D&I Learning the Language of Business

In this conversation, I spoke to Aggie Mutuma about the importance of HR practitioners being fully conversant in the language of their business. Aggie gained her senior HR experience in a range of businesses that are household names. She is also an executive coach and the founder of Mahogany Inclusion Partners.
Photo of Aggie Mutuma

I met Aggie Mutuma through working with her sister at Deloitte. Aggie has a professional background in HR. We discuss the need for HR people to be able to talk the language of business. This topic is something that Peter Cheese. the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and I talked about this in a previous Inclusive Growth podcast episode.

I asked Aggie to tell me a bit more about her and her professional background, as well as what’s led to this point in her career?

‘My career started in the people space. I’ve worked for large organisations leading people teams for organisations such as McDonald’s Restaurants, Tesco Stores Limited, Dreams Beds, etc. My role was always very generalist and holistic and I didn’t specialise. I covered everything from the business as an employer, what do we look like to potential candidates and potential talent, right through to dismissal and retirement and all the beautiful pieces in between like culture, leadership, development, promotion and succession planning. The golden thread of diversity and inclusion was weaved through all of that.

I’m also an executive coach, so I spent a lot of time with leaders who happen to be White males because they were leaders at the top of their games, talking about things that impacted them in the workplace and inclusion and diversity was one of those. I always found that there was this reticence to engage with diversity and inclusion. A lot of it was fear, and a lot of the other things that were known to be true now since the matter of George Floyd was the fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of being seen as a sexist or a homophobe or a racist, so therefore, not engaging.
I felt quite sad about the disengagement because it’s actually those very people who we need to engage in the conversation: leaders of organisations and industry. Without them on board, we cannot move the dial forward when it comes to our people processes in general or on inclusion. That’s how Mahogany Inclusion Partners was born. Added to that, my lived experience of growing up in the UK as a Black child and rising through my career as a Black woman, that’s where the Mahogany Inclusion Partners came about.’

When we were planning this podcast we settled on the topic of the importance of HR practitioners to be speaking the language of business. I asked Aggie, ‘Why is that important in your opinion?’

‘A lot of other organisational endeavours like marketing or finance come with this obvious need and credibility. So if you cut your costs, you can see the impact on the bottom line straight away. If you market in a certain way there’s an observable impact. This gives an immediate understanding of how those things work. Whereas when it comes to the people space and the diversity and inclusion space, it’s tougher.

People aren’t as easy as one plus one equals two. A lot of our engagements with leaders and our strategies are talking about things that are a little less tangible in the near future anyway. That’s an added complication, I guess, making it a harder sell for us.

If everybody else around the table is talking business-speak, and we come in and we appear fluffy, I’m saying appear because I don’t believe that HR is fluffy at all, but if we appear fluffy, if we appear as though we don’t understand the rest of the business, it just makes it a lot more difficult for us to get the business in the right place to operate as the true conscience of the organisation and be the true business partners that we can be.’

I don’t know if Aggie finds this in the work that she does, but I think particularly in the diversity and inclusion space, it gets a bit confusing because some people want to do diversity and inclusion because of ethical reasons and it’s the right thing to do it. They feel it’s important to be fair employers and to address inequalities in society and things like that.

Then there are leaders who are all about facts, figures, the bottom line, and business performance. They want to understand the return on investment in terms of numbers. Sometimes it’s quite hard to be able to calculate the return on the investment for diversity and inclusion. A quick calculation I often do with my clients is looking at what the cost of employee turnover is, the cost of attrition. If they are able to reduce that attrition by X% then that will save the business X amount of money.

I asked Aggie, ‘Why do you think that HR are not always speaking the language of business or the return on investment?’

‘I think that a lot of HR teams, including people teams and inclusion teams within that, don’t realise how powerful they are. They don’t realise the impact of the work. It’s not always that easy to articulate the wins or the return on investment in terms of what goes on the bottom line, although you can make some tenuous links to lots of studies that have been done.

If we think about ourselves as human beings, if we feel great, if we feel like we can be ourselves, how do we perform? So we can think about it from a performance point of view. As you also said, you can also do that from a retention perspective. Thinking about when you lose people, think about that person who left because they raised a concern around how they’ve been treated because they’re a woman. Or the person who talked about their experience as an LGBTQ person. How much time did that take us to address that issue? How much time did it take us to very often settle that person out of the organisation? How much does that cost us? Then what does it cost us to recruit them, to replace them, and the downtime on top of all of those things?

So those are tangible conversations that can be had. HR teams don’t realise how powerful they are because they don’t realise for most organisations, people are the biggest cost. Why would you not want to treat that biggest cost well? Would you not want to invest in that cost because you’ll therefore get a larger return on it.

We’re not able to always have those conversations because we don’t realise how awesome we are and how important we are. I think what I’ll also add to that is I always find it interesting is the number of HR people I speak to who, when you ask about the organisation’s strategy, they don’t actually know. I think that’s interesting.

As leaders of organisations, imagine us sitting with our massive teams in the future, and we are asking someone, what’s the strategy? They don’t know. That also doesn’t support that credibility that we want to have around the table as well.’

I agree. It always makes me chuckle when I do boardroom sessions. One of the exercises that I do is to get people to think about how diversity and inclusion align with organisational values. I always laugh at the number of people that can’t articulate the stated values of an organisation. And then they go bright red and they open their laptops and start looking on the internet or on the careers website to try and find out what their organisational values are.

Aggie said she is a little bit kinder and puts them on the slides since she assumes that most people won’t know and that’s an approach I have started taking too. I go prepared and say, ‘Well, these are the values if you need a reminder.’

Aggie has had loads of experience working at a senior level in HR which means being able to articulate the business language of people and diversity and inclusion and culture. I asked her, ‘In your opinion, what should HR practitioners be saying in that business speak when it comes to diversity, culture and people?’

‘I think as a profession, we are quite lucky. It seems like the oddest thing to say, but I’ll explain it. We’re quite lucky in that more recently because of the pandemic with all the pain and trauma it brought, it also brought a more human feel to businesses and organisations.

I had leaders who would say things such as, “Well, we pay them. They come to work, what’s the big deal?” We are moving to think about how people are feeling and are we looking after them, and what’s their wellbeing like? So I think right now we’re opening or we’re pushing on an open door in a bigger way than we ever have before. I would say listen to the conversations in your organisation. If the conversation in your organisation is about widgets in the factory and how often and how quickly we can push those through, work with all your different teams and they’ll help you. They love it when you ask for some support to connect those KPIs to the work that you’re doing.

We talked about pound notes when it comes to settlements, so when it comes to recruiting somebody else, translate that language into your organisation’s language. If it’s the number of new clients that we have, again, work with your finance team to translate that into the work that you’re doing as well. It’s important to speak the language of your specific organisation. The obvious things I would suggest are things like turnover, client attrition, sales, profit etc. Make sure that you get to a brand new level and speak in the KPIs that your specific organisation speaks about too.’

One of my clients speaks about objectives and key results or OKRs which is a framework that was popularised by Google. I think what I liked about what they did is that they had a set of business OKRs before I came on the scene about customer acquisition and things like that. And then after I’d worked with them, they then started to create diversity and inclusion OKRs that spanned the whole of the organization. So the chief exec and her senior leadership team had their set of OKRs. And then that is cascaded down through other teams. That worked pretty well for them because they were already using that framework. So it seemed logical that they just folded diversity and inclusion into that really.

Aggie said,‘Adding into that beautiful piece, something that we all recognise is we’re living in the UK, in the West and we recognise measurement. We recognise objectives. We recognise outcomes. Although we might call it different things, applying that to whatever strategy is in place and ensuring that there are some objectives at the end of the programme or during the programme that we can lean on. That will hopefully lessen the view of fluffiness or anything else like that as well.’

Aggie has loads of experience getting this right in organisations. I asked her to tell me about the impact when she speaks the business language from an HR perspective.

‘It’s huge. I think I’ll start personally. I’ve progressed very quickly in lots of big organisations, so there’s also that from a personal and professional point of view and growth in that respect. You get invited to tables that you wouldn’t have normally which then expands your business conversation. That helps you cement the importance of the HR and inclusion activities that you’re speaking about when you’re able to make that connection and talk business-speak. HR teams, especially internal HR teams, and maybe inclusion teams, I’d suggest are almost seen as the policy police. They’re seen as the computer says no or policy says no people.

What I always spoke to my team about as I grew in HR is if a manager or a leader can get the answer in a policy, you’re walking yourself out of a job because they can read themselves. Most managers, I suppose, can read the policy themselves. We need to be doing that value-add, just like finance does. We can all add – we’ve all got calculators. Finance brings that value-add and we need to do the same thing.

To answer your question properly I suppose, the outcomes are greater engagement in people activities, people strategies and better budgets, which ultimately leads to greater engagement and all the beautiful things that we want for our people as well.’

I talk to a lot of people who have just taken on the job as a diversity and inclusion leader, or diversity and inclusion is part of their HR role. I asked Aggie for her advice to anybody in those positions in getting upskilled and comfortable speaking the business language.

‘I’d say get some help, some coaching, and training whatever that may be. Both of us train leaders and to be honest, even very seasoned HR directors and chief people officers and chief diversity officers, find the language changes. The things you can and can’t say anymore, change. So it’s not necessarily just about the start of your career, even throughout your career, get the support that you need. Don’t do it yourselves, I would suggest, and give yourself that comfort, give yourself that credibility to do that and to do that in the right way. So get help.’

I think it’s really important too. Getting mentoring or coaching, whether it’s done on a formal or informal basis is such a fantastic way of being able to accelerate your own professional and personal development. So if the person reading this right now needs that support, then I would encourage them to contact either of us.

Before we concluded, I asked Aggie what she takes the term inclusive growth to mean.

‘I would say that it’s the only way to grow and to grow sustainably and to grow in a way that doesn’t do harm, which most of us have values around. Not everyone though, some people don’t mind doing a bit of harm, but most of us have values around not doing harm. I’d say the only way to grow in those ways is inclusive growth. It’s growing in a way that brings the beauty, the magic, sometimes a bit of the mess, but the magic of every single person in your organisation to the fore, whatever their role happens to be. Meaning people feel they can be themselves, feeling like they can support with the ideas, they can put that effort in, all those beautiful things that we know happen when an organisation is inclusive. I think that’s what inclusive growth is, the only way to grow.’

Before we sign off, I know that Aggie’s business Mahogany Inclusion Partners has got a course that could probably benefit readers. I asked her to explain a little more about what that course is.

‘Mahogany Inclusion Partners has a suite of four or five different workshops that we have developed specifically for people teams. Having come from the profession myself we’ve developed some workshops around diversity and inclusion strategy, inclusive recruitment, holding safe space conversations and facilitating safe space conversations. There’s also one-on-one coaching for leaders in the people space as well, so quite a variety of things there.’

To connect with Aggie Mutuma, she invites Inclusive Growth readers to drop her a note through her LinkedIn page.

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