The Power of Inclusion at Electricity North West

In this episode, I spoke with Cheryl Iontton from Electricity North West about her work delivering the company’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and the benefits of getting regular coaching in her role.

For this conversation, I was joined by Cheryl Iontton, who’s a client of mine. Cheryl works for Electricity North West, which is based in the North West of England. I’ve been working with Cheryl for several months now doing one-to-one coaching. Prior to working with Cheryl, I also worked with other members of the HR team to input on the design and development of the inclusion and diversity strategy.

Before we got into the thick of the discussion, I asked Cheryl to give me a quick overview of what Electricity North West does and her role in the business.

‘Electricity North West distributes electricity. Electricity is generated at power stations and it’s transmitted across the country through National Grid. We take it from National Grid and we distribute the electricity across the majority of the North West of England. We’re responsible for making sure everybody’s lights are switched on in their home.

My role is that of inclusion manager and I’ve been in that role for about eighteen months. In essence, it is about delivering the diversity and inclusion strategy that Toby helped formulate. I’m helping the business keep a focus on that strategy and delivering all those great initiatives that we’ve committed to in that strategy.’

I’d recommend a look at the Electricity North West Diversity and Inclusion Strategy as an example of a best practice for being able to visually communicate an inclusion strategy and making it publicly available as well. It’s a good document and I use it in the training courses that I do for that reason.

My next question to Cheryl was asking if she could tell me a bit about her personal journey into the role of inclusion manager, what was her route into the role and what was she doing before then?

‘For the last 17 years, I’ve worked in the learning and development sphere. I came to Electricity North West to work on a project for learning development and that project ended up coming to a halt. In the meantime, the HR team got me working on a number of initiatives to help them out. Some of those were connected with a diversity and inclusion strategy and I kind of fell into the role. I wasn’t aware the role existed at the time. After I started working on a number of initiatives I got hooked into and passionate about diversity and inclusion. Understanding all the work there is to do because we’ve got some challenges that we are committed to within our strategy at Electricity North West. There’s lots of great work and initiatives for us to get involved in and some real opportunities to make a difference.

It was a daunting experience when I first came into the role because it was not a topic about which I had a deep level of understanding. Even though I’ve touched on and done some elements of equality training within my role as learning and development, it was a bit daunting. I think the thing that made it feel that way is because I’m not a subject matter expert in this field. There’s so much to learn and understand because everybody’s got that very unique lens of looking through the world so how can you possibly learn all this knowledge? I think that was the most daunting thing for me at the time entering this role: my own knowledge about challenges for different groups and understanding of different groups and cultures and everything like that.’

I asked Cheryl about how she approached overcoming that feeling of being daunted about becoming the subject matter expert in this field.

‘I think that is one of the benefits of having coaching with you, Toby. I remember one of our very early conversations was about actually not necessarily needing to be that expert in everything all at once and to take things as they come along. It is very much a journey of continuous learning. So speak to the people who are subject matter experts and learn from other people. I think our coaching sessions gave me the confidence that I didn’t necessarily have. I didn’t have to be the expert in everything, but what I did need to do was be open to speaking to lots of different people and understanding the world from their perspective.’

I asked Cheryl ‘How do you feel that you’ve developed over the last year or so in the role compared to when you started?’

Massively, there’s so much to learn. I’ve said it many a time over this last year, “Every day is like a school day.” Every day I learned something new. And I would certainly say within the last 20 years of my career, in the last year and a half I’ve had the most growth by working in the diversity and inclusion space. And that is about understanding different aspects of diversity and inclusion and what that means to individuals. So yes, I would say, massively in terms of knowledge and gaining more understanding of what the world’s like from different people’s experiences.’

My next question was about what Cheryl has found particularly challenging when trying to effect change within an organisation. After all, Electricity North West is not a small business, so it is quite a challenge to have an impact.

‘Several things are quite challenging. I think communicating your strategy and getting people on board with the strategy and the why. So, selling the business case for why we really need to invest in diversity and inclusion has been a learning journey for everybody really. I don’t think anybody’s an expert in this, so being able to talk about the strategy and explain the benefits to the business if they invest time in the diversity and inclusion space. One of the things that helped me with the challenge is the data, looking at the dynamics of our company and what the data tells us because they’re the facts really.

That has helped people understand why we need to put time, effort and focus into this space. Within Electricity North West there is now a good understanding and appreciation for the benefits of investing in diversity and inclusion. I think the other thing as well is people being a bit worried or feeling a little bit threatened when you talk about diversity and inclusion. I think you have to be careful not to disengage people as well, particularly when you’ve got a large majority group, so it’s about how you make them part of the journey too. Things like how they can support in terms of allyship and just being open-minded to the fact that everybody has a different experience depending on what their starting point is.’

I recognize what Cheryl said since those are the points that I talk about quite a lot. It’s thinking about how we take everybody on this journey. Diversity can often feel like those people over there at arm’s length. Actually, diversity is about all of us. We are all diverse in one way or another. And it’s thinking about how to create a more inclusive culture and environment that enables everybody to thrive. That’s really where equity comes in.

Cheryl was keen to add, ‘Coming back to your point about my biggest growth as well is understanding the value of my own contribution to diversity. When we think about diversity, sometimes it’s very easy to think about the obvious things like age, gender, race, and actually, diversity is so much wider than that. I’ve looked back on my experiences and appreciated how those experiences helped shaped my way of thinking about things. Because I’ve had those diverse experiences it’s helped me be able to contribute and add value into conversations and collaborations. Appreciating what I contribute towards diversity as well is something that I’ve learned this last year and a half.’

Going back to the point Cheryl made about the business case and the data, one thing I like to encourage my clients to think about is their organisation’s unique reason why inclusion is important? Simon Sinek wrote a great book called ‘Start with Why’, in which he says, People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” I’ve paraphrased it as, “People don’t buy into what you do, they buy into why you do it.” So if you want to get inclusion going in an organisation, first of all, you have to connect to the why and also get the senior leadership team to connect with the why. Then create that vision and cascade it throughout the business. I asked Cheryl, ‘What is Electricity North West’s why behind inclusion and diversity?’

‘The why comes from the data. Why we need to invest. We recognise that we have got some gaps in our diversity when we’re not a company currently reflective of the community we serve. Comparing our workforce data to the data of the North west area we know that there are some gaps. We don’t fully understand why those gaps are there, but we know that they are there. So regardless of why we are where we’re at, it’s important to look forward and think about how we bridge those gaps. The data helped us understand that if our strategy is to become reflective of the communities that we serve, the data suggests that there are some areas where we’re not yet reflective of the community that we serve.’

I think what’s interesting about Electricity North West is that it is a regional business, with services based in a geographical area. It is quite easy to get data from the government about the diversity of that part of the country and then compare how the business stacks up against those demographics. The other thing the company is in a line of business where everybody consumes the service. Whether people work in an office or live in a house or a flat and turn on the oven or the lights at night, they’re going to be using Electricity North West’s services whether they like it or not. This makes it a bit like when I worked at the BBC as that is a universal public service funded through the licence fee. It’s important that everybody is reflected in the content that the BBC produces. So in a way, it’s quite a straightforward business case.

I asked Cheryl what the risk is to the business if it doesn’t reflect the community it’s helping supply electricity to.

‘The risks are not properly understanding everybody’s needs within our customer base. If we’ve not got diversity of representation of thought, then we are going to be thinking quite single-mindedly in how we approach things. So us having diversity in terms of good representation of people from our communities means that we’re better placed to be able to think about what we do from a number of different perspectives. Without that diversity, we’ve got the risk of leaving somebody behind or somebody out. No company wants to be leaving anybody behind, and the chance is that it wouldn’t be an intentional thing. It would just be a lack of knowledge or thoughts from that particular perspective. It’s important that we do have that diversity within our business.’

We’ve also done some coaching together over the last few months. I asked Cheryl how she feels coaching has helped in her role in the first year, given that she has come from a learning and development background.

‘I’m a big fan of coaching anyway, but for me, it just gives you that space to think externally. This role can be a very lonely place sometimes because I’m the only person in a diversity and inclusion role at Electricity North West. It’s one of those roles where you do tend to work in isolation. It’s not a team-based role. So, I think it’s important to have a space where you can connect with other people in the business, whether that’s through coaching or networking, and also have that opportunity for some external thinking for you to think and hear yourself out loud and be challenged as well on your thought process. It’s useful to have the challenges thrown into my conversations with you, Toby to really get me thinking a bit more laterally sometimes and a bit wider. Like I said, particularly in this role where it can be a little bit isolating, having that external team and those external connections is really useful.’

Cheryl isn’t the first person to have said that to me. I hear quite often from other clients about how isolating an inclusion and diversity role can feel sometimes. I was curious to hear from Cheryl why she thinks that is the case.

‘One, you are working by yourself a lot of the time. You can be in a team and within a team environment but still feel isolated because you are the only person doing that role. But I also think that this is the role where you are responsible for implementing and landing a lot of change. And as you know, when you try and progress change, it can feel like an uphill struggle sometimes. I think that’s especially true when lots of other change is going on in the business at the same time. So, it can be quite kind of tiring in terms of stakeholder management, making sure that everybody’s on the same page with the change that you’re looking to implement and having that resource and support. You tend to beg, borrow and steal a lot of resource, but a lot of people volunteer the support and help. I think that that’s why it can feel quite difficult and isolated. The other day I read about the characteristics required by somebody in a diversity and inclusion role. It said you’ve got to have some good grit, you’ve got to have some good staying power and that resilience.’

You definitely need that resiliency because sometimes you are not always pushing on an open door, even with your senior leadership team who you really need on your side. It might appear that you’re pushing on an open door, but they might just be paying lip service to it. They’re nodding along and saying all the right words, but they’re not really walking the talk. I come across that quite often. It can be an emotionally draining job too, having difficult conversations with people at times.

I also think once your eyes have been opened to problems that we’ve got in society, inequalities and racism and homophobia and things like that, you just become more aware of that stuff because you activate your reticular activating system. I remember when I did my neurolinguistic programming training, we were talking about this. It means once you become aware of something, you just can’t stop seeing it. It’s like when you want to buy a car and you’re thinking of buying a red car, suddenly you notice red cars everywhere. Whereas before you hardly ever spotted a red car. But now we’ve activated our reticular activating system. You start to see all of the inequalities in society.

Cheryl added, ‘I also think what can be challenging in this role is because it’s a subject that people have great enthusiasm for talking about, but people have got different viewpoints on different things. And not just those conversations in work, but having those conversations as well that filter into life outside work. So sometimes it can feel quite tiring, even if you are out with a few friends and then a conversation comes up about diversity and inclusion. And you are looked at because people consider you to be the subject matter expert in this role because you’ve got the title of an inclusion manager. But I do think as well, navigating lots of different viewpoints can be quite tiring, especially when it’s outside working hours. You feel like you live and breathe it quite a lot of your time.’

I asked Cheryl how she has managed to build up her resiliency.

‘I think having a plan, having structure works for me and having a well-structured approach to things. When I feel like maybe I am knocking on a bit of a closed door, I look for who can support me to open that door as well. It’s making sure that I’ve got those points of support. It may be the exec sponsor that may be able to help or it may be our HR director that can help with those things. That’s really useful in terms of my resiliency.

I suppose there’s also that thing about not taking things personally because if there is a challenge back on things, it’s generally because people don’t understand or they don’t understand the benefits. So they’re missing some information to be able to make a decision in the right direction. My role is to understand what information they are missing and ask, “How can I support them in bridging this gap?” That’s a big part.

In terms of my own self-care, I keep in mind not everybody’s going to be on the same page with diversity and inclusion. I only tend to engage in outside work conversations where I feel like there’s some impact to be made. If you are speaking to somebody and they have a fixed mindset, no matter what I say or do is going to change that mindset then. I choose which conversations to be part of and which conversations not to be part of. But if I think there’s any opportunity to help influence or help somebody develop their mindset, then absolutely. They’re great conversations to have.’

I asked Cheryl ‘What’s next in store for you over the next year or two and how do you think coaching has helped you prepare for the next few months?’

‘Well, we’ve got a five-year diversity and inclusion plan and I hope I’m fortunate enough to see that five-year plan through at Electricity North West. It’s great having the strategy because it gives a roadmap of what’s coming next down the line. Having that opportunity to have ongoing coaching to bring things to the table and to talk through your thinking and be able to have those conversations is part of my strategy moving forward. For me, coaching is an ongoing process and no matter who you are and what level of expertise you’ve got, coaching is always something that can still bring value to you.’

What I like about coaching is the premise that everyone has the answers within them already and the coach is there as a facilitator to try and get those answers out. We get so caught up in the daily grind of our day-to-day work that sometimes we just don’t have that luxury of stopping, pausing, breathing, reflecting, and then trying to bring some of this stuff up to the surface.

Cheryl agreed. ‘I do think there are times, like if I’m having a development day, whether it’s coaching or attending an external network event out of the office, it’s in those moments that you think actually, I don’t give my brain enough opportunity to just sit and absorb and process. I think they’re so beneficial and I understand why people put them to the bottom of the pile because especially if you’re working in a very reactive business it’s something that we should all get a bit more practised at prioritising.’

My next question was about finding a coach. I asked Cheryl, ‘If someone reading this wanted to go and get a coach for themselves, particularly around diversity and inclusion, because that’s obviously that’s what we specialise in, what would you suggest as the top two qualities that they should look for in a coach?’

‘I would say it has to be someone whom you feel comfortable talking to. You’ve got to be able to feel it’s somebody who can create an environment where you feel safe to share what’s going on in your mindset without any fear of judgment. You need to feel you can be open in that space and even though what you are saying might not be wrapped up in the right language or might be something where you think, I should know this answer. That you can just have that freedom to land anything without fear of judgment. And I would also say, look for somebody who is going to challenge you. Look for somebody that can present you back with challenges in a constructive way. Because otherwise then it’s just a counselling session. Coaching is there for me to help shape my thinking and you need to be thinking about things outside your own mind’s capabilities. So, challenge is good.’

I talk to lots of people who want to move into a diversity and inclusion role quite often. They came from a similar place as Cheryl, working in learning and development function or working as a HR business partner and want to become a diversity specialist. I asked Cheryl what her advice would be to somebody who wants to make that career switch.

‘Mine wasn’t a very well thought out process but if I had the chance to think about that more constructively, I would say if that is what you are looking to do, maybe look within the organisation that you are working in currently to see how you can get involved in diverse and inclusion activity. Whether that’s being part of an employee network group or looking at opportunities where you can maybe work alongside whoever is your diversity and inclusion manager and lend some support to them.

You can also look within your own team space or your own directorate, so putting your hand up as a champion, a diversity and inclusion champion within your own four walls – anything that’s going to expose you to this line of work. If that opportunity’s not there within your company at the moment, then look at building your external network. You could connect with organisations like Inclusive Employers or D&I Leaders, these are great companies that can help you. They’ve got lots of resources there, you can get involved in research or be part of webinars, be part of conferences, all those things that you can do as extra personal development.’

I’d echo what Cheryl said and I would add that there are industry-specific forums as well. Within the technology industry, there’s the Tech Talent Charter. It’s worth checking them out. And in the energy market, check out Powerful Women.

Hopefully, you’ve learned some things from my conversation with Cheryl and taken away some interesting hints and tips that you can use in your own role. Maybe you are even thinking about moving into a diversity and inclusion job. Maybe you like Cheryl, you are working in learning and development right now or you are an HR business partner and you’re looking to make a career switch. If you are, then it is a great job to be getting into and me and my team are here to support you. If that’s something that you want to do, just feel free to just reach out to us through our website

If you are already in a diversity and inclusion role, sign up to a free webinar at to accelerate your company’s diversity and inclusion strategy in just 40 minutes.

The Power of Inclusion at Electricity North West - Mildon