London comedian Deborah Frances-White sees enough similarities between dating and finance that her act, “How to Get Almost Anyone to Want to Sleep With You,” doubles as a career-counseling seminar for women bankers.
“That same thing that keeps you afraid of offending people and worried about asking for things is also your secret power,” Frances-White tells her audiences. “Women’s secret power is that they can guess what you’re thinking; men’s secret power is that they don’t care what you’re thinking.”
Banking is trying to overhaul a male-dominated culture that has trailed other industries in retaining and promoting women, according to a March report by the Institute of Leadership and Management. Between 2007 and 2010, 12.5 percent of women working in Britain’s finance industry lost their jobs, compared with 8.8 percent of men, according to the report.
At an April networking event, Barbara-Ann King, who heads the female client group at Barclays Plc’s wealth management unit in London, joined Frances-White on stage in front of more than 150 women at Leicester Square Theatre to explain how women hold themselves back.
“It’s always the men who are knocking at my door when promotion period comes up,” King said. “It’s always the men who say, ’I’m working too many hours, I need three more people.’ From women I hear a lot of, ’I think I need more mentors. I don’t think I’m doing very well.’ It’s great to have that self-awareness but I think they take it too far.”
Frances-White charges 2,500 pounds ($3,215) for a 90-minute presentation she’s delivered to banks including Barclays and Bank of America Corp. While she dials down the raunchier elements of her act in the translation to conference rooms from the stage, the message is the same: Confidence can be acquired, and it is usually women who suppress the social skills that spell success in the workplace.
“I know charisma is learnable because I work with stand-up comedians,” Frances-White told an audience of about 100 men and women in Bank of America’s King Edward Hall in March. “It takes six months for them to be able to work a room and most of them live with their mums. You, who are employable, at the top of the heap, should get it in three at most.”
The wisecracks are an essential tool in driving home an important message to busy executives, according to Michelle Fullerton at Bank of America in London. If a presentation is a dud, “they’ll just look at their Blackberrys or they’ll just leave,” said Fullerton, head of diversity and inclusion for Europe and emerging markets.
Frances-White draws on years of experience teaching improvisation classes at The Spontaneity Shop, a business she started in 1997 with her husband. About seven years ago, one of her students asked her to present the class to colleagues at British Broadcasting Corp. The comedian now spends half of her time catering to banks in between stand-up gigs, screen writing and one-on-one executive coaching.
It was Barclays that first asked her to tailor her message for women. She noticed that female audiences responded differently to her seminars, syncing with the sections on connecting to and reading people, while men were better at steering conversations. Frances-White employs diagrams of male and female brains, peppering her talk with statistics culled from “Brain Sex” author and scientist Anne Moir.
“I stumbled across a powerful model for them to work in,” Frances-White said in an interview. “They’re not shoving themselves into a trouser suit and saying, ’Right I’m going to do this like a man.’ They’re using their own inherent skills.”
The executive-coaching industry is weathering the recession as evidence of its benefits grows, according to the Lexington, Kentucky-based International Coaching Federation. International Business Machines Corp., Roche Holding AG’s Genentech unit and Deloitte & Touche LLP have all won accolades for their internal management coaching programs.
Frances-White holds no formal qualifications and has never had a corporate job. That didn’t bother Bank of America’s Fullerton, who booked the comic after watching a few performance clips on YouTube.
“Her ideas were passionate, interesting,” said Fullerton. “I’m not looking to vet everything she says. I don’t mind if she swears. I just want to be confident in her ability to present a good session.”
Frances-White leavens the comedy with practical tips, including how to use body language to exude confidence.
“If I said, ’My name is Bond. James Bond.’ And said it while moving my head, you’d think I’d forgotten my name and had to say it twice,” she said. “Keeping a still head gives you more power. But you have to smile around the eyes or you might look a bit ’Silence of the Lambs.”’
Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. concluded in 2007 that companies with more women in senior roles typically outpace their peers in return on equity, operating result and stock-price performance. A 2010 follow-up report said that even as senior managers acknowledge the link between more women and better results, “this belief does not translate into action.”
Frances-White disagrees, at least when applied to her banking clients, who she says demonstrate the most drive to promote and retain women.
“They just get it,” she said. “Why would you not want an empathizer, why would you not want someone who can read social cues? Guys can do things brilliantly as well. It’s not that female strengths are better, but why would you want to knock out half the available neurological advantages available from both sexes?”