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‘The leadership have to own it’: top women in business on the CBI’s future

The Confederation of British Industry has released plans for an overhaul of its culture and governance before its extraordinary general meeting on 6 June, where it hopes to secure a mandate from its members to continue representing the business community after a series of sexual misconduct allegations.

The Guardian spoke to a group of prominent businesswomen regarding the CBI’s plans, and asked whether they thought the lobby group and its newly installed director general, Rain Newton-Smith, could win back support.

Ann Francke, chief executive, Chartered Management Institute

Francke said she wanted to give credit where it was due. “They’ve done an incredibly thorough review that picked up on a lot of the key organisational failings, and the things that need to change.”

However, she said CBI bosses should be careful about offloading responsibilities on to the newly created culture committee. “It’s the leadership of an organisation that has to have the accountability and responsibility for changing the culture. And then, yes, committees can help that and give advice, but you can’t outsource it to a committee. It’s the leadership themselves that have to own it, live it, breathe it.”

While the outgoing president, Brian McBride, admitted in April the CBI had failed to “filter out culturally toxic people” from its ranks, the group took a different tack on Wednesday, saying a specially commissioned review by an ethics consultancy had found it “does not have a toxic culture”.

Francke believes implementing “extensive and wholesale” change will take energy and determination. “It takes a huge amount of resilience and stamina. And so you have to have an unwavering commitment to the necessity of it. And in that regard, I’m not sure that wavering on key points about, for example, ‘Was it, or was it not, a toxic culture’ is helpful in that context.”

Helena Morrissey, former City fund manager and chair of the Diversity Project

The CBI’s decision to turn to external experts and consultants as it navigates a way out of crisis has left Dame Helena Morrissey, a former City fund manger “scratching [her] head”.

Hiring third parties to evaluate the organisation’s progress is something “you’d think of in a normal business crisis”, said Morrissey. “But I am sort of wondering, why do you have to have an expert? Why do you not know the difference between right and wrong?”

“I think it does beg some questions here. Why do you need to go and ask everybody what is the right way to handle sexual harassment? That’s the bit that leaves me scratching my head and thinking perhaps they still don’t get it.”

The CBI’s proposals to members have not convinced Morrissey – the founder of the 30% Club, which campaigns for more women in boardrooms – that the organisation remains the best way for business to share its viewpoint with government.

“Is it still the right thing to have this centrist, globalist kind of institution? I’m more a fan of sectoral representation.”

More than 30 years after starting out in the City, Morrissey described corporate culture as “completely different” now, and said behaviour including “sexist remarks, banter across the desk and [taking] clients to lapdancing clubs” was once viewed as “the norm”, but had since “gone out of the window”.

The Diversity Project, which Morrissey chairs, is a cross-company initiative from the investment and savings industry to promote diversity and inclusion.

The organisation – created in 2016 – recently launched its Safe Space reporting line, allowing industry workers to share their experiences of poor behaviour in the past five years.

Reports will remain confidential, only accessed by Morrissey and one other colleague, although any information about alleged criminal behaviour will be shared with the police.

“There is a realisation you can’t just assume it doesn’t happen in your own firm or in your own sector or industry,” she said. “We hope that businesses are thinking: ‘We can’t be complacent. We can’t say this would never happen here.’”

Claire Enders, founder, Enders Analysis

Enders is clear: there is nothing the CBI can do to convince her research firm to reinstate the membership that she cancelled in the wake of the allegations.

“I don’t want to wait for any changes. I just fundamentally believe that there is nothing to be gained.”

Furthermore, she said she felt “completely let down” by the lobbying efforts of the CBI, which Enders Analysis joined before the EU referendum in the hope of amplifying the voice of business and influencing trade issues. “They simply did not have influence on government policy. Do they now?”

The government has suspended all official contact with the CBI pending the outcome of the confidence vote.

Enders said the scandal should force the wider business community to question common practices, such as serving alcohol at work events, a point that has been raised by Francke’s Chartered Management Institute. “Sexual predation under the influence of alcohol is such a common aspect of British business life, and I say that as someone who has spent 40 years in British business life.”

“I’ve myself been a victim of predation,” she said.

Enders said her firm was now on the hunt for a lobby group better equipped to represent small and medium-sized businesses.

Jo Valentine, director of Business in the Community’s Place programme

Lady Valentine, who began her career in the City in the early 1980s, and later led the business lobby group London First, said all of the CBI’s changes needed to be underpinned by a new attitude. “Obviously they need to show humility for the next five years. They need to be humble,” she said, adding that could involve lending their existing expertise to other lobby groups and industry bodies.

While all of the changes outlined on Wednesday seemed “well intended”, some raised further concerns, she said. Those included the CBI creating an independent whistleblowing channel that the Guardian understands will involve independent HR consultants.

“They should have had that already,” Valentine said, adding that the CBI would also have to prove that it would protect whistleblowers throughout the process. “The question is, then, how the organisation actually deals with that information in a respectful way. So, it’s the first step in a way, but it’s not the final step.”

Valentine said she was also surprised by how slowly the CBI was replacing its top bosses, including McBride, who will leave in January next year. “I’m slightly surprised that the president has not immediately resigned. I mean, I suspect he is a good person to follow through on the recommendations, but nonetheless, symbolically, it’s quite a slow change.

“That really also goes to this point about strategy and implementation, because you need to do a few things really quickly that symbolise the change in culture … but the good intention needs to marry with real, crisp action, which doesn’t quite jump off the page.”

Sam Smith, founder, FinnCap

Smith, the founder of the City broker FinnCap, said the CBI needed to give more detail on “what really went wrong” and how it was taking accountability.

The real challenge would be to show, not tell, that the CBI was changing. “While the words do need to be authentic, it can’t be corporate bullshit,” she said.

“You have to act, and base your business, on values that are lived. And living values mean you train your managers in it, you recruit on it, you discipline on it, you exit people on it.”

Aside from larger listed companies, many businesses and startups had not felt that the CBI represented their interests, Smith said. That had opened the door for rival groups such as the British Chambers of Commerce, which she said had been “energised” in recent months.