Baroness Helena Morrissey tells Laurence Eastham how economic uncertainty, flexible working and the growth of soft skills are combining to rewrite the business rulebook.
This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.
Baroness Morrissey has an enviable track record when it comes to predicting the future. As CEO of Newton Investment Management, her keen eye for business trends helped grow the firm from £20bn in assets under management to £50bn. And reading her 2018 book, A Good Time to Be a Girl, there are some spookily prescient recommendations for a world that had yet to be rocked by the pandemic. Morrissey has long been a proponent of flexible working – she introduced the option of a four-day week at Newton – and the book also highlighted England manager Gareth Southgate as an example of effective modern leadership. “Up until assigning penalties,” she caveats, meeting CA magazine just a few days after the European Championship final.
Morrissey is no stranger to making bold decisions in the face of uncertainty. She launched the 30% Club in 2010, in the wake of the financial crash. The group, now led by MasterCard’s Ann Cairns, works to improve gender diversity on boards and senior management teams. Morrissey felt that diversity initiatives at the time were not yielding significant change and that a more influence-driven approach was necessary. Handwritten letters were sent to chairmen, urging their involvement at a time of economic stress, beginning a campaign that has since grown to 18 territories. The results are clear: the proportion of women on FTSE 350 boards rose from 9.5% in 2010 to 34.5% a decade later.
Now we have time for much more imaginative thinking about how men and women can balance all the different aspects of life
It’s an example of the transformative power of crisis that Morrissey hopes businesses will once again harness as they exit the pandemic and seek to formalise the future of work. “Uncertainty means that people are receptive to change,” she explains. “Nobody can argue that everything’s perfect. And no one can argue that small changes around the margins are good enough.”
And that goes beyond diversity, too. Morrissey sees all assumptions around working practices as ripe to be challenged. When, where, how, and how often we work are all up for debate in the post-pandemic world. It’s a crucial shift in attitudes – and a willingness to experiment – that Morrissey wishes had been present earlier in her career, and back when she introduced the option of a four-day working week for her own staff.
“One of my frustrations before was that we couldn’t prove that working from home was successful. It was called ‘shirking from home’. And it was seen as being given as a favour, particularly to working mothers,” she says. “Now, we’re at another stage, looking at hybrid working. It’s created an openness in thinking that was very difficult to get across.”
Rebalancing the power
It’s all about creating working environments that suit as many different lives as possible. Morrissey is keenly aware that she subverts expectations about how a leader, finance professional, mother and family may look. She has nine children with husband Richard, who quit his job to become a full-time parent. The message to business is that it should accommodate, and actively welcome, these changes in family structures.
“Usually, when people talk about work-life balance, what they’re really talking about is squeezing work into a busy family life or squeezing family life into a busy work life,” she adds. “Now we have time for much more imaginative thinking about how men and women can balance all the different aspects of life. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity and we mustn’t lose sight of that.
“The system of work – sitting at the same desk in the same office five days a week – was set up a long time ago. It was before we had technology and, when women worked, they were in low pay or low-status jobs. Men also want to have more choices about their lives. All those things have changed – and yet the workplace has pretty much stayed the same.”
Now, the four-day working week looks poised to dominate the debate over post-pandemic employment. In late 2020, Unilever announced a 12-month trial at its New Zealand offices. And the results of a trial in Iceland, published in July 2021, suggest that the only impact on productivity is a positive one. Not everyone is a fan, however. According to reports during the summer, tech giants including Google and Apple have been preparing their employees for a return to the ways of old.
“There are definitely pockets where people think the pandemic has been a holding pattern – and now we need to get back to ‘proper’ work in the office,” says Morrissey. “Some American firms have set out edicts to get everyone back – but they’re going to struggle. They won’t necessarily struggle to hang on to existing employees, who are anxious about the job market, but I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to attract new people, especially if other firms are offering more reasonable packages.”
The echo chamber
A new world of work demands new types of leadership and management, too. The physical separation dictated by the pandemic, in addition to the long-term trend towards flatter company structures, has required many leaders to lean on an entirely different set of skills – communication, trust, empathy, among others. It’s why Morrissey highlighted the achievements of Southgate three years ago. For Morrissey, who has worked in finance since graduating from university, the former footballer’s continued success as a manager is a reflection of the growing importance of soft skills.
“When I started work, a leader was someone who told people what to do. They were very much top-down, command and control. It was very hierarchical. Your status was defined by a title that you were given,” she recalls. “As social media developed and information became more widely available, people understood that leaders are human beings. It’s their influence, their ability to inspire and build a following, that has become more important than forcing people to do things.
“It’s not as if you have to give everybody a vote on every decision. You still have to take decisions – and sometimes they might be unpopular – but people will know that you’re coming from the right place. They will know that you have the interests of all stakeholders at heart, weighing up the pros and cons, and they will be prepared to get behind that.”
Morrissey points to the success of the 30% Club as an example of the advantages that influence enjoys over force. The group has always been voluntary and takes an opt-in approach to its initiatives, which include cross-company mentoring and leadership training. When going down the list of chairmen to approach for membership back in 2010, whenever an invite was declined, Morrissey simply moved onto the next one. In this vein, she is broadly against quotas or forms of positive discrimination to achieve progress. Her view is that if someone is forced to be in the room, then they likely won’t be an active participant. Instead, demonstrable results will snowball and create change over time.
Leaders need to learn all the time and be able to adapt their behaviour. That requires setting aside your immediate emotional reaction to a situation, which might be to surround yourself with people who agree with you and hope the moment of crisis will pass.
It does mean, however, that some sectors and firms are slower to change than others. “There are a lot of leaders in the City who are still old school,” explains Morrissey. “It’s the nature of age and when people reached the top. This is not something that is over by any means – I think we’re still in transition.”
For those looking to opt in, Morrissey recommends mentoring as the first port of call. “One of the dangers of people in senior management roles is that they’re so far removed from what others are thinking and saying,” she says. “And it’s even harder now that we’re working remotely. It’s the nature of what you’re doing as a CEO. Sometimes you are trying to fix problems behind the scenes – you want to put out a fire before it starts – and you end up not involving people. To fix that, it’s really important to have roundtables, mentees and one-on-one discussions with people who aren’t necessarily running things, but perhaps reporting to them. Creating relationships at that level will mean you’re at the coalface of business.”
The 30% Club scheme takes mentoring one step further by pairing professionals across companies and sectors, as well as levels of seniority. The goal is to place leaders in entirely new situations, challenging their perceptions and behaviours, but also to recognise the similarities that bind together working professionals from all walks of life.
“I’ve mentored people from the army right through to wealth management. Every single time I’ve been surprised by what I’ve learned and some of the obstacles encountered. Whether someone’s from a different generation or educational background, there are parallels to my own workplaces,” explains Morrissey. “It takes you out of your comfort zone and puts you in touch with someone you would never have come across in a normal working day. Everything about their background might be different, but they’ve been selected by their company as having high potential and being a high performer.”
It’s that spirit of collaborative problem-solving that Morrissey wants to encourage more widely in business. She is a strong believer that change comes from disagreement, interrogation and debate. It’s a message that will likely resonate with accountants who will have cut their teeth in bustling audit rooms. Morrissey hopes those skills are sharpened, rather than lost, as careers progress.
“Leaders need to learn all the time and be able to adapt their behaviour. That requires setting aside your immediate emotional reaction to a situation, which might be to surround yourself with people who agree with you and hope the moment of crisis will pass. Embrace discomfort,” she recommends. “Listening to the person who might disagree with you, or you might not have much in common with, is how people can keep their skills growing and make sure their business is not scrambling to catch up, but actually setting the agenda.”