Diversity and Inclusion Not Just the Right Thing to Do

Mark Dearlove is the chairperson of Spinal Muscular Atrophy UK, the national charity which represents the rare genetic condition that I was born with. We know each other because we are both trustees of the same charity. Mark has had an interesting career as a senior leader in the finance sector. I asked him about his experiences of diversity and inclusion in the sector and also what it means to be an inclusive leader working in the not-for-profit sector as a trustee. ‘I spent 35 years in banking and financial services. I retired a year ago. During my career, I worked with three large investment banks and I lived and worked in Japan for about ten years as well as travelling throughout Asia. 


My involvement with SMA UK first came about in 1999-2000 when a good friend of mine’s son was diagnosed with SMA. At the time it was a condition that I hadn’t heard about. I began by supporting the charities that had supported my friend through his son’s journey by raising money, running marathons, that type of thing. Then I became a trustee and then Chair of a charity called SMA Trust, which raised money for research into SMA. When I went to Japan, I stood down. Subsequently, I’ve been appointed the Chair of the Board of Trustees of SMA UK, which is the combined charity of SMA Trust, the research charity, and another charity called SMA Support UK that helped people with SMA and their families to deal with the issues arising from SMA.’ I’ve also been involved with SMA UK since I was a child. My parents and I would go along to the annual family conference with my brother, who has got the same condition as me. It was a great support network. In the last five years, scientific research into SMA has accelerated and drug treatments are being developed and trialled as we speak. It’s an exciting time for the community. 

Banking and Finance Sector I was keen to find out from Mark why diversity and inclusion are important within the banking sector? ‘Many people might say “It’s the right thing to do”. I think that that’s a cop-out. For me, let’s be honest, it’s simply business sense and commercial opportunity. Imagine a group of diverse individuals with diverse ideas. That’s got to be good for business. With that diversity in your company, you’re also reflecting the type of diversity that you have within your customer base. How can you serve your customers if you don’t have diversity in your own planning, strategy and thinking? For me, the question is, how do we make diversity work? What I mean by that is that people will very easily default to the first answer which I gave, which is why I gave it. Many large corporations, by being very cynical, have been trained to say that we must embrace diversity. But embracing diversity doesn’t mean that we’re actually doing anything about it. What is a company doing about employing people with diverse backgrounds? That is the real key. The tone has to initially come from the very top. If the top management is driving it and has specific programmes in place, this will work over time. The problem is within middle management and below. I’m being a little bit unfair on the younger generation that is coming through, who are much more aware and focused on diversity. However, within some of these large corporations, you still have middle management that is a silent majority. I remember a colleague of mine coming to see me. They said, “This programme we have concerning gender diversity. Look, I’m very supportive, but I’m very afraid of saying something that I shouldn’t say. What I want you to know is that I’m supportive but I’m not going to speak up about it.” That’s the challenge that many large companies have to face and work out how to deal with. Something that helped me was being able to find people who I could talk about some of the challenges they face in a safe space. The language that was used might not have been particularly appropriate, but people were able to educate me and enable me to speak much more freely and openly without being worried about being criticised by other people. I don’t think companies do enough about creating safe space to allow people to talk about or air their views about diversity. If you do that, you create a situation where people will start to talk. They will start to lead. They will start to encourage. They will start to be on the front foot about how we can tackle diversity and inclusion at large corporations.’ I agree with Mark that people are wary of talking about diversity because they don’t want to say something that might offend somebody. Honestly, some people don’t want to look stupid, so they hold back. What that means is that we’re not being inclusive of everyone. I’m in a wheelchair, and I have been since I was a toddler and I’ve been in situations where I’ve worked with people who have been afraid of talking to me about disability. They are not sure what language they should be using. They don’t want to offend me, so they make assumptions or presumptions about what I can or can’t do in the workplace. It means we’re all held back because we’re not having that open, honest, vulnerable, frank conversation. I suppose I’ve been quite fortunate where I’ve worked with a manager who said to me, “Look, I don’t know anything about disability, I don’t know anything about what it’s like for you to be in a wheelchair, but I’m eager to learn. And I don’t know what language to use. Am I allowed to say that somebody is handicapped? Is it, “Somebody with a disability?” Or is it ‘disabled people?” For this manager, it was important for them to have that safe conversation space with me. ‘Yes. There are so many people when faced with somebody who has a disability in a room will not know what to do or not know how to act. By leaving that room, by not asking a question, it leaves you ignorant. I would encourage people to ask and engage and you will be rewarded with what you get back. Like when I called you up the other day, Toby because I was writing a piece for our SMA UK members. I wasn’t quite sure exactly the language to use, and you were able to help me edit it. I very much appreciated that.’ 

Inclusive Leadership 

The discussion moved onto the examples of good inclusive leadership Mark has seen in the banking and finance sector. ‘As I said the tone has to come right from the top, from the CEO. In my last organisation, the CEO went out of his way to promote diversity and demonstrate it by making appointments that were forcing and pushing diversity. This, of course, raises another question, which is, do we promote people into roles that have a diverse background for the sake of it, to make up the numbers? Or should it only be done on a meritocratic basis? Many may turn around and say, “When I interview people, I don’t notice whether they were Black or whether they had a disability or whatever because I’m diversity-blind as it were. I’m just meritocratic about the way I go about doing it.” Of course, the reality is that’s not true. You have an unconscious bias. At my last organisation, one of the things that we would insist on when we were interviewing people, was to ensure that a set amount or a certain amount of candidates had a diverse background. That allowed them to sit in front of people, to make their case and demonstrate why they are good. Why they deserve their opportunities which otherwise they may not have been able to do. The next step is that if you have a process of employing people with diverse backgrounds, how do you ensure that they’re successful within the organisation? I think that becomes a little bit more difficult because it’s about training managers and colleagues. Take this example. When you’re sitting in a meeting, human nature dictates that there are one or two people who are louder and more vocal than anybody else. As a manager, it’s important to let everybody voice their opinions. Of course, if you are a manager or you have a manager that thinks they know best, that’s difficult. I’m just being practical about this because not all managers are good, management training is generally pretty poor. It’s really important to give time to everybody, and let them speak and share their views. However different their views are, without putting those views on the table, you may not have the best answer. Those views may not end up being the right way forward, but they may create a conversation or debate, which enables you to end up in the right place. 

Learning From Living and Working in Japan 

For me, Mark is capturing the power of diversity and inclusion. Creating an environment where everybody can be heard and put their ideas and perspectives forward. That’s where the magic happens. We know that innovation increases in more inclusive workplaces because people bring all of that shared experience and different perspectives to the problem. I moved on to ask Mark about living in Japan and working in other areas of Asia. I wondered what diversity and inclusion meant to him, as both an expat living in Japan and working in the wider region? ‘I was responsible for division across Asia in my last post, but I was based in Tokyo. The business was across several locations, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Mumbai. I came across a lot of people with a lot of different backgrounds and ethnicities. That made my job both very interesting and also extremely demanding. I first moved to Japan in about 1990. I was working for an American company. There were not a lot of expats in that company. Like a lot of people, I tended to hang out with the people I was familiar with. My first two or three years in Japan were a real wasted opportunity, because the people I hung out with looked like me, thought like me, and had the same interests as me. When I went back for the second time to Japan, it was slightly different because I had young children then. The company I worked for then had fewer expats and more Japanese, so I started to make more Japanese friends. But it wasn’t until I came back to Japan in 2015 that I properly embraced diversity and the power of it. I was one of a handful of expats that worked for my company. The vast majority in Tokyo were Japanese, the vast majority of my colleagues in India were from India, and so on. I was responsible for this division. What was fascinating was seeing diversity at work. The idea that a colleague in India would have a particular view and thought, a colleague in Japan would have another idea. We had different markets and customers, so an idea that came out in Japan may not have been appropriate for India. Since we were all talking together it meant that we were still able to sharpen ideas and strategy. It was incredible. Some people in my generation are probably ashamed or too shy to admit, but it does take time to understand this. When you see the power of it working, you’re a convert immediately. And I wish that what I know now I knew when I started my career. With something so powerful, I would have been able to be more effective in the roles that I had. One of the most challenging things for me was that the vast majority of the colleagues I worked with in Asia, didn’t have English as their first language. There are two parts to that. One of which is you need to, again, create a safe space where they are prepared to share their thoughts and not be laughed at, or not be frowned at, because it’s slightly more difficult for you to understand what they’re saying. But you also have to understand that you’re a guest in their country, in their region, and you need to make a big effort to make sure you understand and you listen. If that means it takes a little bit longer, I tell you, the outcome is well worth it. Mark’s points align with some of the six signature traits of inclusive leadership, which Deloitte created. One is about being open and being inquisitive about other cultures. Another is about creating psychological safety for the team because, as a leader, you can impact the psychological safety of the team. With higher levels of psychological safety, people can speak up and they can share their ideas and point out their concerns which hugely benefits the whole team. 

Not-for-profit Sector 

Thinking about Mark and my involvement with the board of SMA UK, diversity and inclusion is particularly topical within the not-for-profit sector. I asked Mark why he thinks it’s important in this sector too? I don’t like to use the word “client base” when I am talking about the not-for-profit sector, but the fact of the matter is that the community that a charity is serving will be made up of people with particular challenges, particular difficulties that they need to overcome. It’s important that your team, your trustees understand that. Surely they can only understand that if they have insight from people who have had those experiences. When I think about the SMA UK board, it’s not only about having people who have SMA on it, but also people who have had other challenges in their life. We can learn from other charities about the way they have done things, the way they have helped their communities, and that’s why diversity and inclusion is so important for the not-for-profit sector.’ SMA is non-discriminatory. You can have the condition regardless of your ethnicity or socio-economic standing. People come to SMA UK from all sorts of backgrounds because they don’t choose to get SMA. They’re born with the condition or they’re related to somebody who has the condition. I agree with Mark it’s particularly important for a charity like this that we recognise that our community is naturally diverse, and it’s important that we reflect the diversity of our customer base and our membership. I asked Mark what things he is doing as chairperson, to consciously be an inclusive leader for the charity? ‘First of all, with living through this very difficult period of COVID and the tragedy aside, and we mustn’t belittle that, but it has allowed us to think about ways that we can cope during this difficult period. One of the interesting things is that the board meetings we used to hold were always in person. Toby is the only trustee who has SMA and who’s in a wheelchair. Getting to meetings for you and others with SMA is challenging and difficult. COVID has allowed us to change in-person meetings to virtual ones, and we will continue to do them virtually. We’ve recently asked for people to apply as trustees. I was very pleased that we had eight applications, six of whom are people who have SMA and one person lives up in Scotland. Through technology, we have now reached out to the wider SMA community and enabled them to be able to join as board members. That’s got to be good for us. The other thing that I hope I’m doing, is that when you gather in person, it’s very easy for one or two people to dominate a conversation. If you are the chair, you have to be very good at cutting people off and giving time for other people to speak. Zoom has been a fantastic tool for a chairperson because if you try and interrupt somebody online, it’s a little bit difficult. I’ve found that everyone has now had more chances to speak and air their views. Again, has got to be good.’ To bring the interview to a close, I asked Mark what inclusive growth means for him? ‘For me, inclusive growth is ensuring that people who are part of the majority understand that inclusivity and diversity is something that is hugely beneficial for them, for their businesses, for their careers, and for their outlook. I want to see people growing in their thinking about diversity and inclusion.’

Diversity and Inclusion Not Just the Right Thing to Do - Mildon