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Engaging the ‘unengaged’: empowering leaders to take action on D&I issues

Senior leaders are sometimes criticised for not doing enough to promote equality and inclusion – but it’s easy to forget that it’s one of countless conflicting priorities they have to juggle. D&I experts tell Ashleigh Webber how HR teams can help busy leaders instigate change.

‘Change needs to come from the top’, ‘Leaders need to champion D&I’, ‘We need a board-level sponsor’ – all phrases that have become very familiar when we discuss diversity and inclusion.

But all too often senior leaders appear ‘unengaged’ or are paying lip service to issues of equality and inclusion. This is despite the prominence that movements such as Black Lives Matter have demonstrated the need to take action, rather than simply issuing warm words of encouragement.

The value in getting leadership teams playing a prominent role in diversity initiatives is obvious, but what is stopping senior leaders from getting on board? How can D&I teams help them feel empowered enough to take action on an issue that could help their firm financially outperform their competitors by up to 36%, according to McKinsey & Company?

It is not that leaders don’t care about equality and inclusion – their indifference is probably due to the fact that they are busy trying to balance conflicting priorities, suggests Kate Dodd, Pinsent Masons’ D&I consultant.

“Rather than being unengaged, I think more often than not it’s a lack of opportunity or time to reflect,” she says.

“These are businessmen and businesswomen. There will be a lot of people in business who will see that [taking action on D&I] is good for the sake of being good, but there will be some that will need to have the case presented to them.”

Saying the wrong thing

André Flemmings, D&I resourcing specialist at Macfarlanes, says leaders may also appear unengaged because they are worried about saying or doing the wrong thing and opening themselves up to criticism. They may also be concerned about being forced to answer difficult questions about their own firm’s situation, or being seen as “too political”.

“If they are unable to fully explain the steps being taken [by their firm], then this can lead to inaction,” he says.

The fear of “saying the wrong thing” is another barrier Dodd has witnessed. She says the sector needs to have “courageous leadership” to address these issues – and that means leaders who are unafraid to own their mistakes.

“People don’t mind honest mistakes. They shouldn’t be afraid to admit that if they get the terminology wrong, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow. This power of vulnerability is a really important thing for our leaders,” she says.

Raising awareness

It is the job of HR and D&I teams to ensure the case for change is well presented to leaders, using solid facts and figures. Dodd says they need to have an ear to the ground, inform leaders about the barriers employees come up against and ensure they are aware of the issues that matter most to staff. Once leaders understand what these are, they need to be supported to develop and implement constructive ideas for change, not just left to get on with it.

“Before I speak to one of our leaders I go through the challenges I’m likely to be asked about; I gather the data; I make sure I have some anecdotal evidence about what it is going to do for the business; and I try to get examples from other companies that have done similar things. If we’re the first firm to have done something, I would have to work even harder to show why it is a good thing to do,” says Dodd.

“Once they are engaged in the issue they will need support. You need to be willing to take the time to educate them and present them the information in an accessible way.

“These people are very clever, but they’re also very busy. They don’t want to be sent a lot of articles or links to things. Instead, you could invite them to a short Teams call to give them the high-level facts – they are more likely to take away that key data.”

She also advises HR and D&I teams to send leaders ‘nudges’ about key dates where they can help instigate change, such as Black History Month, Pride or International Women’s Day. ‘Ghostwriting’ blog posts or company-wide emails on important issues may also be helpful to leaders and supress any fears about saying the wrong thing.

Unvarnished feedback

Quantitative and qualitative data should be presented to leaders, suggests Flemmings. This can be gathered through pulse surveys, with leaders receiving the “unvarnished” feedback, and examples of best practice from competitors, clients and non-industry leaders.

Don’t be afraid to share the difficult experiences as well as the positive case studies, he stresses. “The risk of only presenting the positive experiences and downplaying the more difficult instances within a firm is to develop a sense of firm exceptionalism, i.e. those instances either happen only at other firms, or if they happen here they are unfortunate and exceptional,” he says.

Their confidence in tackling D&I issues can also be built up by addressing knowledge gaps. Flemmings says HR and D&I teams must help leaders understand the language often used around an issue to enable them to speak fluently on the topic. What is acceptable in one jurisdiction may be considered wrong in another, he warns.

“Fluency in D&I terminology is difficult to master for one person quickly or in its entirety – so having different leaders focus on a minimum of two strands each helps break it down, and allows senior people to talk with each other on intersections,” he suggests.

“For teams, some general terminology and racial categorisations can be a bit unhelpful and broad brush. BAME and BME, for instance, have come in for particular criticism over the years. The breadth of cultures and backgrounds they encompass range from those doing particularly well to those struggling the most. Practically, this means a single solution may not address the specific needs of each group exactly.”

Reciprocal mentoring

Getting a diverse group of employees to make the case for change themselves is likely to have a significant influence on hearts and minds – more so than a training course or an article.

Developing more personal relationships through reciprocal mentoring from more junior employees can help change little things immediately, Flemmings says.

“Reverse mentoring has the power to engage and empower junior staff and educate senior individuals in a structured setting that also offers a high level of psychological safety,” he says. “It is a kind of talking therapy in a way, and more natural than abstract, one-off training sessions, or scenario-based training that has no basis in what is actually happens at the firm in question.”

Earlier this year, Macfarlanes ran a reverse mentoring programme, facilitated by journalist and former barrister Afua Hirsch, which saw junior colleagues from BME backgrounds act as mentors for senior partners at the firm.

Louise Zekaria, head of inclusion and corporate social responsibility, says: “I think it has been one of the most important programmes that we have run at the firm and it will have a lasting impact.

“The feedback from both the mentees and mentors has been extremely positive and, as a result of the initiative, mentees have acknowledged and understand the need for tangible actions to be more inclusive of BME colleagues. Concrete steps have been taken at the firm using the feedback from the reverse mentoring programme and we intend to run a second cohort next year.”

Effective when structured

Dodd agrees that reverse mentoring can be effective, but only when done properly and structured in a way that helps participants make the most of the opportunity.

“Everyone has to go into it knowing exactly what their roles are – particularly if you’re talking about race and ethnicity, you need to make it clear that you’re not expecting somebody to educate someone else. It’s up to all of us to educate ourselves.”

Pinsent Masons formed a “Spark Board” which is made up of more junior colleagues and aims to enable diversity of thought at Board level and to ensure that the widest and most representative voices are heard during strategic decision making processes.

“The purpose of the Spark Board is to consider, research and generate ideas, not to implement them,” says Dodd. “As a firm, we feel that the Spark Board demonstrates commitment to our purpose and empowers, motivates and encourages engagement within our workforce.  It also helps our board to actively consider the interests of all stakeholders when making decisions.”


Finally, Flemmings issues a warning about coaching. It can be beneficial in some situations, but it is very much dependent on the coach asking the right questions to provoke self-reflection among leaders.

“Coaching, in my view, would be of limited efficacy if the leader had a fundamental lack of knowledge and understanding about the subject matter,” he says. “In that sense mentoring may be more beneficial.

“Cross-industry panels and research initiatives can provide senior people with some level of insight from peers, but so too can entering into a more trusting relationship with your D&I teams about what you know and demanding more from diversity suppliers to offer sessions to upskill leaders.”

It is difficult to see how anyone can be completely turned off by tackling issues of equality and inclusion, given how important it is for society and business. HR teams just need to find the right way of engaging busy senior leaders in taking it seriously.

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