Georgina Mitchell: A lesson for the boardroom on a Kenyan bus

KENYAN bus drivers have a thing or two to teach the leaders of British industry.
The BBC has been at the centre of a media storm over gender pay.The BBC has been at the centre of a media storm over gender pay.
The BBC has been at the centre of a media storm over gender pay.

In Nairobi, a scheme designed to reduce road deaths has seen stickers put up in the minibus taxis, or matatus, encouraging passengers to challenge drivers about their speed or style of driving. The behavioural change brought about by the simple scheme has seen results that stretched beyond anyone’s expectations, saving 55 lives a year according to the researchers.

In the UK, behavioural change is being encouraged in boardrooms to ensure that all stakeholders, not just shareholders, are taken into consideration when planning and implementing corporate strategies. In the same way passengers challenge the driver on a Kenyan bus if they feel their actions are not in the best interests of passengers or other road users, the independent non-executives on a board should be challenging the executive team to ensure that the impact of their actions upon suppliers, the community, the environment and the workforce, as well as shareholders, is taken into consideration. For this to be effective, the board cannot be beige and bland, made up of a group of people with similar backgrounds and ideas, it must be vibrant and lively, with different backgrounds, perceptions and points of view.

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It is not as simple as putting a sticker in a boardroom, however. Discussions on gender and ethnic diversity have gone on for several years. Despite the Davies review into female representation on boards in 2010 and consultation on the Parker review into ethnic diversity in 2016, progress is frustratingly slow. However, one area that has had increasing focus over the last year is that of employee representation.

There is no doubt that a greater understanding of how an individual’s role fits in with the wider direction of the company will increase morale, productivity and returns. But, for employees to feel truly valued, they don’t just want to listen, they want to have a voice.

There are undoubtedly potential downsides to this if it’s handled badly: slower decision-making; an influx of unsuitable ideas; and a shortage of employees willing to take responsibility for seeing an idea through to the end when faced with obstacles. At the extreme, the consequences can be nearly catastrophic: when Amazon subsidiary Zappos introduced “holacracy” – a system in which teams have no leadership and instead are self-managed by the team members – 14 per cent of the workforce left.

There will always be some members of a team who work well under instruction but do not want to take responsibility for decision-making. In simply contributing ideas, they feel their voice has been heard and feel satisfied. At the other end are those who are keen to understand the decision-making process from the top down.

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The key to successful employee representation then is layering: encouraging employee involvement to differing degrees and using different methods as appropriate for their level of understanding and responsibility.

Charitable giving is an area that employees in all roles will feel they want to have a say in because it is likely that it will be their own fundraising efforts that generate donations. A charity committee, made up of employees, gives everyone a voice and, for those that want it, some responsibility for making decisions.

In operations and customer service, employees’ experience of undertaking the work on a day-to-day basis should in part influence how that work is handled and more pertinently how it segues into other areas such as monitoring for cybercrime.

Making innovation part of the performance assessment will bring opinions to the fore and focus minds on generating positive new ideas, but this must be supported through processes or forums for ideas to be submitted, properly considered and constructive feedback provided. If handled sensitively and explained fully, rejection can serve as encouragement to generate further ideas.

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An employee’s voice must be able to carry to the board whether the proposal, idea or opinion is positive or negative. If the seed of a great idea develops into an item for the board, credit should be given but when difficult decisions have to be made the board should be prepared to have difficult conversations; the same process of consideration and constructive feedback must apply.

The question then is how these views get represented at board level. I am not in favour of appointing an employee directly because, unlike the bus in Nairobi, there would be one passenger and a dozen drivers. It is not just about representing the employees’ point of view, but challenging the reactions to that opinion. And that is the role of a non-executive director.

Georgina Mitchell is a 
non-executive director.

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