The Token Man: Wolff Olins CEO Ije Nwokorie talks to Sally Henderson about 'flawed notions of leadership' keeping women from top jobs

Ije Nwokorie, global chief executive of Wolff Olins, talks to Pello co-founder Sally Henderson about diversity, creativity and the problem with "alpha-male management" in the latest of a series of gender diversity interviews conducted by prominent women from across the marketing industries.

Sally Henderson: Thanks Ije for agreeing to do one of our Token Man interviews. First question, given how fraught the topic can be, why were you keen to do an interview for Token Man?

Ije Nwokorie: I take issue with people who say they take a blind view of race, gender or sexual orientation. The I-don’t-think-about-it attitude is an easy out. It gives us an excuse to not talk about things that are real. As leaders, we need to embrace the difficult issues, which are amplified by our differences. We have to think about these things, as risky and difficult as that may be.

SH: So, your title is global chief executive. What is ultimately your role in the business or the industry?

IN: As chief executive, my responsibility to the company is all about people, products and profit. But I’m a practitioner first, so like any senior practitioner at Wolff Olins, I have to have my own body of radical work that makes the organisation good and desirable.

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

IN: By definition, the more diverse a community or organisation, the more creative it is. And I think creativity is sorely needed in all businesses.

We should constantly interrogate our organisation to make sure it is diverse. If not and you have too many men in a role, you have to ask yourself why. That is data you have to respond to, as something is skewing the role if it is not representative of society overall.

SH: What do you think the biggest challenge is for women currently sitting in a minority in a senior management level?

IN: The jaundiced social norms that accept certain behaviours from men and not from women.

For 100 or so years, we have defined leadership largely in masculine terms: physical power, lack of stock in compromise, ability to ignore emotional context of any situation, etc. These notions of leadership are flawed and long overdue for the firing squad.

Women often bring a more nuanced form of leadership that acknowledges context and balances varied interests, and therefore allows creativity to flourish. But it is difficult for women to thrive when adhering to the “alpha-male management” approach.

SH: What is the current split (as a percentage) in your current senior management team between men and women? And what is the split at the executive level?

IN: At exec level, 66 per cent male and 33 per cent female – we only have three execs. At a senior level, it is roughly 50/50.

SH: Is this something you are actively managing?

IN: Yes. We don’t think we are doing horribly but we continue to interrogate data at a granular level. In some roles there are more women, in others more men.

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

IN: The first thing I do is make sure I am surrounded by people who are very different to me in as many dimensions as I can think of.

It is my responsibility to make sure we are defining leadership in broad terms to make it more attractive to more people. Leadership shouldn’t just appeal to a certain type of alpha guy. It should also attract considered, thoughtful and informed sensitive leaders. I am driving this in Wolff Olins, along with my colleagues.

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

IN: The area where we are weak is ethnic diversity. We are largely western and white. As an African born, black chief executive I am frankly ashamed of the lack of people of colour in the creative consulting world. There are even less structures and networks and levers to pull to address this.

SH: So what do you think you could have done differently?

IN: It might sound like a cop-out, but I think it's more systemic than just Wolff Olins. I think as an industry, we just haven't made this a profession that attracts minorities.

Design schools trail business schools, medical schools and engineering schools in attracting young folk from an ethic minority background. Often minorities, who are ambitious and aspirational, are focused on playing central roles in their communities. They find us a bit frivolous, something for rich kids whose places in society are firm and assured.

SH: How do we make change as an industry?

IN: We have to make the industry less self-referential. We should champion the deep impact creativity has on people's lives. We have to be more confident about taking our work into the public domain, more open to the opinions of the many and more generous with the idea that while we may not all be designers and artists and writers, everyone has the power to be creative – and that’s a really good thing.

SH: Have you seen any other sector make a real difference in changing its ethnic diversity?

IN: Not really. But we are still far behind medicine and law and accountancy – and they still have a lot of work to do themselves.

SH: Ultimately whose responsibility do you think it should be in an organisation to help drive both a more balanced gender and ethnic equality? The chief executive? HR? Senior management team?

IN: The chief executive. It’s not just a strategic issue – it’s an existential one.

SH: What are your company’s current maternity and paternity leave policies?

IN: Maternity leave is between nine and 18 weeks’ full pay dependent on service. Paternity leave is two weeks’ full pay and further paid leave in the first year. We have a strong commitment to flexible employment conditions and other adjustments on return and shared parental leave is available at the London office.

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

IN: I am not sure equality is the point. I am keen to defend maternity leave because even in physical terms, women’s careers are far more disrupted than men’s. We have got to make sure men can play a role raising kids in the home and that’s the argument for equal paternity pay. However, I am really nervous about any attempts to balance it out “rationally.” We should keep and extend maternity while pushing for paternity to catch up.

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

IN: No specific gender pay gap policy. The company has an equality and celebrating diversity policy and we have safeguards in place, such as monitoring the gender pay gap and six monthly pay reviews to identify and resolve any potential concerns at our London office only.

SH: As I am sure you know, women only represent three per cent of the creative directors in the advertising industry globally. What would be your advice for a female creative, aspiring to become a creative director?

IN: Hold your nerve. Don’t settle for an agency that won’t respect you because you work differently. Remember that there are an increasing number of agencies that don’t see that role as something men do better than women. I recommend aspiring female creatives to seek these agencies out and eventually these will become the norm. Don’t get trapped in a role where you aren’t valued.

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

IN: Don’t assume you understand the female perspective. Really ask questions and be humble about it.

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

IN: I instinctively believe all things being equal, diverse organisations perform better. When conversations show how businesses perform better, it captures peoples’ attention. The more sustainable and high-performing diverse companies become, the more we will be able to get that conversation happening.

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

IN: It has been four or five months since I looked at the data. I will look at the data again to see how we are doing.

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

IN: Gary Bramall, chief marketing officer at Hailo, Howard Belk, co-chief executive at Siegal Gale and Made by Many founder and chief executive Tim Malbon.

Token Man is an initiative from the founder of Creative Social, Daniele Fiandaca. Previous interviews have included Tribal Worldwide's Allan Blair in conversation with Bima's Bridget Beale, and a Q&A between Geometry Global's Georgia Barretta and Nils Leonard of Grey London.

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