“We have a strong organisational culture.” It’s true, we do, but these words can be off-putting to candidates from minority groups. In fact, in some quarters, this phrase is considered to be the antithesis of inclusivity. When you identify as someone who comes from a minority group, the notion of an “organisational culture” has long suggested a clique of sameness where difference doesn’t have a home. However, if considered carefully and presented honestly, a strong company culture can show that diversity is encouraged and embraced, and that there are myriad ways in which an individual can fit into an adhesive collective.
I believe the organisational cultures of both BOOST&Co and our sister company, Growth Lending, fulfil the brief: they discriminate against people who don’t fit with our attitudes and behaviours at work, but they include people from all areas of society, including minority groups, without favouring any single group.
I had this in mind when I first captured the culture of BOOST&Co, in 2017. I was asked by our partners, Lance Mysyrowicz and Sonia Powar, to capture the rich diversity that was already in place at the firm, as well as the glue that held just eight team members together. They were on the cusp of expansion, in both the UK and South Africa, and they wanted to ensure that the organisation would maintain the same qualities as it grew.
Knowing of the many mistakes made in other firms on the topic of organisational culture, I was nervous about creating a clique, or even a cult, of BOOST&Co. I had to find a way of expressing the culture that wasn’t overly prescriptive, but was strong enough to run true throughout the organisation and to be a powerful tool for success. All this was required without any stated organisational culture creating barriers to diversity or inclusion.
Find the words that fit
I find the key is to limit the elements of a culture to single words and not to elaborate on what each element means. A good example is a question we ask of everyone we hire: “Can you describe the last time you had to be brave at work?” The element “brave” exists in both the BOOST&Co and Growth Lending cultures and I have, by now, heard hundreds of different answers to the question. In the people we hire, I am looking for just one thing: does this person speak up appropriately when they feel something needs to be said? Let me break that down:
- Is this a genuine issue that needs to be raised?
- Does the person have to dig deep or at least prepare carefully for raising the issue?
- Do they raise issues directly, in a timely fashion?
- Are they focused on resolution and happy to accept if they are wrong?
When I consider this list carefully, I am not asking a question that will be difficult for a person from any minority group to answer, and I am not asking a question that anyone from a minority group is likely to answer differently to others for reasons linked to their minority group. It is a fully inclusive question about a fully inclusive aspect of our company culture.
I have tested all the elements of BOOST&Co’s organisational culture over the years and found that none of our “tenets” disfavours any minority group. If I’m honest, there is one that even favours difference over similarity, and that is when I ask people: “What makes you interesting?” As you can imagine, I get the best answers when I ask this of people who are less ordinary.
Going to the gym doesn’t make you interesting, and nor does learning to bake; they just make you human. But if you have a role in the wider community through your place of worship, or are a Stonewall Bisexual Role Model, or have an enormous family across the globe, or drive into the countryside each evening to practise the saxophone in your car, you are well on your way to getting top marks.
Fixing the problems of the past
If you look at the Mayfair finance houses of the past, they were successful because they limited their intake to a single gender, a handful of exclusive public schools, a small number of Oxbridge colleges and a particular slice of the English upper classes. They had a shared language, a certain type of client and a recognised modus operandi, internally and externally, which meant that they understood each other, spoke each other’s language and behaved in a predictable way.
Society has moved on, and that shared system of behaviours and attitudes is no longer available. Our version of the shared language is our organisational culture, but to use it to return to exclusivity through a different route would be unforgivable. Instead, it is a system in which enough is shared to make us a powerful working unit, but in which everything else can be enriched through difference in a safe way that protects everyone in the system.
Diversity and inclusion are vital to me, both professionally and personally. I identify as coming from a minority group that has suffered a lot of abuse from employers in the past and the present. I have had a serious, permanent mental health condition all my adult life and I have worked in some organisations for years without ever mentioning it, for fear of marginalisation and dismissal.
I know what it is like to sit on the edges of an organisation, fearful of being sidelined or worse. It is an excessively stressful and lonely situation. This means that no barriers to inclusion are going to exist at the Growth Lending Group on my watch, and certainly not through the work that I do around company culture. Happily, this isn’t a crusade I’m going to lose. Ensuring inclusivity through a clearly expressed but widely interpreted set of norms has been proven to be the way forward, for employees and for firms.
Read Heather’s article on diversity and the benefits of recruiting with an open mind
Connect with Heather on LinkedIn