WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP – A MIDDLE EASTERN PERSPECTIVE

There is a general look of surprise, even bewilderment when people hear I love working in the Middle East, for the simple reason that I’m a woman.

I understand how there is a perception that women are not respected or highly regarded in the Middle East, therefore making it difficult to fathom how a woman could have a successful business. However, in my experience, there is a chasm between perception and reality, especially since the traits that seem to be more abundant amongst women, such as insight, intuition and inclusion, seem to be trusted and appreciated in the Middle East, enabling us to not only contribute but also play our role in business.

What I find strange and perplexing is some of the rhetoric around women and leadership. A case in point is an article that said 15% of Senior Leadership roles in the City of London were held by women and the majority of those by foreigners. The article went further by attributing this ‘fact’ to the foreign women’s swagger. The truth of the matter is, given London is a global financial centre, there is a strong likelihood that a senior leadership role will have a regional or global focus. If the potential candidates haven’t had any international experience, they don’t qualify, swagger or not.

That said, the ‘swagger’ comment got me thinking, and led me to reflect on the great Arab women I have had the privilege of interviewing and working with. They are highly intelligent, very well-educated and incredibly insightful – ingredients which are prevalent amongst many women around the world. They don’t seek to be liked but rather have the courage of their convictions. They don’t have to speak loudly or demand to be listened to, but they still have their views be known and considered. They tend to talk less and act more. They are compassionate and kind but don’t tolerate fools. Above all else, there is a particular ingredient in their presence and demeanour, described perfectly by a dear friend from the region – “we are salty, not sweet”.

 

From Segregation to Sisterhood

It’s fascinating when you think about it. Yes, women in the region tend to live more segregated lives. Instead of competing with men, they understand and nurture the concept of sisterhood, encouraging and supporting each other. When they get older and enter the corporate realm, government or family business, they are purposeful and have a quiet self-confidence, an inner strength which is ready to come out and be deployed in a broader spectrum. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, they are welcomed in the workplace and encouraged to grow and rise through the ranks. Have they had challenges to overcome? Absolutely. Challenges have shaped their character, balancing their resilience, perseverance and determination, together with their faith, patience and belief in a higher power. Formidable indeed.

So what are some of the ingredients that help foster women’s capabilities that we could use to make our companies more balanced, diverse and better equipped to handle the changing times?

 

Vision & Purpose

If you want to attract, nurture and keep the best women, consider what difference your business makes, why it matters. Frankly, if your business isn’t concerned with anything other than profit, you are going to face challenges in finding and keeping people with character and competence – women or men.

 

Interview From the Inside Out

If you are using an interview only as a checkbox exercise to see if the person has the skills for a particular job, you are missing out on a great opportunity. A person’s CV is merely a scratch on the surface of not only who this person is, but also how far their capabilities can extend. Context is key.

As a starter, why don’t you put the CV aside and get them to tell you their story? Adopt a curious mind, seeking to learn about the person’s experiences that have brought them to the present day. This approach can open up an individual’s character, their way of thinking, approach to challenges, and the environment and factors needed to bring out their best. You never know – you could even learn something along the way.

 

Don’t Hire What You Don’t Appreciate

If you don’t see how someone adds value to your organisation, why hire them? If the person is on board, why aren’t you listening to their viewpoint and perspective? If you want yes people who go along with what you say, you are wasting your money hiring great people. A recorded message to yourself telling you “you’re doing a good job” will suffice. However, if you hire us, listen to us. We have a different perspective. It may not be what you want to hear, but we are here to add value. Allow us – there are skills, traits and natural capabilities just waiting to be engaged. If you don’t appreciate us, we’ll find or create companies that will.

As featured in Women’s Prospects 

STEWARDSHIP, EDUCATION AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP

 

Family wealth fails to make it beyond the third generation in 90 per cent of cases. This failure isn’t due to poor investment decisions, but rather a lack of cohesion and communication between family members, where the family fragments, and with it the wealth.

Some members of the next generation attend the best schools and universities across the world. However, they are still not adequately prepared for the responsibilities that face them when they return home. Each phase of life presents its own unique set of challenges. Families need to ensure they are doing their best to equip themselves and the next generation with the skills and knowledge they need to move forward in their professional and personal lives.

So how can a family increase the chances of success? Let’s take a closer look at the issues, and some critical stages and situations families and individual family members need to be aware of and consider.

 

Challenges Facing Young People

Imagine a young person getting ready to embark on higher education, perhaps abroad. Youngsters can face pressure from peers or from a desire to fit in and make friends. These can be more pronounced for someone from the Middle East. Sadly, it is common to hear of individuals bragging about their family’s wealth as a way to gain acceptance in a new environment, or of people making assumptions based on origin. If a young person is not adequately grounded and prepared, this can make them easy prey to be taken advantage of by supposed friends.

In such cases, there are two typical outcomes. The first is the young person becomes surrounded by parasites, taking advantage of their wealth. The second is the young person succumbing to peer pressure, taking on harmful behaviours or habits. Although both examples are factors every family, regardless of origin, needs to be aware of, these two scenarios seem to be more pronounced for families from the region, due to the perception of wealth, and the differences in culture and traditions between the Middle East and non-Islamic societies.

 

Who Should Succeed?

Succession does not guarantee success, and being the oldest does not make a person best suited to take over the family business. Families in the region, have traditionally seen the eldest son as the natural successor. However, history and excellent examples of female leadership have shown this is not necessarily what is best for the family or the business. The Middle East is experiencing a cultural shift, with women playing a more significant role in business and society. It would be wise for families to not overlook the women in the family and to capitalise on their capabilities.

The transition from one generation to the next can be challenging at the best of times, but the speed at which society is changing in the Middle East can add a different dynamic to succession. Alignment between personal and family values can be perplexing, but adding traditional, cultural and religious values can add further complexity, especially in times of societal change. Ultimately, the person who succeeds should be the best equipped to ensure the long-term sustainability and longevity of the family wealth, to support current and future generations.

 

Shared Vision

The need to create value to support a growing family is not the sole responsibility of the patriarch. Every member of the family needs to move forward together towards a shared vision. Each member of the family must also take personal responsibility in ensuring they work in the family enterprise only if they add value. Failure to do so jeopardises the well-being of the family enterprise and the family system. No two people have the same combination of skills, talents, interests and aptitudes. So each needs to hone their skills to make them fit for whichever role best suits them – if any.

Consider the Olympics: being the son or daughter of a great athlete doesn’t make you a great athlete. You need to have a particular aptitude, talent and interest. You must also have the resilience, tenacity, passion and stamina to stay the course and win. It is imperative for families in the region to go beyond the default ‘eldest son’ and pass the baton to the family member(s) best equipped to carry forward the legacy and provide the support necessary.

 

Ensuring Sufficient Value and Growth

How does a family provide sufficient value and growth of the family’s wealth to sustain a growing family? With increased longevity, there are now more family members across generations alive at any given time. In the Middle East, this figure is amplified by cultural traditions, creating larger families than other societies. Some families have around 30 family members across three generations. In addition to needing more significant financial resources, larger families can also find it more challenging to create cohesion and shared values among family members, further increasing the potential threat of wealth dissipation.

 

Investments

As wealth transitions to the next generation, so does the investment focus. For instance, Morgan Stanley’s sustainable investing institute found Millennials (broadly defined as those born between the early 1980s and 2000) are more likely to align their investment choices with their personal values and are twice as likely as the overall investor population to invest in companies targeting social or environmental goals. The research also found Millennials purchased from a sustainable brand twice more often than the average investor population and were three times more likely to seek employment with a sustainably-minded company. Given the size of the Millennial generation, these are factors worth considering when choosing where to invest the family’s capital – be it the investment portfolio, family business or new enterprises the next-generation want to start. Smart families would seize the opportunity by exploring and aligning the family philosophy and its investment principles.

 

Value-creating Enterprises

One way to provide sustainability is through value-creating enterprises. However, with the advancement of technology, businesses in the region are in danger of being disrupted, making innovation, tech-savviness, agility and sharpened entrepreneurial skills even more essential. It is also where the shifting traditions mentioned previously can be a positive influence. With more Arab women tapping into their entrepreneurial capabilities, families have greater potential in wealth creation, further safeguarding the family’s legacy and wealth for future generations. A proactive approach to disruption, embracing the shift in traditional views, and supporting the role of women in business, is a way to benefit all parties.

 

Managing Transition

Transitions are never smooth and for the patriarch, handing over while finding new direction and purpose can be challenging. Over the years patriarchs have gained precious experience and wisdom, and often still want to feel needed and useful. That said, the transition offers an opportunity for patriarchs to harness their knowledge, experience and interests into a new chapter, exploring and undertaking new ways to continue their legacy. As with all change, this has its challenges. Entrusting someone with your life’s work is no mean feat. The region has changed so much over the years this can add an extra layer of difficulty for patriarchs from the Middle East.

Patriarchs have also seen a shift in the values of the next generation and society. The next generation, coming on board with a fresh pair of eyes, is eager to take on new frontiers. Managing succession requires all parties to understand the two perspectives, and finding the balance between them is vital. Passing on the legacy is a gradual process that comes over time, but eventually, there is a need to let go. Leaving the transition to the last minute is likely to leave the next generation ill-prepared, and higher risk for the dissipation of the wealth and legacy.

 

The Process of Succession

Ninety per cent of wealth, globally, does not go beyond the third generation, and the dynamics of families in the Middle East could increase that number even further. The unfortunate statistics demonstrate the intricacies of navigating the phases of a succession process.

Succession is not merely about setting up structures to ensure wealth is passed on. It is an intricate process through which the next generation is equipped with the skills, tools and aptitude to succeed for generations to come. The better-prepared families and family members are, the higher the chance of success.

 

Rethinking Startup Success

We often hear ‘it’s a great company, they’ve raised $x’. This is the wrong metric, and recent disasters (e.g. WeWork, Uber and Theranos) have confirmed this. Thought it was time to peel back the layers on what we should be looking at. Here’s the article featured in Entrepreneur Middle East. read more

Discussion on AI & Intellectual Property

A recent article in Technology Review posed the question of whether AI can be an inventor. In principle, it’s a debate around IP law and whether AI can own ideas it generates. Check out the debate generated on LinkedIn. It’s worth a read. Additional views always welcome. read more

State of MENA Startups 2019

Following on from the recent report on the startup scene in the MENA Region (well done to MAGNiTT and 500 Startups for putting this together), here we peel back the layers on some of the issues raised. read more

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MORAL COURAGE AND CORPORATE CULTURE

It is not in calm seas that our character and integrity are tested but in times of crisis. It is at these times that mistakes are likely to happen.

When people think of ethics and social responsibility in the corporate context, they perceive it as a simple matter of determining what is right and wrong. Since we do not live in a world where decisions are a matter of black or white but more in shades of grey, steering the right course is not always a clear cut decision. With increased diversity of cultures and nationalities in the workplace, the topic of ethics and social responsibility becomes ever more complex, and one that should be treated with attention and focus.

Every company in hiring executives seeks people with integrity and good moral standards, but how do these translate to the corporate culture?

Every organisation has a value system. But is what the company says it stands for and the value system communicated, aligned with desired behaviours, practices and reward systems? There is little point in having formal policies and procedures that prescribe one mode of behaviour, if people are positively rewarded for achievements where an alternative and ‘non-desirable’ behaviour is applauded in terms of raises, bonuses and promotions.

Sharing the value system of an organisation enables the individuals within it to look within themselves and align their values and subsequent behaviour with that of the organisation, making them stronger people and better corporate citizens. Making this a topic of continual attention in an organisation has a resultant impact on the level of openness, integrity and trust amongst colleagues. Research has shown that in organisations with such systems, people within the organisation are motivated to not only be stronger representatives but better enabled to handle turbulent times such as change or crisis management. Continual attention to ethics in the work place sensitises leaders and staff to how they want to act consistently. And this comes from the top – leaders who lead by example will set the tone for the whole organisation to follow.

Ethics programmes have also been shown to support employee growth and development. A study cited in the Wall Street Journal found a direct correlation between the level of emotional health of an executive and the results of a battery of tests on ethics.

Having ethics as part of the organisation’s agenda better prepares employees to face reality with the resultant effect that they feel more confident and ready to deal with whatever comes their way.

Another benefit is the impact ethics can have on a company’s public image if people perceive those organisations as valuing the manner in which business is conducted more than profit. Recent years have seen greater attention to this factor, with more companies reporting on their social responsibility and analysts making it part of their agenda in their valuation of company stock.

In the meantime, we need to ask ourselves how are we contributing to the sustainability and longevity of the local economy? How are we ensuring that our actions have a positive contribution for the next generation and beyond?

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GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR BOARD

While internal boardroom politics are the bane of many an executive’s existence, getting your board members working in the same direction can be a vital step towards a successful CEO tenure.

Corporate governance has brought with it greater scrutiny of the board, its role, its composition and its effectiveness, and we are ever more aware of the importance of independence and ethical guidelines. And when one looks at the composition of several boards, there are general rules of thumb that are followed. But looking across a number of organisations, it can be seen that although some companies’ boards have the “right” mix in terms of backgrounds and skills of the individual directors, some have more of an impact than others.

So, if it is not structure, what is it that makes a good board? Research documented in the Harvard Business Review stresses that the key ingredient is the social element as opposed to the structure per se.

Just as the chemistry in a well-functioning, successful team cannot be quantified, it nonetheless is a key, determining component that is present in effective boards.

There are five key elements that can help a CEO foster the optimum environment in which the board, and each member within it, performs at their best: creating a climate of trust and candour; fostering a culture of open dissent; harnessing the mix of different roles; ensuring individual accountability and performance evaluation.

Climate of trust

Creating a climate of trust and candour is a virtuous cycle whereby board members develop mutual respect, therefore developing trust, and hence enabling the sharing of difficult information. The CEO needs to be transparent and open in information sharing, providing documents with ample time for them to be read and digested. This will enable all members to have the same level of information and so allow for more balanced discussion and a better- informed decision process.

The CEO should also give board members free access to people who can answer their questions, such as creating opportunities to meet key company personnel and inspecting company sites. Encouraging different board members to engage in this kind of activity and spending time together creates more unity and minimises the exposure or risk of factions. Providing free access to information and key personnel also eliminates the need and/or desire of individual members to create “back access” to information leading to them breaking away from the team and creating possible factions.

Open culture

In an environment of trust and mutual respect, healthy debate is encouraged where assumptions are challenged. This ensures issues are thoroughly discussed and each member has the opportunity to voice his viewpoint.

The CEO should not punish or discourage rebels or nonconformists, but instead use the opportunity to learn. It is through these interactions that people’s perspectives are challenged and horizons expanded. The CEO should leverage the knowledge and wisdom of the members of the board. Having a thorough understanding of members’ positions and their justifications opens opportunities to new conclusions and stronger decisions.

Research conducted by Eisenhardt and Bourgeois, found that the highest-performing companies have extremely contentious boards and regard dissent as an obligation, treating no subject as a taboo topic.

Roleplay

CEOs, along with other board members, should encourage members to play a variety of roles thereby giving them a wider perspective of the business. Viewing a scenario from a different perspective and developing alternative scenarios to evaluate strategic decisions not only broadens the number of possibilities and opportunities but also inhibits members developing a rigid point of view. Hence, members should be encouraged to play devil’s advocate, at other times delve into the details of the business and also be given the opportunity to act as the project manager. A case that demonstrates the impact this can have on a business was at Pepsico in 1997 when the board decided to sell the various components of its well-run restaurant group.

CEO Roger Enrico had previously turned around the unit which had been the brainchild of two of Enrico’s predecessors and must have had great pride in the division. Yet, he eventually convinced all that the restaurant unit should be sold and so that it could flourish freely beyond the controls of the parent company. It proved to be a brilliant idea.

Accountability

Ensuring accountability is probably one of the toughest challenges a CEO faces. In a survey conducted by the Yale School of Management and the Gallup Organisation, 25% of CEOs claimed that their board members did not appreciate the complexity of the businesses they oversaw. In recent history we have seen cases of individuals blaming others, proclaiming ignorance, Enron being a case in point.

Directors should take their duties seriously and encourage others to do the same, setting the tone for acceptable behaviour and performance.

Behaviour breeds behaviour and although the CEO and chairman of the board can assign tasks to get individuals fully engaged, peer pressure will play a major influencing factor in further enforcing positive behaviour.

Tasks can take on various formats and could involve collecting external data, meeting with customers, anonymously visiting plants and stores in the field and cultivating links to outside parties critical to the company. The exercise will then require members to impart knowledge and findings to the rest of the board and allows them to become better versed in strategic and operational issues the company faces.

GE’s board members for instance, dine with the company’s largest suppliers and distributors the night before the annual meeting while Home Depot’s board members are expected to visit at least eight stores outside their home state between board meetings.

Evaluate performance

Not giving feedback to a team is self-destructive as there can be no learning without feedback. Findings from a combination of research and surveys show that directors rate their board’s effectiveness significantly more positively at companies where individual members are evaluated. Although, when individuals are in an interdependent group such as on a board, it is better to conduct a formal evaluation on the performance of the overall group rather than its individual members.

One reason for this may be that, as it currently stands, board members are typically replaced for performance reasons only in extreme circumstances (e.g., criminal misconduct, conflict of interest, active disruption, very poor attendance/participation record) – and if they are replaced, they are rarely given an early warning and a chance to improve. In most cases, boards wait for under-performing directors to retire, a more reactive than proactive approach. Since the Board is in effect a high-level team, no matter how good it is, it is bound to get better if  there is an evaluation process in place.

A good first step in director evaluation is to have directors assess only themselves. After two or three years, a peer assessment can be introduced, with directors evaluating one another. A simple pass/fail along several dimensions will ensure that the process is not too time consuming. The evaluations can be handed over to a trusted board advisor, such as outside legal counsel, who summarises the findings and provides individuals with their results. A next step is for the assessments to be turned over to the committee charged with director nominations, so that under-performing directors can be identified and action taken. Overall, this is good way of identifying who is truly adding value to the organisation, as well as making performance expectations clear. In evaluating directors, ask yourself the following questions:

• Do they understand the company’s strategy and business?

• Do they keep up to date with issues and trends affecting the business?

• Are they willing to challenge management when necessary?

• Do they have special expertise that is important to the company?

• Do they have an appropriate level of involvement in CEO succession and assessment?

• Do they attend boardroom meetings and discussions?

• Are they readily available for committee meetings?

• Do they contribute to board and committee agendas?

• Are they well prepared for meetings and discussions?

• Do they actively participate and contribution to the committee and boardroom deliberations?

• Are they available outside meetings to advise management?

• Do they effectively inquire about major performance deficiencies?

Although there are guidelines in how to formulate a board, the attitude a CEO takes towards the board is key in the tone that is going to be set. If a board is to truly fulfill its purpose of monitoring performance, advising the CEO, and providing connections with a broader world, it must become a robust team. Its members need to be actively engaged in seeking the truth and challenge each other to broaden their perspectives and viewpoints. The CEO should work in collaboration with the Board and all its members as opposed to viewing it as an obstacle that needs to be managed. Adopting an approach of transparency, honesty and respect will go a long way to building and nurturing a strong team, and a robust and effective board.

VALUES AND GUIDING PRINCIPLES

We have all seen a myriad of company websites touting a list of values they stand for:

  • Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence;
  • Integrity and honesty in everything we do;
  • High performance and great behaviours driving exceptional rewards;
  • Respect, trust and integrity; the list goes on.

And yet, it is no good saying what you stand for if the actions of the people and the company operations are not in alignment with what the values presumably set the bar to be.  Values are not mere marketing, nice to have fuzzy words, but rather guiding principles that are supposed to be the bedrock and governance practice of every individual within the organisation. The values listed above are those of notable organisations.  Companies that until the recent past were held in high regard until they were linked or associated with fraud, corruption and the manipulation of the truth.  One would hope that by now, we would be wiser, smarter and behave more responsibly.  But alas, this is not the case.

Countless people are talking about values but how many people in any organisation are aware of what values the company supposedly stands for?  And if they don’t know what they are, how can they be behaving in alignment with those values?  Do we brandish certain values to the outside world, whilst we create compensation and rewards structures that promote behaviours that are contradictory? Values are not drawn up by a single individual or, more worryingly, by a marketing company who then presents some nice fluffy document or prospectus.  Values are determined by the people building and driving the organisation – by individuals who are committed to a vision and have the courage to develop a set of principles they are committed to living by in order to meet that vision.  Everyone in the organisation is responsible for acting in alignment with the values.  But let’s take a closer look… The following is an extract of some values of a financial services organisation.  This is for example purposes only and is not meant to single them out per se, but rather to show the potential complexity in adhering to values and knowing what truly will be ‘rewarded’.

  • Our clients’ interests always come first.
  • Our goal is to provide superior returns to our shareholders (…significant employee stock ownership aligns the interests of our employees and our shareholders.)
  • We stress creativity and imagination in everything we do. (…We pride ourselves on having pioneered many of the practices and techniques that have become standard in the industry.)
  • Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business.

One could argue that it is these same values that drove this organisation and its people to develop and market complex financial instruments that were a factor in the lead up to the financial crisis, with the exception of course of the last principle – integrity and honesty.  But when a reward system is based on short-term gains and organisations are under pressure to post quarterly results, people choose to hear what they want to hear, making them feel that they are acting honestly. Back in 1990, in an article by Amar Bhide and Howard H. Stevenson entitled Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn’t Pay, published in the Harvard Business Review, they had highlighted that unfortunately, treachery can pay, and that without values, without a basic preference for right over wrong, trust based on such self-delusion would crumble in the face of temptation.

The recent events have proven this.  Suffice to say, no one person is exempt from knowing, honouring and living the values, regardless of rank, position or title.  People in an organisation and serving an organisation have a fiduciary responsibility to balance results against the backdrop of ethics and purpose.  The real challenge is for each and every one of us to have the courage to do what is right, to think, speak and act with the highest intention, and to have the courage to say no, to break away from the crowd and not be lulled by what the proverbial Joneses are doing.  Failure to do so will inadvertently lead to a more disturbing economic climate than we are experiencing currently. So how is this done?  The key word here is alignment.  Imagine a compass setting for a moment.  If the heading is North, everyone first needs to know the heading is North.  We then need to determine what behaviours are in alignment with the North heading.  And then they need to be tested, creating scenarios that will test their applicability – the what if scenarios.  Just as any sailor knows, the seas change, the winds shift direction, but the heading is there and the skills and tenacity to navigate the course are what determine the true leaders.

WILL YOU CHOOSE TO MATTER?

There is a great talk and initiative by Angela Maiers entitled “You Matter”, and how these two words could positively impact our lives.

It really puts into perspective and simplicity the manner in which we conduct ourselves in our daily interactions, with great relevance for the corporate world and our business dealings.

Consider Customer Care for a moment. How many times do you interact with representatives who simply do not seem to care, let alone make you feel that you matter.

Or of trying to have a conversation with someone who is affixed to their computer or mobile, or looking elsewhere.

Or simply not being acknowledged.

Do these make you feel that you matter?

For if we are making people feel they don’t matter, we make them feel insignificant. And since what goes around, comes around, the deeper question is, do you feel you matter?

For me, these two words “You Matter” have brought to the forefront of my mind a simple code of conduct – going through each day, being present, truly engaging with and caring about people we come into contact with, even people we come across in the street – a simple smile, offering a helping hand, being kind. Isn’t this what being human is ultimately about? I cannot fathom why many people stop being human as soon as they walk into an office building and hide behind “but this is business”.

We have a tendency as humans to complicate simplicity, coming up with words that become so overused they become jargon and meaningless: employer of choice, corporate social responsibility, ethics – all very noble in their own right and when done with the spirit the words themselves intended. And yet ‘You Matter’ for me personifies many of these. If every interaction we have, every decision we make, are centred around these two words, how different would our days be, the people around us, our families, our businesses, our communities. How different would we be? How different would you be if you felt you mattered?

I believe everyone has a purpose and yes, each and every one of us matters. I believe now is a good time to let go of our past, our titles and our pride, and be someone who matters by making someone feel they matter. Will you choose to matter?