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What have I learned about Diversity and Inclusion?, Nick Newman

Nine months ago I took on a senior leadership role at PA Consulting Group and set out a clear ambition to champion improved diversity and inclusion in our team, and the wider firm.  I was asked if I would write a blog about my perspectives, and confess I’ve found this far harder than I expected – after all, what can a straight, white, middle-class, male business leader have to say about diversity…?  But then I discovered that many men of my generation are grappling with the same challenges, and others have already made real progress and have brilliant ideas to share.  I hope this blog can stimulate a Big Conversation – not least amongst ‘men of a certain age’!

Fortunately, I’ve been lucky that PA’s role as principal sponsor of the UK’s Women in Defence network has introduced me to fantastic role models, both women and men, who champion gender diversity and equality in this business sector.  But I’ve also learned a lot from colleagues, and want to share my top three insights about privilege, acceptance and representation.  Plus I’d like to share some of the positive things we’re already doing – and ideas to maintain the pace of change.

It’s not just about gender

In business, it’s tempting to follow the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  It’s understandable for leaders to reinforce success and to protect structures and ways of working that made them effective.  But if the leadership lacks diversity (whether gender, culture or even personality types) this can reinforce a status quo that isn’t necessarily compatible with the expectations and needs of subsequent generations.  For example, paternity leave was not available for fathers of my generation, so it’s perhaps not surprising that some of our expectations about work-life balance are considered medieval (as my daughter reminded me: “Oh Dad – you’re so last Century!”).

Leadership shapes culture.  When organisations get this wrong, our unconscious bias can result in a ‘group think’ amongst those who share similar privileges of upbringing, education and – yes – gender.  As a leading gender equality expert said to me, she freely acknowledges her own privilege growing up in a white, middle-class family, being a university graduate and working in a professional industry.  For me, diversity and inclusion means that those who have grown up outside one of the ‘privileged’ classes have real equality of opportunity.  This is very personal for me, because I grew up with free school meals; started work at 18 and didn’t go to university until I was in my thirties.  I certainly didn’t grow up with a sense of privilege, and that is why I’m so passionate about creating an environment where anyone can achieve their full potential.

The same but different

My second important lesson was about the need for greater understanding and acceptance about each other’s differences.  Not falling into the trap of assuming everyone else is probably okay because they’re broadly ‘the same as me’.  I learned this the hard way after I thoughtlessly invited a devout Muslim colleague to a drinks party during Ramadan (which made his gracious decline all the more uncomfortable!).  It’s not that I’m ignorant of Islam – I’ve lived and worked in the Middle East and have celebrated Eid with Muslim friends.  I just didn’t realise that he was fasting, and hadn’t considered the impact this would have on his energy levels or out-of-hours obligations; neither had I ever stopped to consider whether there were other, more inclusive, times and formats for business social events.  I’m not advocating politically correct gestures like banning the word ‘Christmas’ in favour of ‘Happy Holidays’ greetings, but I do think there’s far more that we can do to improve acceptance of each other’s cultural traditions (and to make subtle accommodations) whatever our individual faith or beliefs.

Representation is important

Last year I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ when I realised why it is so important for special interest groups to have access to their own business networks such as PRIDE.  This is an area where I’ve had to change my views after talking with diversity champions, and here’s why.  My brother is gay, and I’ve always considered myself entirely open-minded about sexuality.  But I admit that I’ve always experienced some discomfort when passing the Rainbow flag-draped stands of the LGBTI network at various events.  My reasoning was “I don’t treat you any differently so why do you need to make this an issue?”  But then I met the Director of Gender Equality for Business in the Community (herself openly gay) who explained to me that members of any minority group need to know they have a safe community within which to share their experiences and concerns.  Some will be concealing their differences for personal reasons but are reassured that they can be more open with others who’ve had similar experiences; or they can get sympathetic advice about how to handle difficult situations at work.  Of course, I hope we do reach a situation when we can all celebrate what makes us the same, as well as our differences, but I’m certainly more sympathetic now to those who wish to raise a flag and say “we’re here if you want to talk!”

So what have we done – and what do we still need to do?

In my own team we’ve started with small but powerful changes: starting an open conversation about these themes to help create a more inclusive culture – because as leaders, our staff want to understand who we are, and the values we uphold.  We’ve appointed diversity and inclusion champions across our business units and enrolled some of our rising stars in the 30% Club mentoring scheme.  We’re about to launch our Inclusion month as the catalyst for change: building awareness and understanding of diversity and inclusion; encouraging behavioural change in our day-to-day work; and generating energy as a catalyst for future activity.  But there are also more significant changes we need to work through: doing more to recruit beyond the ‘Russell Group/First Class Honours’ stereotypes; changing the way we build our teams to guard against ‘Groupthink’; strengthening our diversity networks and helping the (largely male) leadership team to engage with this thoughtfully and constructively.

Embracing the change

For me, this is not just about individual themes such as gender, ethnicity and disability – but more about the culture we want to be a part of as our organisations evolve.  I believe that for any business or organisation to grow, we need to create the greatest opportunity for all of our people to be brilliant.  We need to stop treating diversity as something we need to fix and start treating it as something we want to celebrate!  For many of us, that means we’ll need to be a far more diverse and inclusive organisation than we are today, embracing diversity of thought, capability, skills and personality type, as well as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and ability.  I don’t imagine that this is an easy transition and we’ll need to take risks to dismantle ways of working that served us well in the past, but are no longer fit for purpose for a modern, vibrant and inclusive business.

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