Ep. 10: Belonging - Stronger Together


10 min read

S?: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


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Toby Mildon: Hello, and welcome to this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. I am Toby Mildon, and I'm joined by a fantastic guest today, Isabel Collins, who is a specialist in culture and belonging. Isabel, welcome to the show.


Isabel Collins: Thank you very much. Thank you for the great welcome. It's lovely to join you.


Toby Mildon: So Isabel, how did you get into belonging and culture? 


Isabel Collins: Well, by quite a mixture of experience. I have a long career that's probably a bit of a patchwork quilt of different kinds of experiences from marketing classical music, to brand and strategy consultancy, even to directing opera. And then in the last 20-odd years, to culture and engagement. It all comes together now in the work I do in belonging. I guess what really became clear was that no matter how careful the messaging is that a company puts out on the outside, what matters is the reality of the experience inside for people. And the day that that really came to me, it was a bright light that was shone in a workshop that I was facilitating with a railway company. And we were talking about brand, the notion of brand. And this railwayman leaned back in his chair, stuck his thumbs in his old-fashioned uniform waistcoat and he says, "Listen, love," 'cause we were in York. "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 railwayman, his dad was a railwayman, and that's what we belong to."


Isabel Collins: That just grounded the whole room. But also, my own 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 word. And what he really was not accepting and was pushing away was the notion of brand. And I suppose very few people really want to be branded, if you see, think about what that actually means. So that story, it was about 18 years ago, it just made me realise, belonging really is absolutely profound. And that's led me down a path from there.


Toby Mildon: So I've heard belonging used more and more when alongside us, talking about diversity and inclusion, but what do we actually mean by a culture of belonging? 


Isabel Collins: Well, I think there is a very, very close relation between inclusion, diversity and belonging, and in fact, quite a lot of people now do say diversity, inclusion and belonging as a thing. Pat Wadors, who's now at ServiceNow, was at LinkedIn. She calls it DIBs, diversity, inclusion and belonging. I think belonging goes deeper than the established understanding of diversity and inclusion. It goes into a deeper sense, because belonging is a sense of membership, being part of something. It's definitely not belonging as ownership. And what's important around this is 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 quite important, because, of course, by its very nature, it is about there being an easy balance between the individual, me, and the whole, us. So somewhere in that it is about that inclusion.


Isabel Collins: 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 us an individual. And at the same time, by being included in a collective as a whole group, and we also belong to lots of different subgroups that we move between, then everybody can be productive and everybody can thrive. So I think it is about that moving in and out, of the me and us, and even who is 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 culture of belonging. I think the other questions might elucidate a little bit further. And it is where I see a very strong overlap with your work specifically around inclusive growth.


Toby Mildon: Excellent. So what examples do you have of organisations with good cultures of belonging? 


Isabel Collins: As you know, I've spent quite a lot of time really digging into this, and I collect examples. So I've found it's really hard just to say one or two. So let me throw a few thoughts, because they give different indications. And two companies that do a similar thing but of very different scale, Airbnb, H&M, the fashion chain. Airbnb from the very beginning, as a rapid startup growth and H&M as a very big company growing across the world, they're really good at doing the cross-over from one location or one team to another. And at Airbnb, somebody described it like being in a bakery or in a brewery, where you have the mother yeast. You have this yeast that you keep growing and cooking and brewing from. I think it's a positive image. Maybe some people don't find it positive. I think it's a positive thing, making your bread rise, making things grow. It's a very nurturing kind of growth image.


Isabel Collins: But the idea is that you've got some people that represent your culture in action. So 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, "Our values are blah, blah, and blah," on the back of the loo door. What Airbnb and H&M do is it's in the people's behaviour, it's in your everyday interactions, it's in the habits of business, it's in the style of leadership. So they take those people, it might be at different levels, not just top-level people, but just natural networkers, natural influencers, and they move them about. So when Airbnb was growing very, very rapidly and they were expanding to Ireland or they were expanding to India, or Moscow or wherever, they didn't just open a local office. They took some established people, so when they were opening new offices all around the world, whether that was in Ireland or whether it was in India, or whether it was Moscow or the South Andes, wherever they might be, they didn't just take local people and they didn't only import established Airbnb people, they melded that.


Isabel Collins: So that you've got a really nice combination of, the mother yeast as it were, in people who represented in their ways of behaving a kind of an Airbnb style, an Airbnb flavour, and then they worked with local people. So you've got a little bit of a cross-over between that. So, it's still growing. It's not fixed, it's not rigid, it's still growing, it's still rising, it's still nurturing. You're making another loaf and another loaf and it's got a slight flavour of Patagonia or a slight flavour of Latvia or wherever that office was, but it's very much an Airbnb flavour, very much an Airbnb sense of belonging. And also by moving people about, you join those up. That's often the bit that's missed, is the joining up, the linking between. Not just the embodiment of belonging within a team but the joining up between teams and the easy flow of people.


Isabel Collins: H&M did a very similar thing. When they open new offices, they deliberately, they recruit local people of the sort of profile and style that they particularly want to get at H&M but they're conscious that a shopping style might be very different. For example, a shopping style in Korea or a shopping style in Japan is quite a different kind of experience from the grab off the rails kind of shopping style that you might find Oxford Street or in other parts of the world. And similarly when they opened in South Africa, that was a very different sort of local culture, but they wanted the H&M flavour.


Isabel Collins: So what they do is a double cross-over. They spend about six months before they open a new branch, where people from not just head office in Sweden, in Stockholm, but people from many branches in many parts of the world are partnered up with this new team that's been recruited. The established people go and they help set it up and they train people on the site. They help build the sites. They listen to what the local people say about how people would like to shop there, where they might need a more private place to have a conversation, for example, or where they might like big, bright central display. So they really listen and tailor it 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. Belonging is made up of so many things, and then that same team goes for a couple of months to work somewhere else. So when they opened in Korea, the team that were going to be operating in Seoul went to Oslo in Norway. Like this is a really, really different part of the world. It's a really, really different culture, and they worked in a H&M shop for a while and then they went back.


Isabel Collins: So that's quite a big investment of time and people, but with a very rapid start-up and where you're trying to take culture to scale, this is often the challenge of growth, is how do you take culture to scale? 


Toby Mildon: So those are really great examples as well. Have you got any other examples that you can share with us? 


Isabel Collins: Yeah. So let's share another couple, again one, a pretty big company, a big employer and an important employer in the UK. Having started with my story about the railwaymen that inspired me in belonging, I feel I must mention the rail industry. I've worked for quite some years with Network Rail and I have a great admiration for the culture there. I'm sure there's always lots of things where people could grumble and say, "We could do this better and we could do that better." Well, what I particularly admire in Network Rail is a very deep-rooted commitment to culture and inclusion and also to things like safety but from a very rooted, pragmatic, everyday sense. Not just a kind of idealised sense but it's very grounded and maybe that makes sense as an engineering company and maybe it's something in that discipline.


Isabel Collins: But I've seen some tremendous examples of very inclusive, very strong demonstration of practical understanding of what does this mean, what does that mean in action. And so there's two things I want to share from Network Rail, one is this great principle which is always look at context and relevance. If you've got a big principle around culture, 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".


Isabel Collins: So if you're going to get better every day, that means that sometimes not everything is absolutely perfect, which might be hard for an engineer to get hold of, but in their very practical way, what they were looking at all the time was how do we make this better. And then the extension of that 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?"


Isabel Collins: So culturally, there was a very big thing about context and relevance. What does that mean for what people do every day? The other thing that I really admired and there's a tremendous Director of inclusion and diversity at Network Rail, Loraine Martins, who's made a lot of inroads to really open out the reach of talent, the spread of talent and the opportunities for talent. And one of her phrases around belonging culture is "Encouraging managers to allow people to shine. Provide the opportunities for people to shine".


Isabel Collins: That is, taking the emphasis away from, "Well, they can't do that because," or, "I must do that because I'm higher status," but it's true empowerment of saying, "Where is the opportunity for this person with their talent, with their experience, with their particular insights to a community or a background, how can this person shine?" And if you do that enough, you're naturally looking at, how can... By that person shining as an individual, how can we all shine as a whole? So that's my example from Network Rail that I love.


Toby Mildon: I'm really glad that you raised that, actually, 'cause Loraine Martins is a hero of mine, she's a great D&I practitioner.


Isabel Collins: Okay. So great, yes, exactly. So I think that the Loraine's work has being tremendous, but I think genuinely Network Rail, the whole rail industry does have this extraordinary sense of belonging. It's the kind of thing you do get in the military, in the forces, the Emergency Services, it's the intensity of the work, the intensity of bonding. But you take that to a higher scale. And with Network Rail or some of those kinds of organisations, I guess you may well find the same thing in the airline industry, it's really safety-critical, it's really time-critical. So every bit linking up, joining up, really smoothly, is absolutely mission-critical.


Isabel Collins: So another example that I've really admired recently is Unilever, which has achieved 50/50 gender parity in its management layers and it's done that by a number of means, and some of it of course is about recruitment, about internal recruitment and so forth. But some of it is about culture management, and I think that's the important thing to think about with culture and belonging. I'm not a big fan of the notion of culture change, 'cause I think that suggests that you're somehow in charge of it, and if you think about it as belonging, that by its nature is all of us. So we all have a responsibility. And leadership are part of that, they're not apart from it or above it or separate. And something in what Unilever has done with its 50/50 gender parity in management layers must come down to that. I haven't actually yet dug in, but I'm looking forward to, I'm going to be interviewing their director of talent on exactly that theme and I'm really looking forward to hearing more from Leena Nair on how they've done that from a culture point of view.


Isabel Collins: And then a small company in Washington State, near Seattle in America, that's a small company that's been in the news twice recently called Gravity, which is a credit card handling company for smaller businesses who were being hit by very expensive charges from banks and providers. And it was set up by this young chap called Dan Price, who I think he's still in his early 30s and has had a very successful company. Dan Price hit the news, I don't, know six months or a year ago when he put everybody including himself as CEO and founder, on a $70,000 a year salary.


Isabel Collins: And his big sort of road to Damascus moment, was really realising from a friend of his, he was hiking and having a walk through this fantastic landscape that I hope to see one day. And she was saying, "Oh, God, it's been so hard because I thought that I was earning a really good salary but then it isn't, because then you have a child, you have a house and that... " They were sort of chatting about what do you need to have a reasonable level of comfort and a reasonable level of not being stressed. And he just sort of went back and he said, "Well, everybody needs to be at least on this salary, and I will reduce my salary and I'll go on the same thing." So that's quite an extreme, I'm not suggesting all companies have to do it, like with any of these things, what I'm saying is that was an extreme example of leaders belonging and leaders being part of it to some degree on the same terms. Of course, he still has the responsibility as a leader and an owner, so it's not entirely the same terms, but he is part of. And then just very recently, during lockdown, when they had suddenly a massive loss to an awful lot of their business, because they serve small businesses that mostly were closing necessarily, and the way that they managed that again was quite a collective way of doing it.


Isabel Collins: Now again, I'm not saying all companies have to do things from a collective perspective, and it doesn't necessarily mean collective ownership. Dan Price is still the owner of the business. It's a very big challenge to how businesses relate to their employees and how does belonging and leadership overlap, where are the warp and the weft, I'm making with my hands, the sort of interweaving of all of that, which is very different from the traditional command and control, "I am slightly separate and above and you will do what I tell you." I think these shifts have been happening for a while around belonging and now I think as we come out of our current period of not having belonging, we've all been forced into isolation. It's the opposite of belonging. So I think the expectations will be different.


Toby Mildon: Yeah. I think those are brilliant examples and thank you for sharing them with us. I really like your point about culture management, and that we can't manage the culture necessarily. So for the person listening to this episode, if they wanted to shift the culture in their organisations to one that's more of a culture of belonging, what are some of the practical steps? 


Isabel Collins: What I mean by culture of belonging and even what I mean by culture. Culture is defined in so many different ways, isn't it? And maybe all of the words have relevance here. There's culture in the sense of higher expression, higher art of human beings at higher levels of communication. There's culture in the symbols and the characteristics, the habits, the beliefs of a group, but there's also a culture as the environment in which things grow, in which you can cultivate, and I think that's bang on your theme of healthy inclusive growth, I think it's the... What is the environment of belonging in which you can cultivate growth for everybody? 


Toby Mildon: A bit like that yeast.


Isabel Collins: Yeah. So my first top tip is at the recruitment stage of all of this. And I would really love to see, along with not saying culture change, but rather looking at how do you nurture belonging. I would love to have the emphasis, not really on culture fit. Culture fit can unintentionally become about sameness and exclusion. "Do you fit in?" can mean, "Are you the same as us? Do you look the same? Do you wear the same kinds of things? Do you have the same kind of accent?" And then that can be exclusive. So, don't look for that. Look for culture contribution. So that's my first tip on belonging. It's right at the level of recruitment, or of promotion, and even thinking about things like career progression, and who should be on a fast track to leadership. What's the culture contribution of that person? Not just, "Are you brilliant at your job," but what's the broader contribution to everybody else's belonging.


Isabel Collins: Again, to quote Pat Wadors who's now at ServiceNow, she talks about inviting people in. And one of her measures, how she measures belonging, is she asks, how people have felt, whether they felt they belonged. And also whether you felt you had actively contributed to help other people feel they belong. So that's... The tip one is, go for cultural contribution over culture fit. Tip two is that ethos is the heart of belonging. And ethos is partly purpose, what we're here for. And that's our common bond, the reason for being in this group, the mission that we're seeking to achieve, our long, long term, and for some people in some organisations, it's hundreds of years long term, cherished, shared goal.


Isabel Collins: So that's purpose but it's also what we value. So there's a tip, straight off. Don't say, "our values", ever. [chuckle] Say, "what we value", because that's active, that's an active thing. And then you can 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", or, "Because we value this thing, we're going to put ourselves right to the edge of that". Like the chap at Gravity. Because he valued his employees and he valued their commitment, he wanted to demonstrate his commitment to them, for example. So, how do you define your ethos? How do you define what we value? Here are three questions, here's my top tip. If you were looking at doing it a sort of quick way of checking that you've got the right statements of what we value, or if you're a new company, or if you're an established company wanting to make sure you're still relevant, ask a chunk of people these three questions.


Isabel Collins: "What are you most proud of? What makes you remain committed even through difficult times? What would you say no to and why?" Those three questions are a very good way of putting the boundaries around ethos. That really gives you an idea about your purpose, about what you value.


Toby Mildon: Cool. Isabel, thanks ever so much for those really helpful tips. How do you think cultures of belonging can help organisations grow? Because this is after all The Inclusive Growth Show.


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Isabel Collins: It is The Inclusive Growth Show. I think that I've sort of referenced some of these points along the way. How it helps organisations to grow is because it provides the environment in which everybody can grow. That's what a cultural belonging is for. It is the place in which you can cultivate that. So seeing it as the opportunity to shine, as Loraine Martins might say, seeing it as a place to invite others in, as Pat Wadors might say, those things become such a passionate sense of emotive grounding for people. That is your personal grounding as an individual, and at the same time, it's a connector as a whole.


Isabel Collins: One of the ways it makes for growth is that it enables the informal as well as the formal contact. It means that, for example, you might be sitting in one part of the business or even in a completely different part of the world, nursing a bit of a question or a problem, and you want to reach out to get some help from people in other parts of the world, and you have implicit permission, because you all belong. That I think is incredibly powerful from a cultural belonging. The implicit permission, indeed, encouragement, and possibly even responsibility to connect with other people. It's not because your line manager says you can, or your structure says you can, it's because you all belong. So, there's tremendous sort of grounding in that, but there's also tremendous possibilities.


Isabel Collins: Any company that rests on innovation, and one of the other companies I could have quoted would be W. L. Gore & Associates. Gore & Associates are really interesting. Or Netflix. Both of those companies work, slightly different language, but they both work 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. Now, imagine how much more you're getting 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 and costly contravention fines, from where people do not.


Isabel Collins: Imagine how much easier it is to uphold what we value and uphold our ethics because people want to. Because they're proud to be part of that. They want to uphold because they share what we value. They want to uphold because they want to keep it all alive. So it's a kind of shared commitment in it all. So innovation, safety, ethics, pulling in really interesting talent, being a natural beacon for talent, whatever form and shape that that comes in, but being the place where talent is drawn to you, because you become the place that people want to be part of, they want to belong to. All of those and many other ways, that is where all those things that you value turns into value in monetary terms as well as in reputational terms and as well as in greater good in the world. We can do more together. Actually, that's my punchline for belonging. We are deeply programmed, there's plenty of evidence around it and our awful times of isolation and constraints on our social behaviour, I think has made people realise much more. I was finding it much harder for people to talk about belonging before. It was taken for granted and now it's been taken away from us.


Isabel Collins: And I think it's made people very aware of it. But the thing that's really 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. And so the punch line of belonging is why. Why are we programmed as this social communicative species? And 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.


Isabel Collins: We're in the 21st century and we're still wrestling with the not our best part as a species, that we can fall very quickly into our tribal belonging becoming a basis to conflict. We go back to... I'm watching a wonderful 10th century drama that's just come back on Netflix called The Last Kingdom, which is about Saxons and Danes fighting across the nation, and even different factions of the nation of Wessex, the nation of Mercia before we became a whole country, and it's all about the goal of being more united. And every now and then again, they form a medieval shield wall, and it's great noise, great sound effects on this drama. And this huge army puts all its shields together, wooden shields, sham-sham-sham-sham-sham-sham-sham-sham, and they're all protected behind it and it's like a sort of giant armadillo form, which is an absolute symbol of everybody working very efficiently together for conflict. That's what that's for.


Isabel Collins: 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.


Toby Mildon: That's brilliant.


Isabel Collins: Shine the light. [chuckle]


Toby Mildon: Isabel, thank you ever so much for joining me on this episode. It's been... As always, I love hearing your thoughts and wisdom on the world. The person listening to this episode, if they want to follow your work or get in touch with you, how is the best way of doing that? 


Isabel Collins: Thanks, Toby. The best way is through LinkedIn at the moment. That's probably the best thing to do. You can find me on LinkedIn, Isabel Collins, I-S-A-B-E-L, and you can drop me a line on there. Yeah, you'll see quite lot of a back catalogue of articles and things on there as well. But thank you, Toby. Likewise, always enjoy a good chat with you and delighted to see how much your own business has flourished. You are demonstrating how inclusive growth can create growth for us all.


Toby Mildon: Lovely, thanks, Isabel. Thank you so much again for joining me on this episode of The Inclusive Growth show. And thank you for listening to this episode and I hope to see you again on the next episode, which is coming up shortly. Until then, good-bye.


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S?: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.