Charles Darwin was right – it really is survival of the fittest

Charles Darwin

The theory of evolution by natural selection applies as much to the workplace as it does to other organisms and their ability to adapt and change.

As Darwin[1] explained back in 1859, survival of the fittest is all about the ability to adapt and change according to the environment. The same rules apply to the corporate world. If I still operated today as I did at the beginning of my career, I would find myself simply obsolete and out of touch.

I recently had the opportunity to present on “The Evolution of the Workplace” at a conference, and this gave me a reason to pause and reflect on my own career and the dramatic changes that I have witnessed first-hand.

There are some key themes that emerge from my personal experiences. This article is a quick overview of those key themes and the degree of change that I have witnessed. Although some areas still desperately need more evolution, it is obvious that change is constant. Embrace it we must!


Health and Safety

It was 1991 and my very first job was in a tiny village in Ripley in Surrey, a beautiful county in England. I was an Australian graduate living abroad with ambitions of becoming a journalist. Instead I found myself in a small, family owned insurance broking firm. Although the location was convenient, it would prove to be a short lived stint.

The office was tiny and quaint, being part of an old heritage listed building. However, out of the five employees, including myself, three were chain smokers. In those days, it was perfectly acceptable to smoke inside with the windows and doors closed. To a non-smoker, this was hell.

After many weeks of finding myself throwing up in the bathroom due to smoke inhalation, I realised that this was not the job for me. I guess the fact that the work was not terribly exciting and I was also supposed to prepare morning tea for the owner didn’t help either.

Nowadays, the thought of anyone working in that sort of environment in a corporate setting is unheard of. However, it was really not that long ago that anti-smoking legislation in the workplace kicked in.

Today health and safety is a critical part of every organisation’s responsibilities and they must manage that risk carefully. Health and safety is not just a consideration for companies with blue collar workers – it is a responsibility for every organisation.

Health and safety is never perfect and it never ends – you never stop striving to do better. The journey of education and awareness is endless. However, if there is commitment to health and safety from the board and the executive, the culture changes and the improvement is marked.

Hazard identification, near misses, risk management, reporting and duty of care – all of these elements are critical and form a core part of every employee’s responsibilities. That responsibility becomes glaringly more important, the more senior you become.


I was very lucky to find myself in my next job, which would ultimately change my entire career direction. My dreams of being a journalist were still burning bright when I found myself “temping” in the Human Resources Department of Debenhams[2], in Guildford, Surrey.  There were seven people in the HR Department when I joined. I was the only person who was able to use the sole computer in our entire team. There were no emails, no internet and no social media. Instead we could use the PC for some word processing. To be honest, I was the only one interested in using the PC – everyone else seemed a bit scared of it and I suspect that they thought it was a bit of a fad that would disappear.

At that stage, it was seen as a novelty and something that more junior staff would utilise. The senior managers were simply not very interested.  I think they saw it as beneath them.  That seems inconceivable today!

Even the payroll was done manually for the 500 plus staff and all memos were typed, photocopied and popped into the endless number of pigeon holes lining one long corridor. In general, you were expected to check your pigeon hole on a weekly basis, at a minimum. So, the methods of communication were slow and as a result, the pace of change was also a lot slower.

When I moved back to Australia in 1994, my first job was with a fast growing IT company, which couldn’t have been more different to Debenhams. It was then that I was exposed to much more exciting developments in technology. I remember with fondness the internal email system, where my initial email address was kjs04. I remember feeling baffled as one excited colleague waxed lyrical about this new concept of the internet. And I remember listening to our CEO explaining that no one would really want to spend money on a website and that e-commerce would never take off.

So, sometimes even those immersed in the world of technology don’t see the changes or embrace them until they are well upon us and an accepted part of daily life. Not everyone sees the value of the next big thing and not everyone is an early adopter of technology.

In 25 short years, the world has changed so dramatically and technology is at the core of almost everything we do in the workplace. Now a PC and a laptop seem almost old fashioned. Let’s face it – you can do almost everything you need to on your tablet or smart phone. There is more capacity and power in my iPhone than there ever was in that lonely PC back at Debenhams.

The power of innovation and creativity with technology carves out significant changes in the corporate world. This means that corporations need to continue to assess levels of investment, their IT strategy and how it will help them to stay competitive. Creating and delivering a digital strategy is now a must for those that want to stay ahead of the pack.

But what about those who are slow to embrace technology and dismiss new developments as simply a fad? Well, they fall behind quickly and their skills become less relevant. To keep up to date with the workforce and new generations, you simply have no choice – you must learn!

Gender Diversity and Inclusion

In the height of the IT boom, the world was quite a different place.  When I found myself in that fast growing IT organisation in Australia in the 1990s, I was soon to learn that it was still very much a man’s world.

My undergraduate degree majored in politics, as well as film and media studies. To say that I am politically aware and keenly interested in the world around me would be an understatement. I am also a proud debater, having happily debated in the formal sense for much of my school years. So, to find myself in an environment where women took a definite back seat was quite shocking.  There were few women in senior management, and the level of sexual harassment was a major wake up call. Almost every woman that I know who was working in the IT industry at that time would have suffered from some form of sexual harassment – either overt or subtle, myself included.

However, what is more shocking in hindsight, is that it was simply accepted and we just got on with the job. I was ultimately the Head of HR in that organisation for 10 years and I was acutely aware of the number of sexual harassment issues and problems around me. Upon reflection, it is disappointing that more of these were not handled in a formal sense. It is also disappointing that I couldn’t influence the executives enough to dramatically change the environment at that time.

Nowadays, that would be a rarer environment. The young women of today simply do not blindly accept sexual harassment and discrimination. They would speak up much more quickly and the workplace has evolved enough to encourage that. This pleases me no end. The young women I speak to nowadays are brave and they know their worth and their rights. They are nobody’s plaything!

By 2009, I found myself in a global engineering and environmental services organisation. With the encouragement of several board members, including the Chair, I had the opportunity to create a program that was specifically focused on creating more opportunities for women in that business. It was well received, by both the men and the women. To my delight, we even had two men on the global steering committee. After all, inclusion means that you need to model inclusive behaviour.

However, despite the early success of this program, I still battled with some of the CEOs there about the validity of the gender pay gap. Even when the data was presented in black and white, there was still a level of denial. The truth is that there is a gender pay gap and it takes a brave CEO to address this properly, and not just with rhetoric!

And despite the presence of a program that was focused on women in the organisation, I still encountered moments where I felt despair and sadness about the state of diversity and inclusion. For example, there were still discussions about strip clubs. During one due diligence exercise, the CFO of the organisation we were to acquire happily told me about the strip clubs that they frequented. On another occasion, we argued extensively as an executive team about whether or not a manager should be fired for taking clients to strip clubs. So, we were not as progressive as we liked to think!

Unfortunately, following a takeover of that organisation, today there are no women on that company’s board (there were two) and no women on their executive team (there were two). This is despite the fact that today diversity is seen as critical to good business sense.  It has been proven that diverse opinions at the board table and the executive table lead to outperformance for those progressive organisations willing to embrace different views[3].

There is still a long way to go. However, I have faith that the young women of today will keep fighting this battle. Old fashioned approaches to “a woman’s place”, sexual harassment and the exclusion of women at the most senior level is no longer acceptable. Those who exhibit those qualities are quite frankly, seen as out of touch. Sadly, Donald Trump’s election to President of the United States indicates that a large portion of the voters in the US feel differently. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Social Media

It is strange now to think of a time when we were not all dependent on our mobile phones and social media was yet to influence the world so strongly.

I remember when I was first invited to join Linked In. It was 2003 and I remember a colleague sending me a request to join. I was working in IT at the time, so we would definitely discuss new developments such as this. It seemed like a great idea to keep connected that way and I liked the idea of a live CV, so I joined up.

I was an early adopter, so I have always enjoyed linked in – however, not everyone is. To my surprise, there are some very senior executives and board members who still resist, as if it is an evil force to be reckoned with. They are failing to evolve and embrace the future. To be honest, they will become less visible in the corporate community as a result. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity nowadays. Until the next big thing comes along of course!

The introduction of Facebook, twitter, Instagram and snapchat is absolutely transforming the corporate environment.  As a website is seen as a given nowadays, so is your social media strategy. You need to embrace these elements as they pertain to the workforce, or be seen as a dinosaur.

There are also substantial benefits to those businesses that use these mediums wisely. They are cheaper, faster and mean that you can have greater reach and global outcomes, in comparison to the traditional methods. You can also communicate in a different way with your staff, as well as your clients and business partners.

I now have the great privilege of sitting on two boards with progressive organisations. They utilise social media extensively and the results are very positive. Both of those organisations understand that traditional marketing is no longer enough. They are successfully adapting to the environment and the expectations of the younger generations.

There are also new challenges that every business will face as a result of social media. So regardless of whether you like these new channels, you will need to manage some of the downsides. This includes bullying and harassment, brand damage and uncontrolled messaging about your organisation.

If you haven’t checked out you should. This is where employees and ex-employees can rate an organisation and its senior management. This is hard to control, but you need to be aware. Again, you can’t manage something if you don’t understand it.

With social media, as with all aspects of the workplace, it will continue to evolve. That is our challenge – to stay relevant and evolve with the changes around us. You can ignore the changes and hope that they go away and run the risk of not being current and not understanding the world around you. Or you can embrace the changes and seek to learn and understand them.

In summary, you need to adapt to survive in today’s corporate world. This is not a new concept. Darwin discussed this in 1859 and it still applies today. The wise amongst us understand this well and use it to their advantage. The corporate environment will continue to evolve for future generations, as it has done during my career. It is up to us to embrace that change and evolve in tandem.


[1] Charles Robert Darwin was an English naturalist and geologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. His best known work was the book “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, which described “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest”.

[2] Debenhams plc is a British multinational retailer operating under a department store format in the United Kingdom and Ireland with franchise stores in other countries. The company was founded in the eighteenth century as a single store in London and has now grown to 178 locations across the UK, Ireland and Denmark.

[3] In August 2012, Credit Suisse tested the performance of 2,360 companies globally over the last six years. The analysis showed that it would on average have been better to have invested in corporates with women on their management boards than in those without. They also found that companies with one or more women on the board have delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing, better average growth and higher price/book value multiples over the course of the last six years.