Five lessons we’ve learnt about D&I careers
By Jo Faragher on 12 February 2021
If you want to become an accountant or a lawyer, there’s typically a defined career path you can take: study for a degree, get a postgraduate qualification and hope that an eager employer will sign you up to complete your transition into that profession. But as a relatively new discipline, there’s no obvious route into diversity and inclusion. As a function it can often, but not always, sit in HR, while in some organisations it has grown out of passionate volunteer networks who campaigned for the business to invest formally in inclusion.
d&i Leaders had the pleasure to interview a number of trailblazers in the profession about their journeys in our ‘My D&I Journey‘ series – here are five things we’ve learned so far.
1. The road may not be straight
With no formal qualifications as such to enter diversity and inclusion, many professionals in the function come into it via other aspects of the business. Marc McKenna-Coles, who has recently joined Spotify as its diversity, inclusion and belonging lead, started his working life in Disney working in stores and on cruise ships before a career in banking. He was keen to get into D&I and was a keen participant in employee networks before he got his first formal, paid role. His breadth of experience stood him in good stead, however: “A lot of the team were from an HR background, but I came from the business side, so could apply a lens of ‘would this land well with the business’ or ‘are there things we need to reflect on’?”
2. No two days are the same
D&I takes on many guises in different organisations, with multiple ways of describing it, different reporting lines and hugely varying priorities. So it’s no surprise that one D&I professional’s day will not be the same as another’s, or that any two days will be alike in this role. There is often a combination of the strategic and the practical. For example, Lauren von Stackelberg, global head of inclusion and diversity at Expedia Group, says that much of the time is spent “developing toolsets, policies and scaffolding to help people address biases” and conversations with multiple stakeholders feed into this.D&I professionals often spend time presenting on topical D&I issues to the board or reporting on progress with diversity targets. Rachel Osikoya, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Maersk Group, says this is one of the core elements of her role, alongside talking to HR business partners and other stakeholders who will help the D&I team’s goals be implemented ‘on the ground’.
3. You must be able to listen
Empathy is one of the core skills of an effective D&I leader, and in order to build empathy it’s important to listen to others’ stories. Barry Boffy, head of inclusion and diversity at the British Transport Police, believes every D&I professional needs curiosity, “not coming into things with defined ideas, and having the wherewithal to accept that they may change”. Listening is crucial to broaden your understanding of others’ lived experiences that might be outside your own. This can be done with the support of employee resource groups, and might not always be a comfortable experience. “You will have a lot of conversations that are difficult with stakeholders who are at different places on their journeys,” adds von Stackelberg. “This is not a job you can do in your comfort zone, so make sure you create a safe space for yourself and others to make mistakes, learn and grow.”
4. Be able to build the business case
However well embedded D&I is in your organisation, the senior leaders will be looking for data to show what you’re doing is working. The ability to draw from data sources around the organisation (and externally, if possible), will help you stand out from the crowd. Osikoya says: “Passion is important but you’ll also need to be able to articulate a business case, as you’ll be faced with leaders who may push back.”Sourcing that evidence can be a challenge, however, because workplace culture is intangible, and improvements hard to evidence. Boffy adds: “Unfortunately, questions around credibility and why we are needed is something we always experience, and this goes back to EDI being something conceptual with no defined career path. Demonstrating the success of EDI programmes is often qualitative, which presents another challenge.”
5. Resilience is crucial
When asked what the top three skills or qualities required for success in a D&I role, our profile subjects have repeatedly cited one thing: resilience. Cheryl Allen, HR director for culture and transformation at Atos says “driving change can be hard and it is a journey”, encapsulating the challenges many leaders face in getting buy-in from corners of the organisation that may be keen on keeping the status quo. The events of 2020, and in particular Black Lives Matter, have both shone a light on the D&I function but also required it to give a lot of personal energy. Osikoya from Maersk admits that this has been “one of the most challenging times she’s faced in her career” when her professional and personal roles collided, and one that truly pushed the resilience of many in similar roles.
My D&I Journey
We regularly ask d&i Leaders members to share their journey into diversity and inclusion, the best parts of their job, the challenges, the skills that support them and advice for those looking to move into D&I.
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