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Research & Development

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As we adjusted to a new reality, we aimed to capture and share leaders’ stories about the changing landscape of business. Our goal was to preserve lessons learned and insights gained throughout the coronavirus pandemic, to build connections between people and

to create a more sustainable business world by identifying common leadership mindsets.


With a combined 50 years of experience in senior HR, Safety and Exec level roles in complex organisations including Asda, Royal Mail and railway franchises such as Merseyrail and West Midlands Trains, A Matter of Choice founders Karen Powell and Lesley Heath immediately saw an opportunity to gain real-time insight from senior leaders during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the impact of Covid-19 quickly became history in the making, they sought to hear the voices of organisations, capturing their stories, successes and insights in real-time as we moved from reactive to proactive decision-making. And as senior leaders grappled with the unknown and their own fears, the what-ifs and the what-may-bes, A Matter of Choice collated their experiences and wisdom to share with future generation leaders.

Seeking to capture their stories in the moment of change, rather than with the rose-tinted embellishments of hindsight, the narratives provided extraordinary snapshots through an extraordinary journey. Indeed, hindsight bias is a known phenomenon first recorded in the early 1970s by Baruch Fischhoff, where decision-makers forget the context or finer details of their actions later on. This memory distortion, often called the black swan bias, causes people to believe they knew the outcome of an event before it actually happened - in others words, ‘I knew it all along.’ In a world where pace sees us move onto the next big thing almost immediately, it can therefore be easy to forget all the decisions we make and the context in which we made them. Yet they’ve been recorded here in real-time, giving a unique insight into how the leadership brain works.

Covid-19 has arguably been the biggest, most significant change many organisations have had to deal with in recent years. The impacts on supply chain, people and wellbeing have been unprecedented in peace time. Yet the knowledge gained, the pace of innovation and change experienced has shown a collective mindset common across industries. Whether manufacturing or transport, care or event planning, the diverse leaders who took part in this research have all spoken independently about common challenges, and from this, we can take invaluable lessons.

Our goal was to identify which common leadership mindsets were contributing to success through this unprecedented time of change.

About the Research

Using a robust qualitative research framework and ethnographic techniques, A Matter of Choice used proven methods to collect the data, which was subsequently interrogated using thematic analysis.

This well-respected methodology involves searching for, analysing and interpreting themes from within the data, focusing on participants’ subjective experiences and understanding of their own circumstances and settings to create their own narratives.

This highly flexible approach allows respondents to discuss the subject in their own words, without any leading fixed-response questions that can narrow the response in quantitative studies. As a result, the data is trustworthy, rich and detailed (Braun & Clarke, 2006; King, 2004).

Through a series of structured interviews, A Matter of Choice spoke with senior leaders who were at the heart of strategic decision-making in the context of a worldwide crisis where no one had any real-life experience. Over time, we saw the impact on their decision making in the immediacy of Covid-19, and how they have needed to adapt and saw ten key themes – or mindsets – reveal themselves through the narrative data collected. Further research is being done to capture longer term impacts.

This report explores their narratives, the challenges they faced, the insights they gained and how the expertise of A Matter of Choice can help businesses embed successful behaviours.

Naturally, all interviews were carried out in a Covid-19 secure, socially distanced way.

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The team are halfway through their action research programme exploring the effectiveness of coaching in developing mental toughness for women in leadership. Specifically focusing on the identity, purpose and self awareness, factors that emerged in our director Karen Powell MSc, MAPPCP research (summarised below) Some interesting insights are already surfacing about the factors that influence identity at work particularly the role female stereotypes play. Two strong characters emerging are the “Honorary Male” and “superbitch” neither being positive influencers! Self awareness is key in knowing your impact on others. Call out to all female leaders - do you default to these stereotypes , do you understand the impact this has on other females in your organisation?


Research shows that women in leadership positions enhance competitive advantage and gender diversity in leadership correlates with better organisational effectiveness and higher financial results with little advancement of female representation in male dominated industries. With 2018 being the 100th year anniversary of women receiving the right to vote, this reinvigorated discussions about the continuing underrepresentation of women in the workforce and highlighting the lack of progress in gender equality. Despite the introduction of laws to address inequality, the statistics are not improving suggesting businesses may be focused on ticking the box on diversity, rather than creating an inclusive culture.

Research shows there has been little or no advancement of women in leadership roles in male-dominated organisations. Male-dominated industries are particularly susceptible to reinforcing masculine stereotypes that make it even harder for women to excel. Gender ratios in male-dominated industries influences leadership styles, which increases stress and mental health issues. Research shows existing development strategies are failing to enable women to progress in these organisations. Research shows that gender inequalities are shaped by male-dominated organisational structures and decision makers’ biases about female leaders. The ability of female leaders to overcome these biases was found to be a considerable factor in organisational and individual success. The organisations entrenched masculine culture was identified as a further contributing factor in the formation of accepted practices that allowed discrimination of female leaders and showed masculine culture was a significant factor in resulting discrimination and bias.

The research found that all participants considered mental toughness to be a significant contributor to their performance at work. It confirmed that being mentally tough delivered improvements in positive behaviour and wellbeing and developed confidence, self-belief and optimism. This research found mental toughness was seen as a mind-set that influenced how an individual dealt with stressors and challenges. Three significant qualities were identified that influenced development of mental toughness mindsets:

  • Individual identity.

  • Self – awareness

  • Positive mindsets


Of what relevance is the Massai to the cultures of Western working environments? The Massai are one of the oldest male dominated cultures, under the leadership of Emmanuelle he is revolutionising the traditional gender taboos and traditions to ensure his tribes survive and are competitive in a modern world. He is doing it better than us and quicker than us. He has recognised what needs to be done and is taking systemic and focused action to change the role of women in the community – leading the way by role modelling the behaviours and actions needed to ensure the change is effective with no room for debate about what good looks like. They are working together, men and women harnessing the strength of their community to make accelerated and sustainable change. The Massai women are mentally tough and have the confidence and self-belief to be the best they just need the cultural environment and rights to enable them to do this. There are hard hitting messages relevant to all of us:

  • Strong male leadership represented

  • Having a strong and compelling WHY

  • The CEO being ruthlessly focused on identifying the entrenched taboos

  • Being courageous to tackle into sorting out the unacceptable practices to break down the “ Boys club “

  • Being brave on developing female identity – tackle the alpha woman /super bitch stereotypes

  • Supporting the male leaders to not be fearful of their changing identity and helping them develop a new more modern identity

  • Recognising that women are the main carers and respecting this in practices

  • Helping their leaders to tackle the culture they work in but bolding them 100% to account to call out bad behaviour

  • Working together as one community to make the changes

  • Looking at the greater challenges not just short term gain eg climate change impacting their farming etc

  • Providing Education as the key to developing the young talent

  • Having Strong female role models as advocates

Bringing together our findings from our ground-breaking MSc research( the first research on this topic) and lessons learnt from the Massai tribes on female leaders in male dominated cultures shows that the key areas for our programmes focus are:

  • Self awareness

  • Identity

  • Purpose

  • Mental Fitness

  • Having a Voice

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