Stronger Together


5 min read
16 Jun

Isabel describes her career as a ‘patchwork quilt of different kinds of experiences from marketing, classical music to brand and strategy consultancy, even directing opera’. The last two decades have been in culture and engagement. These experiences come together in the work Isabel does in belonging.

Isabel told me where it all started. ‘However careful a company’s external messaging is, what matters is the reality of the experience inside for people. It really came to me one day when I was facilitating a workshop with a railway company. We were talking about the notion of brand. This railway man leaned back in his chair, stuck his thumbs in his old-fashioned uniform waistcoat and he said, "Listen, love, I don't belong to a brand. All I know about a brand is that the colour of my tie changes every five years when the train company contracts change. I belong to the railways. My dad was a railway man, his dad was a railway man, and that's what we belong to.”

That just grounded the whole room. But also, my understanding and this profound sense of identity and connectedness between individual people, between teams, and even between generations, like this continuity of belonging. And that was his world. And what he was not accepting and was pushing away was the notion of brand. And I suppose few people want to be branded, if you see, think about what that means. So that story, it was about 18 years ago, it just made me realise, belonging is profound. And that's led me down a path from there.’

I shared my experience that belonging is being used more when talking about diversity and inclusion and asked Isabel to explain what a culture of belonging means. She acknowledged the link and pointed out that quite a few people now do say diversity, inclusion and belonging citing Pat Wadors, from ServiceNow, previously at LinkedIn who calls it “DIBs”, diversity, inclusion and belonging.

Isabel continued, ‘I think belonging goes deeper than the established understanding of diversity and inclusion. Belonging is a sense of membership, being part of something. It’s important this positive choice to want to be part of a group. It's a very powerful connector to your members, your contributors, your makers. I think the relationship with inclusion, though, is important, because by its very nature, it’s about there being a balance between the individual, me, and the whole, the us.

It's about everybody being accepted for who they are as an individual and invited for the particular talents that they bring so that they can contribute fully and thrive as an individual. As well as the collective we also belong to lots of different subgroups that we move between. I think it is about moving in and out of the me and us. Us might be a team. I might belong to a team, a department, a location, and all of us. So that is part of what I mean by a culture of belonging and I think that overlaps with inclusive growth.’

Isabel provided some examples of organisations with good cultures of belonging. Airbnb does the cross-over from one location or one team to another well. They describe it as being in a bakery or in a brewery, where you have the mother yeast that the company keeps growing and cooking and brewing from. Isabel thinks this is a positive image. ‘Making your bread rise, making things grow. It's a very nurturing kind of growth image.’

Isabel talked about how Airbnb’s people represent their culture in action. ‘It's not so much about putting things down on paper and saying, "Our values are blah, blah, and blah," and then putting that up on the wall. Or even as I've seen in more than one place on the back of the loo door. What Airbnb does is it's in the people's behaviour, in everyday interactions, in the habits of business, it's in the style of leadership.

Those people might be at different levels, not just top-level people. Natural networkers, influencers that the company moves about. When Airbnb was growing rapidly, expanding into Ireland, India, Moscow, the South Andes, they didn't just open a local office with local people. They imported some established Airbnb people and hired some local people and melded that. The mother yeast as it were, people who represented ways of behaving in an Airbnb style, worked with local people. So you've got a little bit of a cross-over between that. It’s not fixed, or rigid, it's still growing and rising. You're making different loaves. One’s got a slight flavour of Patagonia or a slight flavour of Latvia or wherever a new office is, but it's very much an Airbnb flavour, with that sense of belonging.’

Isabel also cited H&M, a large company growing across the world which takes a similar approach. The company recruits local people with the profile and style H&M want and then they partner up the new team with people from the head office in Sweden and people from branches around the world. For about 6 months the established people go to the new branch, help set it up and train people on the site. They listen to what the local people say about how people would like to shop there. They listen and tailor the shop to a local market, but all the time they're imbuing H&Ms style of customer service, of staff support, of the habits, the rituals, the routines that make it H&M belonging.

I asked Isabel about one of the big challenges of inclusive growth, namely how do you take culture to scale? She returned to the railway industry, her work with Network Rail and her great admiration for its culture. Not only does Network Rail have a ‘deep-rooted commitment to safety, but they also have the same approach to culture and inclusion which is very grounded’.

She continued, ‘Maybe that makes sense for an engineering company, within that discipline. They always look at context and relevance. So with the big principle around culture, ask what's the context overall? What does that mean for how we do a good job? For Network Rail, the context for a long time was about steady improvement and the phrase was "Better every day".

So in their practical way, what they were looking for continually was “How do we make things better?” The extension of that thinking culturally was, "How do I help other people make that better? How can I as a leader help my team make that better? How as a middle manager can I make sure that we're connecting with other teams to make that better?"

Network Rail has a great Director of Inclusion and Diversity at Network Rail, Loraine Martins, who's made a lot of inroads to open out the reach, spread and opportunities for talent. One of her phrases around a belonging culture is "Encouraging managers to allow people to shine. Provide opportunities for people to shine".

It takes the emphasis away from, "Well, they can't do that because," or, "I must do that because I'm higher status". It's true empowerment, asking, "Where is the opportunity for this person with their talent, experience and particular insights into a community or a background, how can this person shine?" Do that enough and when people shine as individuals, people shine as a whole. That's my example from Network Rail that I love.’

Isabel reflected that in common with the rail industry, other industries share an extraordinary sense of belonging. They tend to be mission-critical environments like the armed forces, the Emergency Services or healthcare. Intense work environments lead to bonding. She also confessed not being a big fan of the notion of culture change because the term infers people are somehow in charge of it. Isabel proposed thinking about it as belonging, which involves everyone, including leadership. 

Isabel gave some more examples such as Unilever which has achieved 50/50 gender parity in the management layers. She also cited a small company near Seattle in America, called Gravity, which is a credit card handling company for smaller businesses who were being hit by very expensive bank charges. Dan Price founded it and made headlines when he put everybody including himself as CEO and founder, on a $70,000 a year salary. He said his Damascus moment, was on a hike with a friend. They were chatting about what salary do you need to have a reasonable level of comfort and not being constantly stressed about money. Price decided that everybody at Gravity need to be on the same salary as a collective.

‘It's a very big challenge for how businesses relate to their employees. How belonging and leadership are the warp and weft. It’s very different from the traditional command and control. I think these shifts have been happening for a while around belonging. As we’ve all been forced into isolation, it's the opposite of belonging. As we emerge, I think the expectations will be different.’

I asked Isabel what practical steps we might take to shift the organisational culture to foster belonging. Her first tip was to focus on the recruitment stage and look at how organisations nurture belonging. If the emphasis is there and not on culture fit it avoids processes unintentionally becoming about sameness and exclusion. Isabel believes instead of looking for a culture fit, organisations should look for cultural contribution.

The second tip Isabel gave is that the ethos and purpose lie at the heart of belonging. ‘Because ethos is partly purpose, it’s why we're here. The common bond, the reason for being in this group, is the mission that we're seeking to achieve, our long term. For some organisations, it's hundreds of years of a long term, cherished, shared goal.

Another tip, don't say, "our values", ever. Say, "what we value", because that's active, that's an active thing. Then start to say, "Because we value this, we make decisions this way", or, "Because we value this thing, that would not be the right thing for us". Like Dan Price at Gravity. Because he valued his employees and he valued their commitment, he wanted to tangibly demonstrate his commitment to them.’

Isabel’s top tip was to define ethos and values by asking the organisation’s people three questions:

  • What are you most proud of?
  • What makes you remain committed even through difficult times?
  • What would you say no to and why?

The answers generated should put boundaries around the ethos and illustrate the organisation’s purpose as well as what is valued by its people.

I then moved on to ask Isabel how she thinks cultures of belonging can help organisations grow.

She told me that it’s because cultural belonging provides an environment in which everybody can grow. It grounds individuals and acts as a connector to the whole.

‘It enables growth by encouraging informal contact. You might be sitting in one part of the business, nursing a bit of a question or a problem. You want to reach out to get some help from people in other parts of the world. You have implicit permission because you all belong. I think that’s powerful. It's not because your line manager says you can, or your structure says you can, it's a culture of belonging. There's a tremendous grounding in that and great possibilities.’

Isabel expanded on this thinking by expanding on the themes of freedom and responsibility.

‘W.L. Gore & Associates and Netflix both work, using slightly different language, on the twin notion of freedom and responsibility. So if you think of those things as being the boundaries around belonging, "What am I responsible for? What are my accountabilities?" And then, "What are my freedoms? How do I get on and make that happen?" It encourages you to take part, by belonging. To take part to the fullest that you can. Imagine how much more you're getting more out of each employee, each member of your team because they want to. Imagine how much more likely it is that people will uphold what you value, and uphold the ethics of the business, and avoid those horrible headlines when people do not.

Imagine being the place where talent is drawn to you because you become the place that people want to belong to. The things you value convert into monetary and reputational value, plus greater good in the world. My punchline for belonging is that we can do more together. We are deeply programmed, there's plenty of evidence around it and in such awful times of isolation and constraints on our social behaviour, I think has made people realise this more. I was finding it much harder for people to talk about belonging before because it was taken for granted until it was taken away from us.

we can do more together.

What’s powerful is why are we like that. Why are we a social species? Why are we this species with all these co words, cooperate, communicate, collaborate. Why do we have that? We also, by the way, have conflict, which is another belonging thing. We can, in the dark side of belonging, we can bond together for conflict. The light side is what we want when we bond together for collaboration.

Why are we programmed as this social, communicative species? I think it's because we can get further, faster, together by sharing our efforts, sharing our resources, by working together to build something, to solve a problem, to create a new vaccine, whatever that might be, we can do that better than we can individually. And as a species, it's helped us at our best to evolve to get further faster.

‘In inclusion in diversity and belonging, we have to make sure that we are forming into groups for collaboration, for achievement, for productivity, for getting stuff done. We sometimes have to work against our dark side and remind ourselves of our better natures.’

To find out more about the work and thinking of Isabel Collins, or to get in touch, visit her LinkedIn page.