Women in Action — Conversation with Emma Beckmann
President Europe, Middle East & Africa, Landor & Fitch
I’m delighted to introduce Emma Beckmann, President EMEA at global brand transformation company Landor & Fitch.
Last year Women in Action attended Women Political Leaders’ Annual Forum in Reykjavik and there I had the opportunity to listen to Emma’s keynote speech about an interesting study conducted by Landor & Fitch focused on how power is visually represented and how that representation has evolved over time. I was blown away by Emma’s presentation!
As you know Women in Action is a not-for-profit initiative committed to empowering women and fostering gender equality by showcasing and amplifying female role models in business and political leadership.
Below is a transcript of our conversation.
GB: Emma, thank you very much for accepting Women in Action’s invitation and for joining me for this conversation. You currently lead a very important region on behalf of a global business. So, one could say that you are a woman of power. What is your relationship with power? Do you feel like a woman of power?
EB: It’s a tough question. I think the simple answer is ‘no’. I’ve never really been power-hungry and I have never consciously strived for power in my career. I am acutely aware, however, of the responsibility that comes with the role that I have - whether that’s for my clients or their brands but importantly also the responsibility that comes with the role for the many talented people, both male and female that work in our business across the region. I guess the impact that you have as a leader is ultimately the result of what you do with the power that you have, and, for me, that has always been the most important part. Power is inherent in any leadership position, and it’s important that we are conscious of the power we have and about how you use that power to the benefit as opposed to the detriment of others.
GB: It is a well-known fact that often times women doubt their skills and their accomplishments. This is an attitude that is sometimes referred to “Imposter Syndrome”. It affects many highly performing individuals and women in particular, who may feel they are not good enough to step into a higher role, or when they get there, they may feel they don’t deserve it. Did you ever experience this feeling? Did you ever feel you were “inadequate”?
There have been a couple of periods in my career where I have experienced that. The first time was when I found myself on the ground in Moscow building Landor & Fitch’s new office. That was my first leadership position around ten years ago. I wondered what on earth I’d done to deserve that role and all the typical “why me” questions. The second was around four years ago, shortly before I took on my current role as President of the region. I was taking over from my boss Jane Geraghty who was moving into the global CEO role that she is still in today. She was a fantastic and inspirational role model. My initial reaction when she talked to me about taking on that role was “I can’t possibly do that. I can’t possibly do what she does. I am not like her.” On reflection, that was exactly the point. It took me a while to realize and to convince myself that I don’t have to be like her, and I just have to be myself and everything else would be fine. It was around the same time that I came across a podcast on the’ Imposter Syndrome’. I heard a quote that has been engrained in my mind ever since. It was “The only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter.” That’s really been my mantra. If I ever start to doubt myself, I remind myself of that.
GB: As I mentioned in the introduction last year you were invited to speak at Women Political Leader’s Annual Forum, one of the most important global events on gender equality and women’s leadership. How did you feel speaking before such a distinguished audience committed to making gender equality a tangible reality?
On a personal level, it was absolutely terrifying! It was the first time I’d spoken to the Forum, two years before it’d been my CEO. Obviously, you are very conscious of the people you’re talking to, the power and the influence they have but also the challenges that they’re facing and they are working tirelessly to resolve. Terrifying in the immediate term but absolutely humbling to be able to give my little point of view on the topic, perhaps from a different perspective. Women Political Leaders is a fascinating organization that we’ve been connected with for a few years, and we have supported since we got involved in 2018.
GB: Let’s come to your presentation in Reykjavik. You shared the findings of the study “A Visual Portrait of Power” that Landor & Fitch conducted across its affiliates with a view to understanding whether and how the way power is visually represented has evolved overtime. How was the study conducted and what triggered it?
It was an internal survey tapping into the fabulous and curious minds that we have working for us across the world and who are, through the nature of their job, closely connected into the cultural and visual semiotics of their respective markets. We also spoke to some friendly CEOs who contributed through some of the conversations we had with them on the topic. It all came about when we first got involved with Women Political Leaders to create their brand and visual identity. For the 2019 forum, our CEO was asked to give a talk about the visual semiotics of power. When we were asked to return in 2021, so much had happened that we wanted to go back to the survey we had done and see how things had changed and we were quite surprised by how much things had changed from that perspective.
GB: And what were the key results of the study? Is the perception of power changing and how?
What we’d seen in 2019 was that when we had asked people to visualize power, the picture they came back with was a very male, masculine, hard, dominant picture of power with some of the visual stereotypes you might expect. When we asked to depict female power, it was a much more diverse, colourful, optimistic picture. There was very much a distinction between the typical visual cues for male and female power. When we repeated the same exercise in 2021, we saw that distinction fading away. It hadn’t completely disappeared but there was a considerable blurring of the boundaries and ultimately the visualization of power and some of the typical cues were much more female with more female traits, more gender fluid and not so male-infused but more infused with female characteristics.
GB: And how do you explain those findings?
Many people we talked to attributed this to the impact of the pandemic. In many ways, this disruption we’ve experienced upended many of the existing conventions, particularly of work, around which much of male power has been constructed. Suddenly we find ourselves not in glass towers but in each other’s living rooms – as you and I both are today – in a much more intimate and less formal setting. We saw a huge focus on mental health, coaching, well-being as strategic priorities for businesses. The one quote that stood out to me was “many of the qualities leaders need to exhibit in this pandemic era lean on the more traditionally female traits. Leadership and therefore power has become much more female”. And I think that is hugely insightful. There’s an undeniable influence from the LGBTQ+ movement. Notions of gender fluidity, the trans-rights movement are more than ever present in public consciousness and, therefore, power individuals who flout traditional gender norms and conventions have become more visible and they’re changing how power is perceived, especially by Millennials and Gen Z. Not only do we see more and more female leaders and politicians but we also see non-binary and trans politicians and leaders gaining more power and visibility coming from that community. Where power used to skew decisively male, now it’s infused with female characteristics and gender fluidity.
GB: I think some of the new “trends” that you found in the study are worth mentioning. Two of them in particular resonated with me: “The determination to defy preconceptions” and “The courage to challenge conventions”. They can be found in the words and actions of incredible female leaders such as Malala but they are also associated with common women that have the courage to fight for themselves.
Yes, and the Iranian women’s freedom movement is a great example of that. One of our main take-aways was how the conversation societally is much less geared towards female power and more and more just about power, so it’s taking the typically seen female traits but re-applied to gender-neutral power. Things like being honest, resilient, determined, courageous, with conviction and humility. It’s less about the symbolic nature of female power and more about the characteristics and the way we act as females that have impacted power.
GB: And, thinking of yourself, did the study findings give you a greater awareness about how power should be expressed? Did it generate discussion within your company?
When we got the first impressions from the survey, I had a number of discussions across senior leaders across the business in terms of interpretation of what we found. Some really profound discussion about it and how it’s reflected within our organization. We are very lucky that we have an organization where gender equality is not the challenge that we face. But also, after I’d given the speech in Reykjavik I had so many positive reactions from people across the business who had seen it online or had followed it through our internal channels and interestingly not just from the females but also from the men, and that took me a little bit by surprise. But it was also a great reminder of the influence that I have as a female leader and how many young people within the business look at us as leaders as role models to support their own career path navigation. It was certainly a moment to pause and reflect not just for myself but across the organization. It added a new dimension to a conversation that we have on a regular basis anyway.
GB: You work with many clients. These days businesses are literally competing on who has the most diverse and inclusive image. Do you have the feeling that this is, in some cases, just a stunt to impress the public without actually addressing the real issues?
It is, of course, the topic of the day and you do come across some cases where you might get a sense that it’s about lip service than anything else but, honestly, that’s really few and far between. I do work across many geographies. My region is a very diverse region where Diversity & Inclusion means very different things and is at very different stages in terms of being front and centre to businesses and society as a whole. However, that does not mean that it is any less important to us as a business in any of those markets. We still remain true to what we believe and use the opportunities that we have in conversations with our clients across many of those markets to ensure that D&I is on the agenda dependent on the context, whether it is in the communications that our clients are developing or the inclusive design on a product level for some of our large FMCG clients. We weave it into conversations where we can. Whenever it needs to be called out as being too superficial and needing to be accompanied with proper initiatives and programs, we will do that too. Being part of WPP, our collective purpose is to use creativity to build a better future for our people, planet, community and clients and I think D&I sits at the heart of that agenda.
GB: You work in an industry where creativity is overwhelmingly present. How gender-equal is the creative industry?
Compared to other sectors, the creative industry is certainly more balanced. Clearly, there’s still a way to go. As Millennials and Gen Z take up more leadership positions, we will see D&I go from being a strategic priority that needs to be explicitly called out as it is today to an absolute default behavior. That is the journey that we are still on. Landor & Fitch is certainly more progressive than many in our industries but we also need to continue to weave diversity and inclusion into everything we do. It’s an exciting challenge, though, and something that we have to be creative about. The creative sector is the sector where diversity, inclusion, and equality should thrive especially as our industry depends so much on empathy. We are a people business. I’m hopeful that we can employ the creative skillset that we have for our clients to galvanize this topic internally as well.
GB: I want to talk a little bit about the “responsibilities” that women leaders have when they get to the top. I think I heard Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient, once say “I don’t want women at the top who will not change things”. Do women leaders have extra accountability to change the things that prevent other women from achieving their fair share of leadership?
I think helping other women is an obligation that a leader has per se. Supporting and mentoring other females throughout the business is something that is important in a leadership role and personally is something that is really important to me so I don’t see it as an additional responsibility. I also think that supporting other females should not happen at the expense of men. There needs to be a careful balance that has to be struck to ensure that 20 years down the line, we don’t swing in the other way, and men become the underrepresented gender fighting for their role in business. Men can bring positive change too. Linking this back to the perception of power, if we can get to a gender-neutral perception of power we will be in a much better place.
GB: At Women in Action, we try to share the experience of female leaders with other women, especially younger women, so that they can picture themselves in a leadership position. What is the main piece of advice you’d give to a younger woman wanting to be where you are one day?
First off, work hard. None of this comes just because we’re female. We have to work hard as well. But if I had to sum it up, it would be “be yourself”. Don’t try to be who you think you should be or the person that has been in the position before you or the person whose job you want to evolve into. Be yourself and, as I said earlier, don’t think like an imposter. That is the thing that has helped me particularly over the last ten years. I would advise not to think like an imposter because that would be the barrier to success.
GB: What a wonderful conversation Emma! I want to thank you for your insights and perspectives. I hope that your company’s study will prompt other organizations to question themselves not just about their efforts on gender equality but also about their idea of power. Thank you!
EB: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thanks, Germana.