Illustration of drowning hand making peace sign
№ 24

Change the rhythm, not the dancers

Reading time 5 minutes read
When - if not today - it’s the perfect time for a cheesy dedication: This goes out to all the fab women in my life who inspire me every single day and make me increasingly feel ok about being the unapologetic, strong but vulnerable version of myself that shows up today, and that inspires and challenges people in equal measures.

Oh, it’s International Women’s Day once again. The day where we see a lot of poems by Rupi Kaur and everybody rejoins the discussion, if a quota is really needed to get some progress on equity. To be honest, I’m a bit tired of it all. While I love love love reveling in the sisterhood and “we are unstoppable”-spirit that this day brings about, I also find it increasingly demotivating to see all this energy evaporate and everybody going back to business as usual one week later. Yes, a lot of good stuff is happening that needs to be appreciated and honored. Yes, more and more people wake up from their misogynistic dreams. But, it’s incredibly slooooooooow, there has been so much backlash due to Covid, political shifts to the right and other shit in life and I see a lot of lip service but not enough action, where it counts. Women don’t need another leadership training, another enablement program, another motivational speech. Women (and other discriminated humans) need the system fixed - and not on some side track, but in the core of business. I’m convinced: most of us have been approaching equity strategically completely wrong.

Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance. But what about the music?

There’s this quote - something between a motivational quote straight from a calendar and modern career lingo: “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” Well, from what I’ve seen this, there is more than an invitation missing. For example: What about the music? There’s no way you will ever see me on any dancefloor if they play country. I simply despise it. (Even if Beyoncé is trying to convince us otherwise. No thanks.) No matter your musical preference, if you’re the only one throwing in some improvisational moves at a party where everybody spent years perfecting their synchronized dance steps, you will feel like an alien and you still won’t feel comfortable dancing. So what’s society's way of dealing with this: sending those aliens to a dance class so that next time they fit perfectly into the choreography. My question: Why do we make women train on stupid dance moves from the 90s when all we could do is change the music?

What would happen if we didn’t require women to fight their way into power, but instead shift and redistribute power to where they already are?

I dare you: Have we ever thought about the possibility that those impeccable women might drop out, disappear, leave, sidestep, resign, career-change, regroup, not because they are lacking skills, visibility, training, experience or (whatever successful men are saying they do) but because they voluntarily step back from a dysfunctional system whose absurdity is very evident to them. Because they don’t want to waste their precious time (which they tend to have even less of, since it’s not only money that is not evenly distributed but also time) on something that meaningless. Maybe women own the rare quality of being able to put their egos aside instead of caving in to something that they know won’t work. So, the real question that we should raise today and every single day afterwards is: What would happen if we didn’t require women to fight their way into power, but instead shift and redistribute power to where they already are?

What sounds like a theoretical question, has actually happened in real life in our own organisation. The ironic part is that this kind of organically happened, without us anticipating it tbh. Exactly one year ago, at diffferent, the strategy consultancy that I lead, we fundamentally transformed our operating model. The reason for this change was not primarily the pursuit of equity and diversity, although like any other company, we need to and we are working on this challenge. Our motivation and drive for our transformation was rather the desire for a more impactful, resilient, human-centered and sustainable organizational structure. Interestingly, a year after initiating this change, we have experienced a significant shift in how responsibility is shared and carried in our organisation. Women in particular have gained major visibility and influence (you could also say true power) with inhabiting most of the roles in our company that are responsible for designing and driving our organisation. They have been thriving. While the management in 2021, when I joined the company, consisted of four males, we now work in a leadership group consisting of nine females and two males - including myself. People leadership roles are filled by 10 women and 3 men. How did this happen? This article is not intended for patting ourselves on the back or to give you the impression that we no longer have any issues (because we still have plenty). However, I believe that the way we got to today and what we did to get there, is relevant and interesting for many others interested in designing a more just workplace. The beauty is: We didn't opt for anything that had only women in mind or preferred them directly. Instead we went for performance, reflection and change competence and apparently that’s what women are amazingly good at and made them thrive even more

Tomorrow's Potential over Past Titles

We fill roles based on drive, ambition, and skills rather than just titles or experience - something often denied to women. We expanded the pool of potential candidates by allowing employees to suggest who might be suitable and propose candidates, we expanded the pool of potential candidates, especially in the areas of capable hidden champions who might be excellent in their work but not good at self-promotion. To ask people: “Who do you wanna be led by?” is a powerful question that delivers very clear answers in both directions. This has broken the typically female phenomenon of thinking, "I don't meet all the requirements 100%, so I won't apply at all." And lo and behold, suddenly people have started to show up and exceed all expectations.

Success Criteria Reloaded

We have redefined what good leadership means to us and have completely overhauled the respective performance criteria around it. For us, things like "Leading by example", solid expertise, and a genuine passion for developing other humans are in the focus of what we asked of our leaders. We incentivize those things and those things only. One major move is to assign roles dynamically and revoke them, when they don't fit any longer, so that nobody gets stuck in a position for career reasons that they don't really master or want, thereby obstructing future paths for others.

Partners in crime

Several roles have been filled by tandems, allowing for more flexibility This gives people with different life circumstances and work models the opportunity to take on the role without compromising on their life quality. When the tandems work well, it also has resulted in better performance for both people, because as partners in crime they are able to feedback very closely, reinforce their learnings and increase their own development speed.

Encouragement instead of Prescription

Within the realms of our strategy, we allow and encourage any sort of initiative, regardless of experience, title, gender, or background. Those with drive and ideas are not held back.

More than One Way

We have designed KPIs in a way that they are clear on the What but leave room for the HOW. So that being successful doesn't require using learned behavioral patterns or predetermined approaches, but instead allows for a bouquet of different paths, approaches, methods. The goal is to encourage people to live up to their individual strengths and personalities and reward all ways alike, as long as they work. Diversity can't stop at the question who will be promoted.

The Art of Letting Go

This is certainly the most difficult, but instead of simply adding new roles, new structures, new aspects to the existing structure, you also have to tear shit down. That's why we have let go of all roles, processes, and incentives that hindered a more balanced distribution of responsibility or simply were no longer necessary. (Noise obstructs clarity) Clear decisions, clear trade offs create clear understanding for what is and what can be and also what can't any longer.

Not a single measure of these was initiated specifically to promote women, yet it has led to a significant increase in both their visibility as well as overall equity.

There's only one conclusion to take away from this: Whenever you focus on impact, collaborative performance and individuality, you directly empower and strengthen women. I love everything about this learning, because it disarms so many arguments and rhetorics grounded in bias, that claim that initiating measures for diversity and supporting women lead to mediocrity in results.
The things we did are neither rocket science nor groundbreaking. Their magic lies in implementing them with consistency and consequence and in embedding them in core business structures, instead of just announcing the next cultural shift or inviting to a female development program. Being serious and following through - it really can be that simple. But of course, we can also just continue arguing about whether a quota for women is needed or not. In the meantime, I do business with excellent women.

Thanks Caro, Claire, Jana, Fabi & Saskia for co-creating this article.

Illustration take away box

Key Takeaways