Taking a team approach to diversity


5 min read
28 Oct

Andy Barrow is a triple Paralympian who works as an access consultant and runs his own business. I started our conversation by asking him about his Paralympic career as well as finding out about what led to him becoming an access consultant.


‘I think the common thread through my story is rugby. Growing up, I played a lot of sport. I was fascinated by team sports, and my favourite sport was rugby. I did all the daft jobs in sport, so I was wicket-keeper at cricket, I played in goal for football, and I played in the front row at rugby. Unfortunately, that came back to bite me when I was 17 years old. I sustained a spinal cord injury in a game of rugby which left me permanently paralysed from the chest down with limited use of my hands and arms. From there, obviously, my life took a huge turn, but I always think even in your darkest moments, you can take positives. One of those positives was finding wheelchair rugby.


It might seem odd to get straight back into some form of rugby, but for me, it was about experiencing the camaraderie of the team again. So I started playing. I got good at wheelchair rugby. The long and short of it is it took me around the world. I was lucky enough to represent my country and captain my country. I played in three Paralympic games, retiring after the 2012 Games in London. Then I started working as a speaker, in schools, doing inspirational speeches for young people, to corporates about teams, teamwork, performance, and performance culture. I started speaking more widely, not only across the UK but internationally. I got to travel a lot through my rugby and speaking careers. I learned the processes around assisted travel within the aviation industry inside out.  As a world traveller, I experienced many of the pitfalls you can get into travelling with a disability and you do find yourself in some scrapes.


By virtue of that, I started doing some work with an access handler that worked out of a few of the UK and airports further afield around the world. That work bridged over into the train industry too. It's a funny story. I had a disappointing experience with a train operating company. I very much believe that when something goes wrong it's just a moment in time. It's more how people deal with things that sort of give you that broader view on whether it was overall a bad or a good experience. So from that initial bad experience, I got in touch with the access team, and essentially said to them, "Look, I don't like how this was handled initially. I think mistakes happen. There you go. I think I can do some work with you." And that's how I got into working in the rail industry along the same lines as the work I was doing in aviation.’


The train company Southeastern is one of Andy’s current clients. I asked him about the kind of work that he is doing with them.


‘We look at all the processes that a customer goes through when they undertake a journey. That means the processes from the staffing side, to make sure that staff get the best possible opportunity to give the customers the best service.


I also look at the culture behind assisted travel, because I believe you can have the best set of processes in the world, but if the staff don't understand the importance of what they do or see the greater purpose in what they do, then they're not going to feel tied to or engaged to the processes or want to excel at what they do. That’s the education piece that sits behind giving them a perfect set of processes to adhere to so that they can help everybody to the best of their ability. Then when issues crop up, they can resolve them in a timely, respectful, dignified manner.’


Having had my own horror travel stories, Andy and I are basically singing from the same hymn sheet on this. In my book, “Inclusive Growth”, I talk about the importance of creating inclusive cultures. The central chapter is “Colleague Experience and Design” which is about the processes, structures and systems that employees travel through. I write about removing speed humps and roadblocks that prevent people from completing a journey or slow them down on a particular journey. I asked Andy what are some of the inclusivity concepts and principles that he’s uncovered in the course of working with clients?


‘Before I hone in on inclusivity in organisational culture as a whole, from an elite athlete perspective, organisations don't train enough. Elite athletes train 99% of the time to compete for a major tournament, world event, Olympic Games or Paralympic Games. They spend their life doing the stuff behind the scenes for that one moment.


Business can't do that because it’s not financially viable, but a business seems to spend 99% of the time competing and training only 1% of the time. So I think businesses as a whole need to train more and understand that it's not a waste of time to get out and talk about what's happened, to analyse their processes and systems, and spend time looking at how they can improve them.


Regarding inclusive culture and inclusivity, first, I think you need to pull on people with lived experience and expertise, the classic "nothing about me without me”. That's really, really important. I think that when you have those people, whether they're the end-users or whether they're consultants that come in and help your organisation, you need to respectfully ask the questions you need to know the answers to, and then listen to those answers. It sounds very simple but it's something we don't do. There is this stigma about asking people, certainly around disabilities, about what impairment they have and how it impacts their use of that particular service that we're trying to find out more about. It's not prying into somebody's private life. Anyone has the right to turn around and say, "I'm not comfortable talking to you about that." Fair enough, that's where asking respectfully comes into it, but you do have to ask those questions. You do have to demystify, de-stigmatise disability. That's important.


The third thing is to leverage the internal experience that’s already in the organisation. That’s employees, again, with their permission and respectfully. You don't know, they may have a sibling or a partner with a disability. They might have lived experience of bringing up a son or a daughter with a disability, or any other area of minority. Leverage that expertise.


As I am conscious that not all readers work on the railways, become Paralympians, or have a sporting background, I asked Andy to explain what some of the common concepts or principles that sport and business share that anyone could apply in their own organisation, regardless of the industry.


‘Put a training structure into what you do, but start in a light touch fashion. Make a line in the sand and have a review session. Set out to find out what’s needed, and then gradually hone that. You have to start somewhere, you can’t just implement a world-beating training system in the organisation from nothing. Incremental changes are important. Ask, “What can I do to make my organisation 1% better?” It's spoken about a lot in sport, marginal gain, the idea of making a tiny change.


I asked Andy what one thing he did as captain of a rugby team to bring players together to get great results?


‘We met a lot. We met to discuss the day, the week, what had happened. I acted as a conduit between my team members and the management structure. I could pass things on, let people have their gripes and moans, of which there were plenty, so they felt heard. I could pass on the stuff that was useful, and make sure that I reported back on the results of that. Another thing I did with my teams, I set about making sure that everyone knew each other a bit better. I asked people to show and tell presentations on subjects that I knew that were dear to them but I didn't necessarily think that their teammates may know about. So they all knew and understood each other a bit better.  The topics crossed from very arbitrary subjects into quite in-depth, big, meaty subjects, things like the culture people were raised in, their general outlook and politics and stuff like that.


I'm not necessarily recommending that for every organisation because to my point of incremental improvement, if you go in tomorrow and you've never had any engagement with your fellow employees and all of a sudden, we're talking about politics and race and everything else, people might not be ready for that. Work towards it with something more light touch, hobbies, interests, maybe family if people are happy with it. The caveat to all this is it has to be with permission and it has to be with trust because otherwise, people will be suspicious of what you're trying to do. You don't want people seeing these exercises as a punishment rather than a genuine opportunity to grow.

Employees have to feel like they can be heard. Managers have to be seen putting themselves out there, being accountable. When you do that, you start getting more honesty into your organisation, and slowly, you drive down the whole idea of covering up failure and blame culture. One of the things we must learn to do is eradicate the fear of failure because we only learn through making mistakes.’


When Andy talks about the purpose of inclusivity that resonates strongly with my work in diversity and inclusion. The "why" is very important, the reasons why the businesses we work with are doing it.  I want to get my clients to think beyond the kind of the normal canned responses that I often hear, saying, "Well, businesses that are more diverse are profitable because that's what the three McKinsey reports have now evidenced." And I go, "Yes, that's true. Diverse organisations do outperform homogenous organisations, but why is it important to you and your business and your customers that you're there to serve? Let's make it personal for your organisation and let's not rely on these automatic answers we often hear.” I think it’s important that business leaders can speak to this and model it.


Andy agreed. ‘Yes it’s important my clients understand why people are getting on and off their trains. This could be crucially important. Several of the big London stations I work with are extremely close to major hospitals. Passengers aren’t just getting on the train, they may be taking a child to an appointment with a cancer specialist. Thinking about why people are making journeys is far more visceral and shows how important their travel is than simply getting on and off a train. It’s an important part in establishing the purpose of improving things, assigning roles properly, and having integrity and accountability for those roles who will do the things that the business says that it does.


I'm always interested to hear what inclusive growth means for my guests and their clients so I put that question to Andy.


‘For me, it’s removing those speed bumps. No barriers, no physical barriers, no cultural barriers. Returning to equality, achieving equity by treating everyone individually in order to engender equal opportunity for all. Beyond that, it's about people having understanding. Going back to a team environment, the more you understand the people you work with, the closer you become as a team. You start understanding why people do what they do, what's important to them, what their motivators are. It brings you closer than being work colleagues. Inclusive growth encompasses all of that. It brings people together so that we get into a situation where our work is more of a vocation than just a chore.’


 To learn more about Andy’s work or get in touch he recommends going to his website.  The News section gives a flavour of what he’s up to currently. If you want to contact Andy directly, his details are on there but you can email on andy@andybarrow.co.uk too.