Rediscovering the need for a meritocracy has never been more important
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