12 questions to:

Mirella Panek-Owsiańska

Mirella, thank you very much for accepting the invitation to ESG 12on12! We meet at a very difficult time, when a terrifying war is taking place just across our eastern border, and you are very much involved in helping Ukrainians, the war refugees. This is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about, namely helping people in a wise manner.

Let us start with the support that is offered to our neighbours by corporates. Do they pass the test of corporate social responsibility and acting according to the values they preach?

The situation has taken us all by surprise and business has done really well. Many companies rightly started any actions with their own Ukrainian employees coming. Faster payment of wages, extra paid leave, covering the costs of family arrivals were just some of the forms of assistance that caught my eye during the first week of the war. Many companies also made significant donations to humanitarian and other non-profit organisations, organised employee collections of money and items, donated their products or offered free services to those fleeing Ukraine. It is worth emphasising that the best aid is one that is agreed, coordinated, adequate and comes at the right time and to the right place. It is also important not to forget the need for systemic assistance once the first phase of spontaneous support is over. Here, too, there will be a major role for business-NGO partnerships capable of preparing and implementing systemic and long-term support projects.

What is your approach to communicating this support. Should companies show it on social media? What about the 2021 non-financial reports – is there room in them for ongoing 2022 activities?

Reliable information on aid is highly recommended, it can encourage other companies to take action, and it can show employees and clients the consistency of the company’s declarations and actions. It is of course important to maintain ethical principles, for example in the use of photographs of children and to find the boundary between credible marketing communication and advertising. Information about assistance will certainly be included in non-financial reports; depending on the reporting cycle of a given company, these will probably be reports for 2021 (as a commentary on the current situation) or for 2022 (as reporting on specific company activities). Unfortunately, there is no separate GRI indicator for humanitarian assistance in times of war, but this information can be included as part of reporting on activities for local communities.

How do you think companies should approach their activities in Russia? We see examples of companies that abandon it and some that stay. The role of management by law is to build shareholder value. Is it possible to justify an exit from this market by following this paradigm or should boards of directors, when justifying their decisions, be guided by stakeholder value?

Companies that want to act in accordance with the principles of corporate social responsibility are guided by the creation of long-term value for stakeholders; the primacy of shareholders’ interests has long been forgotten in modern thinking about sustainable business. Among the online comments, it was evident how much even symbolic withdrawal of businesses from Russia is important to consumers. When Coca-Cola did not give a clear answer about its decision for one day, the web was flooded with graphics, memes and calls to boycott the company. No company can afford such reputational damage, so withdrawing from Russia was the only right decision. I believe that, despite the risk of short-term financial losses, this will bring a long-term bonus for the company in terms of consistency of values and actions.

In addition to corporate support, there is the wonderful attitude of Poles volunteering their time and resources to support refugees. What advice would you give to those who have been helping since the beginning of the conflict and are already on the verge of exhaustion, and what tips would you give to those who just want to start their adventure with volunteering?

While, in my opinion, the government failed the test, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and Poles have been performing heroic acts since February 24. The crisis situation has shown that we can act spontaneously, and without the actions of thousands of volunteers it would not have been possible to respond to the need of the moment in such a short time. But the initial energy and adrenaline is starting to fade, and we now need systemic assistance and long-term thinking. People who have been helping since the beginning of the war are often burnt out; in humanitarian work, taking care of yourself is especially important, but unfortunately there is often no time for that. For those who would like to become volunteers, I encourage them to choose the form of helping that suits them best. Not everyone has to go to the border or help at railway stations, it is just as important to do competence-based volunteering, setting up databases, applications, coordination, social media work, fundraising activities, etc. Many NGOs now need scaling and knowledge management that businesses have. I, for example, don’t know how to cook a soup or play with children, but I know how to connect businesses and NGOs and run Facebook groups, and I try to help in this way. The Help for Ukraine group, of which I am one of the moderators, has over 500 000 members at the moment. There will certainly be plenty of voluntary work and every person will find something for themselves, but it is very important to help wisely. 

The ongoing war is also a field where new leaders are being forged. The whole (almost whole) world looks with admiration at the attitude of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What elements of his attitude could members of corporate boards and C-suite incorporate into their skillsets?

Reading the posts on LinkedIn, it is already clear that the President of Ukraine has become a new leadership icon. Courage, a direct style of being, being close to his people are certainly qualities that would be useful for any manager or manageress. Also important is a distance to himself and a sense of humour, which the former comedian does not mind being a statesman. The newcomer is a leader who felt comfortable both in a pink costume during Dancing with the Stars and in a bulletproof vest during the war, a person who can combine both masculine and feminine qualities. He is certainly a hero to the fighting Ukraine and a true leader of his people to the world, proving himself in the most difficult of times.

It is said that behind every great man, there is a great woman. The steadfastness of Olena Zelenska, the First Lady of Ukraine, is highly recognised around the world. Which of her actions can be transferred to team management?

The role of the First Lady is often underestimated, and in Poland there has even been controversy over proposals to remunerate women who hold this position, and yet they give up their careers for several years, adapting their lifestyles to the needs of the state by carrying out specific public work. In the USA, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary Clinton was criticised for being too active First Lady. Olena Zelenska has certainly won the sympathy of her compatriots by her decision to stay with her husband and children in Ukraine despite the offer to evacuate. In an open letter to the media, she pointed to the human aspects of the war, the suffering of women and children, and called for the creation of humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of people. She thanked Polish women for leaving prams for refugee women with small children at railway stations. It is worth learning from her loyalty, honesty and courage in times of crisis.

In discussions about a sustainable world, the phrases responsible leadership and inclusive leadership often come up in the context of leaders. What do they mean?

Inclusive leadership means having the courage to consciously break down the barriers faced by people at risk of exclusion; valuing diversity and creating space for each person’s participation and full involvement in decision-making and shaping reality; creating, implementing change and innovation in such a way that a balance is struck between the needs of different people. The concept of inclusive leadership is based on four areas of leadership development:

  • practicing self-awareness,
  • taking actions towards a shared vision,
  • building relationships,
  • creating change.

Professionally, I work on capital markets and this has given me the opportunity to meet people at the top of the corporate hierarchy. Would you agree with my observation that it is not that often – in the case of listed companies – that one can meet management or supervisory board members who could be described as inclusive leaders?

The concept of inclusive leadership was not part of management education in the 1990s, when Generation X, which is now represented in large numbers on the boards and C-suite of listed companies, was graduating. Back then, there was a different paradigm in which there was no room for inclusion, ethics or diversity, so for many management and supervisory board members, this may be a new approach that they have yet to learn. It is important to understand that the world is changing and to be open and willing to learn. As part of one of the Foundation’s School for Leaders projects, there is even a self-diagnosis tool where you can check yourself from this angle of inclusive leadership and get guidance for further development https://inclusiveleadership.eu/pl/test/ (Polish only).

The ability to include different voices in discussions is also an ability to manage a diverse team, including on the basis of gender. Data collected by 30% Club Poland shows that women remain a minority in the boardrooms of the 140 biggest listed companies. What do you think is the key reason?

The benefits of women in senior management have already been confirmed by numerous studies, but unfortunately this knowledge still does not influence personnel decisions in companies. Barriers related to the advancement of women are connected both to still existing stereotypes and to the unequal burden of household duties or lower availability of institutional childcare. They are also issues resulting from women’s socialisation, their lower self-confidence or lack of trust in their own competence. Often the style and system of work created by men, based more on competition than on cooperation, on the use of informal networks, on working overtime, is a style in which women find it difficult to find themselves, a world whose rules they did not co-create. It is worth looking at the glass ceiling as a systemic issue of gender discrimination and managing the company’s policy in this respect very consciously. In the long term, this will increase the value of the company for different stakeholder groups.

At the end of 2021, women accounted for 16.6% of board members (management + supervisory board) in WIG140 companies. The year-on-year progress was insignificant – at the end of 2020, this number came in at 15.5%. In July 2021, Best Practice for Listed Companies 2021 came into force, which includes, among others, a provision on gender diversity in management and supervisory boards understood as 30% of the underrepresented gender (in each of these bodies separately). What else can be done for women to achieve at least 30% participation in company boards?

There are many ways in which this could be achieved, but the important thing is that it should be an element of conscious action on the part of companies, based on profound knowledge and not merely on the need to fulfil indicators of best practice. What works well are mentoring programmes, anti-discrimination trainings, especially for high level managers, but also for all managers, efficient anti-bullying procedures, women’s internal networks in companies, review of recruitment, onboarding and promotion principles and procedures from a gender perspective and elimination of barriers that have been identified in the process, elimination of the pay gap, cooperation with women’s NGOs, etc. My colleagues from the Divercity+ team and I work with a lot of boardrooms and we see how important it is to have a CEO who is a real ambassador for equality, someone who can confidently, systemically, using various tools and metrics, implement appropriate diversity policies in the company.

In your opinion, what are the key benefits for companies of the diversity of its management and staff?

The mix of cultures, experiences, points of view, access to different employee experiences due to age, gender or background, different styles creates a unique space for creativity, better reflects the company’s customer structure. Conscious diversity management can give a business advantage that cannot be achieved in other ways. It is important to identify the specific aims of an equality policy and to clarify its importance within the organisation. Why is it being introduced? What values does it implement? What organisational culture does it build? What is its purpose?

You can start with small steps, but have a vision of the changes you want to introduce in your company. And remember that diversity touches our values, which is why it requires dialogue and cooperation, without which it will become yet another imposed duty to which one can rebel.

What do you think each of the people reading this interview can do to increase diversity in the companies they work for? Which measures do you think are effective and which ones lead to „diversity fatigue”?

If a diversity management policy is pursued consciously and strategically, there is no fear of getting tired of it, because it actually leads to creating a better and more inclusive workplace. A place where everyone feels respected and no-one is discriminated against because of their gender, age, ability or sexual orientation.

A range of actions can be taken from language issues (e.g. feminativities) to anti-discrimination training for teams to anti-bullying policies. What is important is conscious action and as much dialogue as possible, as the area of diversity is one that touches our values, attitudes and stereotypes and cannot be managed without consultation and understanding of people’s fears and concerns.

In an increasingly technologicalised world, management that puts people and their diversity at the centre is very valuable.

Mirella, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and thoughts with us!

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