Nicola Paul and I met a long time ago. She’s a diversity and inclusion practitioner who has worked in retail as well as an executive search firm. We’ve kept in touch and now Nicola runs her own consultancy called Good Work Life which I was keen to hear more about. To get our conversation started, I asked Nicola to tell us a bit more about her background.
‘I love that you introduced me as an inclusion and diversity practitioner Toby. Better than the word ‘expert’ which is sometimes used. I know we give it our best stab but it’s so wide-ranging, I’d love to know anybody who could be an expert in absolutely every facet of the subject!
I worked in retail for many years with John Lewis and Waitrose. It was becoming apparent to me that there was this big relatively unspoken issue that was emerging for businesses, which was the fact that there was a severe lack of inclusion and diversity. I was fortunate to be working in a company that didn’t necessarily have a lot of diversity but had a lot of good ethics and grounding in how it cares for its people.
My pathway led from there. I became an in-house diversity and inclusion practitioner and was also a consultant with Green Park. I had some great role models out there. I looked to you, Toby, and saw the relationship that you can have with companies and people by being independent. It’s a more fluid relationship that ebbs and flows with clients and companies leading to me setting up Good Work Life a year ago.’
Nicola has got an interest in corporate governance and has been studying at Henley Business School. I was curious about what had piqued her interest in the subject and whether it linked to her studies?
This is one of the beautiful things that I’ve had more thinking time over the past since I’ve been off the treadmill. I am now able to focus on the areas for development that I think are important. I was hearing from clients that the conversation around diversity and inclusion was emergent from the bottom up within organisations – think about the sophistication now with employee networks.
There was a good understanding of what needed to take place in the middle elements of the business such as HR, but I was starting to see procurement and commercial teams starting to understand what they needed to do. Yet when I was having conversations right at the top of the business, it seemed to me that the lack of confidence of the executives was that they hadn’t necessarily developed their understanding of how this integrates into their role as a board.
Whilst I know about D&I, I was not as well-educated around what makes a board function well. I wanted to go on a course to learn more about that so I could join up a few dots. Henley Business School runs a board directors programme. It isn’t just for people on boards. It can be for the people who might want to become a non-executive in the future is going into a position, or wants to refresh their understanding of what it takes to be a board member.’
Thinking about the breadth of a board’s remit on ESG or Environmental, Social and Governance, I asked Nicola how she sees it all fitting together? What is the relationship between D&I and Social and how does that link with the Environmental and the Governance aspects?
‘I probably have less experience in the environmental side of things, but when we start to think about global inequalities and how companies and organisations pursue that agenda, you can start to join it up with the social and the governance side. The two that I’ve been mostly focused on, as you can imagine, are the social and governance. They are intertwined, yet there’s a gap. Pick up an annual report, accounts, or any form of governance reporting that organisations do and what you can start to see is some organisations are progressing well in their reporting on their diversity and inclusion. That enables shareholders, employees, and the board to hold each other to account for the work that they’re doing. Nonetheless, there’s still quite a lack of sophistication in that space, and some of the statements made aren’t underpinned by facts and stats.
Some of the progression is when organisations think about where they’ve got good consumer analytics, how can they transfer that into the employee base to understand whether they truly are being diversity-inclusive using data instead.’
I asked Nicola what in her view are some of the things that organisations should be measuring and monitoring when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
‘As a starting point, it’s not new pieces of data you want. It’s looking at existing data with a different lens instead. Think about employees and indicators such as who gets a pay increase. Who’s deemed to be your top talent? What are the engagement scores like? Who is in the disciplinary process? In appeals against a disciplinary, what is upheld and what is dismissed? These are all of the pieces of data that many larger organisations have tracked for some years now. Shine that different lens on it and analyse that data by different demographics. Then you can apply the principle of proportionality. Is there a disproportionate impact or support for any single group of people, through those paths of the process? Putting it simply, if we take something like pay, in the last pay review, did more men receive a pay increase than women, for example?’
I wondered if Nicola had come across employers tracking things like career progression, attrition, and retention but not doing a good job at measuring diversity. In my work, I find that they’re unable to overlay diversity filter over the top of the collected data. I was also keen to hear her advice on how we can start to plug that data gap.
Nicola agreed, continuing ‘Some of this is my intuition as opposed to fact, but I do think that often there’s a nervousness about what the data might show. Over the years, you’ve seen greater transparency around all of these types of reporting for pay, talent and engagement, but even if you just take engagement scores from a company, organisations can be a bit nervous about saying, “This is how our employees feel.”
Even if they were a homogenous group, to then start to show that the feeling about whether they’re engaged within the company or not differs by demographic, I think there’s a real nervousness about uncovering that information, so I think that’s one starting point.
There’s also the point around how we gather the data. I know it’s an overused buzzword term at the moment, but there is a level of psychological safety that’s required for people to know that they can give their demographic data to their organisation. That’s needed even when tracking and monitoring trends is at that macro level. But trend analysis can only be done if people give their data up in the first place, so if a company doesn’t make people feel safe, they are far less likely to give over their demographic information. I think a solution is about fostering a culture of saying, “When we gather your data, we do right by it, and we deal with it ethically.” They will be far more likely to get the data to do this type of analysis. That’s my experience.’
One experience I had with a client was that they did two things well. They had a very good internal comms campaign weeks before they asked for the data, to prepare people. A lot of the concerns that people might have were pre-empted in FAQs. That was things like, how is my data going to be used? Is my data safe and secure? Can I be identified by it? The other success factor, I think, was that they used an external data collection company. That addressed one of the main employee concerns that if data was being put into the HR system, that that data could get into the wrong hands or be used against somebody. Using a well-known data collection agency meant people had a high degree of trust in the process.
Another challenge I was interested to hear Nicola’s thoughts on was the process by which we marry this data collection up with indicators like attrition, or career progression and performance management. Essentially, my question is about how we get the data sets to talk to each other?
‘Using the external organisation for a snapshot census-style analysis is great. If you could store the information gathered on the system, so it’s attributed to an individual’s code, but not visible to anybody who could access the system, you could then start to track pieces of information. It’s important to understand the journey that somebody has through a business from hiring to when they leave. Unless you can attribute that to an employee’s code, you’re only ever going to get snapshots of information as opposed to the total reality of their experience.’
My next question was about how we equip boards to get a bit more savvy and evidence-based around diversity and inclusion? I asked Nicola if we need to be working with the senior leaders of an organisation to boost their confidence in the topic.
‘Yes, a good functioning board will be able to provide brilliant scrutiny on any given topic. They need a good team dynamic and behaviours towards one another. Without respect and trust in the boardroom, how would they be able to table any conversation around this topic and get the best of their thinking out?
I think that investment in board development as a group is really important to build inclusive behaviors around the board table as opposed to the kind of behaviors that we see in films on TV. With that in place, I think our job is to work with the complexity. Audit organisations and help them to understand things. Distill data for boards so that they can understand what identifying factors of a company they should be looking for and what measurements should they be casting their eyes on.
We could give guidance over the cycles by which they should scrutinise that information. We’ve now got the annual cycle of the gender pay gap reporting, but any company can then decide to extend that out and say, “Well, what other information and over what frequency should we be reviewing that makes sense for our organisation?”
What I think has been interesting as well because of doing the course and then a bit of my research was that I hadn’t also appreciated that the corporate governance code for listed companies was updated back in 2019. It highlights how vital it is that the board has got engagement with their workforce and other stakeholders. It advises that there are three different methods to get that temperature check, rather than just constantly measuring diversity, to understand the inclusivity of their business. They actually recommend three things, one of which is to have a director appointed from the workforce and give them a position on the board. This would be somebody who’s out there doing their day-to-day job but is equipped to sit around the table and share the views of the employee base.
The second thing is that you might have a formal workforce advisory panel. This is a bit like what we see with employee networks that give feedback on certain topics. And then there’s the designation of a link role to one of the non-executive directors since they’re independent, to constantly research and gather opinion and feed that back. So there’s clear guidance there on what it is that boards can do to listen better and get that temperature check on inclusion. I do wonder how many have put those things into practice.’
This reminded me that one of my clients has created an employee advisory panel which is part of the good practice Nicola refers to. One thing that they look at is diversity and inclusion, but they also look at other things like well-being, career progression, the direction of the firm. I think it’s a vital resource that the chief exec and his senior leadership team can tap into. It’s well-structured and organised. Employees sit on the advisory board for six months on rotation, so they’re always getting fresh perspectives coming through. They’re very conscious to make sure that the advisory board is diverse, so the leadership team can benefit from diverse perspectives.
As we were talking for the Inclusive Growth podcast I asked Nicola what inclusive growth means to her?
‘I look at it from two perspectives: the growth of the business and just how vital this is for any high-performing, credible, and ethical business of the future. This point around a business being inclusive helps to mitigate risk and it makes the business more sustainable and professional. Ultimately, companies that can do the things that we’ve been describing like good analytics and being comfortable with gathering insight to back up their intuition, brings them to a different sophisticated level.
More personally it’s the epitome of self-growth. We all read all these help books and we’re constantly thinking about life-long learning and all of this kind of stuff, but to be an inclusive person is to constantly be understanding the perspective of others. Actively gathering different views of the world, understanding inequalities literally on a day-to-day basis. Working out what it is that we can do to be one degree more inclusive, one degree, more aware and conscious of other people’s perspectives.
That’s the golden thread for me. Yes, there are all these big change programmes or light bulb moments that we can sometimes have, but change is far more subtle. For me, inclusive growth is just day-to-day working out, “Yes, I could do that differently. Yes, I could think about the way I’m speaking to that person. Yes, I could include that person more in my thinking, in my life, whatever it might be.” It’s lovely to be asked the question because it gets really quite deep and it’s very therapeutic to think it through as well.’
To wrap up our fabulous conversation, I posed one last question to my guest, asking ‘What is your call to action for the person listening to our interview today, Nicola?’
‘It’s something that’s more in my mindset over the last 18 months or so. Something that I have decided I need to do, and something that shapes my conversations with clients. Basically, if you aren’t deliberately and consciously being inclusive, then you’re probably not. And I don’t mean that that means that anybody who’s not thinking about this intentionally is horrible and it’s all going wrong. Equally more people are worrying about what’s unconscious to them. I’m just trying to get people to flip it around and say, “Actually, yes, you should be worried and trying to pick up on some of the unconscious biases you may have.” But actually, a far better way is to be proactive and think about how you can be consciously inclusive because being passive isn’t going to work and it’s nobody else’s job to D&I you, you’ve got to do it for yourself. That would be my call to arms. Be deliberately and consciously inclusive.’
To get in touch with Nicola Paul and find out more about her work you can find her at goodworklife.co.uk or on her LinkedIn page.