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The Token Man: Siegel+Gale's Howard Belk on how 'one-dimensional teams result in thin ideas'

Howard Belk, co-chief executive and chief creative officer, Siegel+Gale, and Sally Henderson, founder of Pello, discuss how the advertising industry can become more inclusive in the latest of a series of gender diversity interviews conducted by prominent women from across the marketing industries.

Sally Henderson: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Howard. Given how fraught the topic can be, why were you keen to do an interview for Token Man?

Howard Belk: I actually don’t think of the topic as fraught as facts are facts and numbers don't lie; this is a real issue. I will say the statistics I learned from the Token Man work are shocking to me.

On a personal level, I have three daughters in or soon entering the workforce. They are amazing young women and it concerns me that they'll encounter such strong currents against them. If I can make a change, I'm really interested.

SH: What is ultimately your role in your business?

HB: I have a dual role working with my co-chief executive and partner, David Srere. He and I have worked together since 2004. We run the overall business and ensure Siegel+Gale delivers the results our owner wants. Ours is nothing if not a talent business so a big part of what we do is deal with people. The two of us jointly share responsibility for our New York HQ office and split oversight of our Asia and EMEA business, where we also have brilliant on-the-ground leadership.

I am also chief creative officer. S+G is blessed with a phenomenal team who know exactly what they're doing. I try to be their conversation starter.

SH: Why do you think gender diversity at a senior management level, and across the organisation as a whole, is important?

HB: To forge connections with diverse audiences, you have to have a diverse team. Beyond that, this is a basic fairness and equality issue. The imbalance that Token Man is focused on has resulted in a lack of female senior role models out there, and we need role models to coach and bring about change.

SH: What’s the biggest challenge for women currently sitting in a minority in a senior management level?

HB: I thought you would ask this question so I asked some women colleagues, who fed back two key messages.Firstly, role models are hard to find. Secondly, women aren’t as comfortable negotiating on their own behalf as men, which impedes upward mobility.

What they shared is that self-advocacy among women is not as developed an instinct as with men (which could be due to societal and cultural issues). The pay and advancement conversation isn’t second nature for women. From my own experience, this holds up.

I don’t see a single skill, capability or talent shortcoming that is unique to women. Absolute parity in these areas exists between genders. The challenges might be advancing in environments that have an inherent bias. It's easy for me to imagine that with so few role models, it's a challenge for women to know how to push against barriers without shutting down paths.

I also do not want to be presumptuous. I'm certainly not forgetting I'm a white, 50-something male without direct personal experience.

SH: What is the current gender split in your current senior management team?

HB: At C-suite, it is a 60/40 split. We have five people in ‘chief’ roles and two of them are women. More broadly, we have a global split of 56 per cent male, 43 per cent female at group director level.

SH: Is this something you are actively managing and if so how?

HB: When it comes to titles and roles, we are sensitive to it. We watch the numbers and challenge ourselves as we evaluate candidates, so we promote on talent and potential over anything else.

We manage compensation aggressively, auditing it twice a year to ensure there are no patterns of discrimination.

SH: What have you done personally as a leader to help solve the issue of gender equality?

HB: I am looking at this all the time. My mother is an incredible feminist and activist from the Sixties and sensitised my entire family to this issue.

I have been running businesses for more than 25 years, and one of the things I am proud of is that a number of women who have worked for me have gone on to run their own companies.

I haven’t set up concrete initiatives but as a leader, I have tried to breed a culture where it is all about the idea, not who came up with the idea.

SH: If you could do one thing differently during your career to support diversity further, what would it be?

HB: In our field, I personally think there is a larger issue than gender bias and that is an extraordinary under-representation of people of colour. It is mind-boggling to me. I wish I had engaged with institutions years ago to help them cultivate young talent from ethnic minorities.

As an industry, we have to engage with schools early to cultivate knowledge and celebrate young talent and simply increase awareness of our fields among ethnic minorities. I fear they often don't even know they can make a living with their creativity.

I'm a bit encouraged today because with the web and simple publishing platforms, talented kids of any colour or gender can easily get their portfolios in front of creative directors and make it all about the work. Young people can now put up their own work online and if their work sings, they will get the meeting regardless of their background.

SH: Ultimately, whose responsibility do you think it should be in an organisation to help drive more balanced gender equality?

HB: The chief executive has to assert this is important and a critical success factor for the business. To execute well, the chief exec needs the whole leadership team to acknowledge this. The chief exec can’t make it happen alone but should set it as an explicit strategic priority.

SH: What is your company’s current maternity leave policy?

HB: Women are entitled to a 12-week paid maternity, which they can extend unpaid.

SH: And paternity leave...?

HB: Two weeks paid, and the father can add 10 weeks unpaid.

SH: Do you think these policies need to change? Do you recognise that only until we have equal parental leave packages will we get equality in the workplace?

HB: I think 12 weeks paid is a good policy for women. For men, two weeks sounds a little on the low side. I don’t know if this particular policy is the linchpin for gaining gender equality in the workplace, though. It would be very fair to allow either parent to designate who takes the child-rearing lead.

For both parents to go out for an extended time is tough for a company and we must remember that the business has to be healthy to employ people.

SH: Given it is in the norm for women in the UK to have nine months' maternity and countries like Sweden are giving up to six months per parent, I am not sure I am buying the response that it is tough for a company. From our previous interviews, we are being told that the gap between policies is a major factor. Is this something you might review as a result of this interview?

HB: I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds on this so I’ll just mention that different national healthcare systems dictate some of the policy differences that exist from country to country, and these have a direct influence on the financial impact on companies. That said, this is an ideal moment to review our company policies.

SH: Does your company have a policy on the gender pay gap?

HB: We don’t have a policy but twice a year, we evaluate pay across the company by roles for any anomalies across gender, race, etc.

SH: Again, is this something you might consider doing? Certainly we know at least one incidence of women being given a pay increase as a result of a Token Man interview.

HB: Absolutely. Gender should have no bearing on compensation.

SH: What would be your advice for any aspiring female creative aspiring to become a creative director?

HB: My advice is to take a look at a firm before you join it and see how women are represented in the senior ranks. Are there women senior designers and what has their career path been? Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. If you don’t like what you are hearing, think twice about joining. Definitely make sure you understand what’s going on before you join.

Once there, look for role models and don’t be afraid to self-advocate. Ask for mentors. Look for people who can teach you what you have to do to achieve success. You want to find a place that is all about the idea and then be that person who brings the great ideas.

In our firm, the gender split of creative directors is 60/40 male/female. Across the whole design group, 56 per cent of our designers are male and 44 per cent female.

Regardless of gender, if you want to advance, lift your head up from the desk. Pay attention to why things are happening; get smarter about the business realities of the work. Ask why a client or creative director said no to an idea. Become an expert with an informed point of view on “the next thing”.  Become invaluable. Be a great teammate and a positive leader in your own right no matter your level. This is a collaborative business, so be one of those people everyone wants on their team.

SH: Who are the women who you find inspiring and why?

HB: Oh my god. I can easily name a bunch of extraordinary women at Siegel+Gale. Anne Swan, one of our global creative directors, Camilla Bravo, global head of account management, and Margaret Molloy, global head of sales and marketing, are all inspirations to me. Outside our firm, two who come to mind are our client Meg Whitman, chairman and chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Martha Boudreau, chief marketing officer at AARP, one of the largest non-profit community and families organisations in the world. Every one of these women is talented, ambitious, fearless, principled, and generous. They’re simply marvellous role models.

SH: I can’t help but feel that your position as co-chief executive may be a route forward for helping to provide a more diverse workforce. Could you see shared roles as a potential solution for achieving diversity? And if so, what are the major pitfalls to avoid when sharing a role with someone?

HB: If the circumstances are right, I think so. I’ve had a co-partner in business for 25 of the past 30 years and it’s worked beautifully. I think it’s very important that the co-partners have shared goals, genuine respect and admiration for each other, complimentary skills and interests, a clear division of individual and joint responsibilities, and absolute trust.

SH: What’s the one key behaviour change you think men can make in the workplace that will have the biggest impact on fostering gender diversity?

HB: Be hyper aware of interaction dynamics within teams, and ensure people are responding to the quality of the idea and not the source. Men need to be on the lookout for any bias they see and stifle it. Some time ago, a creative director was taking me through reviews of his team. I pointed out that all the men on his list had received positive comments and every woman had been criticised. From his horrified response, I honestly believe he had no idea he had done this and was totally unaware of the apparent bias. I noted that following this exchange, well over half of his promotions went to women.

SH: How do you think we can best get more men involved in the discussion?

HB: I don’t know how often the discussion happens in the first place, so that's part of the issue. Those of us who see it need to keep banging on the door. We have to own it ourselves and do everything we each can to recruit more people to the effort.

The things Token Man is doing are wonderful but still small. The notion of “pay it forward” that Token Man promotes is good but needs to grow. 

Here's one compelling pitch: we work in a creative field so it’s in our self-interest to have a rich and diverse source of ideas to connect with the audiences we need in order to be successful. One-dimensional teams result in thin ideas.

SH: What’s the one thing (if any) you commit to doing as a result of this interview?

HB: It would be really interesting if companies could institutionalise the repatriation of female talent who have elected a hiatus of six to 10 years of child rearing. I don't think it would take more than three or four months to bring them totally up to speed on where the business has gone since they stepped off the track. This would be a very simple thing to do and would pay off immensely, particularly if the woman in question had a proven track record of work, team and culture fit, and is no doubt much wiser with 10 more years of life experience.

I will talk to S+G HR about this idea; having a programme aimed at women who have taken a break for child rearing and are looking to re-join the workforce.

SH: Finally, who would you like to nominate for the next Token Man interview?

HB: John Osborn, president and chief executive of BBDO New York or Brett Gerstenblatt, enterprise creative director at CVS Health.

Token Man is an initiative from the founder of Creative Social, Daniele Fiandaca. Previous interviews have included JWT's James Whitehead in conversation with Caitlyn Ryan of Cheil Worldwide.

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