Re­dis­cov­er­ing the need for a mer­i­toc­racy has never been more im­por­tant

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - AN­DREW HIGGINSON

Igrew up in an as­pi­ra­tional, work­ing-class fam­ily in Lan­cashire. We were a proudly so­cial­ist house­hold, Labour vot­ers to the core. Ours was not an aca­demic so­cial­ism (no one read Marx), nor was it the con­de­scend­ing so­cial­ism so preva­lent these days (“we know what’s best for you lot”). I think of my par­ents as com­pas­sion­ate so­cial­ists. They grew up in the ter­raced streets of Sal­ford and coun­cil houses of Black­ley, lived as young adults through the Se­cond World War (my dad fight­ing in North Africa and Italy), and knew first-hand the con­se­quences of in­equal­ity.

They were part of the post-war rev­o­lu­tion that de­manded a fairer deal for work­ing peo­ple, through state ed­u­ca­tion, free health­care, pen­sions and bet­ter hous­ing.

They were hard work­ing (if low paid) and al­ways as­pired to a bet­ter life for their chil­dren. My dad could not have been prouder when I was awarded my de­gree and started work as a grad­u­ate trainee with Unilever on a greater an­nual salary than he had ever earned. (I was mor­ti­fied!)

They be­lieved in a mer­i­toc­racy. Equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity, not that ev­ery­one is equal. A so­ci­ety where any­one can make it. In­evitably, many of their val­ues and be­liefs be­came my val­ues and be­liefs.

I have spent nearly 30 years in the re­tail trade. It’s a good ex­am­ple of a mer­i­toc­racy at work. By and large, peo­ple get on based on what they con­trib­ute, rather than what they say, how they say it, where they are from or what school they at­tended. There are some great ex­am­ples: Terry Leahy, the bril­liant leader of Tesco for 14 years, grew up on a coun­cil es­tate in Liver­pool. David Potts, CEO at Mor­risons, started stack­ing shelves at 16 and worked his way up to the top.

Busi­ness has a num­ber of im­por­tant roles to play in so­ci­ety, but one of the most im­por­tant is as a con­duit to a mer­i­toc­racy. Yet I be­lieve we are less of a mer­i­toc­racy to­day than we were when I started work nearly 40 years ago. Cor­po­ra­tions are big­ger, and more re­mote. On­line ap­pli­ca­tion forms and com­put­erised “sift­ing” of ap­pli­cants ce­ment a bias to­wards par­tic­u­lar uni­ver­si­ties and de­grees. And, dis­ap­point­ingly, the im­por­tance of a pri­vate school ed­u­ca­tion to “get­ting on” seems to have grown.

Many multi­na­tional boards are made up of bril­liant men and women from a va­ri­ety of coun­tries and com­mer­cial dis­ci­plines. They tick all the boxes for mixed gen­der and in­ter­na­tional di­ver­sity. But if they all went to sim­i­lar schools, go to Davos each year, read The Econ­o­mist, and re­in­force each other’s view of the world, are those boards re­ally di­verse? A mer­i­to­cratic or­gan­i­sa­tion will nat­u­rally be di­verse. A genuinely di­verse one will be in­stinc­tively mer­i­to­cratic. Re­tail, for all its hon­est claims to mer­i­toc­racy, is still dom­i­nated by white mid­dle-aged men at the top. It’s not good enough.

Fol­low­ing the Davies Re­port, there are many more women on FTSE boards, tar­gets have been met, but by and large they are in non-ex­ec­u­tive roles, and firms are still not swelling the ranks of ex­ec­u­tive tal­ent with bril­liant women. More fun­da­men­tal change is needed. More bal­anced re­cruit­ment pan­els over­see­ing pro­mo­tion, and lead­ers cor­rect­ing ca­sual sex­ism are prac­ti­cal ways of mov­ing for­ward.

Re­dis­cov­er­ing the need for mer­i­toc­racy, do­ing it and not just say­ing it, has never been more im­por­tant. As we seek to build an en­tre­pre­neur­ial air­craft car­rier off the coast of con­ti­nen­tal Europe, we need to make the most of all our tal­ents.

So­ci­ety needs to know that any­one can make it, that those with am­bi­tion can join in, who­ever they are, what­ever their back­ground, gen­der, race, creed or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Know­ing that if they do, their progress will be de­fined purely on their abil­ity. That way, those who are suc­cess­ful will be role mod­els for the next gen­er­a­tion and we might have a so­ci­ety where suc­cess is as­pired to, and ad­mired, not en­vied.

An­drew Higginson is the chair­man of Mor­risons

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