Token Man: Inspiring Inclusive and Equitable Work Cultures

This episode of the Inclusive Growth Show features Daniele Fiandaca, speaker, coach, author and founder of Token Man.

In this interview, I was joined by Daniele Fiandaca, the founder of Token Man and Token Man Consulting. We talked about how to engage men on the topic of inclusion and diversity. This comes up quite a lot in the work that I do with senior leaders. Many people think that diversity and inclusion is to do with those people over there at arm’s length and they don’t understand that we are all diverse and that inclusion and diversity is something that we all need to be responsible and accountable for.

Daniele identifies as a White, straight, cisgender man so my first question was how he got involved in the field of inclusion and diversity.

‘I used to work in advertising and just under 10 years ago I used to run a group for creative directors around the world. We had a problem with diversity full stop, but specifically, you could really notice the lack of gender diversity. The industry famously only had 13% of female creative directors. Our particular group had 26%. We were beating the industry, but I still felt it at events. You felt that lack of a female voice. At the time I didn’t understand terms like in-group or out-group but there was a really dominant in-group. So, I hosted a dinner for 12 women and Creative Social was my hobby. I did it as a sideline. I was the managing partner of an advertising agency.

When I turned up that evening for dinner, I hadn’t really thought about it. I just organised it. And when I walked into the room and there was me and 12 women, that wasn’t a surprise because I’d organised the dinner and had dinner funded. What was the surprise is what happened to me the minute I walked through that door, which is I lost my confidence. People that know me well might not believe that’s possible. But it did happen and it was a real shock to the system. When we sat down for dinner, what I felt is the conversations that had been around me pushed me further away. Then when I got up to speak to introduce the dinner, my co-host, the wonderful Laura Jordan Bambach cut me off. These were all things that I’d heard women talking to me about their experience in the boardroom.

It’s not I didn’t believe them; I just didn’t understand the extent of the impact of being in that out-group. I have many privileges and I understand if you type the word “privilege” into Google images, you get someone that looks like me. But one of my privileges is I didn’t experience being in the out-group until I was 39. That opened my eyes. It shook me and made me realise there were other things happening in relation to some of the work I was doing with Hyper Island, which is what some people call the digital Harvard. It just made me realise that my behaviours were excluding people. Simple facts: on a Tuesday morning, our senior management team was 10 men and 2 women. When I saw Pete and started talking football where in this particular case the women weren’t interested in football, I realised I was pushing them away. So ,I never talked about football ever again at management meeting. But I started to think about the system and I realised that if I wasn’t combating the system, I was part of that system.

So, I’m a hacker. I wrote a book, co-authored and co-published the book six years ago called ‘Creative Superpowers’, though the superpower I owned was hacker. I like to solve problems, and what I saw in the market, I was seeing that men were not only not being invited in to talk about gender equality but often weren’t welcome in the room when they were there. If you look at history, in any majority group, minority groups have affected change without the support of the majority. And while women clearly aren’t in the minority in the workplace, unfortunately they still are in positions of power. For me it became clear that men needed to be part of the conversation.

As a hacker I thought, “Okay, there must be another way of us accelerating and creating change.” So, I founded Token Man with three women. And Token Man was set up initially as a brave space for men to talk openly about gender equality so they can go on their own journeys, make their own mistakes, say the wrong things and learn and become better. To ultimately become allies and agents of change, which is really how I got into it.’

I was keen to explore this a bit more with Daniele and we started with the “why?” as Simon Sinek says in his famous book. I asked Daniele, ‘Why is it important that we are engaging men in the inclusion and diversity agenda especially when we’re talking about gender equality?’

‘I think it’s probably worth saying that I don’t really talk about gender equality now. I engage women with inclusion and diversity. I have seen the damage that focusing just on gender does within organisations because it can often harm those other historically marginalised groups. So, I talk about inclusion and diversity and engaging men with inclusion and diversity.

In the work that we do, you just need to go into a business to understand why it’s fundamental. Until we start engaging men meaningfully, we’re not going to create a change. There’s a reason why we exist as organisations. We exist because organisations are broken. They’re not designed for diversity. They’re not designed to be inclusive for people of colour, for women, for people with disabilities, for people who are neurodivergent. Until we get those men engaged so that they can help drive the change, we’re just not going to drive the change.

People do tend to engage with me at Token Man Consulting when they’re a bit more advanced. They now understand the need to engage men. They’ve done a lot of the work but there are still too many businesses that think that employee resource groups plus bias training is an inclusion and diversity strategy. It’s not. And more worrying, there are still so many businesses that put the onus on the historically marginalised groups to do the work to create the change. That is just so broken. It’s hard enough as it is for someone that’s in that group. We shouldn’t be then putting the onus on them to do extra work.

So, for me I think it’s so important that we are leaning on those men to step in and do the work. The irony is not lost on me. I’ve been very successful in the last six years in building a business. You had my co-founder at Utopia on the podcast recently and I loved your conversation with her. But I think, for me, I know the impact I have as a White straight man on other White straight men so now I say to male allies, “One of your primary roles is to recruit more people like you to lean in.”

Often people think their job as a male ally is to be a sponsor to a woman or a mentor to someone from a historically marginalised group. And I’m like, “No, no. As an ally, you need to be part of driving that change first and foremost.”

It’s a really active role and it’s also a very challenging role. I think as men, and I’ve certainly experienced this firsthand, there’s a lot of work that’s needed to learn, unlearn and relearn. That can often be quite hard and quite challenging.’

My next question to Daniele was about what he sees as the other barriers to engaging men in the inclusion and diversity journey.

‘I was interviewed by Deborah from Propeller two years ago on International Women’s Day. And she told me this story which I’ve shared quite a few times. A female fish swims up to two male fish and just asks, “Hello chaps, how’s the water?” The male fish looked at each other and ask, “What is water?”

I think it’s funny. I tell that to quite a lot of men and men go, “I don’t understand it.” I said, “It’s because they just don’t see the water, right? They don’t see the exclusion.” I ran a workshop the other day around combating the sexualisation of women in the workplace. And we talked about some of the comments, the harassment, the little microaggressions. And when you ask men to name microaggressions that might happen every day… and again, let’s be clear, when I say “men,” I’m talking about men like me. I’m not talking about men with disabilities. I’m talking about White, straight, cisgender men. They struggle to write them down because they just don’t see them. They’re invisible. So, the first thing what you have to do is to make the invisible visible. You have to get the in-group to understand how their behaviours impact the out-group. How those behaviours do ladder up. A lot of people talk about microaggressions like paper cuts. One hurts but when you get them constantly, constantly, constantly, actually they can start becoming really damaging.

Firstly, there is what I call the ignorance, what people don’t know. The second thing I’ll talk about, and this is what men tell me, so whether you think it’s right or wrong, it’s the reality of it. And that’s why I talk about brave spaces because someone rightly flagged up that safe spaces have been needed and some people find it hard when I talk about the need for a safe space for White straight men. You’re like, “Whoa, whoa.” They’re not in danger but actually the reality is a lot of the men that I talk to do find that leaning into this and having those conversations are dangerous for them. They are scared about saying the wrong thing. They are scared of being cancelled for saying the wrong thing. So, we have created an environment where it can be quite scary for those people that don’t have the information.

I’ve created a number of books but one of the books that I contributed to was ‘The Best Piece of Advice Ever’. And the best piece of advice I put into that book was, “It’s better to be wrong and interesting than right and boring.” And I still hold to that. Sometimes being wrong and interesting is something we’ve got to be really careful with now because in the wrong environment, it can lead to damage for people by saying the wrong thing which sometimes can be very hurtful. So, for me, you have to be conscious of that but the most learning I’ve done is by being wrong. Because if you internalise those voices of what you’re thinking, those wrong thoughts, unless you share them, no one’s going to be able to pick up, challenge you or give you a different perspective. Okay?

So, what I think first is, “How do we create those brave spaces?” Secondly, and I’m sure you talk about this with your clients, Toby, a lot of inclusion in creating inclusive workplaces is people becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable. The challenge you’ve got with the in-group is someone like me. As I said, I have many privileges. One of the privileges I have is I spent most of my career being comfortable. Until I went into this space, I just wasn’t used to having uncomfortable conversations.

Often what we find is the men, even when we’ve filled in that gap, they still don’t have the resilience. And people find it challenging, “How can you talk about resilience for straight White men?” But we all have resilience issues and actually, they often don’t have the resilience to cope with that uncomfortableness. At the moment, unfortunately when I have seen men leaning in, trying to have those uncomfortable conversations, and when they find it too difficult or too challenging for them, they go, “Okay, I’m just going to go back to where I was before.”

Right now, they’re allowed to. I don’t think we’ve got to the stage with many organisations where we have the accountability where men who don’t lean into inclusion and diversity aren’t being penalised for that. Until that happens, I don’t think we’re going to get the real sea change that we need within business.

The term brave spaces was suggested to me by Joshua Weinstein who runs the Deaf Spot. I’ve got to give him a callout because I’ve started to use it and I think it’s a nice way of talking about it, and having those spaces is so important.’

I like Daniele’s point around brave spaces. It’s something that comes up regularly whenever I do my webinar about being a catalyst for change in your organisation and my workshops around inclusive leadership. I always ask people, “What is getting in your way in terms of driving change?”, and fear is the number one reason that comes up. People are afraid of saying the wrong thing. They’re afraid of causing offence. They’re afraid of getting things wrong. There’s an interesting statistic in the RightTrack survey, which was in 2021. They found that 55% of people are too scared to talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, for fear of saying the wrong thing. That’s quite a high number.

It’s a term I’m going to start using as well. I think it’s good to say that we’re creating these brave spaces because whenever I do inclusive leadership training, one of the things that we talk about is being a daring leader. So being able to put your head above the parapet, being able to challenge the status quo, being able to have those difficult, awkward conversations and not shy away from them, it’s a really important trait of a leader.

Another thing that Daniele is interested in exploring is masculinity. I was keen to pick his brains about that topic. It’s a very big question, but I wondered what Daniele’s thoughts were about how masculinity needs to evolve?

‘We haven’t enough time! But I think the first thing I would probably say is that masculinity came into the work I did about five years ago when I picked up a book that my wife bought me and it talked about her only seeing my vulnerable side when my brother passed away in 2011. It started to make me think about how I was struggling to engage with men but I also not even thinking about the negative impact the patriarchy has on men.

And if I wasn’t thinking about the audience I want to speak to and understanding the journeys they need to go on and how that will benefit them, how can I expect to get them to come in and pull in others? That’s when I really started to think about masculinity and the different aspects of it. Apart from explaining it, I never will use the term “toxic masculinity.” I know what a barrier it creates. If a man hear toxic masculinity, they hear that masculinity is toxic, which is just not true. There are elements of masculinity that are extremely toxic. So, for me, it’s understanding those and understanding what a more positive, tender form of masculinity is.

I think the first thing to talk about is feelings. I think bell hooks’ book ‘The Will to Change’ is absolutely fantastic. I’m a feminist but it was probably the first book where I heard a female feminist really talking about men and just showing a real empathy for men. This is so important on this journey. In the book, bell hooks talked about men becoming disconnected from their feelings, and there’s absolutely no doubt that that’s true; that many, many, many men struggle because they’ve become disconnected from their feelings.

Next week I’m going to Josh Connolly and Rob Smith’s. They do something called Uncommon Man London. It is a brilliant session in Liverpool Street. So, if anyone’s London based, I recommend it. It’s the first Tuesday of every month. They bring together about 30 to 35 men. And the first time I ever went, they just put the feelings wheel up on the wall and asked people to introduce themselves and pull out one of the words from the feelings wheel about how they’re feeling.

You then get them to sit in threes with other people and we talk about those feelings. And the people listening, their job is just to listen and to empathise and not to fix. It’s so, so powerful. I use it in the Token Man Brain Trust every time we get together. And the men, the senior leaders just come back and go, “I know more in that 15 minutes and I feel that I’ve spoken more openly and connected more there than people I’ve worked with for three years.”

Then we do breath work which is powerful. The first time I went to the session there were 30 men in tears. Just feeling and seeing that; experiencing 30 men expressing their emotions is such a powerful thing. For me, it just shows you where masculinity can go. It shows you that men can express their feelings if they’re given the opportunity to, and how important it is. It’s probably still on catch-up if anyone wants to have a look at my Vimeo channel, The Token Man.

Fathers in the workplace talk about what’s important to them as fathers and challenge people’s perceptions, when they talk about what success is and what success isn’t. I think for me, it starts to show a different path to what masculinity can be. And part of that is embracing what I’d call historical feminine energy. And yes, I’d love not to put any kind of description on it but we do need to understand that masculinity does need vulnerability. It does need empathy. It does need tenderness. And these things are important.’

I was curious to hear more about the advantages or benefits that could be seen if men begin to lean into more vulnerability and empathy for other men within the workplace.

Daniele said, ‘Trust. I mean, I’ll go on the vulnerability one, it’s just trust. So, we know there’s a spiral. The more open you are, the more trust you create. And I know the story. I’ve been on stage and spoken about my brother and the impact that his death has had on me. And if I’m on a stage and I’m telling the stories, I usually tell it, it often involves tears. I’m being extremely vulnerable at that point. I don’t particularly look forward to it but the reason I do it is because I know how many people come up to me afterwards and say, “Thank you.” Thank you because, through my vulnerability, I’m giving them permission to open up and start talking about things they wouldn’t normally talk about.

When we talk about inclusion, we know one of the biggest challenges that people have is for many historically marginalised groups, such as all women, or non-binary people, one of the challenges they have is they’re scared to voice some of the things they experience. As a leader, if you show that vulnerability on the challenges you are having, you’re much more likely that someone from that group is going to have the confidence to then start sharing with you what they’re experiencing.

Once they share it, you can make change. Without that information and cultural intelligence, you’re not going to have the ability to make that change. Let’s be really clear, leaders should be building that all the time but they can’t always know everything. Vulnerability is key. There are lots of men who can be vulnerable and there’s a lot of women that can’t be vulnerable. Generally, what I hear from women is that they’re more than comfortable being vulnerable with their friends but they’re not comfortable with the men in the workplace because of the judgment.

In fact, in our Masculinity in the Workplace research two years ago, I think it was 48% of mid to junior women said it was dangerous to be vulnerable in the workplace. If I speak to men, they’ll say, “Forget other men about being vulnerable in the workplace. I can’t be vulnerable with my friends.” Or even worse still, some will say, “I can’t be vulnerable with my wife.” So, you’ve got a much bigger gap when it comes to the journey that men need to come to especially around vulnerability and to a certain extent empathy as well. It was best encapsulated by the CEO that I work with. He said to me six months ago, “Daniele, you’ve got to understand that for the first time in my career, I’m not just being asked to be different at work, I’m also being asked to be different at home.”’

My next question to Daniele was about how he is helping businesses to engage with men. How he engages senior leaders? And what is he finding works particularly well?

I think it’s important to start at the top. Change only happens at the top. I run inclusive leadership programs for senior leadership teams. That’s for leaders that identify as women, leaders that identify as men, and leaders that identify as non-binary. I specifically tend to work with a leadership team that might be C-suite or that might be a team internally and I’ll deliver a nine-month inclusive leadership program.

In one particular programme, we are training them to become inclusive leaders as well as an inclusive leadership team to actually drive change. The other side is I really support companies in producing better strategies with engagement. We’ve developed a really simple framework. It was funny how a framework only seems simple once you’ve developed it and it’s actually working. But it’s basically, what I think historically people have done is just the recruit phase, which is the third phase, where they recruit people to become better allies and agents of change. And what we’re starting to see is by going just to recruit, we’re seeing pushback. We’re seeing people go. But do you know what? They’re not engaging. We know from our data in our Masculinity in the Workplace ’22 research, 48% of the male respondents said that they felt they were being forced to get involved with inclusion and diversity when it wasn’t relevant to them.

The first thing we’ve got to do is support. We have to do more work in supporting men with the challenges they are currently facing. Saying it’s not relevant to them, firstly, is nonsense because the future of the workplace is inclusive. That change has happened. I personally believe if we get this right, if you’re not an inclusive leader, you’re not a leader in five years’ time. So, it should be relevant to everyone. We can’t say inclusion is for everyone and then exclude men. Again, I’m talking about White straight men because that is what’s been happening. And we do have to start supporting men as fathers. We do have to support men in terms of their mental health. I was just talking about a new Token Man panel series around friendship and support networks because it’s so important and more organisations are starting to understand more about the need for those support networks.

The second thing we need to do is inspire men. We’ve already talked about this but men, a lot of men, don’t currently have the skills to be vulnerable and empathetic. They don’t have the cultural intelligence. They’re not comfortable with the uncomfortable. Ultimately, I work with clients both in developing the strategy and also in implementing the strategy, making sure that in their overall I & D strategy, they have a very clear men engagement strategy. Ensuring that the men engagement strategy has equal areas: a third on supporting, a third on inspiring, and a third on recruiting.’

Daniele founded Token Man and also Token Man Consulting. I asked him ‘What are your hopes for the future for your organisation?’

‘Just so people understand the distinction, Token Man is predominantly my platform for driving change but everything I do under Token Man is free. Token Man Consulting is where I drive change but get paid for it. So obviously Token Man Consulting allows me to do the work I’m doing in Token Man.

Let me focus on Token Man. What I found, and a lot of people will just say, “Yeah, totally see that,” is that generally men do not prioritise this work. They don’t prioritise training full stop unless they see a direct correlation to their career. Okay, we need to change that but right now, that’s the environment we sit within. So, if we’re going to engage those men, and when I say, “engage those men,” we’ve got to start accepting that we need a continuous journey. We need to constantly learn, unlearn and relearn.

So, in order to engage those men, what we need to do is make sure that anything they see they fully trust it. Everything we do within Token Man is free and fully accessible. We developed a Token Man panel series that runs five or six panels a year, totally free. What I want for Token Man to become that kind of seal of approval so you know that if you’re going to spend that time, this is going to be time well spent. I’m really proud our Being a Father in the Workplace panel got an average feedback score of 9.4 out of 10. That’s unheard of for a panel.

I want to be able to support men, inspire men, and recruit men. That’s how we’re curating it at the moment. Ultimately, to the question, I want to drive change. I want to create workplaces that are truly inclusive and diverse.’

I asked Daniele to think about what the most inclusive organisation on the planet would look like if we were to fast-forward 20 years from now.

‘It is really hard to say. Visually it looks different. Let’s talk about disability. 85% of disabilities are invisible and often you can’t see that. I think for me I want to be able to speak to people and I want to say, “Is there an in-group?” And I want the answer to be “No.”

Nadia, my co-founder on Utopia, and I, we did the Great British Diversity experiment. What was great is that people in the room, more than 2000 people, were in their groups, and they didn’t feel that it was an in-group. For me, the answer is having workplaces where there’s an absence of an in-group so that people can actually be their full authentic selves and don’t feel they have to represent who they are. They can just be authentically who they are.’

Finally, I put the question that I ask everybody when they come on the show to Daniele, ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you?’

‘I think I’ll go back to that quote I keep on talking about by Alvin Toffler that said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can’t read and write, it will be those that can’t learn, unlearn and relearn.” Inclusive growth for me is recognising we’re on a journey and we need to learn, unlearn and relearn continuously. That’s from a cultural intelligence level. Learning much more about our fellow human beings, the people we work with. Learning what drives them, really going under the skin of culture and understanding what sits behind that.

What are their beliefs? What are their behaviours? What support can we give them? It’s naturally thinking about adjustments. How can we make sure things are accessible for all? So, for me, inclusive growth is having that kind of inclusive growth mindset, which is always learning, always being curious, always working out how we can be better, and actually thinking about how we can make sure that everyone in our teams can perform to their best.’

To get in touch with Daniele direct, visit his LinkedIn page and tell him that you heard his interview on the Inclusive Growth podcast. At the top of his page, you’ll see the link to the Token Man Panel Series. Daniele’s plan is for this to always have three or four panels live at any one time which means there’s a lot of content. And look out for other initiatives that are coming up over the next 12 months that will really help support men, inspire men, and recruit more men to become better allies and agents of change. Alternatively, visit the Token Man website.

Token Man: Inspiring Inclusive and Equitable Work Cultures - Mildon