Improving Diversity: What works … spoiler alert it’s not having targets and a plan

You’ve set some targets, you’ve published your plan, be that around race, gender or other aspects of “diversity”. You have probably published both on your website and you’ve briefed recruiters.  Now all you need to do is sit back and wait for the results to roll in.

After all, everyone knows that there’s a McKinsey study out there that proves that organisations with a more diverse make up are more successful, so leadership must be bought in. What could possibly go wrong?

Why good intentions fail

Let’s cut to the hiring manager.  There’s a vacancy to fill and the budget is signed off.  He (or she) has a choice of candidates.  One is moving from a similar position at a competitor, the other has had a career break.  Or perhaps there’s another whose academics are a bit suspect, whose most recent work was with an organisation he considers a bit “second rate”.

This hiring manager has short term targets to achieve, against which he will be judged and rewarded, or not.  His team is under pressure, there are never enough people, they are already working long hours, the last thing they need is someone who can’t “hit the ground running.”

“We are a meritocracy.  At the end of the day, it has to be the best person for the job.”

How many times have we heard that?

“Diversity” does not (automatically) improve performance

Simply adding people of colour or more women to a team that is predominantly made up of white men will not, in and of itself, improve performance.  In fact, there’s a good argument to say things will get worse.  If the majority don’t really believe the new joiners have a valuable contribution to make, they’re unlikely to create the environment to ensure they do just that. If the new joiners believe they’ve been hired simply to fill a quota, they are hardly going to start with a confident spring in their step.

So what’s the answer?  We know intuitively that having a team with diverse points of view, experiences and contributions should lead to better outcomes.  We also know that throughout society some groups are severely disadvantaged and deserve better opportunities: simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The question is, what does it take to get from her to there?  How do we change the choices made by the hiring manager and the experience of those joining from a “diverse” background.

What we’ve learnt at the Reignite Academy

After two years of working with various law firms in the UK, here is what our experience has taught us.

1. It comes from the heart not the head

Someone has to truly believe that people with a different background and experience have something to offer that will enhance the team.

This was never more clear than at one member firm, when the senior partner realised that the women we are helping to resume their careers are the very same women that he trained with.  He could reel off the names of women he respected and admired who had stepped back from their legal careers, largely because of the long hours culture and lack of flexibility, which only became a problem once they had children.   It helped that one of them was his wife.

No McKinsey study on earth will ever replace a real person saying “this is a waste, look what talent we’ve lost, we have to try to provide opportunities for them to return.”

2.  Create the pipeline before you make a hole

Immediate vacancies usually need filling with some urgency.  We have sympathy for the hiring manger who has a hole to fill.  However, in our experience is “whack a mole” (to purloin a phrase) approach to filling vacancies with the best available candidate is counter-productive if you are serious about creating a more diverse team.

At the Reignite Academy, for example, we often begin speaking to candidates months – sometimes more than a year – before they are finally ready to return.  Women often have concerns about how they will manage their other responsibilities along with reigniting a career, not to mention worries about how to get back up to speed.  This has been exacerbated by the home-schooling situation.

In the same way that we are nurturing a pipeline of talent, it helps when our member firms look ahead and think strategically about the practice areas that are likely to grow and where they could create opportunities for our candidates.  That way we can engage in a proper conversation and make appropriate introductions that, in time, will lead to people into jobs.

3.  You have to allow the seeds to grow, the flowers to bloom

There is little point hiring someone who is bringing something valuable and different to the team if you do not then allow them to contribute that something.  Put more bluntly, if you squash them into a box like all the other members of the team, you are likely to be disappointed when they fail to thrive.

A great example of this was when one of our candidates, who had spent over 6 years as a General Counsel, was given the opportunity to share that experience with younger members of the team.  After her first nine months being frustrated at this knowledge being disregarded, she was asked to give a talk on “how to approach” GCs.  This talk was so valuable that it turned into a regular training session.

4. Teach them and they will learn

Shortly after the black lives matter movement erupted last summer, I spoke to a couple of black women – one a banker, the other a lawyer – about their experience of joining big City institutions as the first person in their family to join this profession.

Both told me that, looking back, the one thing that no-one explained to them, was the importance of networking from day one.  Not going to “networking events” per se, but getting to know people at all levels throughout the firm and slowly but surely making sure they knew you.

To other people who joined at the same time, many of whom were following family members into the profession and who had been to the same private schools, making connections and building a network came so naturally.  For Yvonne and Janine, it was an anathema.  They assumed doing a lot of good quality work would be enough.

At times, leaders are “unconsciously competent” about what it takes to succeed.  With a little more dissection of the attitudes, skills and behaviours required to succeed and some targeted training, this could easily be addressed.

5. Leaders, be prepared to learn

It’s easy, if you’re at the head of successful organisation or team, to assume that you have leadership nailed.  The results, surely, speak for themselves.

And yet, it’s not so if you are going to lead a different type of team – one that is made up of people with different backgrounds, motivations, cultures, attitudes.  Social events centred around alcohol, client networking that always takes place after work, for example, can exclude some member.  Although who is doing any of that during lockdown?

More subtly, now, it’s about watching out for and recognising ways in which some people may behave differently to others.

One partner we worked with, for instance, told us about how, in the run up to the appraisal season at the back end of lat year, it was very noticeable to her that most men on the team were confidently claiming their contribution to certain projects and activity whilst many women were, on the face of it, under-performing. Until, that is, you looked at which members of the team were simultaneously trying to home school two children whilst also delivering their billable hours target.

It wasn’t just that she noticed, it was that she was looking in the first place and then took the initiative to talk to other members of the leadership team about how to adjust evaluations to reflect people’s different circumstances.

6.  Acknowledge and remove discrimination and unfairness from the system

One of the reasons that organisations end up being less diverse than when they started (for example, beginning with a 50/50 gender split at graduate intake and ending up with something more like 80/20 at partner level) is that there is discrimination in the system.

It varies by organisation but in our experience one common, though unintended, source of bias is found in the system for work allocation.  Especially when there is no system for work allocation. Partner comes out of office, finds associates they’ve worked with before and enjoy working with, gets them involved in the pitch.  Pitch is won, the same team does the work.  All get on very well, go for drinks at the end of the job.  Pause and repeat.

Unless you are prepared to root out, acknowledge and change areas like this, where unfairness has a huge impact on people’s experience and progression prospects, you are unlikely to make a dint in your targets.   The flipside is that if you can change this, the benefits will be immense.

7.  Remember – Everyone loves a story

The good news is that everyone loves a success story.  Get it right and you create a virtual circle.  Tell someone the story of the woman who came back to work as a newly divorced single mum and who was able to get her career back on track, who adds perspective and humour to the team and who is now helping open up a new practice area.  Or the story of the young black lawyer who was the first in his family to go to university and who was given the opportunity to join an inclusive team with a leader who actively sponsored his progression.

The McKinsey study is memorable but will never touch anyone’s heart.  As someone cleverer than me once said

Facts tell, stories sell.

Celebrating Success

Along with setting targets and creating action plans, the other thing we’ve noticed is that firms love to produce an annual “Diversity and Inclusion” report.  The good news is that if you follow these steps, you’ll have plenty to put in it.   You might even hit some of those targets.

Meet Krista, who resumed her career after a five year break

Krista is a qualified insurance/reinsurance litigator with 9 years PQE experience. After a successful career in private practice, she took a career break to raise her family. Five years on, she was ready to resume her legal career but unsure about where to begin.

An introduction to the Reignite Academy and to member firm RPC made all the difference.

We spoke to her about her experience.

What made you decide to return to private practice?

After taking many years out to raise my daughters, I was keen to get my legal career back on track.  I had missed the work, the people, the intellectual challenges and being busy on interesting things.

How have you found the experience so far?

I have been at RPC for 5 months and it’s fantastic.  The training and encouragement from both RPC and Reignite have been excellent.  Probably the biggest challenge for me at the beginning  was my lack of confidence, but thanks to my incredibly supportive supervisor and team,  I am now taking on more responsibility and a more diverse caseload and the imposter syndrome is lifting.  Everyone at RPC has been very welcoming and friendly too, which has been wonderful.

I have just accepted a permanent role with the firm and couldn’t be more excited about the future.

What advice would you give to others contemplating a return?

Contact the Reignite team.   I could not and would not have done this without them.

So tell me …. What’s a middle aged woman got to offer …

Are you asking yourself this very question?

“What does a middle aged woman have to offer that a 20-something doesn’t?” It’s a question many of the women I meet ask. Sometimes, it’s a question going on in their own heads, holding them back from pursuing new opportunities.   I’m too old, surely? Who would want me? What do I have to offer.

The short answer: plenty. Get a grip, have some guts and get on the front foot. You have plenty, believe me.

You have perspective and wisdom

As a new grad, I soaked up the message that women could have it all. Motherhood was not going to get in my way. And for a while I was right, I made partner in Arthur Andersen in my early thirties and thought that was success.

Ha. Little did I know. The Enron debacle, a divorce, a new marriage, two kids, relocation… the usually messy stuff of life  …meant that, like many women, my career didn’t follow a nice straight line. I quit my job when I didn’t get a promotion I was expecting and my childcare arrangements fell apart. I spent time outside the City, volunteered in a school in a deprived area of London, became a magistrate, spent time with lots of people in other walks of life. And yes, I did the school run.

I realised that there’s more to life than false deadlines and annual performance appraisals, office gossip and billing targets. I also realised that no powerpoint presentation ever changed the world and nothing is really that important as a loved one with a life threatening illness.

Little wonder, then, that more “mature” women going back into the workplace are less likely to phased by having to say “No” to some “urgent” and impossible request.

Your social network is deep and wide

OK, you didn’t invent Facebook, but you do know an awful lot of people. And many of them will be in serious positions, influential and well connected themselves.

When Deb Khan and I first decided to set up She’s Back I was venturing into the world of work after six years “on the outside.” One of the reasons I’d left in the first place was a frustration that my peers were being promoted ahead of me (they didn’t have the responsibilities of “pesky kids” weighing them down, or if they did, they’d worked out how to off load some of those responsibilities to others).

This, obviously, turned out to be a bonus when I needed to reach out to people in influential positions for support with my fledgling business idea. Funny how I was able to put that frustration to one side very quickly indeed and reconnect with my one time peers. One of them even connected me with Arianna Huffington, who very kindly endorsed our book.

She’s Back book, endorsed by Arianna Huffington

You have energy

Anyone who’s had to live with a young child or two will know all about sleep deprivation. And the challenge of trying to carve out any time for your own hobbies, ambitions and interests.

There is absolutely no way I could have set up a business in my late thirties or even early forties. And look at me now. I’ve set up two. After She’s Back, I moved onto the Reignite Academy , helping open doors to enable lawyers to return to the City after a career hiatus.

And of course, after years of working out that it’s easier to navigate live with the support of other women, I was able to make this new business happen because it’s a collaboration with two other fabulous “older’ women, Melinda Wallman and Stephanie Dillon (who I have to admit is not quite as old as me).

You’re not easily scared

Back to my “life or death” point, having a bit of perspective and life experience also gives you some chutzpah. So what if you fail, who cares if someone rejects your idea, what do you have to lose by having a go.

I’d never pitched to a senior law firm partner in my life before we set up the Reignite Academy. In fact, in all my time with Arthur Andersen, I honestly don’t think I was successful in selling anything. (Even without Enron, I probably wouldn’t have gone very far). And now? I care about the business, I believe in what we’re offering and that senior partner on the other side of the table is about my age, so he doesn’t scare me one little bit.

You have a laser sharp focus and it’s your turn

The women I’ve met who are picking up their careers after a hiatus or a total break — whether it’s through the Reignite Academy or another channel — have thought long and hard about their decision.

They are returning because they want to: they are ambitious for the next phase of their lives. They are motivated by a need to fulfil their potential and have moved mountains to position themselves to be able to commit. They are focused and determined. And they don’t have time to waste.

Those new graduates? They’d better start worrying about the competition.


Fearless Girl Statue, City of London

So what are you waiting for?   Get ready to get yourself in shape for a comeback.  Follow the Reignite Academy on LinkedIn for more tips, tools and inspirational stories.  Join us for a “Reignite Your Legal Career” bootcamp on 20th January for some guidance and watch this space for new opportunities with both Reignite for lawyers and Inclusivity for other professions.

How to get your career back on track in a pandemic. Thelma’s story.

Thelma Ainsworth was one of the participants in the third Reignite Academy Programme, which kicked off in January 2020.  Less than three months later, the pandemic struck and we went into lockdown.   Cue heavy hearts and lots of worries about what the future might hold.

Thelma is a mum of two young boys and has had to deal with home schooling and working from home without any childcare at the same time as trying to get her legal career back on track.

She has just secured a permanent position with RPC and we could not be more delighted for her.  Here’s her story.

1. You began your career in private practice but decided to retrain as a criminal lawyer. What drove that decision?

I had spent the first 10 years of my legal career in the City, immediately after graduating from Cambridge University and completing the Legal Practice Course (as it was called in those days!) – working as a paralegal and then training in a US City firm. I left the City because I felt that I needed to broaden my scope whilst  I still could so I could grow and become more rounded as a legal professional. So I joined the Ministry of Justice as a legal advisor and effectively retrained as a criminal practitioner.

2. How difficult was it to make the transition?

Not as difficult as one would think. I had always had a thirst for knowledge, even whilst working in the City. Obviously I had moved away from the fee-earning structure so I had to adapt to a new environment. But aside from that, I was stimulated by the mental challenge of learning a whole new legal discipline and found the experience rewarding as a result.

3. You clearly like a challenge because you later joined the RAF as a legal adviser. What motivated you to take that role?

After a few years at the Ministry of Justice I joined the RAF as a junior legal officer and did a variety of postings dealing with a broad range of legal areas such as criminal law when doing prosecutions at the Service Prosecuting Authority and advising on administrative and employment issues when I worked at HQ Air Command. Being able to advise on different areas of law in each posting meant that there was no opportunity to get bored or complacent due to the mental agility involved! I felt stretched as a lawyer and as an officer underwent  quite extensive leadership training – all of which lead to my feeling satisfied and challenged in my job.

4. The RAF insists on people moving every three years. How tricky was that? How did you approach each move?

At first, when I initially joined the RAF, it was not particularly tricky. It was part of the excitement of joining the armed forces! However, after I had my two children,  moving around could become challenging. In the latter stages before my departure from the RAF, good planning in advance of each posting was key, and ensuring that the infrastructure was already in place before my arrival and that of my family. The RAF was extremely supportive of personnel with young families and ensured that there were provisions in place (like childcare) to facilitate  a smooth transition.

5. With two children you eventually decided you needed more stability and that it was time to return to private practice. Did you think about alternative roles?

Not really. As I said earlier, I had spent the first decade of my legal career in the City.  Whenever I considered a return to private practice, it was always my natural inclination to return to the City where I had originally trained.

6. What challenges did you face when trying to return and what helped you overcome them?

There were two main challenges: firstly, I was now a parent with 2 young children so any job would need to be flexible to allow for that. The second challenge was obviously skill fade: I had not been in private practice or practiced the area I had qualified into (litigation) for over a decade. I overcame those challenges by finding Reignite! The 6 month training programme meant that I was able to have the opportunity to re-train in my area of law within a supportive environment, allowing me slowly to get up to speed. In addition, the Reignite team highlighted that many of the firms they dealt with had embraced flexible, part time working. This was clearly exactly what I needed.

7. You’re now at RPC. How easy or difficult was the transition? What have the firm done to help?

The transition has been surprisingly easy. RPC are fully agile and incredibly supportive of returners. They were already conversant with flexible working and working from home (well before the lockdown made it so fashionable) and have accommodated all my needs surrounding my family, for instance allowing me to work 4 days a week right from the beginning.   I have been really impressed by how adaptable they have been which is a far cry from the “presenteeism” culture that had prevailed when I worked in the City years ago.

8. What are you enjoying about the work you are doing now?

I am really enjoying the mix of work at the moment. I am working for a Legal Director who deals with a plethora of work in the Professional and Financial Risks team ranging from advising Solicitors/firms and their insurers on professional negligence issues, SRA investigations, and disciplinary proceedings. The scope of the work appeals to the part of me that likes the mental agility of dealing with different areas of law – so for me it has been a great fit.

9. You have been offered a permanent role. What’s next on the horizon?

To continue with what I am doing! Keep building on the training and experience that I am acquiring and to get more involved with much more of the firm. It is early days but I already feel like part of the team.

10. In light of the current debates around race and Black Lives Matter what do you think the legal profession could do to be more inclusive, particularly of black people? What barriers do you see and what would you like to see done differently? 

Like a lot of black people, recent events and the visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement has allowed me to reflect on my own experiences as a black person. In order for the legal profession to be more inclusive of black people it would need to be exposed to more black people at the right stage of their careers, enabling them to be taken on as a trainees. After that, the firms will then need to work hard at retention so that they keep the talent that they have initially harnessed. Mentoring schemes should be made more mainstream and given more “bite”, encouraging engagement with black students from an early stage. I know that RPC already has experience of mentoring schemes – more firms following suit could be all that is needed to start exacting real change. Incremental and consistent steps will be slow. But it would be a start.

How does the Reignite Academy attract diverse candidates?

In our first ever Annual Impact report, we were proud to report that 35% of our successful candidates were from black, Asian or other ethnic minority backgrounds.  We never set out with a target, we certainly had never signed a pledge.  Nevertheless, we were very please with this result.

How did you go about attracting diverse candidates?

This question is put to us quite often now.  The law firms we work with have set targets and many have signed pledges.  They are coming to us because they think we can help.  Understandably, as part of their due diligence (they are lawyers after all) they want to check we do what it says on the tin.

So how do we do it? And what advice do we have for others?

Set out, from the start, to be inclusive

People talk a lot about inclusion but rarely nail the nitty gritty of what that means.  For us, it means finding reasons to INCLUDE people rather than EXCLUDE them.  This is the opposite of what most recruitment processes do.

Generally speaking, when you advertise a job, the first thing that happens is that CVs are screened by an applicant tracking system.  This weeds out any that don’t have the right key words.  A human pair of eyes might then throw out those who didn’t go to the right university or achieve the right academics.  All reasons to whittle the long list down to a shortlist for interview.

We do the opposite.  We used a structured, research based format, to find reasons to include people.  We ask questions to unearth the characteristics that we know are key to future success.  We seek to understand the whole person and their story.  At all times we are focused on future potential.

We actively promote all our candidates – with authenticity

Over the years we have built a great following on social media and for our our newsletter.Rebecca Hayes Anne Todd

The people we feature are real and have given us permission to tell their stories.

Mehrnaz Ashfar

Rebecca, Anne, Mehrnaz and Thelma have all taken part in the last couple of years.  We helped them all return to careers in private practice.  Their stories inspire others because they see us helping people just like them.  People whose careers have not followed straight lines. Who have dealt with very sick children, relocations abroad, being made redundant, pivoting careers, setting up their own businesses.  The ups and downs of life.

We are genuinely interested in and talk about issues  regarding diversity in its wider context

Earlier this year we held a webinar entitled “How to improve the experience of black people at work” and invited Janine Esbrand and Yvonne Kuryanke to share their views.  The results can be seen on our YouTube channel.

During Black History Month, we shared the nine most powerful works of fiction that have informed and influenced our understanding of the injustices and inequalities experienced by people of colour.   We don’t claim to get it right, by any stretch of the imagination, but we do genuinely think about it.

We are building networks and connections with black and ethnic minority leaders, groups and individuals

Not for the sake of it but because together we think we can make more of an impact. Whether this is at an individual level, through LinkedIn, through our personal connections with people like Husnara Begum who is an entreperneur and disability rights campaigner or through new networks like Black Women in Asset Management, we are always looking to extend our understanding and reach.

Purposeful, active and genuine

Reading back, these three words ring out for me.

Purposeful:

Be clear and honest about why you are trying to be more diverse? Is it simply to comply with legislation?  Is it to look better to the world, for marketing purposes?  Or do you really believe that this is the route to being a better business.

The brilliant Stephen Frost calls these three phases Diversity 101, Diversity 2 and Diversity 3.

Active:

I have lost track of the number of charters, pledges and commitments that aim to tackle diversity on many levels. Sign them if you want to.  Shout about it on your websites if you must.  And then move on.  Tell us what you are actually going to do differently.  Because if you don’t do something different you will not achieve a different result.

Genuine

To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

If you don’t truly believe that being more diverse will improve your business, don’t both.  When times get tough and you have to make hard decisions, the choices you make will prove what it is you actually believe.  And those choices will be visible.

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