Embedding Inclusion at Artex

In this episode I talk to one of my clients, Jason Smith, Managing Director of Artex, about his personal diversity and inclusion journey and how reading my book, Inclusive Growth, prompted him to bring me in to work with his team.

For this conversation, I was joined by one of my clients. His name is Jason Smith, the Managing Director of Artex, part of the larger Saint-Gobain company. I talked to Jason about the work that I’ve been doing with his team and the impact that the work has had on the company. Before we got into what we’ve been doing for the business, I asked Jason to tell me about who he is and his background and role within the company.

‘I’ve been with Artex for three years. Artex is part of the Saint-Gobain business, which is a global organisation specialising in construction products. Our business is unique within the group in that we produce products or we bag products, but we don’t manufacture anything. We bring in bulk from within the group, and then we make those products accessible to wider customers and client base that can’t ordinarily access them.

Overall, I’ve been at the Saint-Gobain group for nine years and had a pretty lengthy background in procurement. I spent some time in the Far East understanding more about the differences in culture when purchasing and global sourcing from across the world and my background predominantly has been in retail and in food. I think it was at some point early on in my career, it was my mum who said to me, If you want to be involved anywhere, food is a good place to be because we will always need to eat.” And it served me well, but here I am now in amongst bricks and mortar.

Our products are predominantly around fillers, plasters, plasterboard, flooring, external rendering, and lots of products that are available through the Saint-Gobain businesses such as British Gypsum, Weber, and Formula, these are all the large manufacturing sites. We bring in bulk quantities, break that down and supply it to those that can’t typically access that volume of product. We supply B&Q, Wickes, Selco, Travis Perkins, Jewson, and then all manner of different-sized and scaled independent and regional builders’ merchants.’

Since Jason has been with the company for a fair amount of time I wondered when the topic of diversity and inclusion came onto his radar as Managing Director?

‘I think it was probably as we were coming through the pandemic, there was a lot of national and international press and pressure. Following the George Floyd incident, Black Lives Matter and other groups were starting to gain more exposure and positive traction. I think what that did for me as an individual, personally as well as professionally, was create an opportunity to reflect. What it led me to conclude was that I needed to do more than be just an innocent bystander, if that’s the right phrase, rather than being actively involved.

Well not probably, I most certainly on reflection had not been doing enough to recognise the challenges of other groups and different types of people across the world.’

I asked Jason how he first came across me and what it was that I saying or doing that encouraged him to reach out and have a conversation with me.

‘It’s quite an interesting story. I was having a number of conversations with my wife about diversity, prejudices, subconscious bias, and a number of what were rapidly becoming quite prominent and popular statements and catchphrases. It was a contact of hers, who’d read your book, Inclusive Growth so it was a sort of secondary recommendation that I do that. I did the wrong thing. I read your book, Toby, before I spoke to you because then once we’d spoken and done work together, you gifted me a book. So now I have two copies. We circulate them around our business and it keeps the topic real.

What I liked about the book was I’m a bit of a process person and I like to understand the start, the middle and the end. The structure you put in place was easy for me to follow and understand. I thought that was quite important because I’d realised that as an organisation and individually, we probably needed to do more, but I didn’t really understand how to start that journey and how to engage my leadership team too. Having read the book gave me the opportunity to then reach out and we had a conversation and it snowballed from there.’

After Jason and I had that initial conversation online, I came over to Nottingham and spent half a day with him and his senior leadership team and we did the Discover Diversity workshop. Jason was a bit ahead of the game because he had read the book and had done a personal journey around his connection with diversity and inclusion. So, we got the whole team in the same room and started having this discussion with everybody sitting around the table. I asked Jason, ‘I don’t know if your memory stretches back that far, but what did you take away from that half-day together with your team?’

‘I think what was key for me was that when we came out, the five of us, we hovered around in the car park and we were all a bit, “Wow.” I didn’t realise that we are missing out or we are not doing so much. It was a really positive conversation because there was a clear and shared recognition that we needed to do some things differently and we needed to up our game. And I think also on a lighter note we came away from that meeting thinking, Christ, we’re going to have to knock down walls in the office block and we’re going to have to buy this and invest in that and smash down the other and to make everything accessible. It was great when we had those further conversations, it was that reassurance and understanding that the most important thing is to recognise what you may have to do in the future and not be fearful of that and be ready and open-minded to making your business and your people more accessible to others than we were or that we are today.

The team absolutely, wholeheartedly had a completely joined-up opinion that we had to work with you. I think what came through clearly was how much we all very quickly shared in the room. How much we all realised that we were in the same place. I think working with you as somebody who’s lived with the challenges and these issues all of your life, it makes it really real for us. It helped solidify our interpretation into understanding.’

I was curious to find out from Jason what kind of impact bringing the senior leadership team together had on the rest of the business in terms of trying to shape the culture he wanted to build.

‘It was fundamental because, without it, it would have probably been seen as something that I wanted to do or something that I was doing, something that I was placing upon others. But actually, when we came back into the business as a leadership team and started to talk to a wider audience about where we’d been, what we’d discussed, and what was going to happen as an offshoot of it, it became very quickly understood as not a leadership gimmick. It was seen as critical, and vital to everyone and it is been driven throughout the organisation, not just being placed on our HR colleagues. I think what that does is differentiates between a change in policy and a change in culture.’

It’s such a common issue that I come across where the responsibility for diversity and inclusion is placed on the HR department to do. And that the managing director or the chief executive and the senior leadership team are not taking enough responsibility and accountability for it. If an organisation wants a change in culture, then that has to be led by the chief executive or your MD and senior leadership team.

This is something I mentioned in my book about the need to have a proper change management process around diversity and inclusion. I share different change management models, but the one that I like the best was created by John Kotter and he says that your first step is to create the right climate of change. Within that, he says, build a senior leadership coalition around the change that you want to see. Create a vision and then communicate that vision to the rest of the organisation. Something Jason did, really impressed me and I now share it with all of my other clients as an example of best practice. After we did the half-day workshop, Jason created a vision statement about diversity and inclusion and then you put it up on LinkedIn and shared it with everybody and invited feedback. I asked Jason to talk through his thinking behind creating that vision statement, why he did it and the reception it received.

‘It was because I felt me, personally, I was putting a marker in the sand. It goes back to when I realised that I needed to act differently. I felt it was the same for the business. It is very easy to go away for a few hours and then come back and say, right, something’s different now. But this became that line in the sand and it became a visible marker to say, this isn’t about me stating that whatever we’ve done yesterday was right, wrong, or indifferent, but to say what we do from tomorrow is now in a particular direction. And from there, it then becomes something that I can be held accountable to and everybody else within our organisation can be accountable to also.’

I asked Jason what kind of feedback has been received from people within the business.

‘It’s been quite mixed. Mixed in terms of the level of interest. So a lot of people have been really positive about it and grateful that it’s there because it’s shown clarity and it’s given people an understanding. It complements our values as well. Within our organisation, we have a set of values and this complements them, but just goes into some behavioural tolerances too. And when I say mixed, I say mixed because the other aspect of it has been where people have said to me, “Why did you need to put that out there? We’re not bigoted. We’re not racist, we’re not this, we’re not that. So I don’t see the need.”

But the need for me was drawing a line in the sand, not questioning or challenging what happened previously, but giving us a great place to really build from.

I reflected that these can be difficult conversations to have. I wondered what Jason’s response has been to those people who’ve said that we’re not racist, we’re not bigoted, etcetera, etcetera.

‘It can be. For me, it’s that… I forget what the phrase is now, but it’s, you are most pro against those things, you’re active.’

Jason was describing being anti-racist when someone is proactively trying to dismantle racism that’s created system structures. In this work, we use lots of different phrases, but it’s things like being consciously inclusive and being an ally and being active in this space rather than just being a bystander,

‘It’s like calling stuff out. Rather than not being the person, not being the offender, but actually calling it out. It’s more than an ally, I know, but I can’t remember the phrase, but that’s kind of where I was going. I think it was that learning process of becoming a proactive supporter and being active in that space. Teaching sounds like the wrong phraseology, but talking to people and helping them understand the difference between standing and observing and not participating is different from actively going against and speaking up against and calling stuff out.’

I think this is so common with business leaders. One of the things that you do as an inclusive leader, is that even if you’re worried about getting the words wrong, you just do it anyway. Whereas a lot of other leaders that I speak to will avoid having the conversation because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing that might cause offence and then we just become inactive rather than active and proactive.

Jason agreed, ‘You can’t move the conversation forward if you’re not having the conversation. If I find I’m heading into something where I might be fumbling around, the easiest thing to do is make the apology upfront and then be corrected as you go. I think the trick is not to repeat the same errors over and over.’

The workshop with the senior leadership team was the starting point and the journey didn’t stop there. I asked Jason, ‘What happened after that?’

‘That was the beginning. What we then had to do was decide to what level of support we required. And that was quite an interesting debate because we didn’t know really where we were starting from. We didn’t know how complex and how long it would take to make progress or to move forward and where we needed to head. But we knew that we needed to move forward and we wanted to work with your team. We were definitely attracted by that whole concept of the survey which is fantastic because it brings everybody into the conversation. When you engage all colleagues about something, they realise and understand that whilst it’s completely confidential, you are drawing down the individual’s needs. Otherwise, it’s me and the leadership team sitting in a room with you trying to decide what we may or may not need on behalf of sixty or seventy other people.

So that bit was pivotal. Then some of the stuff we’ve been doing in the background which I think was good was that we have a visible plan about learning and development. We have one about health and safety which is critical in a business like ours. By creating a framework with you, Toby, it allowed us to create those pillars of strength and clarity for the wider team. So that was important at that decision-making stage.’

What was interesting about the survey was the great response rate, particularly in light of having to reach people in part of the organisation that doesn’t ordinarily log onto a computer because they might be working in a warehouse. So, we had to think about reaching them and then the end product was that I wrote a fifty-four-page report for Jason.

I asked Jason, ‘What do you remember as being the highlights of our research? What did you find particularly interesting or surprising?’

‘The highlight for me was how we’d underestimated some of the circumstances that were evident and present in our colleague network. We almost pride ourselves on being a small organisation and a headcount of fewer than seventy. You’d like to feel as though you know and understand everybody or you kid yourself that you do. So then when you start to pull the survey results it was incredible to see. A lot of it was very much centred around neurodiversity and mental health but nonetheless, just within our workforce community, there were a lot of things we didn’t know.

We’ve now been a lot more proactive and conscious around the neurodiverse space. There’s a difference between providing solutions and equipment or whatever it might be for the people that you have in your business today and the people you may have in the future. That required us to take some steps to invest in some appropriate equipment to try and smooth that out.

We have a number of Nook pods now. Which is fantastic because you can change the lighting. We’ve got some that seat multiple users, some that have private space, some that have door closings and they just allow for people to have a surrounding that suits them. That means that nowadays you don’t have to avoid an office if you want quiet space and you don’t have to sit at home throughout the day on your own if you want to be in a busier or slightly noisier environment. So, we’re trying to accommodate many different needs.’

Another point in the survey was that one of the things that we try to measure is how representative an organisation is in the area where it operates or the talent pools that are available. And I think that to cut a long story short, we realised that Artex probably did reflect the area around Nottingham where the company is based, but I think we also found out that there was a particular under-representation of women working in the warehouse side.

We know obviously you’re in the manufacturing sector and we know that gender imbalance is a particular challenge within manufacturing and also a slight underrepresentation in terms of Black colleagues as well compared to the local region. But I was quite encouraged by how the conversation moved around inclusivity and that culture change in creating the right environment for people.

I asked Jason, ‘Once we had done that survey and shared the feedback with you and the rest of the team, what happened after that?’

‘We started to think about what we might need to do and what corrective action we could take. Taking those points that you just mentioned there, we’ve done the things we can change quickly. Bringing a more diverse group of race, religion and gender diversity into an organisation, none of these things can be changed on a Monday. We recognise that we have to take steps and we have to do the right things too. The first stage for us was let’s change where we recruit, let’s change the wording, let’s change the imagery that we use and make sure that we use imagery from within our business rather than from within the Google libraries of imagery that you can see everywhere.

So, we are trying to stay true to ourselves but at the same time express how inclusive the organisation is in those different aspects. We are trying to utilise the fact that whilst we may not have a multitude of Black and Asian and other diverse races and religions in our organisation we do actually have, albeit as you said, not necessarily in the warehouse but more in the commercial, a number of women in senior management positions. We feel like if we can demonstrate it in one area, we can create avenues of opportunity in others. As long as we’re attracting a good, broad, diverse pool of people as candidates for vacancies, then that’s the first step.’

As well as the survey and the report, we did a bit of an audit and a gap analysis, and we pulled everything together through a kind of iterative process for your diversity and inclusion strategy, which was great to see everything come together on a page. What I really liked was that Jason took that strategy and embedded it in the people plan and wider strategy. I asked Jason what the thinking was behind that.

‘I think the main reason behind that was the more normalised it feels, the more likelihood participation and inclusion is going to increase. I didn’t want us to have a people plan, a learning and development plan, a sales plan and a D&I plan because then it just becomes another plan. So, we took that step and we now have our people plan that covers everything, career progression, succession management, learning and development, the cultural piece policy and D&I or I&D as we look at it because personally, I think inclusion drives diversity.’

Before we close, I just want to add that Jason is aligned with a big debate out there about whether you put the D before the I or the I before the D. I’m with Jason. I think inclusion drives diversity. If you have an inclusive work culture, you’re going to attract a diverse range of people to come and work with you and they’re going to stick around for longer because they’re working in an environment where they feel like they belong and can progress in their career.

It was great to speak with Jason and I wished him good luck with the rest of his D&I journey. I know it’s a bit of a cliche saying that D&I is a journey, but it really is. One of my mantras is that diversity and inclusion is not a project with a beginning and middle and an end. It’s a journey. It’s a way of operating. It’s a way of being. And as Jason said, you can’t change it in one day. It does take time to get it embedded into the business.

Hopefully, you’ve taken away some interesting advice and experience that Jason has shared with you that you can start to put into action straight away in your own business. If you need any help or support from me and my team visit our website www.mildon.co.uk and reach out to us and we can have a conversation about how we can support you in your own organisation.

Embedding Inclusion at Artex - Mildon