As a society, we have quickly forgotten the feeling of panic we felt back when the Covid pandemic first hit. I remember visiting Wellington for a board meeting a few days before the first lockdown was announced and wondering if the board members would actually ever see each other again. I also remember discussions about planning for mass graves and the like. It truly was a crazy time.

But then we went into lockdown and, while life was undeniably a bit of a pain, and some people were certainly doing it hard, it was important to maintain perspective. I remember doing a check-ins with various boards I serve on and making the same comment: “yes, life is a bit of a pain right now, but compared to being down a diamond mine in the Congo, it’s not so bad.”

That’s a valid perspective, and I’m eternally mindful that those of us who live in a Western democracy with (generally) warm and dry houses, enough to eat and access to health and education are, relative to our global brothers and sisters, very lucky. I’m not denying that some people here in New Zealand are doing it tough, but even that toughness pales in comparison to what those in Darfur, for example, face.

And so any reflection on toughness faced by the privileged few tends to come across as whining. It can’t help but seem to be tone-deaf and ignorant of that very privilege. It smarts of entitlement, one of my pet hates. Nonetheless, however, I am going to opine a little bit on tough times for those at the top. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I’m in the fortunate position of serving on a number of different boards and have been involved in running businesses for a few decades. As such I think I’ve earned the right to opine a little about the way we treat our managers, executives and business leaders. This article isn’t a whine about things I’ve faced, but rather observations on what people around me have had to deal with.

We live in a time when every staff member quite rightly has the opportunity to take mental health days and avocate for their own individual rights. We’re well aware of the obligations that Health and Safety legislation gives the organisation and ultimately its board to protect the mental health of staff. We recognise protected disclosures, so-called whistleblower initiatives, which are seen as an important foil to the power imbalance that exists between staff, executives and board members.

All of these initiatives are absolutely justified – and hopefully go some way to avoid bad behavior from leaders and give those “in the trenches” an opportunity to gain some autonomy, to redress injustice and to hold to account.

But that goes both ways. If you’re an executive in, for example, an organsation with a workforce that is laser-focused on maximizing staff gains whatever the cost, you might just find yourself the subject of abuse and harassment which would be terminal were you to treat your own staff in that way. Or to put it simply, often executives are expected to behave in a certain manner but staff are not held to the same expectation.

Of course there is a school of thought that executives and directors are paid big money to work all hours of the day, to take sometimes vicious abuse and turn the other cheek, and to not bear a mental health impact from any of that. But is it realistic to expect executives and board members to be somehow superhuman? Are we being perversely hypocritical when we expect managers and governors to somehow put up with behavior that is unfair, unjust and inequitable?

And the further up the foodchain one goes, the more the inequities are apparent. For board members, there is no representation. They’re not protected by any of the legislation that protects the workers below them and they’re expected to simply absorb bad behavior unflinchingly. Now again I reiterate that I’m well aware that this feels like the poor whining of an entitled and privileged few while those at the grass roots continue to toil for the benefit of the elite. But it seems to me that if we’re really about being kind as a society, these are valid points to articulate.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He’s all about equity.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.


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