Diversity and Inclusion – from tokenism to transformation


Kim Wedral Rooke

Highlights from the latest session of The Zebra Project, where we discussed how these two fundamentals are the route to business success.

Diversity and inclusion has to be intentional. Business leaders are increasingly realising the importance of proactive self-reflection – they need to acknowledge and understand the genuine current landscape within their organisations, for better or worse, to be able to move forwards, address any issues and champion these themes with true authenticity.

In a recent survey, diversity and inclusion were proven to have a very real impact on business success – when truly present in the workplaces of the companies questioned, returns increased substantially and significantly. Diversity and inclusion should therefore be an intrinsic part of our innovation, not a separate conversation. By treating each other equally well, not just equally, people will feel included and empowered to be their true selves - to speak up and act creatively, knowing that they’ll be heard. Having the right people at every level of the business, particularly leaders, who believe in this message and make it a part of their everyday behaviour is when diversity of thought flourishes and true transformation can happen.

The latest session from The Zebra Project took place in London, with an emphasis on open discussion, insight and constructive conversations. Attendees from a cross-section of industries gathered to listen to thoughts from guest speakers Ed Horrocks (The Hoxby Collective), Soreya Senior (Agenus), Anya Navidski (Voulez Capital) and Linbert Spencer OBE (The Centre for Inclusive Leadership), who all brought different perspectives on what it means to be truly inclusive and diverse.

Many organisations have historically put diversity and inclusion somewhere on their agenda. However, it’s often been driven by compliance, brand enhancement and other tokenistic gestures. Yes, there is a place for policies and quotas but leaders need to play an important part in ensuring that diversity and inclusion is truly meaningful and transformative, so that together they can yield greater productivity and success for the business.

“My focus is on helping fast growth and ambitious businesses with their people issues around the world and in my work I’m increasingly seeing that diversity and inclusion is moving higher up the leadership agenda, including for start up and scale up businesses.” says Kim Wedral-Rooke, Partner in the Employment Team at Taylor Vinters, and chair of the session, “I think that as the evolution of technology continues, leaders will focus much more on essentially the most crucial asset they have, their people. Making sure you have a diverse make-up of employees, who feel included and motivated, will become a top priority in the future for successful business growth.”

Why is Diversity and Inclusion important?

Aside from the more understood qualatitive value, one of the key issues raised in the session was how hard it can be for leadership teams to appreciate the very real quantitive value of having diversity and inclusion on the board agenda.

“A recent analysis of venture capitalist deal published in the HBR, showed that there is a very direct correlation between diversity and success - the more diverse the team, the better the returns.” commented Anya Navidski, Founding Partner, Voulez Capital, “The numbers are incredibly strong. We’re talking about double digit differences in exit values. This is a real opportunity and yet the industry is slow to catch on– an industry that’s driven by returns is still struggling to absorb what this means for their day-to-day operations.”

Changing behaviours can be hard. Collaborating with those that you know, went to university with, or have worked with before is much easier than going out there and establishing a new and diverse ecosystem of people to work with.

“The survey also looked at how likely you are to collaborate on a deal with someone if you’re both from the same business school. That probability increased by over 30%,” continues Anya, “But, as we have also learnt, this then led to a double digit drop in returns. So, working with people just because you share a similar background is simply not good for business.”

Overcoming some of these personal challenges and comfort zones isn’t easy, but incorporating more tangible approaches as to how businesses can broaden their network, both internally and externally, is a huge opportunity. As Anya makes clear, it should be encouraged:

“Going out there and building an ecosystem around ourselves that is broad and deep took 80% of my time in our first year. Why is our deal flow so good? Because we source transactions from a complex tapestry of different stakeholders.”

All attendees agreed that making Diversity and Inclusion a top priority for businesses can have a real impact on success. But what does Diversity and Inclusion really mean?

“The extent to which you are likely to say something which is exciting and dynamic within the group here today all depends on your sense of belonging and you feeling like you’re in a safe environment. This is an example of inclusion.” commented Linbert Spencer OBE, Founding Director, The Centre for Inclusive Leadership, “People need to feel included if you’re going to get value from them.”

“If we look at diversity, we only get value from diversity if people feel included. We see a lot of organisations that are frustrated as they’ve done a lot of work to get a more diverse team, but they’re not seeing a lot of benefit from it. This is because they don’t understand that they need to manage the inclusion of each individual to enable them to be their best self and do their best work.”

“Working out how people feel, and in particular what makes them feel included, can be hard, but it is such a great opportunity. It has to be intentional and involves clear communication, not just through technology. Simple ways of making someone feel included are saying hello and goodbye. But everyone is different, so it must also extend to deeper questions around what makes that person tick, so you can truly understand what makes that individual feel included – that is, respected, valued, safe, trusted and having a sense of belonging thus , enabling them to reach their potential.”

Self-reflection is also vital in the quest for inclusion and diversity. Without taking an honest look at your own business framework and how it supports these two fundamentals, moving forward can be hard.

“The culture of an organisation is important, it has to value difference. As a leader, if part of your value set is that you value difference, then you’ll be looking to access difference, in whatever form that may take, as a part of what you’re about. It’s that kind of outlook which brings success.” explained Linbert.

How do we achieve true inclusion and diversity?

Self-reflection is an important starting point. Good leaders should be prepared to look in the mirrors, of themselves and their organisations, to see where they genuinely are in the quest to become more diverse and inclusive, warts and all. It’s by recognising and truly understanding the current status quo, rather than just seeing an idealised version of reality (which is perhaps built purely on stats), that leaders can be in a position to change – to challenge any issues and look for further opportunities to progress in this area.

Starting early and positive role modelling are also key to making a really transformative impact. As new generations come through the workforce, there will be an opportunity to confront and change archaic stereotypes, opinions and ways of working:

“Building up the talent pipeline at a much younger age is key to broadening diversity in the adult world.” commented Soreya Senior, HR Business Partner, Agenus, “Encouraging all children, regardless of background, into the traditionally male-centric STEM subjects, for example, would have a real impact on the diversity of the talent pool in the tech and science industries a few years down the line.”

“Challenging stereotypes at an early age means that over time the next generation of workers will hopefully exist in a world where diversity and inclusion is intrinsic in every area of the workplace, rather than an unattainable pipe-dream.” continues Soreya, “With ever developing technology there are going to be new roles in the workplaces of the future that we can’t even imagine now, and there are no stereotypes for jobs that don’t exist yet. This can only be a good thing.”

Diversity and inclusion also comes from a change in mindset, where acknowledging and respecting that each person is different, and will feel included in different ways, is paramount. In an ever increasing world of tech, businesses need to go back to basics and be able to communicate successfully face-to-face, asking the right questions to make each person feel understood, valued and included, all of which drive motivation to work to the best of their ability.

How we work is also important – moving away from a rigid structure that only allows one way of working, therefore excluding certain groups or individuals who are unable to fit into this structure, enables a more flexible and inclusive work environment.

“Our belief is that the traditional 9-5 is broken – although some people want to work that way, not everyone does and not everybody can.” says Ed Horrocks Purpose Director at The Hoxby Collective, “We are a group of around 800 freelancers across 30 countries, who all share the common belief that you should be judged by your output and skills, and that you should be able to work where and when suits you.”

“Bringing people together under this purpose means that everyone feels included, and each individual has their own workstyle, depending on what’s going on in their lives – whether it be working parents, those with physical or mental disabilities, people who like to take the summer to travel, carers, or those who still enjoy the structure of a normal 9-5. By encouraging individuals to work in a way that is best for them, everyone feels more included and motivated, and at the same time we’re providing huge diversity of thought to our clients.”

A clear overarching theme throughout the session was that real transformation comes from what business leaders say and do, how they communicate who they are, and their values. They have to look beyond tick boxes and understand that their people are made up of a lot of different parts, and by being open to all of these facets and respecting them, a more creative and innovative environment will flourish.

“It’s vital that the work culture of a company values diversity. If a company embraces difference in its employees, in whatever form that may take, AND enables people to feel respected, valued, safe and trusted – that is, included, it will be tapping into a wealth and breadth of experience which can inform and help grow the business like nothing else.” concludes Linbert, “Here in the UK we all have the right to be different but it’s the culture of inclusion that enables our difference to make a difference.”

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Kim Wedral Rooke

Zebra Thinking

Nick MannDiversity