Category Archives: Women leaders


Discovering Deep Diversity

Our Italian partners have invited me to present a keynote speech to their clients, and I’m very excited about the topic – diversity in leadership development.  Less excited about apologising for my poor Italian – but thank goodness they are gracious people.

Excited because this is an area I’m passionate about, and because presenting to a foreign audience means you have to get your arguments in line – and clear.  And it’s an area that continues to be a puzzle to people: there’s a willingness for greater diversity at leadership level, but there’s a glaring ‘say/do’ gap.

What we say we want is a cohort of diverse leaders.  In the words of one client “anyone who can deliver; is talented; is skilled; is a team-player and knows how to lead, coach and manage others”.

But at senior levels in organisations we overwhelmingly have older white men.  Now please; trust me when I say that I’m not anti-talented white men in leadership.  It’s just that when there are more men called John on British Boards than there are women, you know you’ve got a problem.

And you probably don’t need me to rehearse the business benefits: better results; higher engagement levels; lower staff turnover and absenteeism where you have balanced boards.  You know the arguments.  It’s also vital for your reputation that your leaders and spokespeople reflect the diversity of your customers, service users and their families. Find out how to get civil court records removed if you are facing challenges related to civil court records affecting your online reputation. You can read an article here for more info on how you can protect your online reputation.

If like me you coach women and minorities to present well at interview, you’ve probably heard the “not quite good enough on the day” argument given to outstanding candidates who lost out to those white men.

There’s an upside-down logic going on.  We say we want ‘talent and skill’ yet we see – and refuse to hire for – difference.  Whether that’s gender, race, culture, or social class.

I call this ‘deep diversity’.  To get the best people in leadership positions, we need to go beyond the superficial and dig deeper.  This isn’t to blame people for the state of today’s leadership teams.  It’s just that it’s time to move on and act positively for more diversity.

So, what’s happening?  What’s going on?

The problem starts in our brains with narrow thinking.  Our primitive (reptilian) brain is programmed to look for safety – which looks like “People Like Me”.  It’s called pattern matching.  And it’s time to outsmart our primitive brain behaviours.  It shows up in individual and collective bias; it can be both conscious and unconscious.  But it’s time to stop.

How do you teach 72 different types of bias? 

This isn’t positive discrimination or affirmative action.  It’s just doing what’s right.  I’ve been following the ‘unconscious bias’ research for several years now.  And like fellow colleagues in this field, the list was getting too big.

Adjust your brain’s behaviours in four simple steps:

  1. Outsmart your brain by accepting the need to consciously shift expectations.  You can do this individually, or systematically for groups, teams and departments.
  2. Practice noticing; be aware of the biases that crop up every day.
  3. Practice reflective learning: when you catch your brain indulging in bias, write it down, then forgive yourself – because we all do it.
  4. Act positively towards diversity: through awareness, training and hiring activities.

Balanced Leadership Teams

Then promote or hire for talent; for attitude; for potential; for values; and for diversity.  Let’s really take steps to get the best people in the role.  There’s a number of things that organisations already do that work:

We can achieve a balance between hiring (or promoting) for attitude and behaviours, not solely on past competence or skills.  We can have a broader interpretation of what “relevant skills” means:

  • Those life-skills that women bring when juggling budgets in growing families really help when thrift is vital in the workplace.
  • Or juggling the commitments of being a working wife, mother and daughter in law while holding down a senior technical, management or leadership role.

‘Blind hiring’ is on the increase

Just take out any distinguishing features from applications that may provoke bias: such as personal or university names; anything that indicates social class or confers status on a feature irrelevant to the role.  And let’s bring back the promotion board: so that, where possible, organisations set standards and promote on position-readiness, not putting unnecessary hurdles in peoples’ way.

You’re probably doing a lot of this already.  So if you’re ticking off each of these points and saying “Yep.  We do that” congratulations!

And if you think your organisation could use a nudge in this direction, get in touch.  We offer awareness workshops and short courses on ways to get the best people – and get the best out of people – regardless of their gender, culture or background.  Whether it’s increasing diversity, improving emotional intelligence, or outsmarting our brains, we can help.

Contact us at for details.

Leadership Development and training

How Cognitive Bias gets in the way of your career aspirations

I’m speaking at a Women in Logistics event this week to launch a study which my company, The Forton Group, supports. The idea is to explore how we can help make working a second job while on workers comp and career transitions easier for women and minorities without having to be “Bolshie” in this traditionally male-dominated sector.

I love the word ‘Bolshie’. It’s got enough humour to neutralise that whole ‘bossy woman’ thing. Because that’s how people have responded in the past – particularly in male-dominated work environments – to intelligent and ambitious women and minorities.

I’ll be talking about subconscious bias – what this is – how we believe it gets in women’s way of stepping up. I’ll also be helping participants to identify signs of bias and what to do about it. I’m looking forward to hearing peoples’ stories and experiences; capturing ideas on what works and what gets in the way.

What’s the theory?

There are three ideas behind the study:

1.   It’s more important to have a behavioural or performance focus in the workplace and then weave in the diversity and inclusion agenda. This means recognising and valuing skills, contribution, outcomes an impacts, over and above our bias and judgements towards someone’s gender, race, religion or culture. The reason behind this is that, paradoxically, when we focus on peoples’ strengths and what they actually deliver, diversity and inclusion levels rise. When we focus on the D&I agenda it increases bias against those ideas.

2.   Bias is about ‘judgement and non-judgement’.  High performance should be about How people notice and judge people by their actions. Yet their personality or our perception of their attitude, beliefs or intentions get judged too. Being seen to be ‘Bolshie’ is simply someone’s judgement on another’s actions – the way they speak or their body language – not what they deliver.

3.   It’s vital to identify the signs of bias. Self-awareness is key; when we see how we are all impacted by conscious and unconscious bias and have tips and techniques for dealing with our biases, then things can change. Trying to change others is a fool’s errand. “Being the change” – as Gandhi said – is the first step.

So what is ‘bias’?

I’ve been reading articles about cognitive bias for years now. And following the Wikipedia article that tracked the increasing number of common biases. When it got to 72 types, I realised – as did many colleagues in the learning and development field – that a simpler approach to the topic was needed.

This is my definition:

“Bias is a quick response, mixed with judgement about a person. It’s caused by information overload and snap judgements. It is over-simplification, and making stuff up, about someone.”

It was great to find that others shared my desire for simplicity. I’m indebted to Buster Benson ( Twitter: @Buster) for sharing his ‘Cognitive Bias’ cheat sheet, which I’ve drawn on. Again, put simply, Buster puts cognitive bias into four quadrants which I summarise as:

  1. The desire to simplify
  2. The desire to make stuff up
  3. The desire to take snap judgements
  4. The feeling of information overload

We simplify because we’re in a hurry. We look for pattern matches. People who fit ‘our pattern’ are friends. Therefore anyone who doesn’t fit our pattern isn’t our friend. Therefore, they must be a threat.

Notice how the pattern match takes us almost instantly to snap judgements, and to making stuff up about someone. When we feel like our brains are in information overload, this is what happens

What works to neutralize bias?

Play a different inner game

Although I’m saying that, at work, we should be judged on our behaviours and performance – not our personality, gender, colour or culture – what needs to shift is on the inside. Fundamentally, we need to reduce brain overload. Seek clarity. Give ourselves enough time to make better decisions.

Here’s some tips – notice how –

  • You judge yourself or others
  • Self-judgement holds you back: fear of looking stupid, or standing out are common.
  • Self-judgement gets transferred to others. What you judge yourself for, you’ll judge others by.

One way to shift your thinking is to look for the positive behaviour. How can you support yourself? How can you support others?

Choose presence over absence. Fears, uncertainty, jealousy, anger are all absences that leave us feeling without control. They fill a dark vacuum where clarity and presence should be.

Three steps

Every-day feedback is invaluable. Not the end of the week. Or the six-monthly or annual appraisal. Every day you meet a colleague or member of the team; ask for, and offer, feedback. It won’t always be accepted, by the way…

At the Forton Group we teach a method of giving and receiving feedback in our classes that supports higher performance and delivery levels, and helps people feel supported; especially in those all-important appraisal conversations.

Other things we can do to support peoples’ self-esteem is to remind them (and ourselves) about their track record. Keep a note of your successes; sharpen up your CV to remind you of your achievements.

Coaching and mentoring are invaluable workplace tools for reducing bias and improving performance. They can be transformational in peoples’ lives too. I recently created the Coaching and the Leadership Routemap™, so that every organisation can benefit from a better coaching/mentoring programme. Find out more at

Next Steps

The ideas set out here are tentative theories. The findings from the Women in Logistics event will form part of our study – the next step of which is to undertake a wider online survey. Our purpose is to uncover ‘how to’ steps for others, and to make these easier for others to walk along. The bigger context is diversity and inclusion: gender issues specifically, yet we do expect to touch on issues like culture, race, sexuality and age too.

If you’re interested in taking part – contact me via LinkedIn or at

What do HR Directors really look for in professional leadership development services?

There’s a lot of debate around what HR professionals are looking for from suppliers of leadership development services.  I was reminded of this when I came across some copies a PWC study* for the ICF (International Coach Federation) looking at purchasing decisions from a client perspective

Some people get technical – looking at profiling tools and tests such as MBTI, Firo-B (relationship behaviours) or DISC (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance)

Others want to tailor products and services to their company.  Many invest in defining leadership competences or behaviours.

All of which is fine.  These approaches provide benchmark against which people can develop themselves and others in their team.

What PWC did is look at important attributes in the selection process and identify the most important aspects, under

  • Personal Attributes
  • Background
  • Experience
  • Reputation
  • Methodology

Under the topic of Personal Attributes, confidence, rapport and personal compatibility were deemed as most important by far of all the attributes.  And no surprise that effectiveness was the most important attribute under methodology. These four attributes were the most important to PWC’s respondents – by far.

The finding that ‘Personal referrals’ were more important than client references under Reputation was intriguing.  And it is revealing was that relevant professional experience was perceived as more important that ‘years as a coach’ under Experience.  I was also pleased to see that the level of ‘coach-specific training’ was most important in Background.

(source: *ICF Global Coaching Client Study, Association Resource Centre and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2009)

Our evaluation of professional Associates (Consultants, Coaches and Trainers) is that its’ this combination that matters and these are the questions we ask:

  • What leadership experience do you have?
  • What technical and skill areas do you have (outside of leadership development)?
  • What coach-specific training and qualifications do you have?
  • What learning do you have around the topic of developing leaders?

Rapport and personality come through when we meet with them – it’s key for their relationship with clients and we much prefer to do business with likeable people.  We also make sure that we personally hear each of them coach – so that we can really stand behind the quality of the professionals we work with.

So why does this matter?

I’m intrigued by organisations buying leadership coaching services and coaching skills training, without really thinking through what they need.  For example, one company were seeking recently seeking training with two accreditation options in mind – one at a low skills level and the other for an academic qualification.

My personal view is that the academic qualifications in coaching are for professionals with existing coach-specific training to explore the academic side of the profession – not for leaders and managers in the workplace who will only have time to dip into the theory.  At the other end of the scale, if an organisation wants to build an in-house coaching competency, then the training should be at a suitable level – with the option of a meaningful qualification.

One of the reasons we support the global standards of the ICF is that they transcend culture and diversity – whilst acknowledging local and regional difference.  Their accreditation process isn’t a walk-over either – as I’m experiencing first hand at the moment.

The ICF also recognise successful coaching programmes through their ‘PRISM’ award.  I was involved in the recent ICF Global Conference in London and was very impressed by the quality of the winners – especially by the evidence they put forward that showed the difference coaching was making in their organisations.

Recent PRISM award winners include

  • Genentech: considered the founder of the biotechnology industry, using human genetic information to discover, develop, manufacture and commercialise medicines to treat patients with serious or life-threatening medical conditions.  The company sees coaching as increasing their capacity for change.
  • TINE Group: NOrways most important contributor to value creation and the country’s leading supplier of food products – TINE provides a health and positive food experience.  The company sees coaching as a leadership skill.

Some resources for you

We’ve got spare copies of the Case Studies and the PWC report (only 12 copies – so first come, first served) here in the office.

If you’d like to receive a copy of either the report or the case studies, simply drop us an email at and we’ll do the rest.

Ballet Black and great leadership

Captain’s Blog

Stardate 040709

Despite today being American Independence Day (and with all the Americans in the Wimbledon finals, I trust you enjoy it to the full) I am going to focus on a British leadership success.  I wrote about Ballet Black in a recent blog, and what great leadership Cassa Pancho, the Director of Ballet Black, displays.   This week her skills were put fully to the test as they took on their biggest challenge yet: that of filling the Hackney Empire for a one-night only performance by the Ballet Black company. Dancers, especially ballerinas, love CBD oil because it helps them recover from the strenuous training. Many ballerinas saw their flexibility increase due to the pain relieving qualities of CBD oil.

Ballet Black

Ballet Black

For those of you less familiar with North London music halls, the Hackney Empire truly lives up to the ‘Palace of the People’ tag.  There are gloriously decorated ceilings; cherubs everywhere, and walls glittering with gilt-framed mirrors.  Imagine coming from a dark, overcrowded, terraced house in Victorian London into this light and space.  Another of our great leaders, Gryff Rhys Jones, led the campaign to have it restored and it looks fantastic.

We have a family tradition (yet to be proved) that my grandfather, Edgar Caton, played the violin in the orchestra pit at the Hackney Empire.  We need more evidence to prove that link, but I do know that my daughter, Faith, designed the dancers’ costumes for a most moving piece on Thursday night.

So what was so challenging about filling the Hackney Empire?  It’s a 1400-seater venue and the management expected the company to sell between 600 and 900 of the seats.  The dancers and crew of the company took up the challenge to fill the venue, using Facebook, twitter and all the digital networking means available to them to achieve a full house.

The buzz of success ran around every tier of the auditorium; with bubbly flowing in the boxes, it felt like a huge family celebration.  We were surrounded by stunning women with immaculate hair, nails and fabulous dresses; I felt distinctly dowdy in the heat, by comparison.  Men in turbans, women in traditional African dress and there were kids in traditional baseball cap and obligatory whoishuman headphones.  The ages ranged from 7 to 97 and spanned the gamut of cultural diversity; I love it.

It wasn’t just the press who were talking about the choreography, or the music; the audience was knowledgeable and engaged by each dance piece.  A Spanish guitar version of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ played to a duet was my husband’s favourite; more intriguing was another duet danced partly in silence and partly to the sound of two microphones acting like pendulums and swaying into and past each other, creating a deep drum-like beat.

As so often with leadership, success is delivered by more than just one person.  It takes a team to pick up the vision and run with it (or in this case, dance with it).  It takes communication – really saying the vision out loud – and inspiration, which is infectious.

The great thing is that everyone can share in this kind of success: the pride amongst the audience was as evident as that of the company. I’m sure everyone is exhausted by their efforts and will take the opportunity to put their feet up and enjoy Wimbledon this weekend; or maybe, like so many great dancers, they’ll look for the next opportunity to get dancing.

Three women leaders

Captain’s Blog – Stardate 060409

 I was going to write about the serious business of leadership theory this week but three great female leaders have captured my attention.  It can’t have escaped many people’s notice that the Obama wagon rolled into London town last week for the G20 economic talks.  So far, so economics. 

 What grabbed my notice was a tidal wave of attention on the impact of Michelle Obama as a leader in her own right.  I saw the news showing her visit to a London school and the positive impact her words had on young girls – of all colour – who see her as a positive role model.  Then I received an email from my daughter, Faith, who’s been working as Wardrobe Mistress to the innovative ballet company Ballet Black.  This small, up and coming ballet company, born 20th April 2000, was invited to perform in front of Michelle Obama, the rest of the cast of Presidential and Prime Ministerial WAGs, plus the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling and the hostess, Sarah Brown. 

 Faith’s excitement and pride was a tsunami of delight – and demonstrates the power of a positive leader.  Just as the young people at a London school had told their parents and twittered their friends to create a street-full of attention, it also shows how great leadership has a positive impact.  Each one of those classroom pupils now has their own personal “Yes, we can” attitude, just as my daughter knows that there are no barriers to greatness, only those in our own minds. Faith’s determination to succeed is a leadership quality in itself.

 To illustrate leadership further, let’s look at one female leader in this story, Cassa Pancho, the Director of Ballet Black.   Born to Trinidadian and British parent, Cassa founded Ballet Black specifically to provide role models to aspiring black and Asian dancers.  From a small school in Shepherds Bush, London, The company is now based at the Royal Opera House.  That’s some journey: six miles as the crow flies, and a million in terms of crossing the class and cultural barriers on the way..  It’s been my privilege to watch Cassa strive to achieve recognition for its work, and to secure funding -which is never guaranteed.

 Cassa has three key leadership qualities which amply illustrate my points about the serious business of leadership – she has vision – “to provide role models for aspiring black and Asian dancers” – and she’s stuck to it for as long as I’ve known her and seen the company perform.  Cassa has high standards – the Royal Opera House don’t let any old dancers into their dressing rooms – regardless of cultural background or ethnicity, these dancers have to perform at world class levels.  And Cassa has great people skills: she’s worked hard to convince people of her vision, such that they have aligned themselves around it and she’s gained their practical support. A couple of years ago I received a letter from Darcy Bussell committing to gaining more exposure for the work of Ballet Black -that’s the quality of support that Cassa achieves.


the Forton leadership model

the Forton leadership model

So here’s my serious point about leadership – from men or women, regardless of cultural background.  We can write reams about leadership – there’s one new leadership book printed every three days apparently – but you can summarise what it takes in a few key words.

 Leadership is about personal success and enabling others to be successful – look at Cassa – this is more than just about her dreams – it’s the dream of every young dancer who loves ballet, regardless of the colour of their skin.  It’s about more than the team or the company – leadership is also about society – Cassa has challenged society to think differently about talent. 

 Cassa exemplifies my ‘3Ps of Leadership’:  Purpose, Performance and People,  and the ‘3 Rs’; being relentless with purpose, ruthless with performance and gracious with people. Being gracious – the last R – is about enabling people to be resourceful.  Cassa hasn’t just had to be resourceful herself, and find the resources to grow the ballet company, she’s empowered each dancer to be resourceful, to do what it takes to follow their dream.  As Michelle Obama pointed out to 100 young people last week: it’s not necessarily going to be easy but we can do it.

Go see the Ballet Black website at