Kevin Roberts and vertical ambition

I doubt that I share much of a worldview with Kevin Roberts, who recently resigned as chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi.  That’s a powerful position – but S&S is now owned by a parent company, Publicis, and they effectively showed him the door after his remarks about the low numbers of women in senior positions in advertising being ‘not a problem’.  (All six of the big advertising agencies have male CEOs.)  ‘The fucking debate is all over’ was apparently his verdict.

“Kevin Roberts has an international reputation for an uncompromisingly positive, inspirational leadership style, and an ability to generate ideas and emotional connections that accelerate extraordinary value”

is how Kevin’s S&S bio (still up) describes him.  I don’t know how many dessertspoonfuls of salt you need to go with an advertising agency’s claim about its own folk.  He has certainly generated some emotional connections on this issue.  Whether his remarks were inspirational and positive is another matter.  But, as more than one commentator observed, Roberts had a genuine point to make about women lacking vertical ambition.  Many women, he said, just wanted to be happy ‘and do great work.’

One question is what lies behind the word ‘lack’.  It carries a fairly strong normative association – i.e. it’s something women should have but don’t.  What the ‘lack’ actually signifies may have something to do with the way work is organised, and what you have to do to get up the vertical career ladder.  I imagine the advertising business is fairly competitive.

But where Roberts is on to something important is the notion that women actually choose to do things differently.  Combining happiness with doing great work is not a sign of passivity or indolence.  On the contrary, it sounds to me like a very desirable, even optimal, direction to take.  And that is true whether or not children are involved.  The traditional ‘work-life’ balance debate is not only about how to reconcile paid work with child-rearing.

This is exactly  what Paula Principle factor 5 is about – positive choice.    Choice is a very slippery term (I’m married to a serious existentialist, so I know), but we surely have to recognise that people do make choices, and whilst some of these are very heavily constrained this isn’t always the case.  So for a woman to make a positive choice not to go further up the vertical ladder, this can’t mean that she would have liked to do it but life at home would have been just too stressful; it means that she could have taken the higher job, but saw that other options were better.

Here’s how I’ve tried to summarise the issue:

  1. The first reason for not seeking to move vertically up the ladder might be because Paula wants to carry on exercising the skills she is already using. She knows she is doing a competent job and wishes to carry on doing it. This is a perfectly rational position, even in rejecting the opportunity for increased financial reward.
  2. Carrying on doing the same job well might indicate a lack of ambition, not just for a career but for improvement. So a variant of the first reason is when Paula sees herself doing a job reasonably well but sees scope still to do it better. Her ambition is to keep learning and improving while doing her same job. This fits well with the stronger tendency of women to see themselves as still needing to learn.
  3. A third reason is that the potential promotion, or new job, is at a higher level but is not actually an attractive job intrinsically. It may involve a big shift in the tasks involved, a change of environment or social circle and/or an abandonment of activities which are cherished.  A managerial role within a university, for example, is qualitatively different from doing exciting research or inspiring teaching. It may pay more but reward less.
  4. Movement need not be vertical to be experienced as a progression. So Paula may be keen on new challenges, willing to move beyond her current position and function – and yet prefer to move sideways rather than upwards. Applying one’s skills in a different environment is a positive step, maybe as much as moving to higher responsibilities,

And here’s a vignette from the book which I think illustrates the issue quite well:

Wilma is 34 and the deputy general secretary of a small trade union.  She referred early on in our discussion to having a young daughter, whose care her partner shares. It emerged later that she has two other children, sons by her first marriage, now aged 18 and 16. So Wilma was an early parent, and her school achievements suffered. Exactly as Denny did, in Educating Rita, her first husband expected her to go on having children and stay at home to look after them, but this was not how she saw things.

Since taking a different route, Wilma has always made a priority of education as a route to career advancement. Studying and gaining qualifications (in her case, in both the formal education system and the union movement) have been almost an article of faith for her and she feels even more strongly that it is something which women generally should be encouraged to pursue. Wilma is justifiably proud of the progress she has made to her current position. Now, however, she faces something of a dilemma. Her path upwards is blocked, mainly because of the structure of the union that employs her. She has spent eight years in her current job. Her egalitarian domestic arrangements mean that she can spend more time with her daughter than she managed with her sons, and she feels comfortable in her position in ‘the foodchain of the workplace’, the vivid metaphor she used to describe the position of a male colleague earlier on in this chapter. But she blushed when she said this, and acknowledged her discomfort at feeling comfortable, because it seems to her to be inconsistent with her persistent striving for improvement. She felt that in some sense she was betraying her credo of a working woman’s duty to advance.

“I’ve taken my foot off the pedal, which is very, very naughty of me. I’m getting more involved in other things. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to do my stuff but now I’m just ok. It’s highly embarrassing to admit.”

But it then turned out that she had become a magistrate two years previously and was already sitting on a specialist panel on domestic violence. She is also updating one of her work qualifications. This is hardly what most of us would consider coasting, for a parent with three children. But having driven herself to break out of the original and unwelcome pathway identified for her, and preached to her union members the virtues of education as a route upwards and the need for women to take advantage of career opportunities, she had these values so deeply entrenched that she felt visible discomfort at the idea that she had deviated from them.

Wilma’s is a fine example of a lateral career pattern, mixing paid and unpaid work with professional development but outside the framework of a vertical ladder. She is coming to terms with this turn. “I’ll concede the choice thing. I’ve made choices. If you move sideways, you can get a lot of satisfaction.”

I shouldn’t think Wilma and Kevin Roberts would see eye to eye on many things, but they could certainly have a lively discussion on vertical ambition and what the alternatives are.


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