The only constant in business is change – that is, unless you’re a male FTSE CEO

96 per cent of the FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs are male. On average, they are 46 years old, and attended either Oxford or Cambridge. But does this mean the business world isn't changing at all?

The world of business is constantly changing – that’s not news to anyone. Too often we see the business sections of our newspapers filled with articles about the shifting makeup of corporations, or the increasing use of data to streamline crucial operations. We see a general theme stressing the undeniable impact that technology has had on our businesses, and the remarkable changes that are taking place. Comparatively, we see far less of those changes in the ways our businesses are actually run.

We all have our own idea of what makes up the average CEO. These notions tend to be based upon the types of people who were running our companies decades ago – boardrooms akin to those that go back almost a century ago, such as the famous board at the bank in Mary Poppins, through a couple of decades to American Psycho or Wall Street in the 80s – still dominated by men of a certain background and around middle age.

The CEOs we tend to read about the most – those in charge of some of our largest, multi-million pound organisations – are actively changing such perceptions. Think about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, who are consistently in the press. Both are far more visible than the average CEO in a (comparatively) low-key FTSE 350 firm, and are better placed to alter the conversation around what a CEO really looks like in 2013.

But how accurate is this picture? Recent research we conducted into the backgrounds of FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs showed it’s remarkably surprising how conventional the majority of these business leaders are. Our business leaders in 2013 are incredibly similar to those of 50 years ago. We might tune in to watch something like Mad Men now and see its portrayal of business leaders as archaic, yet as a rule, it actually paints a reasonably truthful picture of the present.

96 per cent of the FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs are male. On average, they are 46 years old, and we found that Oxford or Cambridge were the most popular universities to attend en route to the chief executive spot. Additionally, these trends are not just restricted to the UK. Domo used data from the Harvard Business Review earlier this year to conduct research looking into the attributes of those heading up the 100 most successful companies across the globe. Again, the overwhelming majority (98 per cent) was male, had a university education and was middle-aged.

So, what does this tell us about the world of business? The way we carry out our work has changed, the ultimate organisational landscape has changed, but why exactly hasn’t business leadership changed? Is there a reason why this traditional form of a CEO has stubbornly remained the same for decades – centuries even? As I mentioned above, the most high profile CEOs in our society could lead us to believe that our top companies are actually being led by very different personas to what we expect from the conventional C-suite, but this is far from the case. Why hasn’t the view from the top generally progressed – and why hasn’t a move towards convention-defying CEOs been embraced across UK business as a whole?

Here we get ourselves into a "chicken and egg" scenario. Is the reason for the average CEO not changing due to a choice from certain individuals to not push for a top-level position, or is it perhaps that companies still expect only a certain type of employee to head up their organisation? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

One prominent issue here is the lack of female CEOs. On the whole, the world of business has been keen to ensure that the overall landscape is one of equality. It should be expected that in 2013, there should be just as many women leading their industries as there are men. However, our research found that only 4 per cent of FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs are women, while a study by BoardEx showed this figure to be even lower among our top private companies. Some people argue that a lack of women CEOs comes down to a choice from women themselves not to pursue the very top level positions, and many still think this comes down to putting family ahead of a career or simply women not being as competitive as their male counterparts.

On the other hand, a lot of people think that business "at the top" just hasn’t moved forward as much as we would like to think. It’s thought that women in business still have more social pressure on them than men in the boardroom. A recent poll by LinkedIn saw 46 per cent of women cite "institutional barriers" as the main reason for their not being able to break through to CEO roles. In this case, it could be argued that the "old boy" networks at the top prevent many women from receiving the support they need in business to be able to make it to the top, at least in the same way that men can. Even if there’s no conscious decision or motive behind it, existing business networks, and even traditions themselves, come from a "like for like" approach that results in a lack of diversity, and could also explain the prominence of highly educated Oxford and Cambridge graduates in our current list of FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs. 

Whatever the reason is for the staid CEO, a lack of diversity among board groups is likely to hold businesses back from reaching their full potential. As a matter of fact, research from the UK’s Department for Business last year showed male-dominated boards will fall behind their rivals and will fail to progress at the same rate as they miss out on fresh, creative ideas from women, while hiring people from across different backgrounds and of varied educations can help bring new perspectives to a number of situations and debates.

Clearly change is needed where it just hasn’t happened. We’re being drawn into a false sense of the business world having taken on a completely different shape, where everyone has the same opportunities to reach their goals, but it’s overwhelmingly evident that there’s still some form of glass ceiling in place that’s hindering true diversity at the top and organisations could be suffering from stilted evolution, or even regression as a result. Ultimately, the business landscape on a whole may be evolving at a phenomenal pace, but boardrooms really need to hurry up and follow suit. Technology can take you so far. It’s then down to the individuals and the company culture to encourage change.

The the bank in Mary Poppins through to Wall Street and on to today - has anything changed? Photograph: Getty Images.
RVP Northern Europe and MD UKI, QlikTech
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser