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The confidence to lead

The confidence to lead

Financial services organisations have made strong progress towards removing the traditional barriers to employee diversity. Now it's time for diverse employees to step up and take advantage of the opportunity. Do you have the confidence to lead? And do you have the right support to be confident?


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While progress in some organisations has been slower than many would like, the fact is that many financial services organisations of all types and sizes are now starting to see the results of serious efforts to improve their employee diversity.

For some, it's a matter of pride and brand; how can they claim to serve customer demographics that aren't properly represented in their employees' population? For others, it's simply good business sense; in today's innovative market, those with the broadest access to new ideas and skills generally win.

Yet there are two sides to the diversity equation: employers and employees. Financial services firms may be removing barriers to diversity. But anecdotal evidence suggests that not enough diverse employees are putting themselves forward for the roles.

Why is that? In part, it is institutional. Maybe the company hasn't done a good enough job communicating the opportunities for advancement to under-represented groups. Maybe promotion and succession planning is still too 'fixed' towards the 'traditional' model employee. Or maybe the words and actions of middle management aren't yet fully aligned with the tone at the top. These, and many other archaic 'hangovers' from outdated culture and hiring processes, must change to the extent they have not.

But my experience suggests that a large part of why these roles are not being filled by more diverse employee populations has less to do with employer opportunity/efforts and more to do with individual confidence. That's right: confidence.

Mars and Venus at the office

Let's take women in the workplace for example. There is ample evidence and research to show that women tend to take a more cautious approach to most situations than men. According to a study at Columbia University, men tend to overestimate their performance by around 30 percent while women tend to underestimate their performance. In other words, men are more likely to rush in and hope for the best where women tend to worry about the potential for failure and therefore hold back.

A study by Hewlett Packard showed that women tended to apply for promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men, on the other hand, often apply for promotion when they reach around 60 percent of the qualifications1. A study of working women throughout various industries and professions conducted by KPMG in the US in 2015 found that less than half of professional women at that time considered themselves to be confident people2.

In much the same way, a lack of confidence (comparative to others) also tends to hold back talented people from other diverse backgrounds, particularly those with disabilities and those from visible minority groups.

Building confidence

Clearly, part of the responsibility for bolstering an employee's confidence rests on the individual. When faced with a risk, women and others from diverse backgrounds need to be asking themselves what they would do if they were being more courageous. They need to think seriously about the consequences of inaction. And they need to assess where their fear of failure is holding them back from taking the risks that would serve them best.

It's not easy. And it takes a lot of work to continuously check your lack of confidence at the door. But the good news is that confidence is self-perpetuating. Each confident decision, each fear that is faced down, each risk that is managed, serves as a building block for the foundations of a more confident outlook.

Organisations, business leaders and managers also have a strong opportunity to instill, encourage and build confidence within their diverse employee groups. The problem is that it's not something that can be easily fixed through supportive policies and hiring guidelines. Nor is it something that can be easily measured and managed. No, building confidence in employees requires much more active and inclusive approaches.

One of the ways financial services organisations are encouraging confidence in women, for example, is through formal and informal 'women's networks' where female employees and leaders can work together and support each other through the confidence building process. While the name of these groups may seem the antithesis of inclusion, the reality is that a growing number of so-called 'women's networks' include men.

Everybody has influence

I recently had a chance to talk with one of my male insurance colleagues in the UK – Ferdia Byrne, our Global Head of Actuarial and Insurance Risk. He has been a long-time advocate of creating a more active role for men in the promotion of organisational diversity.

"I think, in a lot of cases, men simply don't realise the influence they have on those around them – we often just don't recognise that our actions are actually putting women off from working with us,” he noted. “Men need to take an active role in not only changing the environment around them, but also in changing the way they act and behave in the office setting."

Ferdia has gone one step further by enlisting a group of 'reverse mentors' who provide him with frank, constructive and insightful feedback about how his actions, decisions and thought processes could potentially influence those from diverse groups. “It's been utterly enlightening. It's allowed me to see the impact that I am having from another point of view and that has allowed me to start to 'rewire' the way I work, interact and communicate at the office and at the client site,” he added.

KPMG member firms' work with leading financial services clients shows us there are a wide variety of approaches and ideas that could help improve confidence within diverse employee populations. Ensuring that a diverse mix of candidates is considered for each new promotion in the organisation demonstrates that diverse employees are being encouraged to lead. Putting women on the board shows that even the top echelons of the organisation are attainable. Partnering employees from diverse backgrounds with sponsors who are able to speak out on their behalf shows that the organisation is willing to support all of its employees.

Be a leader

While financial institutions have made strides in diversity and inclusion, there is work to do to accomplish a fully inclusive workforce up to top leadership positions across all financial institutions. Even the best organisations have not finished building a fully diverse and inclusive workforce, workplace and culture. But (at least when it comes to policy and guidelines) most are making valiant efforts.

So now the onus is on employers and employees alike. We encourage employees from diverse populations to step up and seize the opportunities that are being created. Confidence – when coupled with competence – is an unstoppable combination.


  1. The Confidence Gap, The Atlantic, May 2014.
  2. KPMG Women's Leadership Survey, June 2015.

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