Apiramy Jeyarajah, head of UK wholesale at Aviva Investors, and Mitesh Sheth, outgoing CEO of Redington, explain what investment organisations can do to maximise the return on their most important assets – their people.

Read this article to understand:

  • Why businesses should take an intersectional approach to diversity, equity and inclusion
  • The three principles companies can follow to go beyond lip-service and deliver fundamental change
  • Why middle management will be key to the success of DE&I initiatives

For Great Britain, the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta were a colossal disappointment. The team won a single gold medal and a meagre 12 medals overall, finishing a lowly 36th in the country rankings. Athletes complained of a lack of professional preparation and funding.

Fast-forward to 2012 and Great Britain, now rebranded Team GB, exceeded all expectations at the London Olympics, winning 65 medals. The reversal in the team’s fortunes was attributed to a comprehensive overhaul of sport in the UK. World-class coaches were brought in from overseas; funding was increased; and a fresh, data-led approach was put in place to identify new talent.

Fundamental change

Team GB’s comeback is a useful case study for any industry that needs root-and-branch reform.

Investment organisations have belatedly recognised the need to move with the times, but their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives are too often piecemeal and half-hearted. If the shift is to be truly transformational, it needs to be intersectional, that is, ready to address existing imbalances of power (see Figure 1).

But there is a lot to be done. So where should leaders begin? Here we present three principles for executives who want to level the playing field and make their businesses more hospitable to people from diverse backgrounds.

Figure 1: The intersectionality wheel: To maximise their return on people, companies should empower employees across all the intersections, rather than focusing on the inner segments alone
A diversity wheel
Source: Aviva Investors, 2021. Original diagram sourced from ‘Intersectionality: What is it and why it matters’, The University of British Columbia, March 8, 2021, and Mission Include

1. Review hiring practices to focus on “add” not “fit”

Recruiting from a more diverse talent pool is an obvious first step. To start with, businesses need to rethink practices such as the “like-for-like” hire and seek out people who add something new, rather than those who fit into an existing organisational framework. Minorities should not be “assimilated” but encouraged to contribute on their own terms.

It is important to be specific. Leaders shouldn’t just tell recruiters they want to hire more women; they should adopt a data-led approach and obtain granular information on the composition of their teams, identifying the specific talent and skillsets they are lacking.

Recognising the overlapping nature of many diversity characteristics, one potential way of reaching such candidates could be to focus on socioeconomic diversity. When it comes to the interview process, panels should be as diverse as possible and focus on skills and strengths rather than past experience in a similar role.

2. Retain diverse talent

Hiring a more diverse range of people will not be much use if they feel unwelcome once they walk through the door. This is partly a matter of good policy and robust standards.

i) Acknowledge your unconscious bias and remain open to other perspectives

Leaders must be ready to adopt a new style of management, conducive to getting the best out of diverse teams. A modern leader must be willing to listen to others, question their own convictions and take criticism.

Leaders must be ready to identify and confront unconscious bias – their own, and that of other people

They must also be ready to identify and confront unconscious bias as well as overt discrimination. When polled, women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ workers consistently say that ensuring a “bias-free” day-to-day experience is the most effective way to improve diversity and inclusion.1

As the author Dan Pink has observed, the more power people accrue, the less likely they are to empathise with others; forward-thinking leaders will be aware of this tendency and take steps to guard against it.2

ii) Support line managers

Change at the top will not be sufficient: research shows that it is, in fact, middle management who will be key to the success or failure of most DE&I initiatives. A recent study from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that in organisations where top executives were committed to diversity and line managers were not, only 65 per cent of employees felt able to be their “authentic selves” at work. This translated into a retention issue.3

It is critically important to ensure front-line managers take diversity initiatives seriously

It is therefore critically important to ensure this cohort takes diversity initiatives seriously.

One way to do this is to build DE&I metrics into the performance and remuneration criteria for line managers. But it is also important to recognise these managers are often under pressure to deliver on other fronts. They must be properly supported and given the time and space to implement the DE&I agenda, even if it comes with a negative commercial impact in the short term.

iii) Ensure career progression opportunities are open to everyone

A more empathetic management style can make all the difference to the experience of employees with intersectional characteristics, who are more likely to face discrimination at work and wider society. They will therefore benefit from a personalised approach: in performance reviews, managers should provide honest, constructive feedback and tailor their approach to the needs of each individual, taking the time to identify the kinds of support they need to thrive.

Mentoring can be helpful, but often doesn’t go far enough

Mentoring can be helpful, but often doesn’t go far enough. Sponsorship of minority talent is needed. Sponsors can help employees gain the soft skills they need to progress and navigate organisational hierarchies. Good sponsors will also be allies, advocating for the rights of minorities even when they are not present in the room.

3. Change the mindset

Taken together, these steps should help change the organisational culture, making it more welcoming and inclusive. But executives should never rest on their laurels.

Consultancy Gartner recommends companies regularly poll employees on how they perceive the working environment, based on metrics including fair treatment, respect, freedom to make decisions, trust and a sense of belonging. As with diversity, firms can use this information to set benchmarks and targets for improvement, bringing together data points from across the employee lifecycle, from recruitment to retention to exit.4

You can’t measure everything on a spreadsheet, and numbers will only take you so far

But you can’t measure everything on a spreadsheet, and numbers will only take you so far.

One way to change the mindset over the longer term is to empower staff to express themselves and speak up. The literature on intersectionality teaches us that while it is important to provide more opportunities to women, or those with disabilities, or gender non-binary people, such efforts will inevitably leave some individuals out. We need to ensure people feel psychologically safe enough to talk about the specific, overlapping challenges they face, as well as their distinctive talents and motivations. Storytelling initiatives can provide a platform for this kind of self-expression.

Changing the mindset will not happen overnight, just as Team GB took time to reinvent itself. Progress will be slow and occasionally painful, and we will all make mistakes. And, while the rewards may not be as immediately tangible as a gold medal, they will be just as satisfying and beneficial.

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