What it takes to create a diverse and inclusive culture

Kirsty Bashforth

Lover of Yorkshire and chocolate, CEO at Quay Five Limited, NED Kier Group plc, Governor Leeds Beckett Uni and also Ashville College

Follow Kirsty on Twitter @KirstyBashforth

While running Organisational Effectiveness at BP, one question always came up “who does D&I best? Which company does it really well?” My reply has always been “if there was one, then we’d all have copied it - but there are some companies who seem to have focused on it more consistently than others for a longer time and seem to have made some more lasting shifts”.

To make progress on building a diverse and inclusive culture, consistency is vital, but it’s not the only aspect, and there isn’t a single recipe for success. But there are, in my experience some fundamental aspects without which, you’re doomed to fail; or at least doomed to have only fleeting “success”.

It has to start with ownership at the very top; including recognising and embracing that a diverse and inclusive workforce is vital to business success (above and beyond the blindingly obvious that it’s the right thing to do). That is very different from accepting it is required and expected: very different indeed. And that leadership has to be willing to look in the mirror and recognise, like the rest of the human race, it has biases and faults as well. If you struggle to have a top leadership that owns it, then pushing water uphill is an understatement.

Next you have to be clear what creating a diverse and inclusive culture means. It’s way beyond the demographic numbers, or levels of participation in a network (all of which are of course necessary) and into embracing difference to ensure a better outcome. An environment where everyone has an opportunity to have a voice, where being you is how you work, where people hire those better than themselves to ensure organisational success. This is about difference in thinking, difference in style. And don’t confuse that with everyone smiling – disagreements come with difference, but you’ll get better results. And it shouldn’t cost money; you can’t buy behavior change, which after all is what it’s all about.

Attitude, that’s the nub of the issue, and how to shift it, and shift it for good, starting amongst decision makers. Whether you’re the CEO or the person charged with the D&I title, get your head around it taking years, rolling your sleeves up, being consistent, being pedantic on the seemingly small things, and thinking systems not single interventions – it’s not about a silver bullet, but about a number of formal, informal, big and small actions and symbols till they become the new habits, the new ways of doing things.

The conditions can be an important factor in creating momentum in the first place. It’s easier to make change when there is change already around: when there’s a new CEO, a merger or acquisition, a change in strategy, market conditions shift or the worst, a crisis. It’s much harder to make change when everything seems to be running relatively smoothly. Just be prepared for this when you’re trying to shift the culture towards more diversity and greater inclusion.

Now, to getting started on some tangible action: too often I’ve seen and heard spurious reasons extolled for either the solutions or the challenges to progress around diversity and inclusion:

  • “the talent pool isn’t there”, when really it’s just that we’re not looking wide enough and deep enough for that talent
  • “we don’t want to push our diverse talent into risky roles; we want to nurture then”, when we should be asking everyone what they’re really up for, not assuming what’s good for them from our point of view
  • “if we get the diversity into the population, it’ll be fine “, whereas that diverse talent won’t stay without an inclusive environment
  • “I daren’t give direct feedback, it’s a legal minefield” – assuming the person in front of you is going to take bad feedback as an example of bias is second guessing someone else’s bias and is a bias in itself
  • “if we could sort maternity leave then more women would progress” can be a red herring (though of course fair policies are essential), particularly when so many women are deciding not to  have children these days, or having children later

I could go on.

So, does this sound like a thankless task? I haven’t even got around to talking about the different sorts of interventions yet.

Well, it does require constant investment and focus. And it is all about attitude; ours and others’. It’s all about changing behaviour.

But my time leading the work around organisational effectiveness at BP was the most rewarding of my 24 years. It’s a full-on, contact sport to be the architect whose remit is to nudge the organisation forward. You’ll know there’s progress when the organisation picks it up and runs with it, when it doesn’t feel like there’s a central intervention or some coordinating strategy. This is not about getting a pat on the back for a job well done. And it’s too important not to start yesterday.

Get your Berocca out, your Red Bull and your chocolate ready – it’ll take the lot in double doses – but on so many levels it’s worth it.


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