Promote, develop, and train every individual at work on merit: Virginia Bottomley
Starting her journey as an environment minister appointed by Margaret Thatcher, Virginia Bottomley - Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone - has since taken on a myriad of roles and responsibilities, with her latest position as the chairperson for Odgers Berndtson's board, the largest headhunting firm in Britain.
Throughout her 23-year tenure, she has shattered stereotypes and championed gender and ethnic diversity. As an MP, she witnessed the transformation of women's representation in the UK Parliament from 1 in 25 to an impressive 1 in 3. Despite progress, she emphasises the continued importance of recognising and embracing workplace diversity.
The female representation on boards in the UK has gone from 12 percent in 1912 to 40 percent. And for Bottomley, that’s the seeds she sowed coming to fruition, as she believes success in business has always been about diverse ideas and opinions.
The days of deference are gone forever. With the advent of artificial intelligence, this is the era of authentic leadership, of individuals with authority and gravitas - to be inspirational, have intellect, commitment and optimism, grounded on data that people want to follow.
When it comes to the war for talent, Bottomley acknowledges the intriguing task of Executive Search involved in finding individuals who bring diverse backgrounds, experiences, and mindsets to fit seamlessly into organisations. A key attribute she values is the ability to demonstrate long-term commitment and resilience in challenging roles.
Excerpts from the interview:
In the face of burnout, quiet-quitting, and exhaustion becoming prevalent, how does Odgers Berndtson sustain their challenger brand culture that fosters curiosity, creativity, and agility?
The world of employment has dramatically changed with turmoil, threats, and shifting expectations. Employers face a major challenge in attracting top talent, as millennials seek self-enrichment, fair pay, and purposeful and challenging roles. Managing these expectations is crucial for employers.
23 years ago, when I had joined, the business partner of the CEO was the CFO and inadvertently, financial management was a critical issue. Today, the CHRO has become a critical leader in any successful business. CHROs today oversee talent, culture, values, diversity, succession, and training.
But the essence is, individuals want to work for an organisation where they share the mission, values and culture. The task of the CEO is to persuade people voluntarily to give 110 percent of their efforts and not just 90 per cent. And that’s not done by coercion, but by encouragement, inspirational leadership, good management and those are the qualities one looks for now in leaders along with the ability to communicate effectively. And not just with shareholders, customers or the supply chain but above all, communicating with colleagues and the team, who will not accept an autocratic leader anymore.
The modern leader has to be empowering, inspirational, as well as commercially and strategically highly competent. It is a tall order and our job at Odgers Berndtson is to find these exceptional leaders.
As leaders shape the cultural fabric of an organisation, Odgers Berndtson strives to attract exceptional leaders for their clients. What challenges do you encounter in finding leaders, particularly in today's fast-changing socio-political and economic landscape?
The challenge is to find individuals who have the resilience and the tenacity to cope with unprecedented and unpredictable change. If you think about it, who could have predicted Covid-19 or the war in Ukraine, let alone some of the economic stresses, geopolitical complexity and threats. So, resilience and tenacity are crucial.
Some candidates may appear fine during the interview but can they really last? Therefore, having proper psychometric assessments and conducting thorough reference checks is crucial. Finding leaders, who have the ability to communicate authentically has become critical.
We need people who understand technology as it is built into businesses. It is not a question of skills but mindset, and leaders must have that familiarity, which often makes it harder for the older ones because it is the younger generation who are real, digital natives.
So, the basic assumption is that a good leader must have the strategic, operational and commercial skills but we are asking much more than that of our leaders’ today. Above all, it is about the resilience to cope with the pressures of running a business in the modern commercial ecosystem.
Odgers Berndtson promotes authenticity and embracing one's identity. In light of the challenges related to representation for women and the LGBTQIA+ community, what measures has the company taken to foster a more inclusive workplace? What trends do you observe in the boardrooms of conglomerates regarding diversity and inclusion?
One of the reasons why I joined Odgers Berndtson was because I was passionate to use my knowledge and experience as a cabinet minister to bring more women into the workforce. I was the seventh woman ever to join the British cabinet and one of my responsibilities was to lead the National Health Service (NHS). With over a million staff members, 75 percent of them were female. But the leadership was all white male and I had decided then that this was unacceptable. Individuals should be appointed on merit, ability and potential.
At Odgers Berndtson, I took this campaign with me and over the years, I have worked relentlessly to help find women onto big corporate boards. I have served on several global boards, sometimes as the only woman, so I know that it’s isolating. Knowing this, I have worked around the world at Odgers Berndtson and understand our critical role in being diversity champions.
We understand we can do this genuinely and authentically only by having our own program for DE&I, our own training insights and examining for unconscious bias. We introduced ‘Unlimited,’ which is our global initiative that involves and engages everyone who works at Odgers Berndtson around the world to create and promote an inclusive work environment in all 66 offices in 32 countries.
There’s been profound change, which means that our retention levels have risen because millennials want to work in an environment where equality and diversity are respected. We advise our clients and help find many CHROs, diversity managers and leaders and many more in related roles in this field.
With LGBTQIA+, the concerns are complex because it depends on people disclosing, which many may not want to do. The Pride Month at work is as much about helping individuals feel pride in themselves as helping the wider community, the employers, to feel comfortable with the issues involved. Unconscious bias is often ignorance rather than deliberately causing offence. In London and other offices as well, we have a significant number of consultants from the LGBTQIA+ community, who are comfortable and bring their whole selves to work.
How does the company contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) addressing global challenges?
The next generation are deeply concerned about sustainability and rightly so. It is the greatest threat to our generation and none of us can be spectators, we are all participants. Green washing isn’t enough anymore. For too long, ESG has been about some general comments about recycling and helping children’s homes, but nothing substantial.
At Odgers Berndtson, we have recently announced globally that we have signed up to the Science Based Targets initiative - an independent third-party to help us set our carbon emission target in line with the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
We’ve been working on it for two years and are now announcing that every office of ours in the world is committed to having a rigorous approach towards sustainability. It has been hugely welcomed by our employees, which also means that we now have the authority and the authenticity to advise our clients, who often ask for our advice on sustainability issues.
Life seems to have come full circle. As an environment minister, I hosted a conference in 1989 with Margaret Thatcher on saving the ozone layer, which involved government action, the Montreal Protocol. It also necessitated voluntary efforts of individuals taking ownership of the problem along with industry and business playing their part.
That’s exactly the process repeating itself now - governments are concerned and willing to make progress. One look at the many partnerships between UK and India on sustainable technology, net-zero products and sustainable energy, and you can see the potential for great innovation, research and business opportunities.
With 23 years of experience at Odgers Berndtson, how has the talent management strategy evolved and what advice do you have for leaders in fostering a flexible, agile, and inclusive mindset for talent development?
There has been a profound change in the negotiation between the employer and employee. Today, the employee wants to be able to specify their requirements from the work environment, if not their preferences. Now, it might cause frustration and impatience among few, but if an employer wants the best possible talent, they need to listen and understand the discussion.
With the addition of hybrid work posing further complexities, the challenges for the CHRO are infinite. With a multigenerational workforce, in many ways, there is definitely a competitive advantage for organisations with people of different backgrounds, nationalities and gender working together but it requires careful preparation and teamwork.
Think of it as an orchestra. You have different instruments playing different tunes, but together you want them to make a harmonious sound. And that’s how I see the modern workplace - it isn’t just one individual leader but a team working harmoniously together and respecting the contributions of different individuals.
As geographical boundaries blur, what are your insights on the growing UK-India trade partnerships and the rise of global Indian-origin leaders in prominent organisations like YouTube, Microsoft, Google, and even the UK's Prime Minister?
The UK's inclusiveness and global culture is evident with 33 out of 100 FTSE 100 chairs and 44 out of 100 FTSE 100 CEOs being non-British. This diversity extends to include various countries, including India, in leadership positions. With 1.7 million people in the diaspora and Indian-origin senior politicians, there is immense enthusiasm to enhance UK-India trade potential, making it an exciting prospect.
The potential now is greater than ever and we just need to get through the details. But whatever the governments decide and I hope they have further agreements, I have no doubts that the exchange in the business activities between the UK and India as between US and India, will go from strength to strength.
In the end, Bottomley would like to leave CEOs with one thought in the quest towards progress. “Individuals are inclined to look in the mirror, and appoint their reflection, rather than look through the window and recognise the diversity of thought and work environment existing in today’s time.”