At Best & Less women are now predominantly running the business. In less than two years senior management and key-decision making positions have swung from being largely dominated by men to the majority now being held by women.
It’s a change that hasn’t been brought about through quotas or even targets. Indeed, as CEO Holly Kramer recently told me, there are very few set gender diversity initiatives in place at all.
It’s clear that Best & Less, a business of 200 discount retail stores across Australia employing more than 4,300 people, has seen some dramatic change regarding gender diversity within its management and leadership teams since Kramer took the helm in mid 2012.
Back then, one in eight senior executives were female, now that’s more than one in two (67%). The next manager level down is now more than 80% female. And the board — previously with no women on it at all — is now 25% female.
Best & Less is an example of an organisation that has seen change inspired by genuine leadership, rather than gender diversity programs or initiatives that may look great on paper and in the annual report but are too slow and cumbersome to drive immediate change.
Kramer lists a number of reasons behind the shift on women in leadership. Firstly, the retail business attracts good women. Secondly, as a leader brought in to manage a major overhaul of the brand, she’s been able to start fresh on building management teams. From there, the believes her presence as a senior woman helps — as does her desire to build a truly diverse organisation and create a ‘values based culture’ which she believes women are particularly attracted to.
“It is the things I did, the things I said, but nothing explicitly set out,” she says. “I am female and also have a strong track record and involvement in supporting gender equality. I know that was a strong drawcard in that a lot of senior women wanted to work for a female or someone they thought would build that organisation.”
The overhaul makes Kramer an excellent candidate for selling the ‘Leadership Shadow’, a new management tool released by Chief Executive Women with the Male Champions of Change calling on leaders to demonstrate their appreciation and support for gender diversity in what they say and do.
As Kramer has found, targets, quotas and set gender diversity policies are not always the best solution for seeing more women reach leadership positions. It’s leadership at the very top that makes the difference. Continually demonstrate your support for gender equality and you can contribute to a significant part of the diversity change. Show you’re genuine and really believe in what you’re saying and people will join you in the change.
“I set out to get industry diversity [as opposed to gender diversity specifically] and then as it turned out I had the balance swing strongly female,” says Kramer. “As I was doing the last few hires I thought to myself, ‘I actually believe in balance. And if I have two candidates who are exactly the same I may pick the male’.”
She believes the ‘leadership shadow’ can be used as a generic model, extending beyond gender diversity alone. It’s general enough that it can be taken on by leaders to assist with whatever change is necessary.
“I think all good leaders intuitively know this, but it works as a reminder,” says Kramer. “It’s more like a tool to say that you need to be very mindful of the signals that you’re sending.”
And despite Kramer overseeing a major change of management that’s resulted in more women at Best & Less, she also knows balance is important. When we speak, Kramer’s just returned from speaking in front of a large crowd of employees where the company’s major overhauls of women’s fashion was acknowledged.
“One of the store managers raised his hand and said, ‘There’s been a lot of importance on raising the quality of women’s fashion, what about us? What about men’s fashion?”
Its a good point and Kramer acknowledges the business now needs to work on its male lines of clothing.
“It’s great to have men in the business saying, ‘don’t forget us!'” That’s the value of diversity.