Inclusion in the Boardroom

I met Dr Alice Maynard years ago because we share the same disability, spinal muscular atrophy, which is a rare neuromuscular condition. We met at one of the annual conferences that one of the charities for the condition called SMA UK organises. I’m interviewing Alice because not only is she an expert on inclusion, but she’s a particular expert on inclusive senior leadership and diversity of non-exec directorships. I asked Alice to tell me a bit more about her career background.‘’I have a long career, about 40 years long. I started at the beginning of the 1980s, which was a difficult time for disabled people to get jobs, particularly if they were wheelchair users. For people like us, there weren’t many jobs around for us to have. I got a job in the IT industry and I did fairly well in that but I experienced a certain amount of discrimination. I worked for a software house, but as they wouldn’t send me to any client sites, I had to work on in-house projects, which were rare. Nonetheless, I did quite well for the rest of that first decade until I wanted to get into the more senior levels. I asked the HR director how I might become the UK managing director, should I want to. I anticipated an answer something like, “Well, you don’t have any sales and marketing experience.” I didn’t get any of that. I just got, “Oh, you couldn’t.” I was so taken aback, I failed to ask, “Why on earth not?”In my head I split that into I’m a woman, maybe that’s why and I can’t do much about that. I’m a disabled person, can’t do much about that either. I might be useless. Okay, I can do something about that. I went off and did an MBA. I was probably the first disabled woman in the UK with an MBA because MBAs weren’t that common then and neither were women with MBAs. I was a bit like a two-headed monster and people found me a little tricky. It was the early ’90s when there was a recession on. Employers all muttered about what a marvellous track record I had, and how brilliant I was, but the office building had terribly heavy doors or something, so I couldn’t possibly cope.So I set up a business with my sister, consulting on disability equality, which was before the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. I stayed in consultancy until the end of the 1990s, when I joined what was then Railtrack, which became Network Rail, as the Head of Disability Strategy. My remit was to create a strategy to make the rail network accessible.Despite the strategy, it was never implemented because Network Rail came along and decided it wasn’t a strategist. I was out on my ear. To cut a long story short, I set up Future Inclusion which is the business I now run. Simultaneously, I started doing some fairly small, non-exec roles as a trustee for several organisations like the National Information Forum and Muscle Power, which you may remember as being an organisation of people with neuromuscular impairments. I grew into some non-exec roles on a slightly larger charity and I chaired our Racial Equality Council here in Milton Keynes for a short period before becoming chair of Scope.I was still running my consulting business, particularly in the transport environment on inclusion issues. I decided that consulting on inclusion issues was not effective, so I decided to move into coaching leaders on how to be more inclusive. That’s where my business is now positioned. I also wanted to develop my portfolio of non-exec roles. That took a long time, seven years to move from being widely sought after for unpaid non-exec roles to being able to snare a paid non-exec role. This fascinated me from an objective perspective. When I analysed the feedback I found that I was told conflicting things by the many, many organisations to whom I applied. I think it came down to the level of risk that people felt they would be taking if they took me on onto their boards.’I asked Alice what kind of risks these organisations were concerned about? ‘One thing that was an issue when women started trying to get onto boards, was that because women don’t look like men, which is possibly a fairly obvious thing to say, there was a sense that, “They don’t look like us, so we’re not entirely sure whether or not they’ll be able to do the job. We know that people that look like us can do the job, but can people that don’t look like us do the job, too?” It’s a fairly simplistic way of summarising it, but not only did I not look like many of the board members that I came across in gender terms – I’m also quite small and I move in a slightly odd way. Sometimes I don’t move very much at all, because I don’t have a great deal of movement. I think it’s one of those things where we tend to make decisions about people in all sorts of underlying ways that we don’t, I include myself in this, necessarily recognise. I think that’s what was happening and wasn’t a conscious thought on anyone’s part.’When I’m teaching unconscious bias, I use the NeuroLeadership Institute’s model, which covers five different types of bias including similarity and safety bias. Similarity bias is that we’re drawn to people just like us, and we end up creating in-groups and out-groups. Safety bias is that we would rather play it safe. I asked Alice if she thought there was an element of conscious bias at work as well? ‘I don’t know whether there’s an element of conscious bias but I had an interesting experience at one point. I won’t name the organisation, but I asked for feedback when I was declined a board role. Instead of sending me feedback, they sent me the entire suite of forms that everybody fills in when they’re busy interviewing you as a panel interview. These forms had been clearly edited as they had been talking about making the decision, and their scores had then been marked down. Although I was quite cross about it at the time, I just think there’s a whole piece about how we as the panel on the other side of the table interview people for jobs, where we haven’t quite grasped how to do it particularly well.One of the things that often happens in the recruitment process is that when organisations first engage headhunters, they will talk about wanting a diverse shortlist. They’ll talk about that, but the closer they get to the decision point, the more risk-averse they become. I don’t know whether that’s unconscious bias around safety or similarity or whatever it is, but it seems to be this increasing sense of doing it this way and we know that works because we’ve done it before.” I guess that safety bias is probably something to do with it.’
Alice has got some great board positions at the Financial Conduct Authority, HMRC, and Child Support for London. She also sits on a local organisation’s board called Cross and Stable Charities which makes grants. With all Alice’s board and leadership coaching experience, I wondered what is important to cover with her clients to instil good and inclusive leadership? ‘The key thing is to understand one’s self. That’s kind of a lifetime’s work. I’m still working on it and have coaching myself because I think you can never end that process in a way. I don’t have coaching constantly, but now and again in my career, I think, “Actually, I just need to have another stop and think.”One of the other things is having a level of openness about the impact of your behaviour. Being prepared to let people tell you when you’re doing things that are not comfortable for them, that doesn’t include them or make them feel excluded, and being prepared to change in that sense. Yes, becoming aware of yourself, understanding how you impact on other people and being prepared to change. Those three things are important for leaders to become more inclusive.’As Alice said, she has had a long career. I was curious to know if she had ever come across somebody who was an amazing, inclusive leader, what they were like and how did they operate? ‘There were a couple in my early career. At that juncture, as I’ve said, disabled people weren’t in work. My first ever two managers were amazing people who were inclusive. They were all people who took things in their stride. One was my team leader when I was in my very first job. He was a team leader on the command and control system we were writing for Merseyside Police. I was a computer programmer. The other was at my next job at Lotus, a software company. Early in my career with Lotus, he came up to me and said, “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t go to Spain, is there?” Now, bear in mind that my previous company hadn’t sent me to any client sites, and the only reason I could imagine was that they were slightly ashamed of employing a wheelchair user or afraid of me doing some health and safety thing. I don’t know. So to be asked if I was prepared to go to Spain was quite exciting. I sat there thinking, “I have no idea whether I can go to Spain or not, and manage and so on, but I’m going to say yes.”So off we went together, he and I, to launch one of the beta versions of the product. When we got there, despite all the very best efforts of the secretary, the supposedly accessible room that I was allocated wasn’t. The bathroom was the thing that wasn’t, and that’s a little on the tricky side. I eventually told my boss because I didn’t know what to do about it. Anyway, his bathroom was a lot bigger than mine and he offered to swap. I go into his room, and it turns out that his bathroom would be perfect, but the doorway is too narrow. He said, “That’s easy.” He picked up the door, took it off its hinges, propped it up beside the bathroom, and we swapped rooms. Now that is inclusion in action. And it is a great disability equality social model.’I think that some of my early managers were probably the most defining ones for me too. When I was 15 and 16, I was desperate to get a job. All my friends were doing paper rounds and stacking shelves. I thought I couldn’t do those jobs myself but I could do an office job. I grew up in the West Country in a little village, so there weren’t many businesses but I went around all of the businesses from the estate agents, the accountant, and asked for a job. They all said no. I felt disheartened because I was desperate to work, and my first experiences of trying to get a job meant facing a lot of rejection.I went into the local branch of Lloyds Bank to open a bank account. Whilst I was there I asked for a job and they invited me to have a chat with the manager. He was lovely and said, “Okay, it’s going to be quite difficult to work in this branch, because it’s a very small village branch and we don’t have a disabled toilet, for example. However, the main town, which is only 10 minutes down the road, has a big branch and you could go and work there during the school holidays.”I just think he was the most amazing manager because he recognised my disability. He could see it, he wasn’t ignoring it or seeing past it, but he could also see my potential. He set me up because I could put Lloyds Bank on my CV. When I went for graduate jobs, I was already showing my prospective employers that I was able to work in a big company like Lloyds Bank.Another manager was Mike, that’s his real name, at British Airways. He was a fantastic manager. He could see my potential. We’re still in touch on LinkedIn. Having those jobs at Lloyds Bank and British Airways allowed me to then go on and do bigger jobs at Accenture and the BBC and places like that.Alice agreed. ‘Something that I try to bear in mind is that although I had to overcome phenomenal barriers to get where I got to, I was one of the lucky ones. Many disabled people don’t get jobs even now, who should do. There’s no reason why not. That’s partly what drives me to want to work with leaders to help them to understand how to become more inclusive. Although people often say they want to be inclusive or they are already, I would question that because I’m not sure I am completely. Not in every respect, I will have judgements that I make that are still erroneous. I don’t anticipate ever getting past that entirely.It’s a natural human characteristic to categorise. We have to. We have to know that this is a chair. It may not look like the next chair, but it’s definitely a chair, and it goes into the chair category. Otherwise, you don’t know where to park your backside. It doesn’t mean much, but that’s why we have to categorise. And as an ex-linguist, that was what I studied at university. I understand that notion of sticking things in categories. I just don’t think that we can overcome that and we probably wouldn’t want to. You couldn’t deal with the world if you didn’t have some kind of approach to sorting it. But it’s understanding that we’re sorting it, and not sorting it on the wrong basis, that is what I would love people to get to grips with.’Since I was interviewing Alice for The Inclusive Growth Show, I was interested to hear what she thought inclusive growth means.’I think inclusive growth is personal, organisational and societal. For me, there are three concentric circles. The most important one, I think, is the personal one. If you don’t start with yourself, you’re not going to get very far in any other sense. So becoming more inclusive, but constantly working on that and being curious and open to things.Once you’ve started on the journey yourself and you’ve travelled some distance you will already be impacting your organisation so it too will be becoming more curious, more inclusive. You can also work on specifics in the organisation, to accelerate that growth. Asking what do we need to do in the organisation that means we accelerate growth? What are the values that we need to cultivate to accelerate that growth? Something that I find encouraging from young people these days, is this kind of sense that actually, that’s not enough either. How do you end up with a society that has meaning and purpose and provides people with the capacity that they need to be included and to become more inclusive themselves? We need to make sure that the organisation is effectively impacting society in a positive, inclusive, growth-orientated, purposeful manner. For me, that is really exciting.’To get in touch with Alice Maynard visit or email her at [email protected].

Inclusion in the Boardroom - Mildon