Diversity and inclusion in business – an interview with Olive Strachan MBE
After appearing as a panellist on our recent ‘Honest Talks: Leadership in 2020’ event, we caught up with Olive separately to find out more about the work she does and the conversations she’s been having with businesses around diversity, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Fourth Day (4D): Tell us about your background and what you do
Olive Strachan (OS): I’ve worked in coaching, training and consultancy for the past 21 years, with businesses of all sizes and from all sectors – including the Co-operative Bank, Mars and PwC.
I work with organisations to help them achieve peak performance using Executive coaching and leadership development.
The other area I focus on within businesses is increasing diversity and inclusion; many companies I work with have a desire to employ a more diverse workforce. So, I work with the organisation reviewing their strategic goals, mission vison and values together with an audit of the company, to see what might be holding them back from achieving this.
A constant refrain I hear from organisations is that they have difficulty recruiting black and ethnic minority staff – these companies need to examine their recruitment practices and ensure that they have an inclusive culture within their organisations.
4D: What issues do you usually come across when you first start talking to businesses about diversity?
OS: I usually get a feeling for the business and its values as soon as I walk into the reception, by the welcome I receive. You can tell what the company culture is like instantly; how inclusive a company is will often depend on the people at the top which filters down through the organisation.
Shockingly, I’ve only ever met two CEOs who were black or Asian in my whole working life. And if there is a Head of Diversity & Inclusion in the business, in the majority of cases they do not come from a black or ethnic minority background, so won’t understand the lived experience of a black person.
Another big issue that comes up around diversity in the workplace is conversation. People are often too embarrassed to ask questions or worried they don’t know how to address black people – should they be referring to them as black or an ethnic minority? Because this is difficult and challenging people tend to avoid rather than confront these questions.
4D: What changes are you seeing in the business landscape with regards to the topic of diversity?
OS: We’re hearing a more positive narrative from a variety of sources, diversity covers race, gender, age, sexuality etc. In the current climate with the death of George Floyd I have seen more focus on race and ‘the black lived experience’. This means that organisations are not just offering staff a one-day training course on diversity and inclusion or unconscious bias but looking at this more strategically.
The CIPD have been putting some great policies in place to help HR departments and businesses work harder on diversity. They’ve also produced an excellent paper, which explains why we should focus on race and shares some lived experiences of being black.
It’s great that they’ve been willing to highlight these difficult conversations and put things in a wider context for businesses. It’s helping them to have conversations with their staff and to better explain the reasons behind diversity initiatives.
4D: What changes have you seen off the back of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?
OS: As a black woman, racism is something I’ve experienced on a daily basis, but I have seen changes both personally and professionally since BLM. There seems to be an understanding that in order to make positive change we need to have more black people in positions of power. E.g. the recent nomination of Kamala Harris is in the US. In the UK ITV have just recruited Ade Rawcliffe as Group Director of Diversity and inclusion. This is fabulous news.
On a personal level I’ve had lots of friends and neighbours demonstrating concern and asking me how they can learn more about black history and culture. I recommend books and magazines such as Candice Brathwaite who has become hugely influential as an author and influencer recently. And the UK’s first magazine to empower young black girls, Cocoa Girl, was launched in July 2020.
Professionally, I’ve found that my knowledge and expertise is being called upon, I’m being asked to chair more panels. In the past, many panels were exclusively white and male – but it’s great be part of the discussion and to get my voice across and share my message with people.
4D: How do you think businesses could push the needle forward on diversity?
OS: Lots of boards still don’t have black or ethnic minority representation on them, which means that as the board is the beating heart of any organisations. Decisions made will not always reflect diversity and inclusion.
Training alone isn’t enough either – change must be linked to policy and strategy. If it’s written into the vision and values of the business, this is when it works best. Otherwise it will likely be forgotten. Affinity groups, where people share a common interest or goal, are good ways of bringing everyone in the organisation together to discuss and push forward how they can be more inclusive, as well as educating staff.
And recruitment must obviously be a big focus – companies need to look at where they are getting their staff from and if they aren’t getting what they want from their recruitment agency in terms of diverse candidates, is it time to go elsewhere?
4D: Which areas of society can we look to, to drive change?
OS: I see it as a three-pronged approach – without these three areas being addressed, we won’t see any change.
The first is within schools. Black history is often eliminated from history. But we need to open up the discussion and look at the contribution made by black people and what they have experienced. This will set an important precedent for future generations.
The second is HR and businesses, which we’ve already touched on. And the third is the media, who have a responsibility to create a normal narrative of black people, rather than a negative one – and shine a light on the positive things black people are doing.
4D: What are key things businesses need to consider from a reputation management perspective when approaching the subject of diversity?
OS: Businesses need to demonstrate that they understand by having at least one non-white director, this would reflect the current UK workforce, and make companies more competitive. Do not have tokenism. By having more diversity, it will improve the reputation of their brand. Allow employees to have their say (employee voice) and demonstrate they are listening. Have open communication channels, through networks such as affinity groups. Involve staff in the cultural change in incorporating BAME people into their organisation.
This positive conversation has to start from the top, with a board which is diverse. Currently, companies in the FTSE 100 have been directed to end their all white boardrooms by 2021, while those in in FTSE 250, have until 2024. The target is voluntary but companies failing to comply will have to explain why. Therefore, this should be at the top of an organisation’s agenda.
The common refrain I hear that ‘we can’t find anyone black to employ’ could be addressed in the long-term by having employers go into schools, colleges and universities to build relationships and help black minority children to find out about them. They could start bringing them into the workplace and nurture or coach them.
We’ve seen something similar before with the ‘Steps Ahead Mentoring’ programme for HR professionals, where people from the industry went into schools and shared aspects of their professional journey.
This will not have an immediate impact, but in the long-term it will encourage more young black people into the workforce and show them that they have a future.
Olive recently wrote her first book, ‘The Power of You’, sharing her story as a black female entrepreneur with the aim of inspiring others to achieve and succeed.