The #MeToo movement should be a wake-up call for all leaders

The recent #MeToo campaign is a reminder of the important role we all have as leaders: building confidence.

Human rights activist Tarana Burke has a point. When the #MeToo campaign brought her own long-standing sexual abuse movement back into the spotlight, Burke said: “These moments are small victories. We ride the momentum. And then we get on the ground and do the work.”

Now that the dust is starting to settle, how can we as leaders do more of this work?

In October 2017, the New York Times broke the abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Most people – me included – felt disgusted but moved on. The judges will take care of it, we thought. There are more important things to worry about than Hollywood’s dirty laundry.

Things changed when, days later, Alyssa Milano asked women with similar experiences to reply #MeToo on their social media accounts. Her message was echoed millions of times, often accompanied by heartbreaking stories.

Polls illuminated the facts: more than half of American women (and one in six men) have experienced inappropriate sexual advances or abuse; and most offenders get away with it, even if reported. The sheer magnitude of the issue is mind-blowing.

I admit: when it comes to abuse in the workplace, I had my eyes wide shut. I don’t consider myself a subject matter expert. But I believe we must all do our share. How can we even talk about brand purpose and passion when some people are afraid to come to the office?

What can each of us do to make the office safer and better? My suggestions are nowhere near complete, but I’ve seen two concepts in action that made a real difference: zero tolerance and confidence building.

READ MORE: Ad industry comes together to tackle sexual harassment

Zero tolerance

Abuse? Not in our office. Assault? Not in the lovely world of marketing. Again, these are responses typical of those with eyes wide shut. Not long ago, 180 female CEOs and other top agency executives got together to launch Time’s Up Advertising. The issue is right at our doorstep.

Needless to say, no leader and no organisation must ever tolerate abuse. Full stop. You didn’t need me to say this. I’m sure you agree.

Acting is harder. Here’s my strong belief: if you witness abuse, don’t leave taking action to HR. It’s your job. It’s everybody’s job.

There are always ‘good’ excuses for not getting involved. Perhaps you feel threatened yourself. Perhaps you know the offender. Perhaps you aren’t sure what’s actually going on.

How can we even talk about brand purpose and passion when some people are afraid to come to the office?

Rule number one: trust your gut. Then, it depends. Many companies have (more or less effective) abuse reporting mechanisms. After reading this column, go and remind yourself of what they are in your firm. If you are unsure, read what organisations like Tarana Burke’s Just Be Inc. have to say about the delicate task of reporting abuse (their ideas expand well beyond this column).

When things are over the line, be the toughest member of staff.

The messy fine lines

There’s more going on than outright abuse. Each day, we’re all navigating fine lines. What’s OK to say and do for you may be perceived as micro-aggression by someone else. Getting this right can be tricky, even if your intentions are good.

Consider this: during the #MeToo campaign 100 women, including actor Catherine Deneuve, published a memo demanding the right of a woman to, on the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a sexual object (unsurprisingly they were met with a shit storm during the #MeToo tornado).

A female friend once expressed to me her frustration that men in Asia didn’t look at her on the metro. And my French and German friends would be annoyed if I stopped kissing and hugging them in greeting.

#MeToo, in the public debate, quickly became the umbrella for many workplace issues like unequal pay, discrimination, glass ceilings, workplace pressure, etc – all taking the confidence away from millions of talented people.

Most marketers live in good-news land. My last campaign? A big success. Our agency? Going from strength to strength. Our brand? We have just completely re-imagined how to blah blah blah. I wonder how it feels in this world for people who aren’t confident; who are, perhaps, from a minority background; who have doubts in their own skills?

Getting it right can be hard. After my last Marketing Week Live keynote, a woman told me: “Your talk was great. But why do you show mostly men on your slides?” At home I counted nine men and eight women, but the men were pictured in more confident situations. Perception is reality.

Life, it seems, is full of fine lines.

READ MORE: Thomas Barta – Being an ‘authentic leader’ may be harder than you think

Building confidence

How can you walk the fine lines? How can you still be authentic while avoiding what others may perceive as confidence-draining micro-aggression?

I’d like to suggest a basic idea. For every interaction, ask yourself a very simple question: does my action build his or her confidence?

Not long ago I spoke at a large US insurance company. During the Q&A, a young woman asked: “You told us to raise our voices and push for more innovation. But as a woman, how do I build the courage?”

Her question left me lost for words. I hadn’t thought of courage as a male or female issue. So I turned the question back to the audience: “What has helped you be bold and courageous?”

The responses were amazing. Several women spoke of role models, bosses, and peers who had all done one thing: given them confidence. Confidence in their own abilities. Confidence to try. Confidence to fail.

We can’t perhaps always prevent what some stupid colleagues do. We won’t be able to anticipate all local rules on hugging, kissing, and back-patting. But we can always ask ourselves: does my action build his or her confidence?

Asking this basic question helps me navigate these fine lines, helps me judge whether a kiss is OK or too much, and helps me find the words when words are easy to get wrong.

Do I still screw up? Yes, but I’m getting better at it.

I’m with Tarana Burke. Let’s get to work. Start asking: how did your actions build confidence in someone today?

Thomas Barta is a professional keynote speaker, marketing leadership expert and co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’ with Patrick Barwise.