Inspired thought at WIFM conference

Yesterday’s inaugural BIFM Women in FM (#wifm) conference had it all – poetry, grand opera, Shakespeare, Disraeli, tears, laughter and great food.

Held at Channel 4’s HQ, where the celebrated giant Four was mid-transformation, the event was sponsored by Assurity Consulting and organised in collaboration with WIBSE (Women in Building Services Engineering) and Women in the City – with this year’s winner of the FM category in the Women in the City awards, Rebecca Stephenson, one of more than 150 delegates.

The Let’s Inspire theme had resulted in a substantial waiting list, but the bold promise more than lived up to expectations with only one low point in the day.

The mood was set early by a video collage of inspiring women, from Aung San Suu Kyi, Mother Teresa, Anita Roddick and Hilary Clinton to Michelle Obama, Anne Frank, the Queen and Ellie Simmonds – interspersed by women closer to home including MITIE’s Debra Ward and Ruby McGregor-Smith, Larch’s Lucy Jeynes, BIFM chairman Ismena Clout, FM coach Liz Kentish and FM consultant Anne Lennox Martin. The juxtaposition of movie star Marilyn Monroe with FM icon Marilyn Standley drew appreciative cheers.

Describing himself as “the sacrificial warm-up act” Neil Usher, global head of property at Rio Tinto and FM blogger and poet, eschewed the competing Worktech conference in favour of wowing the WIFM audience with a series of vignettes about the day in the life of a woman in FM. Starting with the 3.30am wake-up call from security “just to inform you” which left her “dizzily searching” for her BlackBerry in case of incoming emails, to budget meetings, a group of vegan protestors with badly-spelled placards, the CEO wanting a better view and undercooked fish fingers, Usher concluded, “FM is hard, but what else could you possibly do?”. It was an apposite beginning but was to be the last the audience heard of anything remotely approaching operational FM.

Former MP Oona King, now diversity executive at Channel 4, and member of the House of Lords, took a deliberately wide perspective, talking about the importance of diversity. Commenting on a debate about quotas in boardrooms, which had been aired on Twitter by Jeynes that morning, King argued that inspiration is a better motivator than guilt. “Quotas have their place, but always try the voluntary approach first. But if all else fails, then take direct action. I’d rather take a quota, than inertia.”

Diversity had a bad name because people felt it was all about black people and wheelchairs, she said, giving examples of white men being encouraged to take paternity leave and serving prisoners being given opportunities in workplaces. “In Channel 4 you are far more likely to get middle class black woman than white working class lads from Scunthorpe.” Diversity and inclusion must stand hand-in-hand to be meaningful. “Diversity is about counting numbers. Inclusion is about making numbers count.”

Her top tips to encourage a diverse culture include:

  1. Get buy-in from the top
  2. Get moving wherever you are, even if you are at the bottom. You have a sphere of influence
  3. Incentivise diversity. Have it put in appraisals
  4. Measure it. Everything important in a business is measured. If you want to manage it, you have to measure it
  5. Monetise it. That’s a key way for it to be taken seriously

Women are in danger of being pigeon-holed, King said, describing how when she (and any of the 100 other women Labour MPs) would stand up in the House of Commons, the men on the opposing benches would shout “melons”. Cue astonished laughter from the audience.

But speaker, coach and author Lynne Copp took the analogy a stage further, describing how, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said “a stripper” without truly understanding what that meant – she was attracted by the element of risk, performance and inspiration – which many of the audience felt aptly summed up FM. Copp’s Lipstick Leadership research revealed (not surprisingly ) that women are very different leaders from men – more collaborative, better at breaking down barriers and statuses, more compassionate, more focused on people, on having a cause and making a difference. “Women hire for attitude and values, we can train the rest. If you hire for capability, you can get bad attitude.” Putting a spin on her fellow countryman Billy Connolly’s quote, she concluded, “There’s no such thing as a bad business climate, just bad leadership.”

Good communication is a little-talked about, and even less-well-used skill within the FM sector, so it was refreshing to see a an hour-long session dedicated to the topic. The energetic Vincent Franklin, who kicked off his hilarious talk with some grand opera to demonstrate that you don’t need to speak the language to understand the meaning, argued that businesses use words to distance themselves from action and accountability. Gordon Brown said “mistakes have been made” when he should have used active language “We have made mistakes”. “Churchill didn’t say, “they will be fought on the beaches by us” he used positive language.

Once we get into organisations, we start behaving in ways which are not instinctive but learned behaviour – like civil servants in the 1950s. He urged FMs to:

  • Use short, pithy sentences
  • Don’t refer to themselves in the third person – “HMRC is writing to you…”
  • Use verbs – which are powerful, have more commitment, more energy and life – rather than abstract nouns
  • Tell stories – we remember stories (the nativity) better than bullet points (the ten commandments)

The words we use are all important, agreed motivational speaker Tee Dobinson who said we are all too accustomed to using the “Great British Brush-Off” – rejecting compliments before the speaker has even finished talking. “Oh this old dress…” Forcing the audience to respond to their neighbour’s praise with “thank you, it’s true” felt uncomfortable, she said, but “we do need to be more confident about our successes and stop focusing on the negatives – something which is particularly common in women”.

After a morning talking about research and leadership styles, it was refreshing to hear from Ruby McGregor-Smith, CEO of MITIE, who made running a FTSE100 company, while also being a wife and mother of two, sound very simple. “Whatever you do, have fun. MITIE’s not a job for me, it’s real love.”

She was honest about both her role (yes, it’s lonely at times) and the difficulty of “having it all” saying that it’s not possible to have it all at the same time. McGregor-Smith took two years off to have her children after finding combining the two was impossible with a less-than-supportive employer. Echoing King, McGregor-Smith said that diversity, and “recruiting outside the norm” was essential. Like King, she is not a fan of quotas, but acknowledges that the pipeline of non-white, non-male talent is not strong. “You have to take risks on people, promote your young people and give them opportunities. Don’t forget young talent, don’t crush it.”

Talking about the journey to a £2billion business, McGregor-Smith admitted that she hadn’t always got it right. “We’ve shut businesses, and restructured others. You need to make decisions quickly and follow your instincts.”

The most memorable, and emotional, points of the day came from two women describing their journey against adversity. The first, Diana Man, walked on to stage confidently and many noticed her big smile and stunning blond hair before they spotted her two prosthetic legs, missing fingers and damaged arms – the result of Meningococcal Septicaemia. Man, who worked with horses before the illness five years ago when she was 25, talked about the months in hospital afterwards and learning to live as a triple amputee. But she focused on how, because of her disability, she had been inspired to train to be a Channel 4 presenter for the Paralympics. The video footage showed a very professional presenter with some of the world’s top Paralympians. In return Man was inspired by their performance and hopes to represent Great Britain in dressage in 2016. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself, make the best of a bad situation, and be ready to change direction when you need to. You never know where you might go.”

What earned her the standing ovation – and tears from most of the room – was talking about the impact on her parents. “I’ve always felt it was a lot worse for my family than me as they knew exactly what was going on – my mum said signing the forms for my amputations was the hardest thing she’s ever done.”

This was a theme drawn on later in the afternoon by BIFM chairman Ismena Clout talking about the moment she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  “It was me who had to phone up my Mum, my Dad, my close friends and family. Saying hello and knowing that I was about to ruin their day was awful beyond words. I emailed everyone else.” Many in the room knew Clout before she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in 2010 and had walked parts of the journey with her, which gave her emotional speech even more impact. But there were plenty of laughs among the tears. Clout described how “when you’re that sick, they let you have your pension, so I spent it on a diamond ring.”

Secondary breast cancer is incurable and the word hung uncomfortably in the air. “There is no rally cry because it’s incurable, so it’s about making the most of the time I have left, hence my decision to put myself forward for the BIFM chairmanship.” Like Man, new opportunities have come Clout’s way as a result of her illness – she strutted her stuff on the Breast Cancer Care Show catwalk last month at the Grosvenor House and also has a regular blog on the Independent website. But she hesitated to use the ‘positive’ word. “Positivity, for me, is about approaching every day and getting something out of it for me, something that pleases me, makes me smile. I know cancer is going to win the war, but to my last breath I will find something every day to make that day mine.”

Both Man and Clout were touch acts to follow. Larch’s Lucy Jeynes succeeded in capturing the audience’s imagination, following Man’s presentation, by talking about the WIFM Mentoring scheme which has just celebrated its 50th pairing. She brought on stage both a mentee, Maxine West, and a mentor, Debra Ward, to talk about what they had both gained from the experience. Quoting Benjamin Disraeli, Jeynes said: “The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.”

But Chris Shaw and Martin Lucas, who had the unenviable task of following Clout, failed to engage. In a strange, stilted presentation which finished abruptly, Shaw talked very little and Lucas did a sales pitch on his new social media network Phinkit.

No FM conference seems to be complete without a session on workplace design. Shazia Sheikh, from Herman Miller’s Insight Group, obliged with a

Creativity at Work session talking about how different creative styles need different working environments. She concluded that offices need a variety of work settings: “You can’t spend 100 per cent of the working week in one place. It is not conducive to creativity.”

But the day ended on a high with a interesting presentation from Gwen Rhys, who advises organisations how to build and nurture their social capital, who talked about the power of networking. Coming just before the post-event networking drinks, the session offered plenty of tips on how to build, nurture and leverage relationships including how to keep people engaged, how to follow up with them afterwards and the important skill of extracting yourself gracefully from conversations. Good networkers:

  • Make you feel special
  • Have charisma
  • Are trying to help, not sell
  • Relate to people, have stories to tell
  • Are good listeners
  • Take a genuine interest
  • Are Confident and enthusiastic
  • Are not afraid to make themselves appear vulnerable to make others feel more comfortable

“It’s the quality not quantity of relationships that counts, 150-200 people are your real network, after that it’s a database,” Rhys concluded.

The WIFM committee never fail to inspire with their events, and this inaugural conference differentiated itself from the traditional FM seminars by its diversity of thought, speakers and supportive atmosphere. Few can say they’ve been to FM events where delegates unashamedly cried (except perhaps the breakfast session at ThinkFM 2011, but that was from boredom). WIFM has found an important niche in the FM conference circuit; they now face the task of both creating a equally-inspiring programme and an even bigger venue next year.

Cathy Hayward