Tara Cemlyn-Jones is CEO at 25x25 and a non-executive director at Crossword Cybersecurity Plc, having been an investment banker and tech entrepreneur for most of her career. Here, she shares her thoughts on the conversations that boards and leadership teams should be having and dives into the most effective levers available to leaders looking to implement cultural change and boost diversity.
25x25 is a young organisation but has already achieved significant impact. What have been your biggest learnings on this journey? And what excites you most as you look ahead?
Looking back, I’d take away three key things:
- Make an effort to actively listen to what people are actually saying when they’re voicing an objection or asking questions.
- Stay consistently focused on what you’re trying to achieve. There are so many different directions you can go off in, but you won’t have meaningful results unless you remain absolutely focused on what you’re doing to make that impact.
- Everyone in an organisation has a role to play in changing culture. Therefore, the wider the pool of collaborators, the better you will be able to effect that change.
Looking forward, at 25x25 we’ve developed data analytics tools which we want to bring to a much wider audience to further enhance our reach and impact. A lot of the work that is being done to track metrics focuses very much on FTSE companies, so we’re looking to bring our data analytics tools to smaller companies as well.
“A lot of the work that is being done to track metrics focuses very much on FTSE companies, so we’re looking to bring our data analytics tools to smaller companies as well.”
What are the most effective levers that leaders can pull to drive culture change?
A few come to mind:
- Clear leadership. Before we started, we conducted statistical analyses that yielded surprising results. Whilst you would expect a correlation between the number of women in an organisation and the number of women in senior roles, this isn’t actually true. What we see instead is that where the CEO has made gender balance at senior levels a priority then change does happen — otherwise, it doesn’t. So, an explicit steer here is crucial.
- Accountability and targets. Crucially, targets must be created specifically for the organisation and work for it, whilst also being stretching and achievable. When externally mandated targets are imposed, you can find that leadership teams adopt a tick-box mindset and don’t see the change that needs to happen at lower management levels. Good targets should reflect the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t appropriate.
- Look at the pipeline. Carry out an analysis of the feeder roles into senior positions such as the CEO position. Simply because you (as a company) have a relatively high proportion of senior leaders who are female does not mean that you have built a sufficient pipeline of talent for women to go on and become CEO.
What role could technology play in improving the performance of boards and leadership teams?
Most boards and leadership teams today are drowning in data. However, they don’t have anywhere near sufficient actionable data. With our proprietary data analytics tools, we’ve been working with the best HR teams globally to figure out how best to present data so that they enable leadership teams to make informed decisions. Often, the leadership team will look at things from a very macro level — perhaps because they lack ready access to more granular data. This means that they may not be able to see what actions need to be taken at lower management levels.
“Most boards and leadership teams today are drowning in data. However, they don’t have anywhere near sufficient actionable data.”
This results in a disconnect in accountability. For example, middle management might promote or appoint someone based on reasonable criteria, if considered individually. But if you add up all of those individual choices you may actually have missed the targets set for the organisation. Therefore, providing transparency on the data – at each level – should help leadership teams provide guidance and encouragement to middle management to think more broadly (especially as these are the levels where the attrition rates for women are often highest).
What conversations are boards and leadership teams not having, that they need to find time and space for?
Before we started in 2020, we spoke to 200 corporates including 90% of the FTSE100, and I took away from this that boards are actually very thoughtful about issues such as succession planning and the processes they have in-house. The issue is that the data simply do not reflect this level of care: there are only 10 women CEOs in the FTSE 100 and around 5% of the FTSE 350 CEOs are women. So where does this disconnect come from? It’s not because of a lack of talent but rather that the data aren’t systematically tracked. Whilst people approach these topics with care, the impact should be regularly reviewed to ensure that good intentions translate into results.
I’d also like to see more boards recognise that today’s fight is for talent. Many big tech companies have correctly identified that they can only deliver the best results with the best talent, so it’s therefore a major discussion point at every board meeting they hold. Contrast this with the approach taken by many UK companies, where talent is often a secondary consideration. Boards should recognise that you can’t deliver on a long-term strategy without talent and that in its absence you will end up on a declining slope of productivity and performance. It’s imperative that boards make time on the agenda to give the issue of talent the attention it deserves.
Looking back on your career, which of the leaders you’ve worked with have inspired you most? How have they shaped the way you lead?
One example, from my time at Schroders, is Alison Carnwath. She has been a brilliant mentor to me and was actually instrumental in starting 25x25. Another female leader I admire is Christine Lagarde, who became the first female chair at Baker McKenzie — one of our members. These two leaders weren’t ashamed about their femininity or about having strong views; they put paid to any notion that women’s voices should be of secondary importance and ensured they were heard.
“They put paid to any notion that women’s voices should be of secondary importance and ensured they were heard.”
What book is by your bedside table?
Beloved by Toni Morrison — a story about achieving greatness through adversity, and one of my favourite books. Not only is her prose magnificent, it took real guts for someone to publish the book at the time as there were very few books like it. This is a reminder that you’ve got to give people the support they need and provide people with opportunities to shine. Although you won’t always get it right, and not everyone will make the most of those opportunities, in supporting people and giving them the chance you will undoubtedly see an impact.