“It’s easy for people to get complacent and forget there are still challenges”
To mark International Women’s Day, we asked Jo Lyon – co-founder of Bridges portfolio company Talking Talent, a consultancy focused on diversity – to talk about how we build more equitable and inclusive workplaces.
What was the problem you set out to solve with Talking Talent?
Talking Talent started out looking at the challenges organisations were facing around gender. Back in 2005, the number of women in senior positions was low and organisations were losing key female talent. At that time, the biggest issue was women going on maternity leave and choosing not to return. From the coaching I was doing, it was clear that a lot of women wanted to carry on with their career and also wanted to spend time being a mum. At that time almost no one worked flexibly or part-time and even having a conversation around these topics felt a challenge. We could see that by enabling women and line managers to have conversations around part-time or flexible working, organisations were more likely to be able to retain some of their key female talent.
Before we launched Talking Talent, we did some research around what organisations were doing to support individuals going through the maternity transition (not a lot!) and what women experienced and felt as they went through the transition. This led us to start coaching managers too – because the research was telling us that how a manager behaves has a big impact on how women experience this process. And actually that allowed us to achieve more systemic impact within organisations. We continue to do this in all our work with clients.
What have been the big drivers of change?
I think organisations have had to change, because they had a lot of key female talent leaving and it started to become harder to attract talent. Initially, a lot of the work we did was bottom up, driven by senior women, often because they’d had a difficult experience themselves. As an organisation, we have always wanted to impact the overall culture – so we make sure we engage line managers and present regular systemic feedback. We work with clients who want to make a difference, and even in the early days many of our clients did impact assessments: these showed that supporting the maternity transition increased the engagement scores of working parents, the retention of women post maternity, and the number of women who stay and get promoted over time. Over time, we saw a growing focus on the business case for diversity – how diversity of thinking and leadership improves decision-making, creativity and client service.
Has the pandemic been helpful in terms of making flexible working more acceptable?
I think the first big impact was actually the London 2012 Olympics. Before that, there had been this lack of trust around people working from home; but during the Olympics, people who lived or worked in London were told to work flexibly and work from home more. This worked so well that it led to a big shift: afterwards we saw quite a lot of City firms start talking about flexible working and open plan offices and hot desking and so on.
More recently the pandemic has definitely moved things to another level. There’s been a real shift in terms of people’s desire to work from home, the acceptance of it and the ease with which they can do so. I think the pandemic has been a game-changer and has transformed the way people will work forever. We will never go back to the majority working full-time in an office.
Is that necessarily a good thing?
I think it’s brilliant – but there are lots of challenges that will need to be overcome.
One of the key things we need to think about is how to maintain and build strong organisational cultures. There are nuances in body language and connection that are lost when working virtually. I think it will still be important to get people in a room together to create, to get to know each other and to build relationships; the quality of conversation is different. So if there’s a challenge, say people are not getting on, it’s much easier to address that face to face. In NLP (neuro linguistic programming) there’s this concept of ‘mirroring’ to build rapport; that’s much harder to do remotely.
And how do we make sure that hybrid working does not embed inequalities? I think the greatest challenge is going to be for those who have less visibility and, in comparison with others, get less face time with senior individuals. Again, this is more likely to be women who have children and want to work more from home. The Great Resignation will, I suspect, include a number of women.
What are you mainly focused on these days?
We are working more broadly now on creating Inclusive Cultures, Equity and Diversity. Creating growth opportunities for women, working parents, individuals who are ethnically diverse or under-represented groups is really important. But we also want to be making a difference to the environment and system.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about “subtle acts of exclusion” – what are the things that happen in an organisation that make people feel uncomfortable? So some of the stuff that I’m trying to work on at the moment is: how do we enable people to have those kinds of conversations? How do we enable people to share when they feel like they’re being excluded? Because if we understand that, then we can start to behave differently. So, we need to create a safe space in order to do that. This will transform organisational cultures and the way people behave and increase a feeling of belonging in employees.
Some organisations are doing interesting things around sponsorship and inclusion and how to shift their culture, to become a place that is more accessible for everybody. I think there are still a lot of boards that are comfortable with a lack of diversity and fear change. So encouraging senior leaders to champion diversity, and educating leaders and managers around inclusive behaviours and impact is really important.
What’s the value of International Women’s Day, in your view?
I think it’s useful as a reminder that that we’re still not there yet. Everyone has heard the business case for more women in senior positions so many times… It’s easy for people to get complacent and forget there are still challenges. The value of IWD is that it maintains awareness and focus. We need to keep moving this agenda forward: to get more female and diverse representation at the most senior levels in organisations.
What about your own experience? Has being a female entrepreneur created any particular challenges for you?
The biggest challenge I have had personally as an entrepreneur is getting the balance right around work and home. I’ve always worked part time; we had our first child a month before we launched the business and then two more in the next three years. The hardest part is figuring out what success looks like and prioritising accordingly – and that only really clicked for me after my third child. For me, it was about getting to the point where I could make the right decisions for me – weighing up whether I should (say) go into London for an important meeting, or watch the kids’ sports day/ or put them to bed. So sometimes you might go to the meeting, sometimes you might do sports day/ bedtime – but it’s about having real clarity on the choice that you’re making, and making that choice very consciously. I think that’s quite difficult for a lot of people, because they’re not sure what success looks like as a whole person.
What are you most excited about, looking forward?
The thing I get most excited about is working with fantastic clients and making organisations better places – changing the culture and enabling people to have difficult conversations and to grow personally, so they feel more of a sense of belonging. The benefit of partnering with Bridges is that it will enable us to have a bigger impact on the DEI agenda across many more organisations – which will include continuing to champion women in business.
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