Managing inclusion and diversity at global technical services and engineering consultancy Aurecon has made Abbie Wright question the validity of thinking in terms of best practice. It’s a question that has given her valuable insight into how to succeed in exactly that.
AHRI chairman Peter Wilson: You’ve expressed a couple of reasons for doubting use of the term ‘best practice’. One, inclusion and diversity (I&D) is developing too fast to define what best practice is. And two, you don’t believe your practices might necessarily be best practice. Can you explain further?
Abbie Wright: I strongly believe there is no such thing as best practice in I&D. In saying that, there are organisations that have set benchmarks, such as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency with its Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation, and Pride in Diversity’s scoring mechanism for workplace inclusion.
To me, it’s about leading practice, understanding that there isn’t a perfect formula for any of this. The formula is completely dependent on the organisation’s culture. I don’t believe I could go and deliver what I deliver at Aurecon at, say, an accounting firm or a legal firm.
You’re leading in an organisation when you push the boundaries of change, thought and attitude within the culture you’re working in. If you’re able to continuously drive change in terms of the way the employees, the client base and the competitor base view some of the initiatives or pillars around I&D, then you’re doing leading practice.
After I won the award, a lot of people asked me for my magic tricks, wanting to know what I do differently. What can I say to that?
PW: What tops your list of the things someone should keep in mind if they aspire to be an I&D leader in their organisation?
AW: If I was interviewing someone for my role, I’d ask them how they would engage stakeholders. I cheated because I had stakeholder relationships already formed before I took the role [Wright was originally an executive assistant at Aurecon] and they enabled me to get traction very quickly.
It would be naïve of any human capital or I&D professional to think they can project manage initiatives in this space without a clear engagement program. How are they going to bring stakeholders on board? Not just the CEO or top level. I’m talking staff. Consultation with the workforce is critical. How would an individual brand manage themselves to be somebody who can represent the workforce, understand its needs, and be accessible and compassionate?
Second, I believe an I&D professional won’t be successful unless they have at least a basic understanding of change management principles and practices. I’ve always been inspired by John Kotter’s lovely book Our Iceberg is Melting in terms of engaging teams of people in a common outcome and the change management practices he reflects.
Third, the need to have a good sense of humour. In all human capital work, and especially I&D work, you’re dealing with the raw human nature of people. With people’s sexual orientation and gender identity, with the differences between men and women. You have to understand the issues at play, but to take them on personally would be a disaster.
You also need to look after yourself and accept that you’re not expected to change the world, but you are expected to be an influencer of change. There’s a lot of fear in this space about saying or doing the wrong thing, which I think disables active I&D practices in an organisation. I feel for our line managers, who I believe would be a little fearful, if not very fearful, of saying or doing the wrong thing in the diversity space.
PW: Beyond talking to your own people, how do you keep informed about what’s going on in I&D?
AW: There’s so much information available. I&D is the flavour of the year in terms of research and articles, what to do and what not to do. The most powerful thing for me in keeping abreast of I&D, and also in terms of what I recommend to the business, has been partnerships with our competitors, of all people. If I want to achieve change in this organisation, I also need to consider it within its industry.
For example, Aurecon partnered directly with two competitors, Parsons Brinckerhoff and GHD, to jointly fund an expert in unconscious bias and flexible work practices. The three organisations came together for a one-day workshop and we continue to share what we’ve done with that knowledge. We’re tackling those challenges in our industry together.
The other important point is the need to listen to your clients. What do they expect from the organisations they give work to? It’s easy to look at all the research papers and forget this, so we partner with some of our client organisations on various initiatives.
In 2015, the AHRI Awards and the AHRI Inclusion and Diversity Awards will be running under the same banner of the AHRI Awards 2015. Applications open 7 April. Register your interest.