“Something about them”

Employers often use this phase to communicate the fact that they are looking for certain attributes, skills and qualities when they are hiring.

Liz Robinson Co-Director, Big Education

I am lucky enough to be a fellow on the Forward Institute programme. With the overarching theme of responsible leadership, this brilliant programme brings together leaders from across the spectrum of organisations, to share learnings and challenge us to think about the role we play in creating a better world. 

In the final stage of the programme, we fellows are tasked with running events ourselves, picking up on the themes we have explored and finding ways of engaging our wider organisations in the process. My learning partners, in senior roles at the Bank of England, Barclays and Intercontinental Hotels Group, worked with me to explore the themes of diversity and inclusion within our organisations. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has featured significantly in the work we have done on the programme and this served as an impetus to us to address this theme. I found it a sad reality to hear first hand how the most senior levels of leadership in so many organisations is still drawn from such a limited range of ‘types’ of people – with race being one factor, along with gender, disability, class and gender. 

“Something about them”

Employers often use this phase to communicate the fact that they are looking for certain attributes, skills and qualities when they are hiring. Something which goes far beyond academic qualifications. But what is really behind that? Does the phrase open up recruitment and progression practices to something broader than ‘just’ academic qualifications, or is it a way of reproducing the status quo with our own unconscious biases about what or who we are looking for?

To explore this theme of diversity, we looked at the work of Matthew Syed on “Rebel Ideas”. In this book, Syed makes the case for diversity of thinking within teams, graphically illustrating the risks of recruiting ‘people like us’. The lack of perspectives can be seen to be linked to inferior decision making, lack of understanding of customers and users and increased risks through having blind spots. 

Syed goes on to highlight how often diverse thinkers end up deferring to the leaders and stopping expressing their views. This leads to a key point about the need for a culture which supports a diversity of views.

So – Syed says;

  • Diversity is a business/organisational imperative
  • We need to focus on the recruitment, development and support for diverse thinkers of all kinds
  • We also need to establish cultures within our organisations where differences of opinion and views are valued and it is safe to express them – where there are active approaches to avoiding group link and a drift to the received views

We also looked at Caroline Criado Perez “Invisible Women” – and reflected on the shocking examples of gender bias in design which negatively impact on women. 

I then gave an overview of the work we are doing at Big Education. We believe that young people need an expansive education, one we call head, heart and hand. Our schools model these practices and we are working to support many more schools and leaders to embrace this more holistic approach.

One of our signature practices, which was shared with the group as an example of how businesses can work with schools to support the diversity agenda, is Real World Learning.

The ‘Real World Learning’ programme is a reinvention of work experience. Students in years 10 -12 work for an extended period (12-16 weeks) in the placement, once every week. Real World Projects key features include;

  • Project based – has to be ‘real’ and we support the employer to define and shape this
  • Students are set objectives and then have appraisals through the process
  • End point – presentation/sharing of their work with senior staff
  • Powerful for partner organisations as well as the students
  • Range of partners including MET police, EY, KPMG, DfE, Skysports, Salesforce as well as many local partners
  • Examples include – County Lines work with MET Police, redesign of app for Skysport

These insights gave a backdrop for a full and frank discussion and sharing of our perspectives and views. Some of the arguments making the case for change included;

  • Depth and variety of ideas for the organisation
  • Representing – look, think and feel like our ‘customers’, stakeholders
  • “User-centred design” – real perspectives informing design of new products and processes
  • Better decision making
  • Less likely to miss impending risks due to range of perspectives
  • Feelings of inadequacy – extremely narrow definition of success in UK
  • Fishing in a ‘muddy puddle’ – same people getting recruiting and getting on create the ‘same old’
  • The status quo is not working – making clear the ‘risks’ of NOT changing 
  • Responsibility of our organisations to play a role in social mobility 
  • Responsibility of our organisations to play a role in BLM agenda

There was a palpable sense of energy and commitment from everyone involved, and this case of change was undisputed.

However, we all know that change can be challenging, and we spend time exploring some of the barriers to change we have experienced. Acknowledging these challenges can be a powerful way of ‘naming it’ and then proactively working to overcome them. The barriers we identified included;

  • Me/us! – An unawareness of the problem by those in power
  • People don’t feel empowered to challenge the status quo
  • Resistance to challenging the status quo – those at the top giving up some of their privilege 
  • Recruitment and HR practices – upholding the status quo
  • Risk taking is key – small companies more likely to take risks earlier on develop them -bigger companies then swoop in and cream off the talent
  • Regulatory frameworks – leadership willingness and openness to risk – stakes of getting it ‘wrong’ 
  • Recruiting for experience – done it before – what scope for then for doing things differently
  • The ‘BOX’ (link to Syed) – the culture within which everyone is working – can new ideas and perspectives thrive and survive?

The purpose of the programme is really to encourage us to explore the ideas, but also to take action. So for the final part of our time together, we spent time sharing ideas and examples of good practice we have seen or experienced. These included;

  • Different recruitment practices;
    • CV blind
    • Different types of assessment – psychometrics 
    • Unconscious bias training
    • Diverse appointment panels
  • Internal processes for support/training
    • Opportunity for internal non-graduates to get on to fast track 
  • Work experience – looking at who is given access and equity – power of references
    • How to ensure avoiding perpetuating status quo
    • Financial support – how do we ensure accessible to everyone
  • Apprenticeships can be part of the solution – but challenge as they have become so competitive 

It was an enriching and challenging session and there was a real appetite for action. I invited all partners present to engage with us in our Real World Learning programme, and hope this will be a powerful legacy from our work together.

We are always looking for new partners. If you are interested, please get in touch for  more information [email protected]

Liz Robinson

Liz is the co-director of Big Education

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