Playing without the Queens. Women and Talent Management


Women and talent management: economic common sense

For many it takes a small, personal, micro situation or relationship to highlight underlying macro, philosophical issues. Mine was nothing to do with any immediate connections, childhood experiences or friends. It was by interacting with total strangers in one of the most impersonal spaces – an airport.


Recently, I was stranded at the departure gate of a regional British airport, waiting for a flight which was seriously delayed. Passengers got twitchy, as somewhat worryingly, engineers crawled over the open hood of the engine of the plane clearly clutching what bore more than a passing resemblance to maintenance manuals. Just like the movies, in consternation, small crisis support groups were formed. In my group, in addition to myself, were a teacher and very happily a pilot and an aeronautical engineer. All women.

This is a true story!

Crisis Management

With their inside knowledge, backgrounds and expertise the pilot and engineer stepped up. They told us they were not going to get on any plane where the engineers were looking at manuals. And guess what? If they weren’t, neither were we. Passes were duly flashed and these professionals very competently dealt with the airline and airport authorities, their leadership /management, hitherto visible only by their complete absence. These women obviously succeeded in coming between the passengers and a night spent on a hard airport lounge floor. The teacher and I sat suitably impressed. Did we care if the achievements of these ladies followed John C Maxwell’s maxim “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way” or Drucker’s manager “ doing things right”? No we didn’t.

An individual story

While the other two women became paragon leaders and/or managers, whichever view you take, somewhat superfluous to the task in hand the teacher and I talked about her daily life. She lives in a deprived industrial area, with high levels of up to fourth generation unemployment. Her primary (elementary) school services a number of “sink level” housing estates, where most children live below what would be considered to be the poverty line. Many of the mothers are single parents with addictions issues and many are victims of abuse. The children are exposed to every type of heart-breaking deprivation that you and I can think of – too many to list here.


The teacher had created fun segments just to teach basic life skills that the children had never encountered before, like holding a knife and fork, or saying “thank you.” The only meals some of the kids ever eat are in school, so she set up breakfast, lunch and snack programmes. She talked about these small victories in the face of budget and staffing cuts: Holding fundraisers, persuading local shops and organisations to make donations of products and materials (quite often food) and even paying for some things out of her own pocket. Her greatest achievements were the children who had been through her programme and had eventually gained university places, one recently entering Cambridge.

A real leader

She is obviously creative, innovative, has vision and could have certainly pursued a career in education management and policy; but had stayed where she was “for the sake of the children.” About 1500 children have passed through her programme over the years. This is surely the John Quincy Adams type of leader: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”I would have been delighted to have named her, but this special lady wanted to stay completely anonymous. So although there are no extravagant trappings or perks of corporate life, I saw in the space of a few hours three skilled, competent and inspirational ladies who simply stepped up and led.

Aren’t those qualities ones we should look for in leaders?

Time for change

The root of my problem is that together with many others, I’m starting to question the value we assign to certain specific leadership qualities which are considered to be significant in our organisations and culture. I ask myself if the characteristics we seem to look for in our top leaders are no longer what we need in today’s world. Should we be focusing on constructing different leadership models instead? If women make up more than 50% of the workforce and 60% of graduates, yet less than 15% of senior positions, then the issue should not only be why is this demographic is not being tapped into and developed – but why the delay? Isn’t it time for our leaders to implement change, to establish what our communities and organisations need to succeed and to maximise the contribution of this massively under utilised demographic? This is no longer about gender and diversity – but about economic common sense.

Cave men

At one time in our cave dwelling days with all those lions, tigers and bears, men in their 30s, in the peak of physical condition became designated leaders. I can understand this. There were situations when brute strength, risk-taking and the odd club wielding skill were useful. The life expectancy of a Palaeolithic man, made him at 30 years old, a tribal elder. However, in the 21st century, in a knowledge-based economy, when a deft flick of an iPad might work just as well and life expectancy has more than doubled, those physiological qualities are no longer key. So times and requirements are a-changing and that gives us lots more flexibility to decide what leadership skills we need in our society and how women and talent management can be better combined .

Never has this been more apparent than during the recent global recession and the attempts at reconstruction. One example was what we saw with the financial services wunderkind Fabulous Fabrice Tourre . Was I the only one thinking: What is wrong with this picture? His gender is actually irrelevant, but what seemed critical to me was why was a graduate from the class of 2001, seemingly left unsupervised, to run amok in the sand box, taking incredible financial risks? Was it because we admired and valued his skills? Or just because he made some people a lot of money before he bankrupted them? If so, perhaps we should be identifying different types of skills worthy of admiration.

Plus ça change

I watched post holiday commercials enticing us to take out quick, “no credit check “ loans with A.P.R.s in excess of 2500%, for those “much needed luxuries.” I see bailed out bankers rewarding themselves with bonuses in the billions and economic gurus telling us that it is “back to business as usual.” I wonder why our leadership is so resistant to change. The word bank is commonly recognised as being derived from the word “banca”, or bench when medieval Italian money lenders set up business on benches in the market place. When a banker failed, the populace broke his bench – hence our word bankrupt. Not today it would seem. So truthfully, I am at the point where I actually wonder if we seem to have lost the collective plot.

Vicious cycles

If doing what we’ve always done gives us what we always had, then why is the populace not screaming for change, rather than simply whimpering from the side lines? It’s clear that long-term talent management strategies need to be evaluated and reconstructed in many sectors for our organisations to flourish. Leadership is supposed to be about people, innovation, challenging the status quo, inspiring trust and seeing the big picture. Even The World Economic Forum analysis of global skill set shortages only fleetingly suggests the development of women as part of any strategic solution. There seems to be a basic need for change. But if leaders are failing to innovate and lack long-term vision then using their own criteria, are they really leaders?

As Georgia Fieste said to me on Twitter

So why do our organisations think differently?


12 thoughts on “Playing without the Queens. Women and Talent Management

  1. Gwyn Teatro

    Dorothy, I love the stories of the three women and how they simply stepped up to do what was needed without fanfare. And, I agree the world could use a lot more of that in these times. I have never been much of a card player but I’m thinking that perhaps if we had a more queens in the deck and fewer jokers we might be on to something.

  2. Wendy Mason

    This post is particularly striking this week as we await yet a further report on women and the City glass ceiling. No it does not make sense for women to make up more than 50% of the workforce and 60% of graduates, yet less than 15% of senior positions! I started my career in nursing at the Royal free Hospital in London! At that time the Royal Free (home of the first medical school for women) only employed female nurses! Some of the ward sisters with whom I trained gave fine examples of leadership. In that enclosed society, they were valued for it!

  3. Anna

    Hi Dorothy- fantastic piece – and so timely. It’s not just about the role of women in the workplace and the behaviour of the financial services leaders syphoning off massive bonuses from state bailed out banks . People are no longer prepared to tolerate what has been historically accepted, whether it’s in Egypt or the boardroom.

    Our leaders are not leading – they are maintaining the status quo because it suits them. I feel change is finally in the air. You’re right, a lot has happened in a month and perhaps we have now found the “collective plot” as you put it!

  4. Saila

    Well said Dorothy! It seems that many are tired of the status quo and just as it required people to take to the streets in Northern Africa and the Middle East for change to take place- it will probably take quotas to get women to the boardroom. I’m not in favour of this generally, it’s hard on the first intake with the label that they got there because of positive discrimination – but I think it will be necessary to break into the old boys club. It’s time to change the machismo cultures of many organisations. There’s no need to spend days travelling when video conferencing is so effective or work crazy hours which end up being counter productive because of fatigue and stress. Common sense should prevail!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Saila – yes extensive and often unnecessary travel and long hours instead of focused effort are often cited by women for leaving the corporate world. Hopefully we can change those machismo cultures.

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  7. Jean Bailey

    Hi Dorothy – your wonderment of why women are “whimpering” at the sidelines was a good question. Now in the UK at least companies have 4 years to increase women on boards to 25%. Women should now step up in their droves and organsiations will be obliged to shift their business model to take into account this new way of doing business. The old order which brought economies to their knees and people into the streets – is going to have to wake up to new realities. Exellently prophetic!

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