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KPMG privilege check: Lessons from Bill Michael

Following the resignation and retraction from KPMG's Bill Michael after telling staff to stop moaning about the impact of the coronavirus, Blaire Palmer proposes a privilege check and firm behaviour scrutiny to moderate unconscious bias.

1st Mar 2021
CEO That People Thing Ltd
Columnist
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KPMG Canary Wharf Offices
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I admit to a little self-righteous indignation when KPMG UK’s chair and senior partner Bill Michael hit the headlines for telling staff to stop moaning and rejected the concept of unconscious bias. Ironic, really, since his unconscious bias was so clearly on display. 

And then I had some sympathy. Not with what he said but with his situation. Being so out of sync with the emotions and values of our time was clearly a shock to him. And by the time he realised it was too late. The words were out and no apology, no matter how sincere, was enough. 

Those of us who entered the workforce 30 or more years ago remember the rough and tumble of the office. Day drinking, bottom pinching, relentless ribbing and the all-pervasive smell of cigarettes wafting under the door of the smoking room were the norm. 

Many have struggled to move with the times, seeing the diversity and inclusion movement, increasing awareness of mental health, transition from boss to coach and all this talk of ‘culture’ as evidence that everyone has become a snowflake and they ought to toughen up. 

I’m afraid that attitude won’t fly any more. 

They were not the good old days. Well, they were for the few who benefitted – primarily white men with the right education, the right accent and the right connections. And while there is still plenty that doesn’t work about today’s work environment, at least there is some awareness that people matter and that they do their best work when they are treated with respect.  

What happened to Bill Michael was the perfect example of what we call ‘leakage’. Our deeply held beliefs will leak out, normally when we are under pressure. 

If we believe ourselves to be lower status than others in the room, we will leak this belief through our words and body language. If we believe young people today are snowflakes, that will leak out at the most inopportune moment when 1500 of our employees are present at a virtual meeting. 

What should you do? 

It’s not just a Bill Michael or KPMG problem – first check your own privilege. The last 12 months has shown us that events impact people in unequal ways. People who live in a flat-share, in the city without a garden, with an abusive partner, with young children, single people living alone. 

Lockdown has been tougher on them than those who have a dedicated office at home, a large garden and someone to entertain the kids while they take back to back meetings. 

If you’re fine, that’s great. But if others aren’t, don’t assume they are weaker or less organised than you. You might just have it easy by comparison. And even those who seem to have a similar set-up to you might be struggling for reasons you don’t understand. You can live in a nice house and have a helpful other half and still be struggling. 

Instead of judgement get curious. Seek to understand what’s hard for others. Put yourself in their shoes. 

Start navel gazing

Get curious about yourself too. What makes you tick? What beliefs and assumptions do you carry with you that inform your view of the world? How are these beliefs and assumptions getting in your way or limiting you as a leader? Therapy and coaching used to be associated with the lost and the under-performing. These days you need to be sharp and that means knowing how you could trip yourself up. 

If Michael had spent some time digging into his operating system, he would have flushed out these deeply held beliefs. A great coach would have challenged him on them. He would have had the opportunity to unpick them or at least own them. Instead of telling people to stop moaning, he might have said:

 “As a man from a different generation to many of you, I come from a time when people couldn’t express their feelings. It’s hard for me to hear how unhappy people are and how hard they are finding the times we live in. A part of me wants people to stop talking about it, but that is something I need to work on. I want you to be open. I need to hear it.” 

As a leader you don’t have to be perfect, you just need to be aware of your flaws and be doing the work. 

Where there’s one…

There is currently an investigation at KPMG into Michael’s behaviour, but it is unlikely to get to the root of the issue. For someone with those attitudes to achieve and sustain a leadership position, I would venture that he was not a lone wolf. At the very least, there was collusion. What we permit persists. I suspect there is still much in the culture at KPMG that made him feel he was on safe ground. 

Yes, you can get someone in your firm with a bad attitude. Yes, you can get someone who for years has played a huge part in your firm’s success who then becomes outdated and starts to become a liability. 

But more often where there is one person (especially a senior person) with a bee in their bonnet about ‘young people’, ‘snowflakes’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’ there is something deeply entrenched in the culture that needs to be addressed. 

If you see even a single example of leakage of this kind, look further than the individual who demonstrated it. Look for ways your firm permits, colludes or even rewards such attitudes. 

There is too much evidence now that treating people right, listening to them and their ideas, creating an environment of psychological safety and developing greater self-awareness is good for business. Living in denial makes you look out of touch and will eventually hit your bottom line if it hasn’t already. 

And, if you don’t take responsibility for getting with the times someone else is going to point it out – “Hey, you, your privilege is showing”. 

Replies (8)

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By Justin Bryant
01st Mar 2021 12:35

I stopped reading this half way through and regret I will not get those 30 seconds of my life back.

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
By Duggimon
01st Mar 2021 13:41

About half way through I realised the first comment would be another example of the kind of ******** being highlighted and I'm glad to not be disappointed.

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By sculptureofman
01st Mar 2021 12:42

Nice to see this type of professional ******** being taken down a peg or three, long may it continue.

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By hfiddes
01st Mar 2021 15:47

In so many ways, the senior partners I worked for back in the early 1980s (and who fought the war) were far more civilised, caring and worldly-wise than those who followed in their footsteps. It was noticeable how things changed once they had retired.

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Replying to hfiddes:
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By bosclibby
02nd Mar 2021 10:19

I started in 1981 - my first two bosses (at different organisations) were wonderful men. Taught me lots in different ways. Both smoked like trains and drank like fish but looked after their staff and we had fun as well as worked hard. They weren't afraid to tell you when you'd done something wrong and I respected them hugely. I've run my own practice since 1994 and am probably considered a dinosaur but I wouldn't swap my upbringing in the profession for anything.

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By AndyC555
03rd Mar 2021 10:28

"rejected the concept of unconscious bias"

I'm not sure he did. I think he said that the training courses people were forced to go on to counter this were a waste of time. I've yet to see any evidence that they achieve anything. There's lots of evidence to suggest it achieves nothing. See here for just one example of many reviews.

"diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around"

https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/dobbin/files/an2018.pdf

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By AndyC555
03rd Mar 2021 11:28

"more often where there is one person (especially a senior person) with a bee in their bonnet about ‘young people’, ‘snowflakes’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’ there is something deeply entrenched in the culture that needs to be addressed. "

I find it interesting that diversity training is all about being more open, more welcoming of different views and opinions. Except of previous generations. THEIR views and opinions, THIER culture? It's horrible and old fashioned and must be "addressed". A 55 year old has 30 years more experience of life than a 25 year old. But what's that worth? Apparently nothing.

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Hallerud at Easter
By DJKL
03rd Mar 2021 21:55

Not sure about the article and smoking rooms, 35 years ago I smoked at my desk in the main office (up to 15 of us in the room) and if the fug got too much a window got opened, smoking rooms were later.

The other thing is total confusion, I do not go on buses very often but when I do I always have to decide if say offering my seat to someone crosses some line, is it an insult, will the other party (female) get upset if I offer her my seat. As someone who would have had his mum affronted if he had not offered his seat to a lady to now sometimes subjugate what is near pavlovian instinct is quite difficult. (though I may now be getting closer to the point when people offer me a seat)
The same applies if a member of the fairer sex (Am I even allowed to say that?) comes into the room, if I stand have I somehow crossed a line?

Frankly life is tricky and I suspect over the next 20 odd years (if I plod on that long) it will get trickier to fit in with whatever the accepted norms have by then become.

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