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“Stop sitting in conversations”: How to create positive change at speed

Written by Ann Francke OBE Thursday 01 April 2021
The pandemic has shown that change can happen quickly when we put our minds to it. How do we apply that mindset to D&I?
anne francke

In our latest Better Managers Briefing, I spoke with CMI Companion Jan Gooding CMgr – one of the UK's best-known brand marketers who’s worked with BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. Jan is also the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), and the president of the Market Research Society. An experienced executive coach and equality and diversity campaigner who has chaired Stonewall, Jan works with us on CMI Race, our initiative to put diversity and inclusion at the heart of great leadership.

I began our conversation by asking Jan what progress on workplace equality has been made over the course of her career.

Setting the tone right from the top

“There has been progress towards greater equality in the workplace, but at too glacial a pace,” says Jan. “It’s very disappointing for me as a woman in my early sixties – now confronted with ageism, in addition to all the other -isms that I've experienced through my career – that we're still having these discussions.”

According to Jan, Covid-19 has put into stark relief the immense inequalities that still exist: from the women in low paid-work who have been disproportionately affected, to the young people who can’t find work or the freelancers who couldn’t access the furlough scheme. “There’s a tendency for those of us who have been privileged enough to be able to work from home to forget that an awful lot of people couldn't and still can't,” she points out. “We need to be alert to the needs of the workers in our economy, who have kept going, but have poor employment rights.

“We promised ourselves that we would build back better. But the government is absolutely critical in setting the economic environment, through the tax and benefits system, the rules and regulations. The tone that the government sets, as well as policy decisions it takes, will be fantastically important, not least because the government is a major employer.”

Start with a sense of urgency

Jan says she has learned not to be overwhelmed by, or waste energy on, the unfairness of inequality. “I’ve learned to accept that it has happened and know that is outrageous. That has then spurred me to speak up, do my bit and be part of trying to change cultures in the future. I've tried to make the adversity useful to me and direct where I spend my energy.”

The pandemic has shown us what’s possible when, collectively, we choose to respond to a crisis. “When I worked at BT, British Gas and Aviva, we often used to say that when there's a crisis and all hands were at the pump, we could move heaven and earth,” recalls Jan. “It’s amazing how bureaucracy is removed, people are given authority, as it gets delegated down and out. People meet more frequently to make decisions instead of setting up steering committees. And decisions are made fast.

“During this pandemic, we have enabled whole workforces to work from home. We’ve solved huge problems at speed because we had to. I’ve never seen this happen on a national scale before. And it excites me to see what’s possible. I’m very concerned about the climate emergency and how it intersects with the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda. So I’m excited to see that when we decide to move, when we share a sense of urgency, we can achieve great things.”

Align strategies to further inclusion

To make the case for inclusion, you have to attach it to the commercial strategy of your organisation, recommends Jan. “I found that I had to park my activism and leave it at the door. I didn't talk about human rights or just doing the decent thing – I talked about how we wanted to grow as an organisation. I made the case by talking about the importance in a digital economy of having diverse voices to develop our intuitive and iterative decision-making. “

According to Jan, it’s vital not to be overwhelmed by the size of the task. “When George Floyd was murdered last year, I watched the video on Twitter without realising what I was watching,” she recalls. “And I literally thought I was going to throw up.

“For the first time, many people have seen and understood the structural and systemic barriers that are particular to racism. We have realised that in pursuing an anti-racist agenda, we have to work on the system. It's not just about unconscious bias. It's about the default processes, attitudes and systems.

“There is deep work that has to be done, and it would be easy to be overwhelmed, frozen in the headlights, by the complexity. But we've got to make our places of work materially different. If you're a manager, whatever your sphere of influence is, you can make a difference because there is good work to be done every day, recruiting and promoting people genuinely on the basis of potential. We've got to work on the system, not just sit in the conversations.”

You can watch our conversation in full here. Our previous Better Managers Briefings are all hosted on CMI’s YouTube channel, so do take a moment to browse through.

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