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

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hello there. Thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I’m Toby Mildon, and today I’m joined by Aggie Mutuma. I’m really excited to be talking to Aggie because I actually worked with her sister when I was working at Deloitte, and it was her sister, who introduced us because Aggie and I work in the same field of diversity and inclusion. But before Aggie entered the D and I world, she was a senior HR person in businesses. And what we will be talking about today, which I think is really important, is the need for HR people to be able to talk the business language or the language of business, which is something that Peter Cheese talked about. Peter Cheese is the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, when I interviewed him on his podcast episode. So I’ll be catching up with Aggie today to talk about the need for HR to talk the business language, particularly talking the business language when it comes to diversity and inclusion within workplaces. Hey Aggie, it’s so lovely to see you. Thanks for joining me.

Aggie Mutuma: Thanks Toby. Thank you for having me.

Toby Mildon: So before we get into the meat of our conversation, could you just begin by telling us a bit more about who you are and your professional background, and what led you to this point in your career?

Aggie Mutuma: No problem at all. So as you said, my career started in the people space, so I’ve worked for large organizations, many that you’ll recognize, and I’ve led people teams for organizations such as McDonald’s Restaurants, Tesco Stores Limited, Dreams Beds, etcetera. And in my career, my role has always been very generalist, I suppose I didn’t really specialize in anything specific, I will call it more holistic and generalist, so everything from who are we as an employer, what do we look like to potential candidates and potential talent, right through to dismissal, retirement, [0:02:16.5] __ whatever that may be, and all the beautiful pieces in between so culture, leadership, development, promotion, succession planning, and all the way through all of that that golden weave thread or weaved thread of diversity and inclusion within that as well.

Aggie Mutuma: Also within that, as a lot of people, people people tend to do professionally, 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. And 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. And I felt quite sad about the disengagement because it’s actually those very people who we need to engage in the conversation, they are the leaders of their organizations, leaders of industry, and without them on board, we cannot move the dough forward when it comes to our people processes in general, but equally when it comes to inclusion as well. So that’s how Mahogany Inclusion Partners was born. Add 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.

Toby Mildon: Excellent, that’s really cool. Thanks for sharing that with me. When we were planning this podcast, we were… I suppose the topic that we settled on was how important it is for people in HR to be speaking the business language, what… Why is that important in your opinion?

Aggie Mutuma: It’s really important because a lot of other organizational endeavors should I say, so marketing, finance, etcetera, they almost come with this obvious need, obvious credibility though, if you cut your costs, you can see the impact on the bottom line straight away. If you market in a certain way, you can see the impact straight away ’cause there’s almost an immediate understanding of how things work, whereas when it comes to our space, the people space, and then the diversity and inclusion space, it’s tougher, isn’t it? People aren’t as easy as one plus one equals to two or lose some money here and make some here, they’re not that easy. So a lot of our engagements with leaders, a lot of our strategies, we’re talking about things that are a little less tangible, certainly in the near future anyway, so there’s that added complication, I guess, in terms of that it’s a harder sell for us if we’re going to use that language, but equally if everybody else around the table is speaking the business speak, and we come in and we appear, I’m gonna say appear, ’cause 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 conscious of the organization and to be the those true business partners that we can be.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely, and I don’t know if you find this in the work that you do, but I think particularly in the diversity and inclusion space, that’s… It gets a bit confusing because some people want to do diversity and inclusion because of the ethical reasons, it’s the right thing to do it. It’s important that we are fair employers, it’s important that we as employers address inequalities in society and things like that, and then there are leaders who I talk to who are all about facts, figures, the bottom line, business performance, and they want to understand the return on investment in terms of numbers, and I think sometimes it’s quite hard to be able to calculate the return on the investment for diversity and inclusion. I suppose a quick kind of calculation I often do with my clients is looking at what the cost of employee turnover is. Yeah, you can do a very quick calculation of the cost of attrition, and then if you then are able to reduce that attrition by X% then that will save the business X amount of money. And that’s quite a good way of doing it as well.

Aggie Mutuma: Yeah, absolutely.

Toby Mildon: Why is that you think that HR are not always speaking the business language or the return on investment, that kind of thing that we’ve just talked about?

Aggie Mutuma: I think that a lot of HR teams and people teams and inclusion teams included within that, don’t realize how powerful they are. They don’t realize like what you’ve just said there, Toby, around the impact of the work that we do. Yes, it’s not always that easy to articulate the wins or the return on investment in terms of, we are gonna put this on the bottom line, although you can make some tenuous links to lots of studies that have been done. And if we think about ourselves as human beings, if we feel great, if we feel like we can be ourselves, how do we perform? Even from a performance point of view, you can do that. But as you also said, you can also do that from a, “Okay, let’s think 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 this person who talked about their experience as an LGBTQ person, or this person who spoke about their experience. Let’s think about even those three, four examples we have, 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 organization? How much that cost us then what does it cost us to recruit them, to replace them, the downtime on top of all of those things.

Aggie Mutuma: So most organizations have those very tangible conversations that they can have. There’s that piece, I think HR teams don’t realize how powerful they are. They don’t realize that actually for most organizations, people are the biggest cost for them, especially service industries, your people are your biggest cost. So would you not want to treat that biggest cost really well, would you not want to invest in that biggest cost because you’ll therefore get a bigger return on it. So we’re not able to always do those or have those conversations because we realize how awesome we are and how important we are to those organizations. I think what I’ll also add to that is I always find interesting is the number of HR people I spoke to… Speak to senior leaders, and I’m sure you’ve got that as well, Toby, who, when you ask about the organization’s strategy, they don’t actually know. And I think, “Huh, that’s interesting.”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Aggie Mutuma: So if we both lead organizations now, don’t we Toby? So 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.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. It always makes me chuckle when I do boardroom sessions and one of the exercises that I do is to get people to think about how diversity and inclusion aligns with organizational values. And I always laugh at the amount of people that can’t articulate the stated values of an organization. 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 organizational values are.

Aggie Mutuma: I’m a little bit kinder. I put them on the slides. I just assume that most people won’t know to be honest, ’cause…

Toby Mildon: Well, I have started doing that.

Aggie Mutuma: No, I like your approach too though.

Toby Mildon: It was getting a little bit embarrassing at that point in the workshop, but now I go prepared and I go, “Well, these are the values if you need a reminder.

Aggie Mutuma: I know you know them but here they’re. Yeah, exactly.

Toby Mildon: So obviously, you’ve got loads of experience of working at a senior level in HR and being able to articulate the business language of people and diversity and inclusion and culture. So in your opinion, what should HR practitioners be saying in that business speak when it comes to diversity, culture and people?

Aggie Mutuma: I think we are as a profession, quite lucky. And 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 organizations. I had leaders who would say things such as, “Well, we pay them. They come to work, what’s the big deal?” Moving to thinking about how are people feeling and are we looking after them, what’s their wellbeing. 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. So I think I would say listen to the conversations in your organization, if the conversation in your organization is about widgets in the factory and how often and how quickly we can push those through, work with your team and even in your finance team, they’ll help you. They love it when you ask for some support to connect those KPIs to the work that you’re doing.

Aggie Mutuma: So we talked about pound notes when it comes to settlements, when it comes to recruiting somebody else, translate that language into your organization’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. So it’s really speak the language of your specific organization, obvious things I would suggest are things such as obviously turnover, pound notes, as we talked about earlier, most organizations talk in those terms as well. And I’m guessing things such as client attrition, sales, etcetera, and profit. Those are the obvious ones, but also make sure that you get to a brand new level and speak in the KPIs that your specific organization speaks about too.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, one of my clients uses the objectives and key results or the OKIs.

Aggie Mutuma: OKRs.

Toby Mildon: OKRs, sorry. Yeah. Framework that was popularized by Google. And 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 it was really good because it spanned the whole of the organization. So the chief exec and her senior leadership team had their set of OKRs. And then that that cascaded down through other teams. So for them, that worked pretty well ’cause they were already using that framework. So it seemed logical that they just folded diversity and inclusion into that really.

Aggie Mutuma: It’s beautiful. And then you’re also adding into that piece, something that we all recognize, we’re all living in the West, we’re in the UK, we recognize measurement. We recognize objectives. We recognize outcomes. We might call it different things. So absolutely applying that to whatever strategy you have, ensure that there are some objectives at the end of the program or during the program that we can lean on, and that will hopefully lessen the view of fluffiness or anything else like that as well.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. So obviously you’ve got loads of experience of getting this right in organizations and when you do speak the business language from a HR perspective, what is the impact that you’ve seen?

Aggie Mutuma: It’s huge. I think I’ll start personally, I guess in terms of personally, I’ve progressed very quickly in lots of big organizations, 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 be in, which then expands your business conversation then, doesn’t it? And it helps you really cement the importance of the HR activities or the inclusion activities that you’re speaking about when you’re able to make that connection and speak the business speak. And then you’ll also often HR teams, especially internal HR teams, I’ll suggest and maybe even inclusion teams, are almost seen as the police, they’re seen as the policy police, they’re seen as the computer says no or policy says no people.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Aggie Mutuma: What I always spoke to my team about as I grew in HR is if a manager, if 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. What we need to be doing is doing that value-add, just like finance does. Yes, we can all add, we’ve all got calculators, but they bring that value-add and we need to do the same thing, and again, by us speaking that business speak. So to answer your question properly I suppose, the outcomes are greater engagement in people activities, greater engagement in people strategies, better budgets, which ultimately leads to greater engagement and all the beautiful things that we want for our people as well.

Toby Mildon: So 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, for instance, they might be a HR business partner, what is your advice to anybody in those positions in getting upskilled and comfortable and in being able to talk business language and, yes, speak the business language?

Aggie Mutuma: Sure. I’d say get some help, get some coaching, get some training and some upskilling, whatever that may be, and I think both of us, Toby, we train leaders and even very seasoned, they haven’t, not even just starting to be honest, very seasoned HR directors and chief people officers and chief diversity officers, the language changes, the lien changes, the things you can and can’t say anymore, they 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. [chuckle]

Toby Mildon: Yeah. I think it’s really important. I think 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 yeah, if the person listening to us right now needs that support, then I would encourage them to contact either of us.

Aggie Mutuma: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: More on contact details later. So this is a question that I ask everybody that comes on the show.

Aggie Mutuma: I would say, and it might sound a little bit odd. I would say that 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, 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 organization to the fore, whatever their role happens to be, feeling like 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 happens when an organization is inclusive. I think that’s what inclusive growth is, the only way to grow.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And before we sign off, I know that you’ve got a course that could probably benefit the person listening to us right now, can you just explain a bit more about what that course is?

Aggie Mutuma: Let’s see, thank you, Toby. Thank you. So at Mahogany Inclusion Partners, we have a suite, I suppose, about four or five different workshops that we have developed specifically for people teams. Having come from the profession myself and understood it and done a bit of work with the CRPD as well, specifically around race, so I’ll add that piece. We’ve developed some workshops around diversity and inclusion strategy, inclusive recruitment, holding safe space conversations and facilitating safe space conversation and also coaching as well as that one-on-one coaching for leaders in the people space as well, so quite a variety of things there.

Toby Mildon: Excellent. That sounds perfect. So before we head off, if the person listening to us right now wants to get in touch with you, learn more about what you do, how should they do that?

Aggie Mutuma: Thank you, Toby. So connect with me on LinkedIn, Aggie Mutuma, and just drop me a note, usually quite good at coming back up to people on LinkedIn, she says, but yeah, find me on LinkedIn, I’m the only one as far as I can tell, and drop me a note and I’ll be in touch.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Well, Aggie, thank you ever so much for joining me today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, and I think it is an important conversation to have about how people working in the HR space, particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion, are able to talk business language. ‘Cause I think when we can do that, we have a bigger impact and my experience of people working in the diversity and inclusion space is that they really do want to make an impact on the employer, but on society as well, reducing inequalities in society. So Aggie, thank you ever so much for joining me today, really enjoyed our conversation. And thank you for tuning into this episode with Aggie and myself today, hopefully, you’ve taken something interesting away that you can apply to your own organization. Feel free to get in touch with Aggie through LinkedIn or drop me an email if you want to continue this conversation. Until the next episode comes out, take care and look after yourself.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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