

How politically savvy you are is measured by your Political Quotient, that is, your level of political intelligence.

If you were to unpack the components of a Political Astute leader into its parts, it looks like this:

IQ (Intelligence Quotient) + EQ (Emotional Quotient) + PQ (Political Quotient) = Astute

Lift your PQ

If you wish to ‘get good stuff done’  – whether in your workplace or community – you need to take an interest in the politics going on around you. Because if you don’t; politics will take an interest in you and this may not be to your benefit.

That’s why I don’t call politics a ‘game’ because this is deadly serious. Your level of political intelligence – and therefore how politically astute you are – can make or break your career.

As a consultant working in the local government sector and someone who is fascinated by the ‘raw politics’ of public office, I am keen to learn more about what it takes to help people master the politics. This year, I travelled to London to undertake accredited training with the UK-based Academy for Political Intelligence who are world leaders in delivering training in organisational politics.

The Academy has developed a range of tools and processes to help people in organisations to manage the political landscape more effectively. This includes a diagnostic tool which allows people to identify the type of ‘political animal’ they are and workshops on how to build the skills to become more politically intelligent to manage the politics in their organisation.

I am now an accredited trainer with the Academy to deliver this training throughout the Asia-Pacific region for corporations keen to understand how to boost their skills in organisational politics and become more politically savvy. This is particularly important for new and aspiring managers and team leaders. By learning the skills of politically savvy at the start of their leadership journey, people can fast track the years that it may take to learn about politics the hard way.

If you want to know more about the Political Savvy training program for new managers and aspiring leaders, please get in touch, and I will forward you information about the workshop program that can be delivered in your workplace.

Ruth McGowan OAM is an accredited trainer in Political Intelligence and runs training on how to Boost your Political Savvy for new and aspiring leaders.

Woman interrupted…

Did you see the recent report from the Harvard Business Review that found women leaders scored higher than men on the majority of […]

Did you see the recent report from the Harvard Business Review that found women leaders scored higher than men on the majority of critical leadership competencies? In fact, women were found to be more effective in 84% of the competencies measured.

“Women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practising self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty. Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills – HBR 25/6/19

This same research also reported a massive confidence gap between younger women and their male counterparts, especially for women under 25 years of age. Thankfully this confidence-gap virtually disappears by the time women reach their 40s. However, in the meantime, organisations risk not hearing the voices of younger, competent female talent who may be struggling to build their confidence in the first decade of their career.

If you are interested in advancing gender equality, like I am, the important question to ask is ‘what can we do to build the confidence of younger women to speak up and contribute’?

Rather than blaming women for their self-doubt, it is possible to design organisational changes to make the system more inclusive.   

A practical example of changes to make in the workplace is to purposefully design meetings to be more inviting of contributions from everyone; including female staff, new employees and team members from different cultural backgrounds or diverse communities. Inclusive meetings aim to ensure everyone can have their voice heard and feel that their contribution is valued.

We interrupt … to talk about interrupting

Constant interruptions in meetings are not unusual, yet they can subtly contribute to gender disparity in many organisations as well as public discourse.

Interruptions can be disruptive or co-operative. Co-operative interruptions may be affirmative with the intention to build rapport or support a speaker. For example, when you hear someone saying “Yep, good point – totally agree” or “Uh-huh, we found the same problem”. They also include interruptions to clarify a point such as “Excuse me – could you please explain that acronym?” or “Can you elaborate on Scenario A?”

In contrast, disruptive interruptions may be a deliberate attempt by the listener to assert dominance in a conversation by controlling the floor. For example; “OK, we’ve had enough discussion on that topic, let’s move on” or “But we tried that last time, and it didn’t work”. 

Some social researchers believe there is a gender aspect to interruptions. Dr Pragya Agarwal, a behavioural scientist and mental health campaigner, has written about the tendency for men to interrupt more than women. She quotes a US study that found men interrupted 33%  more often when they spoke with women than when they spoke with other men. The research also found that over a short conversation (3-minutes), men interrupted women 2.1 times but only interrupted other men 1.8 times. (By contrast, the women on average interrupted men only once). She cites other research that found “men were more likely to interrupt women with the intent to assert dominance in the conversation, meaning men were interrupting to take over the conversation floor”.

Diverse teams make better decisions, minimising the risk of ‘group think’. However, constant disruptive interruptions in meetings can ‘shut down’ the voices of less confident team members from diverse backgrounds. The result is many organisations are missing out on the best possible outcomes of team decision making. Could this be your workplace?

Listen in

Conversational interruptions happen more often than you think.  If you are interested to see if this is an issue in your workplace, I invite you to try an experiment. Pretend you are an ‘undercover behavioural scientist’ who has been assigned the task to observe and listen to interruptions at your next team meeting. In particular, note any differences between the genders.

Stay curious, actively listening to any differences between the participants around the table or in the room. Note the gender mix in the team and the proportion of those members who represent a minority background. As the meeting progresses, listen to who has ‘the stage’. Who is doing the most talking and for how long are they speaking? Who gets to ask the follow-up questions and who receives the affirmations for their contributions? Finally, note who is doing the interruptions (use the Women Interrupted App). Are the interruptions of a co-operative nature with the result of supporting a conversation or are they disruptive and asked to dominate or take control of the conversation?

You may be surprised by what you observe in your meetings, particularly if there are differences between the genders. Research shows it’s most likely to be the male team members doing most of the talking AND the interrupting, while women contribute less frequently (or worse, shut down). If this reflects your experiences, then your organisation is likely to be missing out on the voices and contributions of competent women.

Do your team meetings have the effect of opening up conversations – or shutting them down?  We can all take practical steps to advance gender equality and design more inclusive team meetings.

10 steps to designing inclusive meetings

With commitment, it is relatively simple to step up and take action to include diverse voices in your team meetings. Consider creating your meetings to be more inclusive with these ten suggestions:

  1. Start the meeting with a discussion around ‘no-interrupting’ and encourage questions to be asked at the close of a presentation. Naming the problem and potential implications for good decision making will raise awareness.
  2. Encourage women to share the ‘power seat’ at a meeting; often at the front and near the boss/team leader.
  3. If people are prone to long, rambling questions, consider setting a time limit for questions (90-second rule, 60-second follow up).
  4. If the interruptions continue, call it out – (“Hey let her finish please”)
  5. If the voices of women and others from diverse backgrounds are absent, invite them to contribute to the conversation (“I’d like to hear from Jenna”)
  6. Give credit where credit is due for a good idea. Call it out if someone repeats another person’s idea or tries to claim it as their own. (“Yeah that’s what Fatima said 20 minutes ago!”)
  7. Avoid casual stereotypes (such as assuming women will manage the catering, or the men the IT problems).
  8. If someone has a soft voice, use a microphone. Make it easy for people to be heard, literally.
  9. Invite women to contribute, acknowledge their input and provide positive feedback when they do so (without being patronising). (“Thanks Kelsey and we appreciate your insight given your experience in ….”)
  10. If your team is relatively small, but some members tend to dominate the conversation, try ways to seek everyone’s contribution. (“OK, now we are going to go around the table and hear feedback from everyone”).

Try these steps at your next team meeting and see if you start to notice a difference in the range of voices contributing to the conversation. I invite you to connect with me on LinkedIn and tell me how your experiment works out.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government and politics through her work as a consultant and coach. In 2019 she wrote Get Elected to assist candidates from diverse backgrounds to stand for office. 

Get Elected

Increasingly Australians are ‘shopping around’ and discarding old loyalties to either Coles or Woollies with more of us occasionally purchasing our groceries […]

Increasingly Australians are ‘shopping around’ and discarding old loyalties to either Coles or Woollies with more of us occasionally purchasing our groceries from other, smaller supermarket chains such as Aldi or a local Foodworks.

It’s a similar story with Australian voters when it comes to putting down their first preference at election time.

Rather than being rusted on to either the Blue, Red or Green team, at the last federal election in 2016 almost one in four voters gave their first preference to either a minor party or an independent candidate. The trend continued with recent State government elections in Tasmania, Victoria and NSW where record numbers of independents and candidates from minor parties were elected to parliament.

It’s Independents’ Day

The electoral success of high-profile federal independents such as Cathy McGowan, Kerryn Phelps and Andrew Wilke has led to a national rise in the number of independent candidates hoping to emulate their success by running for the upcoming May 18th federal election. It appears that almost every seat in the country has a keen independent putting their ‘vote for me’ hand up this time around.

However, more often than not, independent candidates lose elections. It can be tough starting from scratch as an unaligned candidate, without the massive support, experience and funding that comes with the endorsement of a major party. Mistakes are often made; funds are tight, volunteers can be difficult to find let alone sustain.

Occasionally a campaign is so brilliantly executed that an independent candidate is successfully elected. This was the case for the celebrated ‘Independent for Indi’ campaigns of 2013 and 2016 that saw an army of supporters assist Cathy McGowan to get elected as the first female independent member in the federal house of representatives.

As Cathy’s sister, I volunteered on her team to assist to coordinate those two campaigns, and joined a vibrant, skilled team of hundreds of orange-t-shirt-wearing volunteers. As a past Councillor and Mayor with a couple of local council campaigns under my belt, I knew first-hand what it takes to get elected.

The ultimate guide for candidates

To date, there has been a lack of easily available information on how to campaign for the three levels of government across Australia. Information is hard to find and although there are play-books written for candidates in the major parties, this is often tightly guarded as ‘secret political-party business’. So, I decided to write Get Elected, the first national book on ‘how to campaign’ which presents a step by step guide to winning public office at a local, state or federal level.

Get Elected draws on research and successful case studies such as the Indi campaign and other state, local and federal campaigns. The practical tips come from my own experiences as a trainer of workshops and courses on ‘how to run your campaign’ as well as my work as a Candidate-Coach.

Cathy McGowan launched the guide on April 4th in Parliament House, Canberra with the call to action ‘Don’t get mad – get elected!’

With Cathy McGowan MP at the launch of Get Elected, Parliament House Canberra

“To the many people who feel disillusioned and disappointed about the state of politics and find it hard to imagine a way forward, this guide is for you. In Get Elected, Ruth unpacks a step-by-step ‘recipe book’ of what it takes to plan, run and win a successful campaign for candidates and for the people who will help them succeed” Cathy McGowan MP

And, in Melbourne this week, Ali Cupper the independent Victorian state MP for Mildura kicked off the state launch of the guide saying

With Ali Cupper MP for Mildura

“there is an art and science to politics and getting elected. Get Elected explains the science. I wish I had had this guide at my fingertips when I ran my first campaign almost a decade ago. It would have saved a lot of nail-biting guesswork and costly mistakes.” Ali Cupper MP

A book for #ItsTime

I was inspired to write Get Elected both at the urging of my sister Cathy as a way of capturing and sharing the Indi campaign experiences and to encourage more women to run for office. In 2017 I was privileged to be selected to attend the Melbourne University Pathways to Politics program which aims to equip women to run for office. Now, as an alumni, I know a handbook like Get Elected will assist women candidates with practical tips and advice.

Although our parliaments and councils across the land are predominately composed of ‘older white men’ there is a push for greater diversity in our political representation with voters desiring politicians that ‘look and talk like us’. Currently, I know there are many competent, independently minded women who are progressive in their thinking and prepared to lead the change they wish to see in their community by standing as candidates for office.

“Ultimately I hope this guides can inspire diverse candidates and prompt more women to step forward, run for office and get elected” Ruth McGowan

Get Elected is divided into four parts which take the reader through the decision-making, planning and running stages of a campaign and ends with a consideration of ‘what next?’ The useful advice, tips and checklists provide a practical and easy-to-read guide which makes Get Elected accessible for anyone considering public office. For large or small scale campaigns, the principles are similar, and the guide provides advice on how to scale up or down a campaign depending on the size of the office the candidate is attempting to win.

Prior to the publication of Get Elected, candidates wanting to know how to run a winning campaign would have to rely on international guides from the U.S or U.K – or, if they were lucky – advice from an experienced campaigner who had ‘been there done that’ with a major party. Now, with this guide, information on how to Get Elected is readily accessible by ordinary citizens who wish to do something extraordinary and run for office.

For potential candidates thinking of running for office, Get Elected will help to confirm your plans and help you give your run for office your best shot. Copies are available directly from my website: www.ruthmcgowan.com/book

Ruth McGowan loves to talk about politics, democracy and improving the diversity of political representation in Australia at all levels of government which means more #WomeninPolitics. For more information see https://ruthmcgowan.com/

Flexibility shouldn’t be a stretch

“I’d hate to think you’re using the Department as light entertainment.” This sneering comment came from my manager as he knocked back […]

I’d hate to think you’re using the Department as light entertainment.”

This sneering comment came from my manager as he knocked back my request for an additional four months leave-without-pay. I’d been back at work for a few months following the birth of my first child but due to personal circumstances, I needed some more time away from the office.

This incident was two decades ago when I worked for a government department as a young research scientist. Now, in 2018 when it comes to flexible working arrangements, I’d like to think things have changed somewhat since the 1990s.

That particular manager held the view that women working part-time in the workplace were a drain on resources and that I ‘obviously’ wasn’t committed to my scientific career if I wanted to access flexible work arrangements. He failed to understand that workplace flexibility actually delivers benefits all round; not just for employees but also the employer.

Bring on the Benefits

Earlier this year, a government report on Flexible work, good for business? quantified the significant benefits of flexible work strategies. The Nous Group was engaged by the Victorian Government to quantify the costs and benefits of more flexible work strategies. They reported that organisations can experience a net benefit of as much as 4% of their revenue as a result of flexible work conditions.

These benefits came from improvements in labour productivity, recruitment, retention and reduced absenteeism. The report noted that these benefits are significant and in some organisations:

can amount to tens of millions of dollars each year. Replicated across the entire economy, the net benefit could be in the billions. (Nous Group)

Equality enabler

You only have to look around your own office or ask a sample of your friends about conditions at their workplace to know that flexible work practices are a popular and valued part of many people’s employment conditions.

Strategies such as varied start and finish times, or flexible leave arrangements (like 48/52) can support employees with carer responsibilities as a result of children or elderly parents. It’s a vital way to help carers manage all the tasks they need to get done each day such as meeting medical appointments that inevitably fall within work hours.

Part-time work or time-in-lieu can help volunteers manage the juggle of paid work with their other responsibilities. Think of the parent-coach who is able to leave the office at 3 pm to help with after-school sports.

Working from home or job-sharing can also assist people recovering from ill health to transition back to employment or help senior staff adjust their hours as they move towards retirement.

Flexible work strategies not only make good economic sense, they advance equality in the workplace for everyone.

Talk or walk?

The positive news is that in 2018 more workplaces are implementing flexible working strategies. The latest national data found 70.7% of organisations reporting to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) have a formal flexibility policy and/or strategy in place.

The not-so-good news is that there is still a need for considerable progress in terms of genuine action to deliver workplace flexibility for all employees. Unfortunately many employers still just view the issue as ‘allowing part-time hours for mums’. This reinforces gender stereotypes and according to WGEA, results in men feeling judged when they seek to consider more flexibility in their working hours and then disengaging from the opportunities on offer.

If you have a flexible work strategy in place, it may be interesting for you to consider does your organisation’s action reflect their talk? WGEA reports that only about 1-in-4 organisations with flexible work strategies actually provide training for managers on flexible work and just 1-in-20 set targets for employee engagement in flexible work.

This ‘action gap’ is impeding progress and it’s probably costing your business money. (To find out how much check out the FlexiWork Calculator). The WGEA Manager Flexibility toolkit explains how to turn the talk into action.

Entertained AND committed

In the end, there was a happy outcome to my request for flexible leave.

As a new mother requesting a few extra months leave without pay, I eventually received approval following my appeal to the HR manager. Like many employees satisfied with flexible work conditions, I went onto to work for that organization as an engaged, committed (and entertained!) employee for another 15 years.

That sneering manager has long since retired, but the Department where I once worked (now called DEWLP) this year reported an annual saving of $31 million dollars as a result of their workplace flexibility programs. Thankfully many Department heads now value workplace flexibility because it’s not only the right thing to do for equality, but it also make good business sense.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for equality in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. www.ruthmcgowan.com

The myth of merit

Australians. We like to think we’re a nation of decent people, ready to give someone a fair go as long as they […]

Australians. We like to think we’re a nation of decent people, ready to give someone a fair go as long as they are prepared to ‘have a crack’. We also like to think we have good ‘bullshit radars’ meaning we are not afraid to call it out when someone is not being ‘fair dinkum’.

I’m having a go. It’s time to call out the term ‘merit’ as bullshit.

I’m fired up after attending the Equal Future forum this week, run by the Municipal Association of Victoria. Coincidentally, the same day the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) reported that the gender pay gap for women continues to sit at 79% of men’s salary.

Speaking at the MAV Forum, Catherine Fox, Walkley-Award winning author of  Stop Fixing Women spoke about the way ‘Merit’ is a term that unleashes our cognitive biases such as unconscious bias and affinity bias.

The Myth of Merit

This is what’s wrong with the notion of ‘Merit’. It might sound like an objective filter for sifting out those who deserve a promotion, reward, accolades. But, as Fox argues, it’s time we scrutinised the term and better understood how it is an insidious barrier to gender equality.

According to Fox, merit an elusive, subjective term that is really just ‘smoke and mirrors. The danger of this concept she says is that

merit is a self-reinforcing concept for those in charge (Fox)

When this happens, like-employs-like. The ‘mini-me’ in corporate Australia results in scenarios such as men apparently being ‘nine times more meritorious than females as CEOs in the ASX 200’. In other professions, such as Law, women make up to two-thirds of graduates yet fill only one-in-10 senior counsel and Queen’s counsel positions according to the Law Council of Australia.

We often hear that ‘he got it on merit’ whether it’s a job or an award. Fox says the perpetuation of this term is handy as ‘it doesn’t rock the boat … and perpetuates inertia’. In short, the term is an excuse used not to take action to address inequality.

If you still think the predominance of men in most spheres of leadership, corporate Australia, politics and holders of Australian Honours is as a result of merit, then what you are actually saying is that men are inherently more capable, deserving, skilled and talented than women in those same professions and industries. Really?

Personally, I don’t think so. Taking a small step to address inequality, last year I co-founded a movement Honour A Woman to address inequality in the Australian Honours where men consistently receive 70% of the awards. After 43 years on inequality in this area, we are finally making some progress.

The Gender Equality Paradox

Turns out that in addition to the Myth of Merit, there is also the Gender Equality Paradox.

Remember last time you heard someone rave about how great their organisation is at gender equality? Turns out that when the evidence is analysed, they’re probably not.

For example, your organisations may have employed a Gender Equality Officer. So far so good. But look closer. Is the position well resourced or is it merely a box-ticking exercise? She (and it nearly always is a woman) may not have much of a budget and probably works flexible hours with limited resources and lack of management support. (She’s probably also expected to organise the International Women’s Day breakfast and other tokenistic tasks such as sourcing a few ‘ethnic-looking’ stock photos for the annual report).

The irony is that while employers may think they deserve praise for their Gender Equality Plan the reality is there is rarely an associated action plan that makes management accountable for delivery.

There’s a level of complacency that ‘the job’s sorted’ which leads to an action gap between the rhetoric and the behaviour. That is the paradox.

This Action Gap has been highlighted by WGEA as a serious issue in Australian workplaces. In November 2018 they reported that more than half of employers (58.4%) don’t even bother to scrutinise the basic data (such as pay data) for gender pay gaps. And of the 70% of employers who say they have a policy or strategy to support gender equality, most of them didn’t back the plans up with action. For instance, only 30% of employers with plans, made managers accountable for delivery with relevant KPIs. And of those employers that had conducted a pay gap analysis, only around 18% actually reported the results upwards to their Board for action. Even when gaps were identified, only a bit over a half of employers took any action to address the gaps identified (58%).

It’s a lot of talk without real action and its time it was challenged.

We’ve stalled

Here in Australia, WGEA reports women still face considerable barriers in the workplace and that ‘we still have a long way to go’. After five years of data, the trends show ‘virtually no movement in gender segregation across Australian industries and little improvement in either access to paid parental leave or the representation of women at CEO level or on boards.

This comes on top of the 2017 WEF Global Gender Gap Report estimates that it will be another 217 years before we achieve gender parity. ARGHHHH!

Anyone else yelling with me? Or are you still asking, ‘Why does it matter’? If you need to ask why it is worth getting cross about this lack of action, I suggest you check out WGEA’s updated guide on the business case for gender equality that demonstrates the benefits to people, workforces and our country. Equality is not only the right thing to pursue, but it also makes good economic sense.

Next time you hear someone from HR boasting about their ‘fantastic Gender Equality program’ dig deeper. Ask about the data they collect that demonstrates if it’s actually making any difference.

If you are interested in practical actions you can take to address the insidious barrier of merit, check out Avoiding the merit trap, a report by Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change.

And while we are at it, let’s ban the word MERIT, which Catherine Fox jokingly said stands for

M.E.R.I.T = Mates Elevated Regardless of Intellect or Talent

Let’s talk about suitability, capability and potential for exceptional performance. Let’s challenge the paradoxes and myths and reap the benefits of a fair and equitable workplace for women, men and our country. It’s time for the talk to reflect the walk and everyone to be given a fair go.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. 

About to fire your CEO? Do it right!

“Our organisation is seeking a different leadership style going forward“. “The Board wishes to test the CEO market and see what’s out […]

“Our organisation is seeking a different leadership style going forward“. “The Board wishes to test the CEO market and see what’s out there”.  “The Managing Director has decided to retire.”

Sound familiar? From the leadership of this country to your local council, lately, it seems a lot of bosses are getting the flick.

Last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was rolled by his party colleagues (without much explanation). Then there was the termination of the contract of ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie by the ABC Board (for her ‘leadership style’). And now, Elon Musk has been forced to step aside as Tesla chair (because of a legal settlement).

Add to this the high level of CEO churn which has hit more than 50% of Victorian councils and it seems that ‘giving the boss the boot’ is becoming increasingly common.

If you find yourself in the position of needing to ‘move the CEO on’ would you know what to do? Or, how would you respond if your CEO drops a bombshell that they are leaving and hands you their resignation? Do you have a plan?

Most Councillors and board members at some stage of their term need to contemplate a change in the CEO. If this happens to you, get the next steps right. Otherwise, risk reputational damage to the organisation, impact staff morale and incur excessive legal costs or a media backlash.

Should you sack the boss?

Showing your CEO the exit door is not a decision to be taken lightly. On one hand, the costs to the organisation are significant. Not to mention the personal costs to your (soon-to-be-former) CEO.

Replacing a CEO is time-consuming, expensive, and potentially disruptive – the implementation of board decisions can be left in limbo, staff morale can plummet and there is always the risk that the new CEO will not perform any better. Before rushing to dismiss the CEO, the board must balance the costs of replacement against the potential benefits. Better Boards

On the other hand, if you have been elected to a local council (or appointed to a board), you have an obligation to recruit and manage the best talent possible to lead your organisation.

Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. The CEO may have a different focus for the direction of the organisation that is incompatible with the council or board’s vision. Alternatively, if you have lost faith in the CEO’s leadership or if they are under-performing, you have a duty to move them on. Especially if they have acted illegally or unprofessionally.

Do it right

If you’re contemplating sacking the CEO, here are some points to consider before putting the boot in.

  1. Plan the transition

Before the firing the CEO put these three plans in place; the CEO performance plan, a communications plan and a succession plan.

  • The CEO performance plan is the main tool to assess whether your CEO is meeting expectations.
  • Once the decision has been made, the board/council should develop a communication strategy around the announcement which will be made by the Chair/Mayor.
  • Then, ideally, the board or council will implement a succession process for either the retiring CEO to gradually transition out of the organisation or they will appoint an executive manager to step into the acting role during the recruitment process for a new CEO.

Also, consider the timing of the decision. Ideally not before or just after local government elections when stability in leadership should be a priority.

  1. Utilise the Performance Plan

The CEO Performance Plan is the evidence base which ideally informs the decision to end the CEO relationship with the organisation. Managed well, this Plan will illustrate the trends that identify problems and help to justify subsequent action to terminate a contract. For example, feedback could show a surge in staff turnover, scathing feedback from stakeholders or plummeting staff and community satisfaction results.

If the CEO is under-performing or failing to meet board/council expectations, the case should be clear and mutually agreed; the CEO needs to move on. Don’t leave it too late.

“Academic research shows boards err on the side of taking too long to change CEOs. In some cases, underperforming CEOs remain at companies for years before change is made and only leave after a crisis,” AICD 

If the CEO is planning to retire, or maybe has career ambitions elsewhere, the performance planning process can facilitate frank discussions about his/her intentions to leave. The exit can then be managed in a way that minimises disruption for the organisation.

  1. Manage the message

A communication plan is imperative to manage the messaging around the reasons why the CEO was ‘let go’.  Implement the plan with advice from communication specialists and legal and ideally, input from the ex-CEO so that his/her dignity and reputation can remain intact.

It is important to clearly explain why a CEO has been fired and to be as honest as possible in the circumstances.

The message should then be delivered with authority by the Mayor (or Chair of the board).

If you are stuck, here are some well-used phrases:

  • We are seeking a change in direction for organisation leadership
  • We’ve decided we needed to test the market and see what’s out there
  • We will not be renewing her contract as we seek a change in leadership style
  • He’s resigned for family (or personal) reasons
  • He’s accepted employment elsewhere for his career development
  • The CEO has tendered her resignation to explore other employment opportunities
  • He has decided it is time for him to retire
  1. Follow the rules

Before you fire a CEO, seek legal advice and ensure you follow applicable employment law as well as the specific clauses in the CEO contract. Check the fine print!

Ideally, have the severance package approved and ready to go. It will be a vital part of that difficult conversation the Mayor (or Chair) will need to have with the CEO to let him/her know that time is up.

Be fair in the redundancy package but avoid the legal implications of paying out too much (a mistake made by the City of Ararat Council and investigated in a state government commission of inquiry in 2017.)

  1. Have a strategy for what next

Following the announcement, the Councillors (or board) now need to consider what’s next?  At this point, the continuity of organisational operations is the main consideration.

It’s now time to pay close attention to addressing the disruptions that will inevitably occur with the changes following the termination of a CEO’s contract.

As people adjust to the change, this time can also be an opportunity to signal a refocus of the organisation.

It’s also important the Councillors (or Board members) use this time to have frank discussions and reflect on what has been learnt from the experience. For instance; is there a need to refine the CEO position description? How well were expectations communicated to the CEO through the performance plan process? How can support and feedback to the CEO be improved in the future?

You will get through this

The various stages of the grief cycle predict acceptance will eventually follow on from the initial shock and anger that may surround the news of the firing of a CEO (or the departure of one who’s been there forever).

If you find yourself in the position of having to fire the boss, you will get through the next stage with care and planning.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a consultant, coach and trainer to local government. She supports Councillors as an independent, expert adviser in the recruitment and performance management of their CEO as well as the departure. As a former Mayor, Councillor and a member of a number of boards she has first-hand experience of having to ‘move-on’ the CEO. Follow Ruth on LinkedIn

Top