It’s not until it all stops that you have a moment to think about it. When the market is booming, everyone is happy and upbeat. People are positive and those in decision-making roles are comfortable. Life is good.

I remember the lead up to the GFC. One of the things that struck me in 2007 was how much airtime was being given to ‘causes’. Protests against the Iraq war were being hosted in cities around the world. More particularly, the environmental lobby was gaining traction at all sorts of levels.

Then the GFC came. Suddenly, worried about the impact on our wallets, the ‘causes’ took a back seat, media attention diminished, and our focus became matters economic.

And so, as we find ourselves in the early days of a Coronavirus induced panic, complete with falling sharemarkets and entire countries in lockdown, the notable causes that have been championed recent years have swiftly taken a back seat to the stories of the new day.

To be fair, these causes have just had one of the longest periods in history, in which to get their messages out into a well heeled environment with an appetite for ‘can do better’. A willing audience has listened, donated and in many cases changed behaviour, and as a result, progress has been made.

Issues such as environmental consciousness, gender equality at work, health and safety, bullying and harassment, racial equality and workplace fairness have all had enormous cut-through. Those causes have benefitted from the good times, and although early days, we are a better society because of that progress.

With the arrival of what is now being officially termed a ‘global pandemic’, the headlines will now focus quite appropriately on the illness, the impact on countries and their citizens, and of course the global economy. There might even be a decent debate on the risks attached to the the darling of economic opportunity – globalisation.

Of course, for the next little while, those pushing their causes will once again, struggle to be heard, at least until the noise dies down and the next boom gets underway, which of course it will.

However, the people who are in a position to do so, particularly those of us in leadership or management roles, need to somehow retain some focus on the causes that have been progressed and the opportunity to continue to improve. In business talk, we need to ‘lock in’ the gains that have been made.

This week I had an experience that reminded me how far we have come.

I found myself in the middle of a debate on one of the areas where we have made progress, that of gender equality in the workplace. To be fair the discussion was in an office in the US, in a Mid-West based business. In my view America hasn’t made the progress that we have in this part of the world on many of the so-called ‘causes’ I have listed above. This discussion was no exception and it reminded me of how well we are doing.

The discussion was centered around a recruitment process and my adversary in the boardroom was an experienced US executive who came from the school that, irrespective of the role, the Company should hire a man.

The comment I made that seemed to set him off went something like this. I said, “…if a company advertises a role and states that the role must be filled by a man, I wouldn’t agree with that. However, likewise, if you advertised for a role and stated that it had to be filled by a woman, I wouldn’t agree with that either.”

I went on to say that my point was that “what we really need is the best person for the job.” Sometimes that person will be a man. Other times it will be a woman.

This seemed to get my American friend rather animated, and our discussion went off the rails for a time.

But here’s the point. In my experience, despite having employed hundreds of people over the years, I can’t ever remember having made a decision on who gets the job because they were a male or a female.

I also can’t recall their remuneration being affected by whether they were a man or a woman. After all, the remuneration should be a fair wage for the job that needs to be done, rather than it being based on the person who got the job.

I can recall people not getting a job because of their personal presentation, because of lateness, or because of a perception that their attention to detail wasn’t what it should be. Or perhaps because I perceived they didn’t bring the required energy to the role that we were seeking to fill.

But despite having wracked my brain over thirty plus years of employing people, I can’t recall ever disqualifying people, or indeed promoting people, because they were a male or a female.

Equality is just one of a number of areas where business has made progress over the last ten years. We have done so because it has been a cause that has had champions pushing boundaries and the focus of leaders who are comfortable with change. The other causes listed above are no different.

So we must be protective of the gains we have made. The world now has a new and urgent crisis that requires our focus. Somehow, we must adapt yet again and respond to the new challenge, but we must also work very hard to retain the positive changes that we have recently made.

This article first appeared in the NZ Herald on the 14th March, 2020.