Interview: Allan Leighton, deputy chairman of An Inspirational Journey
ALLAN Leighton is thinking about women. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the fact that when we speak he is about to face more than 200 of the UK’s brightest female business talent to discuss the challenges they have to overcome climbing the corporate ladder.
The former Asda chief executive was in Edinburgh last week as part of his current role as deputy chairman of An Inspirational Journey, an organisation that aims to encourage more female representation at the top of British businesses. But he is adamant that quotas are not the answer.
“I’m very anti-quotas, but I’m in favour of building pipelines,” he says. “If you look at a company and go three levels down from the top, you’ll find there’s a great pipeline of women.”
According to a review last year by Lord Davies of Abersoch, commissioned by the UK government, FTSE 100 firms’ boards should be at least 25 per cent female by 2015.
In March, Davies published a progress report that showed women currently account for 15.6 per cent of all FTSE 100 directorships, up from 12.5 per cent a year ago. And a study from Cranfield School of Management showed that firms are on target to meet that quota.
Cranfield said that, as of March, there were 141 women holding 163 FTSE 100 board seats, out of a total of 1,086 board positions. The number of firms with no women had dropped to 11 and the number with more than one has increased to 50.
However, Leighton believes we place too much emphasis on the boardroom – he says “most of the real work happens in the levels below”.
He adds: “It’s far more important to have those tiers below populated correctly. Governance is key, but you can’t govern if you don’t understand the business. So you need that pipeline.”
But the Cranfield study warned that FTSE companies were “spectacularly unsuccessful” at promoting women to executive level.
Research by An Inspirational Journey has found that a lack of self-confidence is holding women back. Heather Jackson, its founder and chief executive, says many women have yet to accept that the glass ceiling does not exist any more.
The organisation works with 29 companies, including drinks giant Diageo and supermarket Morrisons, to help them develop their pool of female talent. The Edinburgh event – its first in Scotland – was held under its “The Pearls” programme, which focuses on developing contacts and building confidence among its 4,000 members.
Held at the Gogarburn head office of Royal Bank of Scotland, which sponsors An Inspirational Journey, the event included talks by RBS human resources director, Helen Cook, and Chris Sullivan, its chief executive of UK corporate banking.
The group also runs “The Two Percent Club”, an initiative aimed at helping women in senior positions raise their profile and expand their career prospects. The club, which currently operates only in Yorkshire, will launch in Scotland later this year.
A further 30 companies have shown an interest in working with An Inspirational Journey, and Leighton cautions against overlooking those at the customer-facing end.
“When I ran Asda, 75,000 people of the people were women. The biggest mistake people made was thinking they were checkout operators, whereas actually they were housewives who ran the whole house. They looked after the bills, the shopping, the kids and they’re very smart. So we need to treat them like they’re very smart.”
Before joining Asda, Leighton spent 18 years at confectionery giant Mars, where he learned a valuable lesson: “The guys took me into a room and said they had two things to tell me that I must never forget. Firstly, 50 per cent of the brains in the world are female. Secondly, brains have no colour. My job was to get more brains than everyone else.”
But does he think it strange that he’s now been asked to chair the Women’s Business Forum? Not at all – if men don’t buy into the ethos, he says it runs the risk of becoming a “splinter group”.
“The whole aim is to balance it out and, in a balanced organisation, you need a combination of the two,” he adds. “It doesn’t have to be a gender issue, because everyone handles different situations in a different way.”
A keen runner, Leighton is a patron of Breast Cancer Care and last year became chairman of television set-top box maker Pace and Music Magpie, the website that lets users sell unwanted CDs, DVDs and videogames. He also chairs shoe retailer Office and checked in at the firm’s branch on Princes Street last week during his Edinburgh visit.
“It’s looking pretty good,” he says, but he is concerned about the number of vacant properties nearby. “I’d say 10 to 15 per cent of the shops weren’t open or were up for lease and the trams aren’t helping.”
However, he is philosophical about the current disruption. “All the tram schemes around the world are the same – they all end up taking longer and costing more money.”
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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