Diversity – my personal journey
The guest column in the Q1 2016 Journal of Sales Transformation is written by Clarify’s CEO Claire Edmunds, which discusses her diversity journey.
Diversity – my personal journey
When it comes to diversity, are we asking the right question?
A decade after setting up my business I won a “Women in Business” award. I was intrigued by my reaction: I was delighted to be recognised but uncomfortable with the notion of being singled out because of my gender. I remember a rush of indignation when asked in the interview: “So, how do you positively develop women in your business?”
“I positively don’t,” I answered. “We develop people.” This sparked a shift that threw me (and my team) on our diversity journey.
My company works with the technology sector, yet I genuinely feel I have been treated with respect. No one has ever told me I cannot run a business because I’m a woman; it has never been an issue. Consequently, when I first joined the discussions about the challenges women face, I approached them with a level of scepticism.
Yet, talking to other women about their experiences, I was shocked to hear some still face challenges in the workplace that should have been discarded decades ago. Is it something about corporate culture that keeps attitudes locked in the past and allows out-dated behaviour to continue?
How do we change?
The big question is how do we deliver change? Talking about diversity can be threatening, often polarising, and it can damage self-confidence. Quotas may be necessary but they are a controversial way to create disruption and drive change.
It is hard for leadership teams to understand how to make change happen in a positive and inclusive way. There are many examples of interventions designed with positive intentions that go wrong. Indeed, many of the women I have spoken to have actively chosen to distance themselves from women’s networking groups because they foster an “anti-men” environment.
So I’m conflicted: we need to drive change but I tend to agree that forming an “old girls club” to counter the impact of an “old boys club” doesn’t really feel like progress.
We also need to be careful what we wish for; some of the “female role models” are women who have made huge sacrifices for their careers, and they do not necessarily represent the career aspirations of your average businesswoman. Finding women who have achieved, balance work and family, and are able to bring what is best about being female to the workplace is hugely inspirational for the next generation of women.
Academics and consulting firms like McKinsey are clear that there are real, measurable benefits of increased diversity: it can bring value and innovation to an organisation; but they also acknowledge that, until the pay gap is closed, it is hard to assess the real impact increased diversity can have on EBIT* performance.
High-performing, inclusive culture
So, rather than asking how do we become more diverse, perhaps we should check whether we are asking the right question: how can we build a high-performing and inclusive culture?
In my team the roles we hire most frequently are technology sales. At the outset, only 10% of our applicants are women, representative of the wider technology market where 10% of enterprise salespeople are female. Yet 35% of our hires are women and our management team is 50% women. Why does this happen? A key factor is we operate above the magic 30% of women required to create a tipping point, but it may also suggest we have high levels of unconscious bias towards hiring women.
Before we pat ourselves on the back, let’s review the stats: we have a workforce that is entirely under the age of 55 (average age 33 years) and not one member of the team has a disability. I could go on… but how confident am I that changing the age or disability profile in my team would deliver a better business performance? Where is the balance of risk higher: staying as we are (which is working) or artificially changing the mix by actively hiring older candidates? Does having a younger-than-average team mean that we are leaving opportunity on the table?
Hiring the very best
Despite all the research, asking HR to change the mix doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. However, implementing changes in the recruitment process to reduce the effect of unconscious bias so we hire the very best people makes great business sense to everyone.
What does feel right is to ensure the culture we create feels comfortable and safe for everyone. I want the best people performing at their best. As a business leader, building a great culture is something I am motivated to act upon and invest in because the proof that I get the best out of my people when they feel safe, engaged and included is right in front of my eyes.
What is significant is when I change the intent: when I talk about building a high-performing and inclusive culture as opposed to increasing diversity, the majority stop feeling threatened and are willingly to come on this journey with me.
*Earnings before interest and taxes.
Claire Edmunds is CEO and founder of Clarify, a specialist in strategic business development. The company works with global B2B enterprises that take high-value consultative propositions to market.
She chairs the Diversity Steering Group on behalf of the Association of Professional Sales, which aims to increase diversity in the sales profession and build high-performing and inclusive sales cultures.