There’s no place for women at the top of the edifice

It seems like the one voice that’s been silenced in the gender diversity debate is that of Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts. Since his controversial interview with Business Insider UK, many people have shared their thoughts via social media, blog posts, articles and interviews. But not a peep from Roberts who ‘has been placed on leave’.

One wonders where the public relations executives at Saatchi were during Roberts’ interview.

Did they set this up? What was the original intention of the interview? Presumably it was to talk about his new book64 Shots: Leadership in a Crazy World (more on that below).

Was no-one from the PR team in the room when the interview took place? If not, why not? If that is the case, presumably he was felt to be sufficiently experienced to manage his own media relations.

Surely senior executives had discussed and agreed a public relations strategy following the “class-action gender discrimination lawsuit” at the Publicis Groupe’s MSLGroup PR firm in New York in May this year? Did Kevin miss that meeting?

Anyway, I’m sure Saatchi’s top PR people have been busy since – although there’s no sign of any public comment on the UK website, there’s a brief corporate Publicis Groupe statement on the global site: I’m guessing that the notable space in the Global Leadership Team line up was caused by removing Roberts’ photo.

Global Chief Creative Officer (CCO), Kate Stanners, has belatedly done a recovery interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. And Saatchi’s CEO, Arthur Sadoun has emailed Publicis employees putting distance between the group and “the way Kevin’s remarks were expressed“.

I imagine that Kevin is at his ‘sanctuary’ in Grasser in the English Lake District – as the last post on his personal blog revealed his love for the area.

Anyway, I’m not that fussed about the online “sh*tstorm” and reactive crisis comms. It all seems a bit predictable and probably another 7 day wonder. Kevin is unlikely to return to his 16th floor office window overlooking the Hudson River in New York but will move off down a new career path, after cashing in stock options, golden parachute cheques and no doubt some wound-licking with old muccas.

Perhaps they’ll be laughing about the irony of the content of his latest book – evident in this Forbes interview back in June: The Radical Optimist: Saatchi & Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts On How To Lead In A Crazy World.

What I’d really like to point out though is that there was a nugget of truth in Roberts’ views about women and leadership. It the reason why I believe there’s no place for women at the top of the edifice. Here’s the quote that interests me:

If you think about those Darwinian urges of wealth, power, and fame — they are not terribly effective in today’s world for a millennial because they want connectivity and collaboration. They feel like they can get that without managing and leading, so maybe we have got the definition wrong”.

I’m not talking about what millennials want, nor whether or not women lack ambition, just want to be happy, need asking twice before accepting promotion, or are quite prepared to let lawsuits get the attention of the big bad (predominantly) white boss boys – or any of the other arguments in the flurry of debate that has ensued in the past few days.

And, yes it is good to see giant advertisers like Unilever claim they are dropping sexist stereotypes from their campaigns (not sure if this applies to belittling men as hopeless which many ads do).

The Guardian’s editorial got close to my point at the end of its piece stating:

Yet Mr Roberts may have hit on one truth. His model of leadership is no longer very appealing. Women do not like it, and nor, increasingly, do men. Leadership as a kind of military command, the peak of a hierarchy, belongs to a pre-tech age. Modern companies are likely to be non-hierarchical and cooperative, and much more likely to be ones where everyone can flourish.

I don’t agree with the final sentence here that companies have changed. And within society we still seem to have accepted, without question, the 20th century model of organisational structures as pyramids, with career ladder metaphors for climbing to the top of an edifice – literally in the case of Roberts’ sky scraping office location.

What Rosenbaum called the ‘tournament model’ favours those who ‘win’ early in their careers who then gain recognition and rewards that escalate as a result of winning in job battles. This can be seen in Sarah Kliff’s excellent post: The truth about the gender wage gap.

Her main point is about how time is valued in organisations – and that’s particularly true of advertising and PR agencies which count, and charge, every hour.

So structurally organisations – and society’s attitudes – are predicated on a world that no longer reflects the experiences, and needs, of many individuals and organisations.

We don’t need people to work longer hours, we need them to work more productively in those hours. We don’t need people to fight their way to tops of edifices – we need to topple the phallic symbolism and with it the notion of career ladders and pyramids, where the majority become career losers.

Because ultimately, we don’t just need to smash glass ceilings and let women grab that view of the Hudson River. We need to redefine what we mean by a ‘top job’ – and realise that successful businesses don’t just need one man (or woman) spurring on the troops with rousing Henry V-style battle speeches.

We can already see that the people wanting to be at the pinnacle of organisations (or countries) are increasingly dysfunctional. Or they are already mega-rich (from privileged backgrounds or fortunes accumulated as the spoils of career tournament battles).

We don’t need organisations where the majority of employees have poor working conditions, insecure career futures and an ever widening pay gap between them and those up in the clouds.

Organisations are built on the talent and labour of more than those around the boardroom table. So let’s tear down the edifice and stop looking for our place at the top of a narrow ladder of success.

Or we can keep muttering about inequity, silencing the dinosaurs, and replace those privileged white guys with the same fantastic beasts who just look at bit more like the rest of us.

UPDATE: Since writing and publishing this post, it has been confirmed that as predicted above, Kevin Roberts has resigned: – The Daily Telegraph features his personal statement:

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6 Replies to “There’s no place for women at the top of the edifice

  1. Heather, your reply is well taken. I don’t have all the answers either! We are exploring this stuff by engaging in debate. Please send me your thesis when it is complete and public!

  2. Dear Heather, there is a difference between “I” or “me” and “we” the corporation. If the “I” and the “we” have to be totally aligned then what the corporation demands is clones. In the age of social media, the likes of Neville Hobson – who I have debated on 21st Century PR Issues – have advocated blurring the distinction between “we” and “I” by having CEOs “discuss products, issues and corporate performance from a personal perspective”. The problem arises whenever the two diverge and the CEO feels forced to say “I” when he means “we” or, more precisely “my bosses”, or when he suddenly discovers he can only say “I’ when it is compatible with “we”. The way round this, of course, is to ditch the personal altogether and to keep corporate speak corporate. This way the audience can at least be sure that the CEO or corporate spokesperson is not seeking empathy under false pretenses but is instead expressing a considered view of the corporate body he or she represents.

    So, yes, corporations are not and should not be free speech zones.

    Yet the claim of corporations to be advocates of diversity is only meaningful if it extends to opinion. It is, I suggest, an oxymoron for a corporation to position itself as a promoter of diversity and then to imply “we welcome anybody of any sex, race, colour or nationality so long as they think like we do”. That position is one that advocates conformity, which, as indicated above, is the exact opposite of diversity. And, in my opinion, corporations are most effective when they are united or coherent as opposed to when they lack borders or form in the name of diversity.

    Nevertheless, corporations cannot own our souls. We have the right to an independent opinion and in the public realm, in the West at least, we have a right to freedom of speech. In that context, there is no such thing as a uniform white, black, woman or ethnic opinion because everybody has an independent point of departure shaped by a different social experience. But that fact does not give us the right to voice our divergent opinions in the name of the corporations we work for: because doing so is a clear breach of contract. Though a trade unionist still has the right to challenge his employer etc. That’s a difficult line to walk. In this complex web of relationships, the PR is in one of the most compromised positions of all because his or her loyalty is bound by his or her contractual role as a corporate mouthpiece: see my posts on keeping PR honest.

    You muddle the discussion by introducing Trump in relation to Roberts. Trump’s number one selling point is the outrage his outrageous comments provoke. His opponents play into his hands responding childishly (you can’t say that!) to his childish remarks. This stupidity on the part of his opponents might yet win him the Presidency (tho I pray that he flops!). By contrast, Roberts raised – as you suggest – legitimate issues, even if we don’t all agree with his take entirely, in an interview. The two characters and case studies are chalk and cheese.

    In answer to your accusation, I wish to make clear that I have never ever argued that PR pros have to defend everything their bosses want to say or actually say. I would refuse to defend a CEO who was an outspoken racist or who hated women etc. and I would not expect my colleagues to do so either. Having said that, however, like with lawyers, some PR pros can, should and do legitimately defend the indefensible in the name of “we” or more precisely “them” without compromising the “I” as in “me”. I, for instance, say we should put the client – as opposed to our personal prejudices – first or not take the commission.

    Roberts was clearly speaking about “I”. The question is, should CEOs be allowed to speak their minds or should they be forced to tow the line? Are they duty bound to be clones? How do we strike a balance? I suggest that Roberts’ sacking was outrageously over the top because it bent the stick in the wrong direction. And your comments about how he might have paved the way in private beforehand with his bosses strikes me as hindsight, not insight.

    And whatever happened to empowerment?

    1. Paul – you touch on something here that I’ve been looking at in my PhD in respect of micro (individual), meso (occupation/organisation) and macro (societal) levels of analysis; and particularly agency vs. structure in terms of equitable career opportunities (or and…and…and… as I see it). Also, in recent teaching, I’ve been drawing on work relating to polyphony (as well as monophony, homophony etc) – which has stimulated some student dissertations.

      At the moment, I don’t have any conclusions on all of this, but think it is important to think about and discuss. I favour debate and polyphony of voice rather than censorship or homogeneity. But, but, but….

      My point on Roberts’ views before the interview is that invariably such matters are not expressed for the first time in front of an unfamiliar journalist on the record. And in his case, as a senior executive, he should have been part of the discussions regarding policies. The degree of latitude between consensus and expressing personal opinion on what has been agreed is, as you rightly indicate, the difficulty. But at some point we all have to put up, shut up, be prepared to defend our opinions or take the consequences. This is easier to say when we are able to put principles and beliefs over the necessity to work, although I think everyone has a line.

      My point on Trump was less about him, and more about how his PR people seem to be willing to ‘explain’ everything he says as a joke, misinterpretation etc, etc. Of course this is the extreme and I presume they have some career volition.

  3. Paul – thank you for picking up on the point about PR practitioners ‘defending’ bosses (or clients) as a form of psychological body-guard. I wasn’t suggesting (as Aamir indicates), surrounding or policing those who ought to be responsible enough for their own communications. However, I do think that having PR representatives ‘in the room’ is helpful on a number of levels. Certainly I don’t advocate the celebrity model of the PR person as vetting questions or orchestrating intervention if the ‘wrong’ things are asked.

    Yet, there may well be points in an interview that require clarification (perhaps the interviewee doesn’t know the answer to something or there are follow up opportunities) and the initial and ongoing professional relationship is likely to be at the journalist-PR practitioner level. And the most qualified interviewee can get into problems where the PR practitioner may have more experience in how to handle this.

    Yes, media training can be helpful in honing skills – and again, I’m not suggesting that this should be used to sanitise or rehearse unauthentic, stock responses. But we can all benefit from thinking things through out loud with insight/feedback from other people – before being scrutinised by the media for example.

    In this particular case, I doubt that this was the first time that Roberts had expressed his views on this topic. And as I indicated, it is a matter that the parent company is aware has business impact at a financial and cultural level (internally as well as externally). Hence, one would expect such matters to be discussed at a high level (to include PR practitioners) and a corporate position developed.

    Personally, I feel that such discussion should include recognition of the complexity and changing nature of such issues and I believe PR practitioners do a disservice when their role is one of crafting corporate statements that fail to recognise there are no simple answers. As I noted, simply replacing the stereotypical white man with other people at the top without addressing structural issues – which for me includes the entire hierarchical edifice – and having diversity policies, initiatives and so forth which are readily communicated to please the zeitgeist feels too superficial and easy for those whose privilege is not threatened.

    Similarly, I don’t think that the nuanced complexity of such matters is likely to be advanced by defending someone who has spoken their mind in a way where they should have appreciated what the immediate response would be.

    After the event, ostracising Roberts to ‘protect’ the company and sweep the matter neatly away is lazy crisis management in my view. Again I’m not arguing that he needed the Oprah-sofa moment of self-realisation and a volunteering stint at a woman’s refuge (not making light of such work, only as a trite redemptive stunt). The opportunity to then to address the problems and opportunities within the advertising (and similar) industries has simply been lost here – and the views of Roberts (which are likely to be shared with others in some part at least) aren’t acknowledged or reflected upon (not least by him).

    My issue with your comment though is the implication that in PR we should simply defend clients/bosses no matter what they say. I can see too much of that in the current Trump debacle to allow it to slide. Yes, having Trump’s views out in the open is important – rather than sanitising any nefarious intent under more comfortable rhetoric. But allowing free reign within the notion of ‘free speech’ is also not acceptable.

    So my point is that PR practitioners have many responsibilities – this includes protecting clients and organisations, enabling their authenticity even, or particularly, in relation to complicated matters, but also challenging back where potentially contentious opinions need to be considered initially away from the glare of public scrutiny and the tyranny of social media outrage. I feel that this opportunity was missed – and will continue to be missed – in the land of the skyscraper advertising agencies, and also with far more serious consequences, it has long been missed in US politics and that is unlikely to be resolved soon.

  4. Heather, I agree with a lot of what you have written above. Yet I disagree with one key point. It is not the job of PR pros to police speech and to make the bosses live bland, safe lives. It would be better if we defended their right to be authentic and to say what they think. Roberts spoke robustly. He got sacked for so doing. So everybody seemingly turned on him instead of debating the issues he raised, which they dubbed beyond debate, beyond question. In that spirit, you have suggested that a PR pros’ presence in the interview could have saved Roberts from himself. By contrast, I say we should have defended him. And we should be denouncing his employers for their PR thought-police response and for their lack of loyalty to Roberts. Precisely because of a lack of voiced support, Roberts was forced Galileo Galilei-style to recant. He then said what he does not believe; while accepting his fate as he was exiled from public life and polite society, and shoved into the great wilderness inhabited by the ostracized.

    So, I’m with you on some of your useful insightful remarks. But your lack of robustness has to be called out because you do not have the excuse of being a paid Saatchi & Saatchi employee. That person might indeed feared for their own position and therefore understandably have advised him to keep mum about what he thinks. Yet even for that in-house person, surely honesty, integrity and professionalism should trump corporate creepiness?

    In short, Roberts’ sin was to speak his mind about a very complex, and as you rightly suggest, changing landscape in the world of work for both women and men. That deserved respect from the wider PR world whose job it should be to keep the bosses honest, relevant, credible and connected. Roberts’ comments also deserved, but did not get (tho you have shown some, I accept), respect from those who disagreed with him.

    In short, it is amazing to me how PRC contributors celebrate authenticity one moment and then preach the virtues of its counterpart when push comes to shove.

  5. We usually surround our clients when they appear in an interview but nobody would have even though he would need this kind of support.

    I cannot think about my boss at PR agency needing me around but now we all should.

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