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Diversity and inclusion (D&I) are high on the agendas of many organisations, made necessary by an increasingly global talent market, the pressure to address the gender imbalance and the need for greater innovation. These factors are profoundly changing the demographic landscape when it comes to talent management, yet so often we are making our decisions in the same way we have done for years. This raises some complex questions: by not embracing inclusive talent management strategies, are we missing out on the wealth of skills and experience this considerably diverse talent pool offers us? Are our natural biases getting in the way of capturing the talent that will help us create sustainable, innovative organisations?

To answer these questions, we invited D&I expert and leading author Stephen Frost to speak at The Oxford Group’s Inclusive Talent Management event in April 2018.

I first met Stephen when I was Director of Talent at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). We met when Stephen was invited to speak during a D&I week organised by my team and our employee networks. It was rich with learning events, panel discussions, guest speakers and cultural awareness sessions, and culminated in us receiving our EDGE certification for our efforts to support gender equality.

I believe that Talent, D&I and Engagement are inextricably linked, and this holistic view is one I share with Stephen and have long aimed to achieve. When I heard him speak, his words had an immediate resonance. It was obvious then that I should ask him to speak at The Oxford Group’s recent event to share his experience and inspire our clients.

C: You describe Inclusive Talent Management as needing to move from a ‘nice to have’ to being a ‘strategic imperative’ – why is that?

S: I think there are five reasons why we might want to embrace inclusive talent management.

The first is about serving your clients or customers better in a fast-moving market. Trends and technology are developing much faster than organisations, and businesses are now being exposed to a wider array of influences than ever before. Diversity within the organisation helps them to examine all of this from new perspectives and ultimately helps the business to make better decisions in an ever-changing environment.

The second is around employee recruitment. The majority of new entrants to the labour market now come from minority groups, so if you don’t talk to them you won’t employ them and subsequently miss out on new talent.

The third is about productivity – people perform better when they can be themselves. Having diverse role models makes it much more likely that more of your employees will fulfil their potential and stay long enough to add real value to the organisation.

Fourth is avoiding homogeneity and reducing the risk of “group think”. Diversity can trump the traditional view of ability in producing better financial and other outputs in decision-making scenarios.

Finally, doing real work on attracting and developing diverse talent reveals your organisational ethics to stakeholders and shows a willingness to leave a better social imprint in a time when society has understandable trust issues with business generally.

C: In your book Inclusive Talent Management, you talk about the language used in Talent Management and how this perpetuates homogenous cultures e.g. the terms “cultural fit” and “prior industry/sector/role experience” in recruitment, promotion and talent conversations or the “the war for talent” and the idea that demand outstrips supply. Can you elaborate on this?

S: Talent is infinite and comes in all shapes and sizes. However, because we are biased we don’t always recognise it and therefore we fail to incorporate it. We hide behind these terms because it’s what we’re comfortable with and/or we’re afraid to take a risk on those with different backgrounds or experience gained in other environments.

Equally, we don’t want the organisation to “reject the organ” so to speak. We need to get better at supporting people transitioning into the organisation or taking on new positions within the organisation. Helping individuals to integrate without losing themselves and the cognitive diversity they bring is key to creating change.

So, we should put as much effort into broadening our perspectives when it comes to talent identification and selection as we do working with the system to ensure that it is receptive to new thinking. And also, being conscious about how our language may shape our organisational cultures.

C: At the London Organising Committee Olympic Games (LOCOG) you helped the organisation achieve new levels of workforce inclusion. How did you get it so right and how can other businesses benefit from understanding your achievement?

S: Put simply, we built diversity into the system rather than having it as an add-on. I describe the three paradigms for embracing diversity in business as:

  • Diversity 101: the compliance paradigm – because you have to
  • Diversity 2.0: the marketing paradigm – because it serves the company’s self-interest but there is a reality or perception gap
  • Diversity 3.0: the system paradigm – embed it into business strategy to create value for all parties

Most companies undertake the first two and while they’re not necessarily bad activities, they’re insufficient as standalone initiatives. LOCOG adopted all three approaches from the beginning with an emphasis on the third. So rather than having, say, a programme for women and a programme for ethnic minorities, we just built them all into the entire recruitment system and held everyone accountable.

C: What are your views on targets and quotas in talent management or talent strategies that lead with demographics?

S: People get confused between targets and quotas. As a rule of thumb, targets are great because they are based on the actual talent available. Quotas are potentially bad because they can be an artificial obstruction to the free flow of talent. However, nobody is objective when it comes to talent identification and selection as we are all deeply biased creatures, so some sort of measure can serve as a useful yardstick.

If we develop diversity targets in line with available talent then that gives you a reasonable milestone. So, I am definitely in favour of targets, not least because they stop us going backwards. But if you really push me I think quotas have a place as a short-term temporary measure to kick-start the pipeline. One of the best examples here in the UK was women being shortlisted for parliament which lifted the number of women from 12.5% to 25% overnight. This improved the overall quality of debate in parliament. But in the long run, targets are a much better way of taking us towards a genuine meritocracy.

C: Many of us accept that we are inherently biased. How do we keep this in check? What implications does this have for talent identification and development?

S: Unconscious bias training and other diversity training does not work if it’s implemented once and then forgotten about. What is required is the combination of raising awareness through training, changes to practices and ongoing challenge – ‘calling out’ – when bias is observed.

In talent processes, for example, organisations should be implementing diverse selection panels and talent boards. Training people on evidence-based assessment and ensuring that assessment processes take into account an individual’s full experience – not just their last year in their current work environment.

In terms of developing talent, a more personalised approach is required that recognises the unique skills and experience people already have and the gaps that may need addressing in order to realise their full potential within their current environment. Utilising different learning mediums, curating content based on need and user-led content creation leveraging technology, coaching and peer mentoring are all extremely valuable. Be aware, however, that too much personalisation can reduce the breadth of learning and introduce bias.

While inclusive talent management should start at a strategic level, at The Oxford Group we appreciate that it can be complex and overwhelming to revise or create a new strategy that embraces these principles effectively and at a fundamental level. In our article Practical ways to refresh your talent strategy today, we look at the simple framework that The Oxford Group uses to support business to make their talent strategy more inclusive.

About Stephen Frost:

Stephen Frost is a leading Diversity and Inclusion expert and author as well as CEO of Frost Included Ltd. Stephen designed, led and implemented the inclusion programmes for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games as Head of Diversity and Inclusion for the LOCOG; and has authored three books including Inclusive Talent Management: How Business Can Thrive in an Age of Diversity (Kogan Page, 2016).

He was elected recipient of the 2010 Peter Robertson Award for Equality and Diversity Champions, named 2011 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and recently voted one of the top 20 influential LGBT people in the UK. Currently, he teaches Inclusive Leadership at Harvard Business School and is an Adjunct Lecturer at Sciences Po in France.

About Caroline Taylor:

Caroline Taylor Principal Consultant at The Oxford Group and Design Lead for our Accelerating Talent Development business practice. Caroline has over 20 years of experience as an Organisational Development professional within global organisations. Prior to joining The Oxford Group earlier this year, Caroline was Director of Talent Management for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development with global responsibility for Talent and Performance Management, Talent Acquisition, Diversity and Inclusion and Employee Engagement. Caroline takes both a practical and systemic approach to her work ensuring that any intervention is impactful and supports organisational strategy.