Peter Hill: Build businesses with no barriers to the best talent

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PROMINENT business figures have been joining the debate since Business Secretary Vince Cable raised the spectre of quotas to meet mandatory EU targets for women in the boardroom.

Powerful voices such as Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund have been reminding politicians and bosses alike of the shortsightedness of gender inequality and what they stand to lose by ignoring the talents of significant sections of the population.

As Leeds Building Society celebrates its 140th anniversary, we are looking further ahead into the 21st century but also thinking back to our roots.

Perhaps inevitably for the Victorian era, the founding fathers of our business were men but in the decades since the worlds of work and finance have shifted dramatically and across the Society the split between male and female colleagues – and customers – has vanished.

We operate in a highly-competitive environment and want the best resources we can get our hands on – whether that’s people, technology, whatever – and I wouldn’t want to put any obstacle in the way of us achieving that goal.

For that reason we are proud to be gender-blind in our recruitment process. In the modern world, gender or any other stereotypes really don’t stack up, and don’t come to mind when we are making appointments.

We’re looking only for the best people, whether as executives or non-executives, and we start with the profile of the role, the available candidates and then take it from there.

We currently exceed the EU target for female board members but all our executives, and colleagues at all levels across the business, hold their roles based on merit and their skills and suitability to do the job.

Leeds Building Society is a “people” business and we need colleagues who can get along with people. We also need leaders who can get the best out of others and the types of leader I think are the most successful tend to have quite a high level of emotional intelligence.

In the past, emotional intelligence might have been viewed in the context of “soft skills” and was generally associated more with women than with men but I think that view is outdated.

It’s important to make any appointment work both for the organisation and the individual – if we can tailor the opportunity to the individual then we are more likely to be rewarded with the best commitment, the highest level of performance, and the strongest likelihood of retaining good people.

It’s about mutual benefit. We want to have the best people, a loyal workforce and to hang on to talent. We aim to maximise what all our people can do and support them so they’re able to achieve their full potential, to their and our benefit.

As a business, it is important to look at where you place priorities. If you appreciate the success of an organisation comes from the talent of the people you can attract – regardless of gender or any other definition – you are going to dedicate energy to drawing the right people into your business, and also into the retention of those people.

When workers joined this industry in the 1970s or 1980s, they could have had a realistic expectation of being set in the same place for a long time. In those days, it was very difficult if you worked in banking to move from Bank A to Bank B and it would not have occurred to management to look to the competition as a source of talent.

Now the market is much more competitive, with less long-term expectation on either side. For a while employees were told there was no such thing as a job for life but the pendulum has swung back to a more balanced situation. Successful employers realise that developing individuals and building their capability is an investment and it’s their priority to protect that investment. This industry was and still is an environment where people really can come in at the bottom and work their way up.

A typical feature of a business of this size is that we are generally competing with larger organisations that have more financial firepower. For us to attract and retain the right people we have to offer something else.

We think very hard about our brand proposition and how our customers see us – but it’s just as important for how current and prospective colleagues see us.

It is important to retain traditional elements of the business and our values but we also must ensure we’re modern and relevant and able to look attractive to younger people and people of diverse backgrounds so they feel the Society is the kind of place they would like to work.

We believe the best way to achieve success is by creating an environment where everyone can contribute. I feel our approach works and the continuing high colleague engagement levels throughout the Society show they agree.

Peter Hill is chief executive of Leeds Building Society.