Sir Nigel Knowles global co-chairman of DLA Piper talks gender equality and restoring faith in business

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Sir Nigel Knowles is Global Co-Chairman of DLA Piper. Sir Nigel has been the driving force behind the company’s remarkable growth, taking the firm from its UK regional origins to the global business it is today. HRreview met up with him at last month’s Balanced Business Forum to talk about a wide range of issues from gender equality to dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. We also discussed how business and government can win back each other’s trust in the aftermath of the financial crisis.  

How important is achieving a balanced business in terms of gender?

In business if you don’t embrace diversity at all levels you are running the risk of excluding a lot of people who could excel, who can help a firm to achieve strategic objectives and, to use two dreadful words, lend competitive advantage, so why on earth would you act to exclude those people? As a firm we embrace gender diversity and I would say that 50 percent, if not slightly more of the people who apply for training contracts are women and slightly more than fifty percent of those taken on on a training contract are women. As well as this, more than fifty percent of those kept on at the end of the training contract are women. So every year that goes by more and more women are climbing to higher positions in the firm. In terms of the top boardroom jobs, women have to have been there long enough to get those positions but that is increasingly happening.

What about right now, in your company, are you close to achieving a gender balance? 

If I’m right about my proposition that if you don’t have a diverse strategy then you are shutting out a lot of people who could be really great for your business, if i’m right about that, simply having a diverse range of people working in the business allows you greater choice to give people challenges and promote people. So I would say that we are able to give a huge range of people an opportunity without having positive discrimination.

Is there a case for the use of positive discrimination in order to achieve a gender balance, especially in a business, such as a law firm, which has been historically male dominated?

Of course there have traditionally been more men in the business and there are still more men than women in the firm, but every year that goes by, because we have put the best and most appropriate people into positions , it is inevitably going to be the case that more women take more senior positions.

What about the issue with people working longer today and putting off retirement? Senior men in the firm are now likely to work much longer, potentially obstructing the rise of women into senior positions.

We are beginning agile working and working from home policies. If you have some really good people, a business doesn’t want them to leave. A business has to adapt to the current circumstances and all of life’s requirements. A person does not necessarily have to be in an office with everyone else to be effective and people can be agile in the way they face up to work.

There have been a number of studies lately that have shown a growing amount of people reporting mental health problems such as stress and anxiety of work, are there policies in your business to deal with problems like that?

In our business people are working within a close team, going to meetings together, traveling together and so forth, that if symptoms arose and this was impacting on their work, I think we would be alert to that. I’m struggling to think of that many cases were people have had a bit of wobble, there have been a handful of cases when we have given people a few months off, when things have got on top of them. We work in a very collaborative environment, so if a person was struggling, people would find out.

But for example men, studies have suggested, are unlikely to talk about mental health issues to a co-worker or a manager….

Actually some of the cases I’ve just been talking about were men.

That have reported a problem at work?

Not reported it no. They’ve been identified as struggling a bit and then we’ve gone and talked to them. The last thing we want to see is a person suffer and then that impact their social life and their family life and their health. If a person needs some time out then they’ve got it. You do the right thing. When it comes to looking after your people I do not believe it is a profit or loss issue, it’s about doing the right thing, which is the main, unwritten guideline.

So there are some official guidelines in place on what to do about people suffering from say stress or anxiety in the office?

Yes. We have three core values, values that we live by as part of the firm. 1) We care for our people. 1) We care for our clients. 3) We care for the communities in which we operate. People are central to the firm. To put it another way, from a businessman’s angle, if we didn’t look after our people they wouldn’t look after our clients.

What about the topic of your talk today at the Balanced Business Forum, can you tell me a little about its themes? 

I’m talking about trust in business. I think after the financial crisis there was a collapse in trust between the business, government and the media and we have to find ways to restore that trust. What you have is a lot of people blaming other people. For example, a lot of people blamed the banks, but there are huge numbers of people in the financial services industry, working in Birmingham and Manchester and places around the country who aren’t fixing LIBOR rates.

Yes, that was a London thing, you can’t tar everyone with the same brush.

Yes. There also seems to be real concern about paying a banker a million pounds a year. Even though that banker might sustain a lot of employment and create a lot of profit and help the reputation of London, but there doesn’t seem to be the same concern about paying someone like Wayne Rooney £250,000 a week. People, and I think it has been government driven, have tried to demonise business and financial services and the media has jumped on the bandwagon.

So, how can trust between business and government be restored? 

I think that devolution could help. In the last century Britain was made great by Liverpool being a great port and Manchester being a hub for textiles and other parts of the country producing coal and steal and so on. Then as industry began to decline everything drifted into the South East and professional financial services in London became a key driver of the British economy and in response to this the regions have been somewhat forgotten about. Devolving power back to the regions might help to restore trust as local business, local universities, local authorities working together might be a lot more effective than central government. Central government, in some cities, has been the largest employer for some time. This is unsustainable. So the devolution debate has legs, as far as I’m concerned.

And what can businesses themselves do to improve trust? 

I think leaders standing up and being counted is key, leaders also have to be accountable to their stakeholders. Twenty years ago a chief executive of a business thought stakeholders were shareholders. Twenty years on stakeholders are actually suppliers, employees, customers, shareholders, regulators, media and others. A leader has to address all the concerns of stakeholders and keep them informed of plans and progress. It is faceless leaders who are not prepared to stand up and be counted that are the problem, people who rely on Corporate Social Responsibility as spray on respectability. To come back to the Balanced Business Forum, if leaders say they believe in diversity and then don’t enable their own business to embrace it then they lose trust.

 

 

 

 

 

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