Challenging and changing the gender conversation #SeePotential

100Women in Hedge Funds invited me to the HK Stock Exchange today to speak at their Market Opening Ceremony. Katarina Royds bravely asked me to share my views on the development on women in the workplace. Katarina is a brilliant leader, I took inspiration from her.... And here it is....

I'm here today because I want to challenge where we're headed. I worry that we're approaching the development of women in the workplace as a zero sum game. It's not. We need to embrace the potential of men and women alike and develop together if we're to progress at all. There is no real value created in a zero sum game, only winners and losers.

I was born in 1983. I grew up in Australia, in a small town of 120,000 people, about the same number of people working in the IFC. My mum stayed at home to raise five children, and together with my father, raised us to have respect for everyone, to treat others as we would like to be treated and imparted in us a belief that if we worked hard, we could do anything.  

Growing up in the 90s meant I had exposure to countless examples of brave men and women standing up for what they believe in and as a result, initiating mass social change. This had a profound impact on me during my formative years and definitely shaped who I am. I read and watched Nelson Mandela’s Freedom Speech over and over again. I cheered when Princess Diana left Prince Charles and cried when she died so tragically. As power was becoming more evenly distributed, and empowerment on the rise, I grew up appreciating the bold men and women who fought hard to shape the world we live in today.

The men who have fought physically and mentally on the battlefields and in the boardrooms deserve our gratitude and respect. And the heroic and courageous women, who challenged the status quo and took a stand against discrimination and inequality, I salute them.

I acknowledge the suffering and sacrifices made and know that I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.

Which is why I want to challenge where we’re headed.

Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of statistics. It’s hard to hide from the constant tirade of articles about the lack of women in boardroom positions, leaning in and the glass ceiling. And as I read and listen to the rhetoric, I can’t help but feel it’s not driving the right change.

The undertone where men are painted as the enemy and women must fight men – is self-defeating and not productive.

If our future is one with more opportunities for women, at the expense of men, it’s not a hopeful one.

Empowerment isn’t a limited resource; just because we give it to one demographic doesn’t mean we have to take it away from another. Women don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not a zero sum game.

While it’s true that women are underrepresented, in business, politics and other areas, and there are many parts of the world where women and girls are still oppressed and treated horrifically, I worry about the future we are creating with such an adversarial focus on gender. If nothing changes, I see a future where the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction- men are oppressed as women once were.

Racial discrimination in South Africa is an example. If you are a white male in South Africa today, the system is stacked against you. Not to discredit the complex and difficult racial history, but today thousands of white South Africans are leaving their country because it’s almost impossible to get a job.

Blacks were oppressed for decades, now whites are facing prejudice in a different more circumspect way. It’s an interesting debate and there are many sides to it, but oppression is still oppression. How do we as a society move past the history of hurt and injustices to create positive and productive change?

I had an experience recently that altered my perspective. In December 2012 I left Hong Kong for a month and went to live in Liberia. I was warned that it was extremely dangerous; I would most likely get stabbed, kidnapped, raped, maybe even killed. People looked at me in shock when I explained I was going to hang out in the slums of West Point and work with an NGO that gets little girls off the streets and into school.

I would go to school each day and spend time with the girls. I saw with my own eyes young girls prostituting themselves for money to buy food and water. You and I may never comprehend what they’ve been through, and yet they turn up to school every day, eager to learn and play, laugh and dance.

While their stories were heart-breaking, their rehabilitation was inspiring. However it wasn’t the girls who left an imprint in my heart. It was the little boys stood outside the school gate, who day in and day out, would look on with sadness and emptiness, as they were shut out of the school. I asked why we couldn’t let the boys in too and they said the school was only for girls, and it was the girls in the community we must empower and take care of.

And so it went on, day after day, casting these little boys aside. They too were eager to learn, to play, to be educated, and to be included. And yet, we excluded them.

The image of sadness in their eyes has stayed with me. Their sense of loss, of being excluded is never far from my mind. And it got me thinking about the present moment in history, I started questioning the future we are creating:

Are we fuelling an ‘us versus them’ mentality and creating even greater divides?

I’m standing here today because I want to change the direction in which our society is headed and I’m hoping you will join me. It’s time the conversation changed, it’s time we stopped talking about ratios and statistics and started asking different questions.

  • What if we focused on empowering everyone to be the best version of themselves?
  • What if we stopped perpetuating discrimination and started seeing potential in everyone?
  • What if we drew inspiration from Mandela's tolerance and sheer determination to end apartheid and rather than repeating the mistakes of the past look for a third way?

I want to live in a world where gay or straight, black or white, Gen Z or Baby Boomer, male or female, Asian or Western, Christian or Jewish, we look each other in the eyes, and with mutual respect, we look for potential and we lift each other up.

The problem is we don’t have commonplace mutual respect and until we do, societies will continue on this path to adversarial oppression.

And I’m not talking about men’s respect for women. Or men standing up for women’s rights. I’m talking about mutual respect.

I’m talking about having respect for those whose beliefs or skin colour or gender may differ to our own. It’s only then we can see beyond face value and look for potential in everyone, making everyone better, not one side worse.

What does it look like to stop the judgement and remove the labels?

It means we start looking for and seeing potential in everyone and everything.

I am where I am today because others in my life saw potential in me.

They gave me the courage to stand for something, to fail fast, fail often and fail forward. Bold enough to have a go, start again, push for change.

Like you in the room today and the 15,000 members of 100WHF, I didn’t get where I am by perpetuating discrimination, complaining about gender inequality and percentages. I did get where I am today because of courage, grit and determination.  

  • Do I wake up in the morning and worry about whether the men I’m pitching against are getting a higher daily rate….no I don’t, I invest my energy in being awesome.
  • Do I want my actions to match what I preach? Yes I do. In fact I just hired a new staff member based on the potential I see in him. James happens to be a 23 year old white south African man who moved to HK a month ago.
  • Do I imagine a day when the gender conversation stops? Do I dream of a meritocracy – hell yes.

I think back to the little girls in Liberia and can’t help but wonder what will happen to the little boys. As the girls get educated and empowered, the boys are being left behind. Who is going to educate them and how will we stop the cycle of women being mistreated and abused? We have a responsibility to better ourselves, to better our community, and that means all of us.

We all have the power to effect change by demonstrating leadership. What impact do you have on those around you? Who are you mentoring and how far are you spreading your brilliance?

Conversations create movements and movements change the world – is success being a statistic for statistics sake? Or is success being empowered without the constraint of gender, race or religion?

My challenge to you is to see what happens when you stop looking on the outside and start looking on the inside - if you see potential, you have a choice to create opportunity for that person. Spend the day today in pursuit of potential. Suspend judgement, remove the labels, ask different questions, and explore potential. I guarantee you will stumble across awesomeness.

It’s not a zero sum game.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sui-Mei Thompson from The Women’s Foundation through TEDxWanchai Women last month and she said something that’s inspired me.

Her daughter said to her recently, "Mum, when I grow up I want to work at the Women’s Foundation" and she said "Well darling, I hope by then we don’t need one."

I couldn’t agree more. Thank you.

Emma Reynolds


Big organisations are executing new ideas (but not in a good way).

I find the word execute quite ironic. In one sense it is about putting a plan in place to achieve a goal or end state. And in a completely opposite definition it is carrying out a death sentence. So I might be just as likely to want to execute a new idea as I would Hannibal Lecter. The English language is a curious thing.

Unfortunately, when it comes to having new ideas within big organisations there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. Because they seem to be killing them off, instead of bringing them to life. Big organisations are like the executioners of new ideas.

It’s no secret that executing a good idea isn’t easy. This is a reality. Not something to be upset about. But why is it almost impossible within big organisations? We’ve been grappling with this question for a while now, and we think it boils down to this…

1. Because everything has to be approved by everyone

New ideas call for a merry go round of approvals. Marketing, HR, Legal, IT, and then back to Marketing, back through Legal, HR again. By now weeks/months have gone past. People have lost interest. And you’ve heard ‘No’ so many times you have no fight left.

2. Because everyone has a day job

I have yet to meet someone whose sole job is to implement awesome idea and make cool shit happen. Usually people have more than enough on their plate to fill their day. They’re probably putting out corporate fires. Attending long meetings. Replying to emails. Keeping their head above water. Then you ask them to shift their attention to a project that isn’t part of their KPIs, may or may not be successful and requires intense effort. Chances are, the ‘too busy’ excuse arises.

3. Because short-term results win over long-term gain

We find companies would rather focus on increased efficiency and reduced cost as a way to continued success. Better sameness is safer. It keeps the board happy. It keeps shareholders happy (in the short term). But the reality is those ‘breakthrough innovations’ that everyone is chasing are seldom found when we’re focused on instant results. It takes ten years of hard work to be an overnight success.

All of these create a vicious cycle within big organisations. We know that a new idea will be very difficult to execute, so we stop proposing our ideas. Then we stop having good ideas altogether. Then we start to think that we suck for not having any new ideas so we hire someone external to have them for us. Then we shoot those down too.

We’ve spent a lot of time in this cycle – experiencing it first hand and experimenting with different ways to break it. This is what we’ve discovered – five things that you can do to make executing your new idea less hard.

Make a lot of friends internally and get them to believe in what you believe in

Bringing new ideas to life is a job for many people – not just one. Build your internal network early. Be comfortable getting to know people from all over the organisation. Take the time to understand their reality. What is their top priority? What is their area of expertise? Strong relationships will make it much easier for you to call on people when you’re ready to execute.

When we start working on a project we invest hundreds of hours connecting with people. We’ve been known to travel to offshore oil rigs and have taken a day trip to Manila to do so. We don’t just speak to senior executives – we engage at all levels and in all departments. Then we map the connections we’ve made to identify those people who are influential, intensely passionate or have a unique skillset, so we can reach out to them later.

Tell a great story tailored to your audience

If you want to sell your idea to the world (or at least your colleagues), storytelling is your most powerful tool. Tell, don’t sell. Your story doesn’t need to focus on the product or service at the heart of your idea. It should be about how it’s going to make people feel. And be conscious of your audience. The story you tell to the Board might be different to the one you tell to your team or people in Legal. You need to make it apparent ‘what’s in it for them’, having a strong internal network makes this easier. We like to tell stories by getting our audience to “Imagine the new bliss….”

Start by imagining failure, and get all stakeholders doing a ‘Pre-Mortem’

Executing a new idea is a journey. It is going to take blood, sweat and tears. We start every journey with imaging failure. A ‘Pre-Mortem’ exercise is a great way to get all the risks on the table, all the potential landmines. This helps to understand where the resistance will come from and what will block the idea from being successful.

Ditch detailed project plans at the start, and excite people with visuals

Excel spreadsheets and project plans won’t always get an idea off the ground. People get lost in the complexity and give up before they try. We need to make it seem as easy as possible, and keep people engaged, excited and focused on busting through bureaucracy. Take every opportunity to tell people about what you’re trying to achieve. Write a newsletter. Stand up in a team meeting. Volunteer to join other peoples’ team meetings. By making people aware, you can harness their support and maybe, even get them involved.

Celebrate often, your successes & failures

Like we said – execution is a journey. And it’s not a short one. It’s easy to lose interest. Lose sight of the vision. Lose hope as time passes. Celebrating often can help to keep everything in focus. And it’s not just big wins that you can celebrate – small wins are worth a glass of champagne too. In fact, so are failures. They all take you one step closer to final execution.

At the core of the work we do is fighting against the untimely death of good ideas and navigating the organisational labyrinth so they can be brought to life. We love hearing stories of successful execution, reach out to tell us yours…

538BC called, they want their ‘Employee of the Month’ back!



It’s been almost 2600 years since the first recorded act of motivating employees through recognition. The ‘employer’ was Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, who used recognition (a ceremony involving a shoulder pat, a beverage, and a coin featuring Cyrus’ head) to motivate construction workers to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple in 538 B.C.

Flash forward 26 centuries, to last weekend when I was at McDonalds (yes, I’ll admit it). While standing in line waiting patiently for my turn to order, I spied a plaque displaying their Employee of the Month’s photo. He was at a ceremony, being handed a certificate. He looked pretty unimpressed and about as excited as someone who’d just been handed a ten-year jail sentence.

Could it be that in 26 centuries we’ve created the internet and driverless cars, we’ve gone to space, we all witnessed Felix Baumgartner plummet through the stratosphere and yet have done very little to evolve recognition?


Has recognition in fact turned into something that has a negative impact?

Is there a special place on earth where ‘Employee of the Month’ certificates go to die?

Every year companies around the world spend $46 billion on rewards and recognition. What does $46 billion buy? You’d hope it would be lavish celebrations and luxury rewards. The reality is mostly office printed certificates, vouchers that go unused and uncomfortable lunches with the boss. Organisations are wasting money. Josh Bersin, Chief Executive Officer and President of Bersin & Associates agrees, “Today’s $46 billion market for recognition, with its focus on tenure-based programmes, clearly is failing, and is out of sync with modern employment practices.”

Despite this, recognition is still a good thing. Companies where recognition occurs enjoy 14% better employee engagement, productivity and customer service than those without. But what’s not being realized is the potential impact that really exceptional employee recognition programmes can have. They can reduce turnover by 31%.

Unfortunately for the state of recognition right now, certificates, vouchers and lunch with the boss don’t go a long way towards achieving that exceptional recognition status.

We’ve been working with one of the world’s leading global luxury retailers to create the next practice recognition programme. The research that we’ve done has revealed a few key insights that we hope can help you as you start to re-think your own recognition programme.

1. ‘Employee of the Month’ doesn’t mean anything.

Neither does ‘above and beyond’. Or ‘the extra mile’. The fluffy words that we use to frame awards don’t give people actual behaviours to map their own actions to. And so the definition of awards are different in each persons’ mind. They lack collective meaning. Winners don’t really understand what they should be proud of. And the awards lose their impact and prestige. Awards need to be as specific as possible and linked to specific behaviours and results.

2. Recognition has become an ‘event’ and our programmes suggest there is a specific time and place for recognition.

In reality, anytime is good. Anywhere works. By making recognition something that can only happen once a month in a specific place as nominated by a small group of senior people, recognition turns in to an ‘event’, not a habit. This can actually have a negative effect and work against creating a culture of recognition as most people don’t feel empowered to recognise others. If they do happen to have that power they are bound by a specific timeframe and so acts worthy of recognition are forgotten as they wait for the right time of the month to roll around.

Dave Sumner Smith elaborates here in a recent post on LinkedIn: “Most employees viewed traditional employee recognition programmes as just another “top-down” management scheme. They see it as a public judgment, by management, of a small handful of employees, without peer input or opinion. Unrewarded employees often feel the system is bias or unfair. In the end, rewarded employees feel manipulated or targeted (by management) and the whole process creates an “Us versus Them” environment. Very counterproductive!”

3. Lunch with the boss is not a reward!

Most people in fact, don’t like having lunch with the boss. Just like we have different customer segments that we know very intimately and for whom we tailor our products and services to, so to are there very different employee personas. Some will crave the limelight, others would rather curl up under a rock than go on stage. And the same goes for rewards, some people will be happiest with cash and others would much rather an experience or a very simple handwritten note. Much like beauty, reward is in the eye of the beholder, so knowing the employee audience intimately is the only way that we can guarantee that our rewards are actually rewarding.

4. Peer to peer recognition means more than top-down praise

It’s a common misconception that only top-down recognition and praise has an impact. In our research we identified that recognition means more coming from peers. Why? They are closer to the daily reality, they know what you have to deal with day in, day out. They see your actions and so when they say thank you, it really means something. Managers and leaders however are mostly operating at 35,000 feet and somewhat disconnected from the daily reality. At times it comes across as inauthentic.

Add to this the fact that most programmes are not transparent, so the integrity of the programme is compromised when winners are revealed. People start to question why winners were chosen and this makes the winners feel uncomfortable. Social voting and platforms that allow for total transparency and peer to peer nominations are the way forward.

5. “Recognition is important, but not for HR or Managers or Leaders or the CEO!”

Read through any policy and procedures manual relating to rewards and recognition and we guarantee you will find that HR is excluded, Managers are excluded, Leaders certainly couldn’t win an award and forget about the CEO. Our policies and procedures are so hypocritical its amusing. Why do we alienate certain functions, grades or roles? Why don’t managers or leaders deserve recognition? Why can’t anyone and everyone be publicly nominated for their hard work and dedication to the cause?

So, what can we do?

Here are five guiding principles for a ‘next-practice’ reward and recognition programme:

1. Generic awards are no longer relevant: recognise people based on specific results and behaviours. 

2. Go Social or Go Home: implement a peer to peer recognition platform or nothing at all. Total transparency is crucial. Everyone can vote, everyone can nominate. Anyone can win. And that includes HR, Managers, Leaders, the cleaners and the CEO. 

3. The ultimate goal is that recognition becomes a habit, not an event: don’t forget informal initiatives like thank-you cards, $5 coffee vouchers and out-of-the-spotlight recognition. Timely recognition is key. Don’t wait a month to recognise great work. Empower everyone in your organisation to recognise others. It’s not just the work of a manager or leader to say thank-you. Everyone can play a role in cultivating a culture of recognition. 

4. Reduce your policies to one sentence: Open to all. Anyone can be nominated, anyone can nominate, self-nomination is welcome. 

5. Tailor your programme and your rewards to your audiences: We have identified eight different personas in our research, how many can you? From ‘Red-carpet Rick’ to ‘Embarrased Erin’ everyone reacts differently to the limelight and everyone has different tastes when it comes to rewards. Make sure people have choice. 

Go forth and recognise!