Diversity and inclusion leaders shared their struggles at a recent panel discussion in Sydney.
Should people who care about diversity and inclusion be hopeful? On the one hand, it wasn’t that long ago that conversations about D&I just weren’t happening in organisations. On the other, there is no end to stories about pushback, backlash and intransigence.
As Uber’s chief diversity and inclusion officer Bo Young Lee told HRM earlier this year, “There is a lot of burnout in the D&I profession. It’s really hard to hear ‘no’ 10 times and ‘yes’ only once. But you have to persist.”
So it was interesting to hear these two competing sentiments – optimism and struggle – at a panel discussion hosted by D&I advisory business Brook Graham (a division of Pinsent Masons) last week.
Moderated by Justine Cooper FCPHR, head of Brook Graham APAC, it featured AHRI Award winner Chris Lamb FCPHR, former global head of organisational development Lendlease and current non-executive director of Diversity Council Australia, and Stuart Affleck, director of Brook Graham.
There are many decades of award-winning experience in HR and diversity and inclusion between the three of them, and an equal number of years of both optimism and struggle. Here are four takeaways from the event.
Find out who made the cut. The list of 2019 AHRI Award finalists is out.
1. Passion is important, and can come from anywhere
It’s always interesting to know where and why people decide to make a career of pushing for D&I. Affleck’s story is quite personal.
While studying at university Affleck had a Saturday job at a clothing retailer, which he loved. “I thought I was doing really well. Until one day I got pulled to the side and someone asked, ‘Do you fancy coming out for a quick coffee?’
“I got presented with this umbrella that retailed at £100 – we’re talking over 20 years ago, so this was an expensive umbrella – and I got told I was fired. And the reason why is that they discovered I was a gay guy. Back then legislation didn’t give someone like me protection.
“That was my first real exposure to inequality. So, where does my passion come from? Trying to eradicate that.”
But passion doesn’t have to come from something that dire. Lamb’s beginnings were interesting in that he didn’t have a story of past persecution. What he had instead was an inspiring grandmother – a trailblazing, divorced, Catholic mother when there wasn’t much space in society for such a thing – and a desire to be an ally from a young age, to a primary school Indigenous friend, and high school friends who came out to him.
2. Is it the message or the messenger?
It is from his position as a long-time ally to marginalised groups that Lamb drew a lesson that is relevant to all people who want to use their position to advocate for others. Because sometimes the struggle to get buy-in with D&I is not to do with the logical strength or moral value of the message – it’s about the person who delivers it.
“I’ve said things as a man that are no different from what a woman said two minutes ago in the same discussion that have been perceived differently, because it came from me,” says Lamb. “As an increasingly middle-aged, straight, white guy, I can say things and people will perceive them as more objective than others who they see as having a vested interest.
“I’m trying to use that as a superpower. I can say things, I can be an advocate in a way that makes people think, ‘Oh, that must be true, because Chris doesn’t have an axe to grind on this issue’.
“If you’ve got that voice, in whatever sphere it is, then use it. Because it can be really powerful. It can cut through where people who have more of a right to be saying it than you do, don’t seem to be able to get the cut-through.”
Agreeing and adding her perspective, Cooper added, “We tend to be much more aware of what makes us a minority than what puts us in the majority. We perhaps all have these superpowers around the visible and the invisible differences.”
3. The ivory tower, and the rest of the world
That with some audiences Lamb might have better success advocating for gender diversity than a woman is perhaps a bitter pill for some, but it demonstrates a hard truth.
“Those of us who live in capital cities, who live in the ‘ivory towers’ – who are what my former construction colleagues refer to as ‘Carpet Dwellers’ – we maybe don’t quite appreciate that our conversations are not the general conversations happening in society. Not as much as they could be,” says Lamb.
He relates a story on this. In 2010, Pride in Diversity, a national not-for-profit program for LGBTI workplace inclusion initiative, was looking for founding members, and were limiting it to one in each sector. Lamb put his hand up on behalf of his organisation, which was approached to be the member for the construction sector.
Over the next few months, he had a series of interesting conversations with the executive team to convince them it was a good idea. He got all sorts of questions he wasn’t expecting, such as, “Does that mean we’re in the Mardi Gras now?”, “How will we explain this to people”, and “Are we going to lose business in Asia?”
“That was a lesson for me. I made the assumption that the executive team I was presenting to was where I was in terms of thinking,” says Lamb. “But also, I wasn’t presenting it in a language that made sense to them. And their concern about customer reaction was a genuine concern, and needed to be addressed. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t do it. But it needed to be considered and discussed.”
He learned very quickly that he needed to anticipate issues that his audience would come up with so he could respond and engage in a way that made sense to them. And this is a lesson that applies outside of organisations too.
“We carpet dwellers don’t represent the general population as much as we might think. The conversations that are happening in your local cafe – or a rural town’s coffee shop – are not the same conversations that are happening on level 32 in Barangaroo. Trust me.”
There’s a nice end to Lamb’s story. Not only did Lendlease become a founding member of PID, some years the company end up sending quite a lot of staff to participate in the Mardi Gras parade.
4. “You’re not going to win them all”
When asked to share his struggles in the D&I space, Affleck said the headline would be “you’re not going to win them all”. Sometimes, you will never reach the tipping point you need to get real change to happen.
Years ago he was facilitating a session in Moscow with the Russian management team of a Japanese company. The 12 individuals included Greek, Hungarian, Slovakian, British and Russian people. It seemed to go great. They spent four hours discussing topics such as unconscious bias and what it takes to be an inclusive leader.
“I left thinking, ‘This is what a good day of work feels like.’ After that, one of the Russian guys came up to me and said, ‘Stuart, I really enjoyed that. That was great and really enlightening. I got a lot out of it. But the bottom line is, I am never ever going to hire anybody that is gay.’”
Affleck’s story, and point about inevitable losses, resonated with Lamb. But he says you shouldn’t make the mistake he did when he first encountered losses.
“Early on, I just left people behind. I just thought, ‘I’m not going to convince you, so I’m just going to leave you alone.’ What I had underestimated was how undermining those people can be to what you’re trying to achieve.”
These days Lamb spends more time with people who are embittered by D&I initiatives, trying to get them further along. He accepts they might never be advocates, but you can prevent their negative actions derailing things down the line.
Affleck stressed that D&I is complex, and good change management is essential if you want a sustained change. He is at the point that if someone says to him they “just want to do some unconscious bias training” or a similar box-ticking, put-it-on-the-website initiative he tends to shy away.
“Not always, because that can sometimes be a great starting point. But it has to be authentic, and then it has to be done properly as part of a real change program.”