Diversity by design

Simon Fanshawe OBE, Partner, Diversity by Design

Fresh from speaking at the 2018 BSA Annual Conference, Simon delves into his approach to organisational diversity.

The first thing to say after speaking at the BSA Conference is thanks for hearing me out. Having just finished six years on a Housing Association Board (one that needed some rescuing, it must be said) it was great to meet so many who work in and run businesses with the financial rigour that enabling the security of owning a home demands, but also the special purpose that comes from being in business “for people not shareholders”. Putting into action social purpose through financial exactitude and ambition is thoroughly satisfying.

In my speech I argued that the debate about how to achieve greater diversity in building societies should start, not from the arithmetic of identity (‘more women’ etc..), but from the core purpose of your businesses. Talking with members I got the strongest sense of how important that core purpose is, and how significant your societies are in the local areas – that in so many cases give you your names.

Our approach to diversity flows from a desire to enable organisations to develop and deploy the talent of all their staff to their fullest potential. In the session, I identified a number of talent deficits to illustrate just how bad UK business is at removing existing talent blocks. I made you turn to your neighbour and say to him or her “That is as far as you are going in your career. That’s it” And you all found (as do all audiences) that it is very difficult to say that to someone directly. Yet that is precisely what organisations are saying to certain groups in their staff. There are still more men called John, David and Andrew in the top 300 jobs of the FTSE 100 than there are women.

The point is not that there’s something inherently at fault with white men. There isn’t. The point is that, without being cute about it, it’s statistically rather unlikely that the vast majority of the “best” people to run British industry all come from one demographic.

“The process enables people to make that choice, un-diverted by biases or preconceived notions, by concentrating on the evidence.”

So, at Diversity by Design we have created a way of taking organisations and/or teams on a virtuous circle:

  • What are you trying to achieve (goals)?
  • Who have you got?
  • How do you describe the difference needed to achieve or better those goals?

Organisations can then recruit the person who actually fulfils the criteria. The process enables people to make that choice, un-diverted by biases or preconceived notions, by concentrating on the evidence. The process was developed from research, mainly by the doyenne of this area of work, Professor Iris Bohnet (a behavioural economist, who is the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy, at Harvard Kennedy School) and her team, and our experience of trialling it with clients.

It is producing results already. Recently we used the process with a Faculty of Engineering in one of the biggest UK Universities to appoint two Associate Professors. They worked with us to establish exactly what they needed in the two (all male) teams. The applications were 85% male (usual for Engineering), but, by not using CVs and looking at evidence blind, the shortlist was 65% men. Without quotas, or in any way trading off diversity against excellence, we increased opportunities for female applicants by more than double.

Diversity by Design is partnering with the BSA to run seminars over the next few months to equip building societies with the means to maximise talent at all levels, including Boards, to create more diversity to sustain the mutual sector for the twenty first century.