The leadership issue you need to talk about

21 November 2017 -

Diverse Business GroupHeather Melville OBE has first-hand experience of some of the struggles women and minority groups face to reach the top. So now she’s leading the drive for greater diversity in UK management

Ann Francke

In this year’s CMI Delivering Diversity report, 67 per cent of HR leaders at the UK’s biggest companies said a lack of role models was the top challenge when promoting race and ethnic diversity in business.

Heather Melville OBE CCMI is well placed to explain how organisations can encourage equal opportunity in the workplace. Here, the director of strategic partnerships and head of business inclusion initiatives for corporate and private banking at RBS, and chair of CMI Women, shares her insights with CMI’s chief executive, Ann Francke, and Professional Manager.

We’ve had a lot of advocacy for women on boards, including the Davies report, and some success. Do you think the business case for diversity is now fully understood?

I think we’ve still got a lot of work to do. [In the workplace,] I think there’s a 50/50 mix of old-school thinking and some newer, more innovative managers, saying: “This is about opportunity and we’ve got to reach the brightest people to be the most successful organisation.”

We still have to reach those middle managers – I call them the ‘sticky-floor layer’ – who think that everything is fine and we don’t need to change anything.

At CMI, we say that 1.5 million more women are needed in management by 2024. How do we get more women up through that talent pipeline?

There are two parts to this. Firstly, organisations have to think about how to recruit the best people, keep them and attract them back if they take leave. That is about culture and setting the right tone. Women need to see role models in place: if you can’t see anybody like you doing what you want to do, you don’t think you can do it. Talent needs to be showcased to attract others.

Secondly, most women I know are confident when it comes to doing their roles. What they’re not confident in is talking about themselves.  There need to be platforms where they can speak confidently, and engage with more senior leaders, both male and female.

It’s about creating those opportunities – that’s what organisations can do.

In the past, you’ve spoken about the importance of developing your network. Is that a lesson that women need to learn as they progress?

 Absolutely. Young women come out of school with passion. But they don’t know how to navigate the political minefields ahead. They’ll meet a manager who really believes in them – but they may not be their only manager.

You’ve got to be prepared forthe ones who are not so good, and see those difficult, challenging moments as learning opportunities. If you haven’t got a strong network, you’ll think that bad management and leadership are normal.

CMI has advised the government on the gender pay gap and regulations. How effective do you think the government will be in helping to close this gap?

Identifying that we have a problem is a great start, but, for me, it’s about transparency. Lots of organisations claim to pay men and women the same. Actually, when you break it down, the women can be on the same salaries but not the same signing-on and end-of-year bonuses.

Issues also arise the minute you take maternity or paternity leave. When men come back into the workplace from leave, are they paid the same as the women who took maternity leave? Those are the kind of questions that need to be asked.

CMI research shows that men’s bonuses are twice as big as women’s. Do women need to get better at asking for bigger bonuses?

Quite often, employees don’t know what their bonus allocation pool is until they get their bonus. What we really need to do is improve the transparency around what that bonus pool is.

Organisations that do pay bonuses should share a scale that says: “This is what our bonus pool was this year; this is what we allocated to the businesses... We had 50 women and 50 men and this is what the bonuses were.”

They’re not naming individuals, but it lets them show that employees doing the same kind of job are being rewarded in the same way.

As a senior leader at RBS, how do you rate its progress in this area?

I am really proud to work here. Our target is to get to at least 30 per cent of senior roles taken by women in 2020 in each of our functions and business franchises; our ultimate goal is 50 per cent.

While we do have more women in HR at the highest level, in communications and marketing it is relatively balanced at all levels. There’s quite a bit of work to do but we’re preparing the way now.

It is on the agenda of our senior leadership team, as with any objective we have.

CMI produced a report on race with the British Academy of Management. We found that only six per cent of managers are of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, although BAME groups make up around 12 per cent of the working population. What are your thoughts?

The fact that this conversation is now going on in UK boardrooms is exciting and so important. Let’s hope it gets the same attention as gender.

We need to look at what challenges stop BAME leaders from getting through to these roles, and it starts with the recruitment process. We need to highlight the unconscious bias of the people who are recruiting – if they’re looking for someone who looks like them or went to the same school, say.

It’s also about prioritising some of the other skills people can bring – women in particular – which are not just related to the key objectives you’ve got to deliver. These are the leadership and collaborative skills that you need around a boardroom table for it to be successful.

You can only have differences of opinion if you have someone different to yourself.

The report said we need to ‘break the silence’ around race and get more people talking about it. As a prominent BAME leader, is it something you’ve been able to do in your career?

I count myself lucky that I had a strong, forthright family that always encouraged me to be the best I could be and see that I wasn’t less than anybody else.

I feel that people of all ethnic backgrounds need to own who they are. As individuals, we try to bring down who we are as people, so we don’t get noticed.

In business, it’s not about having people of colour on the board – it’s about being able to contribute when you are on the board and being confident about your subject matter.

Have you had colleagues who’ve skirted around the issue of race and not wanted to address it?

We do need to bear it in mind when we’re doing discussions and looking at promotions. I’ve sat in on talent discussions in a number of organisations where someone has based their decision on an observation of a person’s behaviour in a certain environment.

Someone might come from a culture where they’re humble in how they speak. But, when you’re sat around a table of key decision-makers, the perception is that that person is not engaged or doesn’t know how to participate.

What we need is someone to say: “Actually, I’ve seen person A outside of this environment and she’s forthright and confident.” We need to give people access to the education and technical training they need, and the chance to do things outside their comfort zone.

Who’s had the most influence on your management career?

The person who really left a mark on me is Larry Hirst CBE [former chairman of IBM EMEA]. I got to know Larry through doing a big financial deal, and then going to a recognition dinner. I sat beside Larry and his wife and they treated me like royalty; they made me see that I was capable of doing things.

IBM was the first organisation that challenged me about why I wanted to work there. And, when it came to the negotiating table and I said I didn’t have a degree, they invested in me and put me through the IBM Business School: I was prepared to do the hard work.

IBM was also the first organisation that nominated me for an external award.

Twenty-odd years on, Larry has retired but he’s supported me throughout my career and he’s still very much in my life.

RBS has recently reported a profit. How instrumental has the cultural (alongside the financial) transformation been?

It’s been a top priority for us. Three years ago, we invested in a programme called ‘Determined to Lead’. It means all of our 14,000 leaders are learning to lead in a way that fits in with the values of this organisation. This is a tremendous investment for any organisation to make.

When you walk around, there’s a sea of different people from different age groups and backgrounds: we’re embracing diversity because we want to be successful. We want to be the bank of choice for everybody so our own house has to be in order.

We’ve just had, for the first time, an investor decide to invest in us because of our gender policy. I am so proud of that.

If Determined to Lead has helped train people in the values of RBS, what are some of those values?

We focus on trust advocacy. We focus on our clients and have also created an environment where respect – across all levels of the organisation – is expected. We’ve got some great leaders who are open and honest, and care about our people and our customers. That’s quite basic.

People want to work here and that creates change. The fact that we recently had roles for apprentices and were oversubscribed speaks volumes.

We live in uncertain times. How can managers cope with that uncertainty?

Resilience is key. RBS has recently put all of its leaders through resilience training. It was the best use of two days. I really looked at the things I need that mean I can go out to do my best as a leader.

You’re a trustee of CMI and leader of CMI Women. What’s your advice for future female leaders who look up to you as a role model?

You need to invest in yourself. I often hear young people say: “My organisation won’t pay for me to do this.” Actually, in the same way as you save for a pair of shoes or a car, if something is going to be part of your kit for your career, you need to save for it yourself if you can. I often ask young people: “What is the investment you’ll make in yourself this year?”

You also need to find somebody who is doing what you want to do really well. Meeting someone who’s done it and can share with you the opportunities and pitfalls will help you on your journey.

There are all sorts of barriers [to professional life] that come from being a woman. For me, Jayne-Anne Ghadia’s recent book [The Virgin Banker], where she talks about mental health and postnatal depression, is amazing. If it’s not happening in your own home, it will be happening in the workplace around you.

Read CMI and the British Academy of Management’s Delivering Diversity report at

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