Back in early 2016 I was offered a complimentary place on a Women In Leadership course in London. It was a three day residential course, and one of the days happened to be my birthday. To be honest, I didn’t really want to go. However, I knew I was lucky to have been invited along, so off I went.
"Vision is the art of seeing things invisible" - Jonathan Swift
There were ten of us in total, sat around the table in the main room on the first morning of the course. We nodded hello at each other as we waited for proceedings to begin, each firmly in ‘managed personality’ work mode, professional and pleasant, but guarded.
We were all women, all white, all of a fairly similar age, all working in the financial services industry and at similar stages in our various careers. So, there wasn’t much diversity on display at first glance. Then something unusual happened.
The course leaders all stood up to introduce themselves, but instead of giving the usual professional biographies, they took a different approach:
“Good morning, I’m Jane. My parents divorced when I was 8 years old, and I spent a lot of time looking after my younger siblings while my mother worked. We struggled for money, which has always made me determined to succeed in my own career, as I have a fear of not having enough.”
“Welcome. My name is Margaret. I am dyslexic, so I have had to work very hard to hide the lack of confidence I have in myself. I can seem very confident, but I’m actually a natural introvert and I feel more comfortable working with small teams of people.”
“I’m Jennifer. I have worked hard all my life to succeed. My oldest child has autism, and I have found that hard to accept, so work has been my refuge. This has put immense strain on my marriage, and I am in the middle of a divorce at the moment.”
Immediately and tangibly, the mood in the room shifted. To be honest, it was a little uncomfortable initially; this ‘sharing’ of personal information was so unexpected in a work-focused environment. However, we were all invited to introduce ourselves, one by one, in a similar fashion.
Some said more than others, but the impact of people opening up, and saying something real about themselves, was powerful. Personally, I felt an immense sense of relief. I had been through a really tough year previously, one which had included personal loss and grief, alongside the pressure of launching a business. It was so refreshing to say some of this out loud, and to feel truly seen by the other people in the room.
We might have all had similar profiles, but in just a few short sentences we all described completely different life experiences, strengths and challenges. Instead of looking around the table at a collection of identical looking strangers in suits, I could suddenly catch a glimpse of each individual, their story, style and nature.
It turned out that a little bit of authenticity was all it took to interact in a far more meaningful way. That’s not to say we all poured our hearts out, the course content was high quality and professional, but understanding a little of each other’s life perspective from the beginning meant we really listened to each other, respecting a range of views and opinions, and working together was far more enjoyable and productive as a result.
As the Director of an executive and Board-level search firm, not a day goes by when I don’t think about diversity in one form or another. Like so many ‘big’ conversations, the issue of diversity does not exist in a vacuum.
When we talk about diversity, we also talk about culture, about health and wellbeing, about productivity and, crucially, about business success. Thanks to the work of organisations, initiatives, reports and commissions such as Women on Board, Investment2020, pay gap reporting, the Lord Davies Review, and of course the Diversity Project, it is widely acknowledged that addressing under-representation in business across a range of areas is not only about doing the right thing morally but also about business success.
It’s about productivity and it’s about profit. It turns out that cognitive diversity – or hiring people who think differently to each other because they come from a range of backgrounds – really is essential for ensuring healthy decision making, and a more productive workplace. Of course, it is a huge and complex debate, and it requires constant focus, determination and effort to keep things heading in an onwards and upwards direction.
But I have never forgotten those few days on that leadership course. To me it was the perfect illustration of how a diverse range of experience and opinion surrounds us every minute of every day if only we choose to see it and bring it to life.
Those personal introductions were such a simple way of demonstrating how when we are allowed to be ourselves in the workplace, even for a little while, our thoughts, ideas and opinions take on a new meaning, a new strength, and a real value. So, let’s not forget to ‘see the things invisible.’ Let’s not forget about the unique power of each individual, no matter how similar someone may seem to the person sitting next to them.
When we forget to ask questions and engage with each other, when we make assumptions about each other, when we insist expecting ourselves and our colleagues and peers to leave every aspect of our life experience that isn’t a professional experience at home, our industry misses out on a wealth of diverse thinking, feeling and expression that could be utilised in so many ways.
If we shut people down, at best the progress made is about numbers and statistics. If we include, converse, listen and connect - well, that’s where I think true progress lies.