Hays Ireland blog


Podcast: How leaders can take meaningful action on ED&I

By Sheree Atcheson, Group VP of Diversity & Inclusion, Valtech 

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, or ED&I, is an increasingly vital consideration for any organisation. And when strategies are successfully implemented, these contribute to continued, and sometimes, transformational growth and success. However, many leaders struggle to prioritise and practically navigate the steps they can take to turn talk into meaningful action.

Today, I’m delighted to be joined by an award-winning ED&I leader, Sheree Atcheson. Sheree is listed as one of the UK’s Top Most Influential Women in Tech and is an international multi-award winner for services of diversity and inclusion, working with Deloitte and Monzo. Having trained in computer science, she is a board member at Women Who Code and a contributor to several prestigious publications, including the HuffPost Forbes and The Financial Times.

Last year, she published her first book, “Demanding More: Why diversity and inclusion don’t happen and what you can do about it.” This book has received critical acclaim from the business community.

1. Could you please tell us about yourself and your journey to becoming the leading advisor on ED&I matters that you are today?

(2:01) Sure. So, my career in diversity and inclusion leadership has spanned over a decade which I’m super proud of. I started my career as a software engineer, and like you said, studied computer science. So, I took a very technical data-driven approach to diversity and inclusion. I was raised in Ireland, as you can probably tell from my accent, and so I spent my whole life there. I was adopted at three weeks old from Sri Lanka. So, I have a lot of experience of working or living, I guess, as one that is the only one here.

We talk about the “only” quite a lot when we talk about boardrooms, talk about meetings, and so on, but actually, most people don’t have the experience of being the “only” in your family, in your friends, in your school, so on. And that gives you a very unique perspective, and certainly, that perspective and that extra awareness and nuance.

I brought that through with the work that I do. For me, what’s really important is the recognition of that, the different experiences we all have in the same place and recognising that actually, our own experience is not the only experience that exists as well. I think that’s really key.

And so, I spend a lot of time with organisations helping them get that awareness, imbedding it into processes and policies, making sure that they are holding themselves to account with data both on diversity and inclusion separately, and then, moving forward with sustainable and scalable change. I think that’s the key thing. I don’t work to create things that only work in the “right now”, but actually things that will scale and change as everything scales and changes. As we’ve seen in the last few years, everything changes. Nothing is consistent. So, that’s really where I fall into, really helping organisations in that space.

Fantastic story. And I love the idea of combining our lived experience with that analytical approach. And we’re looking at the kind of the end-to-end nature of this journey that so many organisations, and indeed, individuals are going on.

2. To give our discussion a framework, can I just ask you to explain what the concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion mean to you when it comes to the world of work? And importantly, what the nirvana of a truly inclusive workplace might mean for both employers and employees in due course.

(4:30) Yeah, of course. So, I think for me, it’s really important to keep things simple. Sometimes, I think definitions are overworked, and it means that it becomes really confusing for people, which I don’t like. So, firstly, I think when we talk about diversity, what I’m talking about is representation. It’s simply: who is within the business and who isn’t within the business? Understanding the “why” behind that is when we start to move into inclusion.

So actually, how are we including people from all different backgrounds, both that are represented in the business right now and that aren’t? And maybe will be in the future? I think it’s really key to recognise it because so many people use diversity and inclusion as almost like a buzz phrase. The two things are very separate and very different and your strategy should reflect that.

And equity is when we start to look at the different measures we need to put in place to change the trajectory for different groups of people. So, we recognise that actually not everyone starts on the same rung of the ladder. So, providing equal support is of no use because that means we would provide everybody the same support and hope that that would fix the problems that we have. But actually, it doesn’t address and readdress the very clear discrepancies and differences that different people start out with when we consider, let’s say, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, disability, and so on.

For me, whenever all of those things come together and we have environments that embrace diversity which fosters inclusion through equity, we have environments where, ultimately, everybody is heard. And that’s really important because being listened to is the biggest privilege that you can have. Everybody is heard regardless of where they sit in the business, what their background is. They know that they are heard and that their insights are actioned so that they know that actually, what I say matters and how I say it matters as well. I know that I’m going to be listened to.

The next thing is actually we ensure that this is a solution that we create and map to everybody. We create software solutions and different kinds of solution designs and so on every day of the week for society. Now, society is not monolithic, yet many of the teams creating these solutions are monolithic. So, my goal or my dream would be, certainly that, even if people aren’t directly represented within the business, there are avenues used to get those perspectives through roundtables, think tanks, and so on to at least change that trajectory. And so, when all of those things come together, the diversity, the inclusion and the equity, we know that: one, we’re providing environments for people to thrive in regardless of whatever their goals might be but also, we can trust that they’re creating systems and solutions that meet the needs of everybody, not just the majority.

Thank you very much. It’s a meaningful body of work that’s constantly changing and evolving and needs reflection, innovation, and creation. And I think, again, your analytical approach to that is absolutely vital.

3. In your book “Demanding More”, you explore the nuances of privilege and unchecked and unconscious biases. Well, these are huge topics in their own right, but can you explain why it is so important that organisation leaders, in particular, take the time to understand what these are? And importantly, how to get more comfortable with, some might say, the inevitable self-reflection that can accompany this?

(7:57) I think that the first thing as to why leaders, for example, need to be aware of unchecked, unconscious bias privilege is because you are the decision makers. Okay, you sit at the tables that define strategy, that define company vision, that define the business plans, define the goals to make the business successful or what success looks like. And so, actually, if you aren’t considering your own bias, your peer group’s bias, industry bias, and so on, and the privilege that comes from those different things, then you’re not creating a solution that maps in the best way possible.

The other key thing here is that self-awareness and company awareness is key, and they’re two separate things. All of my work is really rooted in privilege awareness. And so, for example, in any company that I go into, the first thing that I will mandate for leadership is privilege awareness workshops. And what they are is to really unearth what privilege actually means outside of binary concepts. And delve into detail as to what that means for you personally, and then how you make changes with that, both in your own sphere and within a company sphere. And that’s what a big part of “Demanding More” is as well.

And I have open-sourced that training that I’ve done as well when I was at Monzo too if anybody wants to look at it or use it. But what I think is really key is that when we start to talk about privilege and bias and so on, the people recognise that it’s all well and good to say, okay, I care about diversity and inclusion. I want things to be better but what that really, really must mean is that you recognise that what you were doing already isn’t good enough. Whether you’re trying enough isn’t good enough. You need to do more and you need to be very, very specific about what it is that you are doing. No vague fluffy lines, no vague commitments, but actually very specific on what the goals are and how you are involved with them.

That’s sometimes where you lose people because people are happier saying that they care about things without the recognition, that that means you personally need to change, and I include myself in that – I have to change as well. Everybody has to change in some way shape or form. So, I think that it’s really key that leaders recognise that the rule is instrumental in the success of any diversity and inclusion strategy if it’s done right.

4. You speak a lot in your work about the opportunity and the power of allyship when it comes to creating inclusive environments where more people are more confident to speak up and speak out. How can our listeners be agents of change and really get involved as effective allies?

(10:37) Whenever I think of allyship, I’m talking about direct changes, direct interventions. Changing and creating cultures of inclusion that are better for both people that you may identify with, and people that you don’t identify with as well. That’s a really important point because it’s all too easy for us to care about the experience of people that we, maybe, feel a connection to, whether that’s, let’s say, if I was a heterosexual white man, then maybe I would feel a stronger connection to heterosexual white women. But actually, what about women of colour? What about LGBT+ folks? What about disabled people? And so on.

What’s really key, firstly, is that we recognise that our role is bigger than just those that we may feel some connection to because that ultimately then creates another element of exclusion. I call it exclusionary inclusion, which I write about in my book as well. So, do that first. Really recognise what you’re trying to change and who you’re trying to help.

And then, the second thing is commitment. What I ask people to do is be very deliberate about the decisions that you are making. I describe my role as putting friction in decision-making processes, stopping people from making snap decisions, stopping people from ultimately short-circuiting decisions because of bias, and so on and stereotyping etcetera, but actually, taking a moment to sit back and think. And yes, it means that you need to slow down which not everybody wants to do but, actually, the long-term and midterm gain is much, much more impactful than a short term win of a slightly quicker or a quicker decision.

So, what’s really key here is recognising that there are lots of things you can change around who you’re listening to, how you’re learning, and then the action that you put into place. And what I would ask people to do is to recognise that allyship is very much a journey, you know. I’m on a journey of allyship every day whenever it comes to trying to do things better for other people or listen and learn, and so on. And recognise that it isn’t just one thing that you do and then you stop, but actually, that consistent and regular awareness moving into education and action is really, really important because I think, what that gives you is a way to imbed this into, actually, your day-to-day.

When we talk about allyship, when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we’re not just talking about what happens in your 9-to-5 or your day job. What we’re talking about is how you exist in the world and how other people maybe don’t exist in the exact same way.

5. Hays podcasts like this reach a global audience. The ED&I landscape can look very different depending on where you are in the world. You consult on a global basis. How does an organisation practically navigate the complexities of combining that all-important global vision and strategy, but delivering that within the context of local operating environments?

(13:48) Again, this is something that people have over-engineered and made more complicated because of bias. Let’s say you have a senior leader focussed on D&I and their experience is primarily in EMEA or North America. And so, you take their experience and they try and map it across the world. That doesn’t work and it doesn’t fly, and it’s actually detrimental to diversity and inclusion.

What I think is really important and what I’ve done in all of my roles, which have global roles and certainly at Valtech where I work now, where my role is across 19 different countries. I will always create a global framework. So, regardless of where you are in the world, when you talk about, let’s say, diversity and inclusion at your company, there’s a consistent narrative as to what that means. Whether it’s around your business strategy, your hiring, or all of those things intertwined, you should be creating consistent frameworks. And what that means is that you create different things for people to roll out, whether that’s across hiring matrixes, for example, sponsorship programmes, different trainings, and so on, but that you allow people and give people the room to regionally and locally implement.

So, I call it global collaboration, regional and local implementation. What we’re talking about here is giving people a consistent way to do things, but embracing the nuance that is required for, let’s say, when you roll out something that is in Switzerland versus Argentina, or India, or North America, and all of the nuances that are in those regions as well.

What I think is really important is that you do not take a one-size-fits-all approach, especially when it comes to data because obviously, data has lots of legal requirements, so on too. But it’s very easy to sometimes think, oh, we can use what works in North America across EMEA for example. That doesn’t work and vice versa. Be very deliberate about what you’re trying to do. Create something that answers to the majority of the different regions that you’re looking at and enable that nuance, so that people can implement it in a way that really rings true for their people.

A really good example of this is in Valtech, we’ve just launched our Accelerating Into Leadership programme which is to help with the progression of underrepresented people in the business up the ranks because we have very good diversity when it comes to our junior mid-tier ranks, but actually, in senior leadership, we don’t have that diversity. So, we know we need to change something. Now, the programme has a sponsorship framework that pairs junior mid-tier folks that are underrepresented with senior leaders in their part of the business. What’s really key is that we spend time with every part of the business or every region that’s part of the pilot, defining what “underrepresented” actually means. For example, underrepresented in the UK might mean, let’s say, at those high-level women and people of colour, but in India, it’s not going to be in women and people of colour. It’s going to mean something different.

So, spending the time deciding, actually, what do we mean by “underrepresented”, creating the consistent framework, and then implementing it in a way that makes sense. So, proteges meet different criteria per whatever region it is that they’re from. That allows us to create an equitable measure because we’re really readdressing on a local basis what happens, but we’re consistently implementing globally. And I think that’s what we need people to do, is to recognise that nuance should be embraced, but you can still provide structure in that process.

6. When we look at these increasing numbers of ED&I-related touch points across the world of work, knowing where to focus your attention can often feel really overwhelming. What advice would you give leaders who want to properly get started on the road to meaningful, sustainable change?

(17:34) The biggest mistake that I see people making is that they think listening once is enough to make decisions for a year. Let’s say, so you do, let’s say, roundtables or listening surveys once a year and you think that that information that you get is enough to determine what is happening throughout. The only answer to that is that’s not the case. The last two years should have proven that to us, that listening to people once a year on what they need, how they need, and how they feel doesn’t work because we have pivots throughout the year.

Things change, society changes, the world changes. And so, the first thing that you need to do is think about how you listen at scale and regularly. I would use a tool whether it’s something like Peakon, where I used to work, or different intelligent listening systems that allow you to regularly pulse all of your employees to understand how do they feel about management support. What about inclusion? What about reward? What about fair opportunities? And see how that happens and changes throughout the year. The real thing with that data and this is what I mean by inclusion data, is that you can use that to monitor the success of various different initiatives, enabling you to actually see, “Am I doing something that’s making a change, or are things just staying the same?”, rather than waiting a full year to determine actually, “Is something that I’m doing unsuccessful?” and then, I’ve just wasted a full year. Don’t do that.

That’s, again, from my background in software engineering where I used to work with agile and really developing solutions, constantly iterating those with a client, bringing it back for user research, for development, for testing, and so on. I do the exact same thing with my D&I strategies. It’s a consistent pivot where I review my strategy every single quarter to make sure that it’s really answering the needs of people. So, get ready to do that, because otherwise, what you’ll end up doing is investing a lot into, maybe, one or two things, but not getting the feedback to actually determine if they’re successful or not when you need it.

7. I’m finally going to finish with a question that we ask all of our guests. What do you think are the 3 qualities that make a good leader? And crucially, do you think that these qualities have changed as a result of the pandemic over the last couple of years?

(20:15) Empathy. I think it’s really important to recognise different experiences outside of your own and empathise with what that means.

The second thing is vulnerability. I need people to be very open and honest about where they’re going, how they’re getting their decision-making process, even if that means unearthing some growth areas that they may have as well.

And then, the third thing, I think, is the ability to be confident in a way that makes sense for you. All too often, we assume confidence is bravado, an ego parading around. Actually, what I mean by confidence is that you are confident in what you say because you know that you’ve spent the time deliberating all different perspectives, etcetera, to get yourself to that decision. I would consider myself an incredibly confident person now, but would I consider myself confident in the way that many other people would define confidence? Maybe not. And what I think is key here is that we recognise that by being a leader, there’s a responsibility of being a driving force in many, many ways. And you can do that in a way that makes sense for you – it doesn’t always have to be the same as everybody else.

Do I think that those skills have changed or those attributes have changed across the impact of COVID? Absolutely. I’ve seen leaders gain substantially across the last two years because employees and people want to know that they are being led by real people. Some of us have been able to weather this storm much easier than others, but we’re all still very much experiencing the pandemic whether it’s easier for others are not. It is very obvious. It’s obviously easier for others than not.

What is really key is that openness to share that. To share, especially, with the balance of working from home, with people having lost people and dealing with that, and so on. Being honest about the potential, maybe struggles that people are having. I’ve seen that organisations have really stepped up and stepped into doing that. What I really hope is that over the next two years and the next 5-10 years, we don’t lose the lessons that we should have learnt over the last two years. It’s that vulnerability is key, embracing flexibility is key, and being really open about our decisions is key.

Sheree Atcheson is author of ‘Demanding More: Why Diversity and Inclusion Don’t Happen and What You Can Do About It’, which is available in hardback, paperback or as an ebook here. Use code HAYS20 for a 20% discount.

About this author

Listed as one of the UK’s Top Most Influential Women in Tech & an international multi-award winner for her services to Diversity & Inclusion in industry, Sheree is a Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Senior Executive; Advisory Board Member, Women Who Code; Contributor, Forbes. She is the Author of “Demanding More” (with Kogan Page Publishing) – a book which aims to teach readers about how deliberate exclusion has been in systems and society, so we can be purposefully and deliberately inclusive moving forward.


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