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Stephen Frost, Founder of Frost Included, discusses how to build an inclusive organisation that centres the experiences of minorities

We are least likely to consider diversity and inclusion (D&I) at the time we need it most. This is an irony I reflected on in a recent conversation with an HR Director facing some tough challenges. Even pre-Coronavirus, her organisation was experiencing profound difficulties, from a fall in demand, to a burgeoning pension liability, and an urgent need to become more digital. Just when an appreciation of inclusive, conscious and deliberate decision-making was most needed, the organisation was instead blindly cutting costs, hurtling towards redundancies and applying a very technical fix to a profoundly cultural problem.

Including difference is more important now than ever. One of the main reasons for this is that people are making profound decisions without sufficient calibration. No matter how brilliant leaders might be, no-one is brilliant enough to compute all the variables necessary to make the most accurate decision possible. Relying on tech and computation will help, but without different human input and lived experience, challenge and empathy will be missing.

Most organisations talk a good game about diversity and inclusion but COVID-19 has shown us, to use the analogy of the Emperor, which have clothes and which do not.

Most organisations talk a good game about diversity and inclusion but COVID-19 has shown us, to use the analogy of the Emperor, which have clothes and which do not. Culture is something that we do. A crisis focuses attention on those behaviours that are inclusive and those that are not. We can link those behaviours to the success of the organisation, and we can analyse whether the organisation has been built inclusively, or on shaky foundations.

In this article I will explore the key things to be aware of and what ‘initiatives’ you should avoid being seduced by. Most important of all, I will also explore what key building blocks you need to put in place if you are to truly reap the rewards of an inclusive organisation.

Practitioner experience

I’ve had the privilege to work in diversity and inclusion for over twenty years and the good fortune to study, teach and work with some amazing organisations around the world. At Stonewall, Europe’s largest LGBT+ charity, one of the most important initiatives we launched was the Workplace Equality Index. This benchmarked organisations on how “gay-friendly” they were and in 2005 it was notable that out of the “Top 100” organisations for LGBT+ people, seven did not want to be identified. A mere two years later, most were out of the closet and spending PR budgets trying to leverage their inclusion in the prestigious list. What I learned from this was that framing is everything. Rather than ‘persuade’ organisations to be nice to LGBT+ people, benchmark them and by default make it aspirational. Don’t apologise; organise.

This framing came into its own at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Organising Committee. As Head of Diversity and Inclusion, I had the job of making London 2012 inclusive. I wrote about it and detailed our specific work in my first book, “The Inclusion Imperative” – the framing was key to success. Rather than persuade colleagues of the virtue of D&I and risk turning them off, we didn’t even mention it. We asked them what challenges they were facing and how we could help. That’s how we were able to make the torch relay visit 90% of the population, how we were able to have prayer rooms and quiet rooms at all venues, and how we were able to weave inclusion throughout the opening and closing ceremonies and sports presentation.

Fundamentally it came down to strategy. What was the Olympics trying to do? The CEO Paul Deighton had three key objectives – deliver on time, under budget, and give everyone in the UK the chance to feel a part of it. D&I helped on all three scores. By recruiting teams rather than individuals, we were able to save time by interviewing groups at once. This also helped with diversity as we have less tendency to choose homogeneity when people are presented in groups. By opening up our supply chain and partnering with minority supply organisations, we were able to increase competition, drive down cost and source new innovations that might have otherwise escaped us. By every functional area having a simple plan to embed inclusion in key decisions, we were able to give everyone in the UK the best chance of being involved, from the location of training camps to the physical height of meal counters (and what was on the menu).

At KPMG UK, a partnership where I was Head of D&I, business savvy is critical to building inclusion. The COO there used to say that if you tell one hundred partners what to do, one third will comply, one third will see which way the wind is blowing, and one third will do the exact opposite just to spite you. Knowing this was critical. Again, rather than persuade and allow people to say the right thing and then behave exactly to the contrary, it was important to challenge them. Many intelligent people dumb down D&I because they don’t think it’s important or relevant to them or their job. When you find out what is important and relevant to them and then link inclusion to that, it’s a very different conversation.

What not to do

Many organisations engage in superficial and token attempts to demonstrate inclusivity that ring hollow upon further examination. We can categorise corporate D&I work into three paradigms. Diversity 101 is compliance driven. The law still acts as the main driver for many organisations. Diversity 2.0 is marketing driven. Think awards, press releases, Pride parades. Inclusion 3.0 is where it gets interesting. This is where, as with London 2012 and KPMG, it became part of the core strategy of the organisation.

Diversity 101 and 2.0 are essential but insufficient. Unfortunately, many CEOs with limited cognitive space for D&I settle for a D&I team, a couple of awards and an annual speech. This doesn’t really add value. For example, we analysed the winners of the Times Top 50 Where Women Want to Work and other gender-based award schemes. We then correlated these award-winning organisations with their actual gender pay gaps. We found an inverse correlation. In fact, the correlation was so telling that 94% of the award-winning organisations actually had gender pay gaps statistically significantly worse than average.

This is one example of what happens when CEOs tolerate D&I teams undertaking ‘initiatives’ disengaged from corporate strategy. In very few areas of business would we tolerate an investment that is basically throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what sticks. One-off unconscious bias training can actually do more harm than good. Network groups that become exclusive can lower morale and engagement. All the while, the perception we are “doing things” masks the reality that randomly moving the chess pieces on the board is a sure-fire way to lose the game. In 2020, doing nothing in terms of D&I is poor, but undertaking a shopping list of programmes is not much better.

What to do

The good news is that today, and especially in a crisis, we know more than ever about what works and we have the incentive to focus on it. We worked with the Bank of England on their cognitive diversity and decision-making. The Bank’s job is to mitigate risk in the economy. Therefore, whilst representation (gender, race etc) is important, embedding inclusion in decision-making is vital. We undertook an inclusion diagnostic to ascertain which behaviours were contributing to or detracting from inclusion. Low psychological safety contributed to suboptimal decision making. So simple tweaks made by chairs of meetings had an outsized effect on participation and contribution.

The Bank introduced a policy called “Author in the room” – any expert, at any level, could be included in a key meeting to inform the decision-making process (even if they were wearing jeans or had a body piercing). Rather than rely on the usual papers passed up through the hierarchy, this was data-informed positive disruption to a rather old, traditional institution. It also meant that hitherto intimidating senior people had to behave in such a way so as not to scare the interlopers, and therefore potentially miss the benefit of their in-the-moment expertise.

AstraZeneca is in the middle of developing a vaccine for COVID-19. Inclusion was critical to this in two ways – one was the inclusive leadership work done with senior decision makers in the period 2016-2019 as part of the AstraZeneca turnaround. This meant they were more aware of bias and inclusion related to their own behaviours and work than previously.

Leaders cultivated a ‘speak-up culture’ and solicited different perspectives. Second, was the application to the actual work such as clinical trials. We know that diversity in the design and trials process is critical to more successful outcomes. For example, white leaders appreciating the racial disparities in types of diabetes is critical to informing not only their own behaviour (such as better including minorities on their teams to inform their own perspective) but also the application to the diversity of the trials to find better medicines to tackle race differences in outcomes.

To succeed, any organisation needs to consider five critical D&I components:

1. Any D&I work should link to strategy. What is the organisation trying to do and how is D&I core to that?
2. D&I work should be data led – which behaviours are getting in the way of greater inclusion?
3. D&I should infuse governance, how decisions get made.
4. It should be a core part of leadership – your behaviour, not outsourced to a junior D&I team lacking influence.
5. D&I should be embedded in systems such as recruitment and procurement to debias them, improve their performance and ensure scalability and sustainability.

At Stonewall, my favourite (previously most terrifying) client was the Royal Navy. Having to address the 50 captains of the UK fleet, all with their arms crossed and brows furrowed, was nerve wracking, not least because they had a choice. To either refuse to include LGBT+ people and exit them from ships (this was the law pre-2000). Or to accept LGBT+ people existed and include them as effectively as possible (which became the approach from 2004). When the mission of the Navy is team effectiveness and you have some members of your team whose inclusion is in doubt, then it’s about how you include them. It’s about the behaviours you display, the people you consult and the decisions that you make.

The Navy, just like the Bank of England and Astra Zeneca, are more successful today because they are inclusive. In the current situation, when budgets are being cut, people have less cognitive space available for inclusion and empathy and D&I is on life support, we return to the paradox I outlined at the beginning. It’s precisely because your organisation needs D&I, and especially at this moment, that you owe it to your team and to yourself to lead on it.


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