You Can’t Eat the Elephant Whole

My fantastic guest for this conversation is Johnny Timpson OBE. Johnny has got loads of experience driving change at a very high level. He has more than 40 years of insurance and banking sector leadership, and business development experience. He is also the principal of Johnny Timpson Consulting and non-executive chair of specialist military insurance brokerage, Absolute Military and the founding chair of the Access to Insurance working group, an additional TISA Consumer Protection Committee. Additionally, he’s a Financial Inclusion Commissioner and a member of the Financial Services Consumer Panel, the Prime Minister’s Champion Group for Dementia communities, the BIBA Access to Insurance Committee, the Building Resilient Households Group, the Institutes of Faculty Actuaries Mental Health Working Group, and gain the group for Autism Insurance Investment and Neurodiversity.

Johnny is an ambassador for both the Grief Chat Bereavement Counselling Service and the Invictus Game, Scotland 2027 bid. He currently has advisory roles with the Vocational Rehabilitation Association UK, the University of Edinburgh Business School Supporting Health Aging, the Workplace Program, the University of Bristol Disability and Financial Wellbeing Program, and the International Longevity Centre
Johnny is also a former Cabinet Office Disability and Access Ambassador for both the insurance and the banking sectors. And as you can see, he brings tons of experience to this conversation which I am excited to be learning from.

Firstly, he’s championing awareness of the social model of disability and the principle of “nothing about us without us” within the financial services sector, the financial services regulator and the government. Secondly, he’s advocating for the appointment of a Disability Commissioner and teams in Scotland to be a champion for disabled people and challenge on their behalf. Thirdly, he’s supporting people with dementia to better access to enjoy our high streets. Fourthly, he’s making the financial services industry a career destination of choice for disabled people, and particularly those who are neurodivergent. And fifthly, he’s supporting the University of Bristol and the Research Institute for Disabled Consumer Research, who look at the financial health wellbeing and support needs of disabled people. So, as you can see, Johnny is a hugely busy man with tons of experience including driving policy change at a senior level.

My first question related to the change agenda Johnny is working across. I wondered if he comes across stuff that frustrates him when trying to effect change and if so, what are those frustrations?

‘Well, I come at this as a person with disability. My mother was disabled all of my life that I spent with her. The thing that’s always frustrated me about my industry and profession has been the barriers that get in the way. I’ve endeavoured to tackle those as much for myself as other people. That’s my mission.

I’m doing a lot as has been mentioned, but at the core is making sure, even with visible or non-visible disability or limiting health condition that any one of us might have, we have a perfect right to enjoy products, services and career opportunities right across every sector of the UK as anybody else. Since I work in the financial services sector, I made it my mission to do that and enable people to get access to careers, products and services.

‘There are barriers I face, that we all face. The industry tends to take a very medical approach to disability, particularly the life insurance and health insurance industry. Recently, the government and the financial regulators introduced this concept of being aware of the needs of vulnerable customers. The industry took a medical approach to vulnerability – almost if you presented with a disability or a health condition, you are automatically assumed to be vulnerable, labelled and treated as so.

I’ve been at pains to say to people, stand back. Let’s be aware of the social model. Let’s be aware that the disabling factor, and in many cases the factors that make people vulnerable are not the impairments and health conditions that we have, but the things that you people do as an industry that make it very difficult for us to engage with you, to access your premises, your products, your services. Your websites aren’t formulated properly so that it can be read by reading machines. You know, you use the wrong color template for people that, for example, are neurodivergent. These are all very simple, low-cost things to fix.

When looking at careers and engaging the industry, it’s interesting. Pre-COVID, when I spoke to various people at very senior level, the barriers to employing disabled people and helping disabled people progress in their careers there was a lack of awareness. You looked around the room… and rooms tended to be full of very White and male people where no one would admit to having any visible or non-visible disability. Any conversation about reasonable adjustments was shut down very quickly as being very expensive to do.

I’d say, “Well, that’s interesting. What’s the average cost of a workplace adjustment, do you think?” Directors of firms were saying, “Oh a thousand pounds.” Obviously, a figure plucked from the air. There’s no realisation at all that a huge number of adjustments cost absolutely nothing at all.’

Johnny makes an interesting point because I do a disability talk called “Everything You Wanted To Know About Disability But Were Too Afraid To Ask” where I share my personal lived experience of having a disability. I start off the talk by talking about some of those misconceptions that employers have about employing disabled people based on some research that Disability Rights UK conducted a few years ago. One of those misconceptions is that it costs more to employ a disabled person because of the reasonable adjustments that you might have to put in place. I think the jury is out on the statistics. I don’t know if Johnny has access to updated numbers, but from what I understand and as he points out, the majority of reasonable adjustments cost very little or nothing at all. Where there is a cost, it’s something in the order of a hundred pounds a head or something. It’s not very much.

Johnny confirmed that’s about the figure that he cites as well, adding, ‘Isn’t it interesting that when COVID landed and everyone had to make the workplace adjustment to supporting working from home and hybrid working, boy didn’t we do that overnight and didn’t we do it really well? So, it can be done and it now creates such an opportunity to tap into the pool of disabled talent that’s available across the UK.

That’s important given the shortages of experience that businesses have. So now is the moment, I think, to up the pace on this discussion. I think the other thing as well is what happened during the David Cameron government, was this big focus on being inclusive. Being diverse and inclusive was flavour of the month. Before you know where you are, every firm had a diversity and inclusion programme. There was no real discussion about equity which has since emerged. I think the frustrating thing I had is that these programmes tend to be very siloed. They were very focused on, for example, originally gender and in financial services we’ve got the 1000 Black Interns programme.

But there wasn’t any thought given to intersectionality. No-one was saying, “Hold on a minute, if we’re talking about challenging gender gaps in financial services, be it on employment industry, employment at different grades, pay products and benefits but let’s also expand the conversation to talk about what about disabled women of a different ethnicity.”

We all bring a cocktail of characteristics, some of them protected, to everything that we do. We need to look at the whole person, I think. I’m trying to change that and move the conversation on now and say, “Look, when we talk about diversity, when we talk about inclusion, let’s ensure that we’re talking about inclusion by design. And when talking about diversity, let’s really talk about diversity. And that’s including cognitive diversity as well.”

It’s important that we add intersectionality to this discussion and be very aware of all the characteristics that people present. We also need to talk about equity too to make sure that everyone’s given everything they need to get into the organisation and then everyone can get up and get on.

It’s meaningless though unless you underpin it by culture. Having employee resource groups in your workplace is fine, as part of that culture change, but the priceless thing for me is lived experience input. First and foremost, the best lived experience input is from employing people with disabilities. And secondly, setting up customer feedback groups so you’re actually engaging different communities. But please, when you do put these programmes in place, please do make them intersectional. Because I’ve seen too many programmes where business says, “Oh yes, we’re now inclusive” but you look and see new people who’ve been brought into the business and they all look exactly the same and they all mirror the person that’s recruiting them to some extent. So, I think that intersectionality piece is as important as the lived experience input.’

I agree that lived experience within the team makes the team so much better. When I worked at the BBC, we ran an internship scheme for disabled people called BBC Extend. Often, hiring managers were quite anxious before the disabled intern joined the team because they were worried about that candidate fitting in and other anxieties around disability. Scope have conducted research which tells us something like a third of the UK population are afraid of talking about disability or to a disabled person. But what was interesting is at the end of the internship scheme, managers were completely sold.

Their feedback was along the lines of, “Oh my God, having somebody with different lived experience, different ways of doing things has absolutely made our team better. We’ve come up with new ideas and new solutions and fresh thoughts.” It was always a positive outcome even though there might have been that initial anxiety going on in the first place.

Johnny agreed that he sees examples of this in his industry particularly the life insurance sector. He continued, ‘Manufacturers of those products are now putting support services round about them. So not only if an event happens that gives rise to a claim, not only do they pay you monetary compensation but, for example, they’ll also ensure that you’ve got access to the benefits and grants that you may be entitled to or any social tariffs you might be entitled to. They tend to partner with rehabilitation and support services, which is great to see. That comes from the voices of lived experience saying, “Yes, great you’ve paid us money, but I need more than that.” I’d like my whole industry to adopt that type of approach.’

What I’m hearing so far is that several of Johnny’s frustrations have been senior leaders having a misconception that it’s going to cost more to employ disabled people and not meaningfully involving disabled people, I’m also hearing that organisations and industries follow the medical model of disability rather than the social model of disability.

My next question to Johnny was ‘So how have you personally overcome some of these frustrations so that you are effective in driving change?’

‘Let me start off by saying that we have driven change. There’s good news in financial services and I’m hoping as a sector we can be a champion for other sectors. What we’ve seen early this year is the regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority introduce guidance and rules for the board structure of financial services companies. This is basically ensuring that the boards are now being challenged to be more diverse, to reflect the audiences they serve. That’s great because we really did bring about change. We need disabled leaders at executive board level, and I think within financial services we’ve now got a pathway to help make that happen.

I campaigned for that but with a pile of other people. How did I make change happen? When Esther McVey was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, there were some rules that were created for ambassadors across sectors. The challenge that was given to the ambassador was to improve access to careers, but equally products and services as well. There wasn’t much definition to the role, it was a bit of a blank canvas. I was the first person to get that role for insurance, and I just went for it. I thought, “I’m just going to push really hard at this because I’ve now got an opportunity to engage at multi-level across my entire industry, with insurance companies, with professional bodies, with trade bodies.” You know, I’ve got the ear of the DWP, the Cabinet Office and because the financial services sector is regulated ultimately by what feeds down from the Treasury, I had the ear of the Treasury as well.

I was in a good position so I thought, “I’ll push as hard as I can and if I push too hard and upset anyone, someone will tell me.” But that’s the point. You know, I’ve got this role for three years, I’ll make as much impact as I possibly can. But again, lived experience counts. First and foremost, I did something that was perceived as quite radical and frightened a lot of people in organisations in my industry. I set up a user forum which was chaired by McMillan, but pre-COVID when lots of charities had policy people, we had about 32 charities and disabled people’s organisations as members of that forum. I wanted to get input from them. To focus on making asks of the industry to bring about change, we needed to narrow down to about three or four things that can be delivered and delivered quickly that didn’t really involve any massive expense on IT system investment and things like that.

So having got my user forum in place, I then brought together representatives from insurance. We get two professional bodies, we have about 15 trade bodies with governance. I brought them all together. We put our access to insurance agenda in place. For a bit of theatre, to do something really different and get people’s attention, I held up the first meeting in the DWP boardroom because most people had never been to a government department boardroom before.

Holding it there was a little bit different and helped bring about change because it got them thinking differently. A place that they were not used to, a little bit uncomfortable so I could make some challenges and asks. I made some asks about improving transparency; some asks about effective sign posting, so if you can’t help, don’t do nothing. The very least you should do is introduce your client to someone who can help them.

I wanted some improved support via the workplace, particularly access to workplace adjustments. And I wanted to engage the professional bodies about raising awareness of vulnerability, the social model to move away from this medical approach to a social approach to vulnerability. So that’s what I did. We ran that programme for three years and we delivered change. Of course, one of those changes was what the regulator is now pushing for in boardroom diversity. The expectation of that boardroom change is that that will change the culture in the organisation. Those directors will cascade the change all the way through the different levels of business to make sure that every level that we’ve got inclusion and diversity and intersectionality.’

My reflection was that the key takeaways are firstly build a coalition of supporters, a network of supporters. Johnny has worked at a very high level with regulators and government bodies. But for others the key takeaway could be to identify who your key stakeholders are and bring them together.

The second thing I heard is to prioritise. It’s better to come up with three or four things than a very long list of things. I can personally attest to that. I used to work with a manager at the BBC who said we should be doing fewer things better because I had a tendency to try and do everything all at once. Of course, you then get nothing done because you’ve got too much on your to-do list. Doing fewer things is better.

The third thing I learned here is to involve the end user because that’s a hugely powerful voice. Again, that really resonated with me because when I worked in user experience and design, I could tell creative directors that something should be made more accessible or more user friendly but when we actually, when we organised user testing with real life end users and the public, the message was powerful. It really got across.

Then the fourth point that I took away from Johnny is to create a bit of theatre to help get the message across. I like that. Thinking about the location that you have for the meeting and things like that added to the experience for people.

My next question for Johnny was a big one. I wondered what, from his experience, are one or two of the most effective ways of driving change.

‘One thing I can stand by is think big, act small and be humble. Have that big game plan but do prioritise. You can’t eat the elephant all at once, so break it down into bite size chewable bits and prioritise your bites.

For example, I had my four things, but there are other things on my list. When I finished my Cabinet Office role, that’s why I’ve been doing work with the University of Bristol online, we want to try and benchmark where people are right now with welfare benefits, given the financial crisis and campaign for change. But if we can create an evidence base, we can help disabled people’s groups and other organisations work with us on that. I wanted to do some work in universities because I realised that was a big area where there was no access or access to adjustments was particularly poor, which is why I set up

game so that some continue campaign.

So that’s kind of thinking big, acting small as if when you’re dealing with large corporates and politicians and no disrespect to any of these people, but you tend to find there’s a lot of ego in the room and people will immediately jump to reasons why they can’t do things. Invariably they’ll say it’s because they’re budget constrained and that’s their first line of defense.

So, when I say act small, I try and start off with changes you can bring about at low cost and with low structural disturbance for organisations. The minute you start talking about changing some of IT system you’re into some massive project with long lead times and big expense. Now don’t get me wrong, you can’t run away from that because that kind of change is needed but start with something smaller but doable to get them on the journey. Start building momentum and be humble. I go into meetings and I always think of Archbishop Tutu. Go in with absolutely no ego at all but recognise all the egos around about you. I try and use some sort of neuro linguistic programming to try and suss out where people are coming from, what kind of personalities are they? And once you know that you know what’s driving their ego, then you can just pitch your response.

So, if it’s someone that’s really direct then fine, I just hit them with facts, simple as that. If it’s someone that is maybe a little bit more social, then you can maybe engage them with some case studies. Let me say it doesn’t work all the time, but that’s my approach. When it doesn’t work, and my view of failure, because I think it’s important, is that I try to be baseline failure oriented. For me actually, if something doesn’t work, I try and understand why it’s not worked and that’s a success. If something’s not worked but I don’t know why it’s not worked and I’ve not found out, for me that is failure. For me benchmarking failure helps me overcome my fear of rejection.’

As this is the Inclusive Growth Show, everybody gets asked this question when they come on, so I asked Johnny, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘Let me talk about growth, first of all. Growth is not just financial and economic. And I think that’s very important given some of the noises we’re having out of Westminster at the minute. Growth is intersection. There are many dimensions to growth in your physical, mental, financial, social health, wellbeing, your degree of activity and interactivity. I look at all those factors and I think that if we help people grow personally and collectively as communities in all those areas then people’s financial health and wellbeing grows as well. But if we drop the ball, let’s say with health, physical health, mental health, social health and wellbeing at all levels of activity and interactivity, that invariably is going to have a financial consequence for that person, for that person’s family, for that person’s social group, maybe that person’s business if they’re self-employed. I guess that’s a long-winded answer but that’s how I look at growth, big picture.’

Johnny makes an interesting point. I hadn’t considered it that way before or the importance of that intersectional growth. If you are not doing well then work could be difficult. That then has a knock-on effect in terms of your economic activity or providing for your family so making sure you’ve kind of got growth in all of the key areas is really important.

Before we wrapped up the conversation, I asked Johnny what he would like people to take away with them and what action that they should take to drive effective change?

‘Well, one of my heroines, my role models if you like is Baroness Jane Campbell. Baroness Campbell got an award recently, I think it was a Scope Award. I was more interested in Baroness Campbell’s words when she received that award than anything else actually. She made the point and I think she was very much looking at where we are right now as a society and a community of disabled people within that society. What Baroness Campbell talked about was when she was looking back over her life, she said, Now is the time to really get political.”

Thinking back, we mustn’t lose sight of all that she and people around about her did back in the day to campaign for the Disability Discrimination Act. That Act was a hard one, hard fought for.

Looking at where we are right now, I don’t actually know who the Minister for Disabled people is. We’ve already had three in the last fourteen months and we’re waiting. Are we going to get another, a new minister or not? We shouldn’t be here as a significantly sized community across the UK waiting for government to appoint a minister. That should be one of the first ministry appointments especially given all the debate in terms of, aren’t they going to operate welfare benefits? The lack of that appointment in good time, I hate to say this, but it does kind of suggest that the voice of disabled people is not being appropriately heard.

I may be putting two and two together here and making five but maybe that’s where Baroness Campbell was coming from in terms of, let’s take matters back into our own hands now and campaign for change. Which is one of the reasons why in Scotland I’m campaigning. I’m supporting the campaign for having the appointment of a disability commissioner and commission who can challenge, champion, convene on behalf of disabled people and carers I have to say.

I think that that role is required across all nations of the UK. It should be independent of government. Let’s not wait for ministers to bring about change, let’s actually have a commissioner that’s informed by people with lived experience to drive change ourselves. Let’s make sure that when we campaign the people that we do put into office with disabilities do represent the entire intersectional community we are in.’

Johnny is right. The disabled community is a large one because 22% of the UK population are affected by disability. Globally it’s one in seven. So, about a billion people across the globe have got a disability or health condition. We are not talking about a niche community here. We’re talking about a huge number of people who have got something to offer to the world.

I’ve learned a lot from Johnny about driving effective change and he’s given us lots of tips to take away and perhaps even start to get a bit more political.

You Can’t Eat the Elephant Whole - Mildon