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Talking Head with Debbie Ramsay, Director, GoodCorporation, and member of the Lloyd's of London Culture Advisory Group

30 Nov 09:00 by Clare Beresford

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The Laurence Simons Search Talking Head series continues with an interview with Debbie Ramsay, Director at GoodCorporation, and member of the Lloyd’s of London Culture Advisory Group.

Debbie joined GoodCorporation in 2011 and leads business ethics assessments and measuring ethical culture work. She trains in business ethics and runs a collective action scheme against bribery and corruption and anti-competitive behaviour in the banknote sector.

She has 30 years' experience in both the commercial and not-for-profit sectors working for British Airways, BT, Centrica, Saatchi and Saatchi, VSO, Managing the Service Business, and the International Business Leaders Forum.

Clare Beresford, CEO at Laurence Simons Search, catches up with Debbie to discuss all things career, challenges, and diversity related!

Clare Beresford (CB): Good morning Debbie.  Thank you for taking the time to chat to me today.  Please can you tell us a bit more about yourself?

Debbie Ramsay (DR): Thank you Clare. My career started in the world of marketing, strategic marketing communications in fact. This enabled me to work for a number of large international organisations, which was exactly where I thought I wanted to be. However, something was missing and while on a business trip, which made society’s inequalities all too apparent, I resolved to find a path towards a role in business that could make a real difference. It took a while. I moved into not-for-profit as the Director of VSO’s UK operations, into change management and on to GoodCorporation, where we focus exclusively on business ethics and responsible business management.

CB: What are you most proud of in your career to date?

DR: That’s a hard question, particularly as my attitude to this has changed over time. At one point I might have said running BA’s worldwide advertising, helping to reposition the London Eye or even relaunching herrings onto the UK market!  Now what I’m most proud of is the sense that I am making a difference, whether to an individual or an organisation. I’m fortunate that this is very much part of my day job at GoodCorporation. I’m also proud to have been appointed to the Culture Advisory Group, a board sub-committee at Lloyd’s of London, where there is a real determination to address cultural issues with diversity and inclusion a key part of its remit.

CB: What does ‘being a leader’ mean to you?  

DR: Being a leader means many things, but above all, this is about the opportunity to shape organisational culture and support the people within. This means helping to develop others, to encourage career progression. Part of this is being an active champion for inclusion, equity and diversity which helps build stronger teams for the benefit of the organisation as a whole.

Developing people is also about identifying strengths, and ensuring these are recognised, so that people are put in a position where they can thrive and contribute. This is just as important for developing new recruits and those embarking on their careers as it is for developing leadership skills.

Lastly a good leader should be a good listener, open to innovation, new learning, understanding and change.

CB: Diversity and inclusion is very important to Laurence Simons Search, I’m an active member of the 30% Club, and we consistently ask our clients about their D&I policies as part of our due diligence.  Can you please tell us what diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you, and why they’re important.

DR: Of course, this is such a crucial area and thankfully one that has really risen up the agenda. To my mind, an inclusive organisation is one that recognises and fully embraces the importance of a diverse workforce to its success. It’s about developing a culture where everyone can feel valued, engaged and respected for what they do and given the opportunity to progress. This means taking proactive steps to ensure that the rhetoric becomes a reality. In practice, therefore, this means a number of things. First, ensuring there are no barriers to recruitment, participation or progression. To do this properly you need to ask for opinions; you may not perceive the barriers that others see or even experience. Second, listen to what is said, understand the concerns and work hard to address them. Third, identify the pathways to ensure diversity and inclusion goals can be met (assuming you’ve set some!) and that a wide range of groups are represented across the organisation and in particular in leadership roles. This should be supported with mentoring, training and coaching.

Equity is a newer term, but very important here. It’s about creating a level playing field. In terms of how you recruit, for example, it can be about ensuring you get a diverse pool of people to recruit from. As a Culture Advisory Group colleague said the other day, that may mean allowing a recruitment agency more time to put the list of candidates together to ensure they can search across a wider base.

Within the organisation, this means making sure that everyone can achieve their potential, whether that’s through enabling working parents to manage childcare needs alongside their work demands or recognising the additional needs of people with disabilities, or, in the current environment, ensuring that people feel they have been treated fairly whether furloughed, working from home or on the front line.

So why does this matter? Creating an equitable, inclusive and diverse environment is more than just a ‘good thing to do’. All the evidence to date shows that doing so also delivers a sustainable and competitive advantage. It leads to higher retention levels, better workforce engagement, the ability to attract top talent, more innovation, and better decision-making. In other words, it helps build better businesses.

CB: How would you advocate for diversity and inclusion with colleagues who don’t understand its importance?

DR: This can be a challenge, so I would always start at the top. If the importance isn’t understood and prioritised at board level, you may find yourself pushing water uphill as it won’t be properly recognised or promoted through the organisation. You can start by looking at the structure and make-up of the board and senior management team. For example, as one of the diversity and inclusion leaders at Lloyd’s said recently; “if the board is largely male and white, yet is supposedly a meritocracy, then it’s tantamount to saying women and BAME aren’t as good”. Challenge the board and the management teams with the facts. There are enough examples of diverse boards, organisations and groups within organisations that are demonstrably successful, innovative and happier places, where staff feel empowered and engaged. In such organisations, attrition is lower and innovation higher.  There is plenty of advice in all the usual places, but my son has just introduced me to Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas: The power of diverse thinking. For the millennial generation this just makes sense, so engage them as advocates for the organisation’s diversity and inclusion goals.

CB: Do you think gender equality affects both men and women?  

DR: Yes. And non-binary people too. Unfortunately, there are still many examples of unconscious bias or even conscious bias when it comes to the recruitment, recognition and promotion of people who are ‘not like me’. Organisations need to be aware of this and honestly appraise their approach to see if this is the case. It is also important to recognise that as an organisation seeks to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, it can be men in particular who feel threatened. If they have previously seen male leaders predominate and succeed, they may feel as if their opportunities are dwindling.

A lot of care is needed to get this right and not just when it comes to recruitment and promotion. Gender equity needs to be considered when managing issues such as work-life balance. Take childcare as an example, if seeking to ensure women are not disadvantaged by taking time out for childcare, it is important to ensure that policies for working fathers are considered too.

At the end of the day all genders need to feel they have equal opportunities for recognition, progression and promotion within their organisations.

CB: Why is it that it’s still so much harder for women to land the top jobs than it is for men, despite all that we now know about the glass ceiling effect?  

DR: I think that remains the million-dollar question and in truth there are probably many answers, some systemic, some personal. On the positive side, in law, for example, a lot of women do make partner and senior partner but not in proportion to the numbers entering the profession. None of this is news to you Clare, so let’s reflect on the issues more broadly.

In many organisations, it is still the case that childcare and other caring responsibilities can impede career progression due to the time taken out of the workplace. As these roles are still more often carried out by women (although this is moving slowly towards greater equity), this can obviously lead to women falling behind on the career ladder. It will be interesting to see what impact this prolonged period of working from home will have on our working lives. Will the much-discussed potential transition to a more blended home/office work life benefit working parents, and accelerate the move towards more equal responsibility for the caring roles?

But it’s not just about children. There are many women without children who don’t get the senior management roles. And the new senior partner appointed at Freshfields has three! So, what are the drivers? Studies show that this can be about confidence levels, with men and women evaluating their capability for posts very differently. Typically, men are likely to apply for a role if they meet most of the criteria, so accelerating career progression. While women apply if they know they can meet all the criteria, so progression tends to be slower. Again, this can be mirrored at the recruitment stage, though not at Laurence Simons I know! A study in the US published earlier this year found that men are typically hired/promoted based on potential and what we/they believe they can do. Women on the other hand, are typically hired or promoted based on what they have already achieved.

For women to land the top jobs, I think more work needs to be done when considering the requirements of the role you are recruiting for: what are the ‘must-haves’ and what aspects of a role can be developed on the job, and how can you provide the support necessary to achieve this? We are moving in the right direction, but there is still a way to go.

CB: What can be done to encourage positive changes in relation to the low representation of women in decision making roles? 

DR: That’s an interesting question and one that Lloyd’s has been focusing on. We have set targets for senior women across the organisation and are developing them for BAME staff. We will measure progress against this to evaluate success. It is important to encourage women and other less well-represented groups to have a voice. Mentoring, providing relevant training and structured career development are also essential to empowering women and other groups to take up such roles. As to role models in these positions - if you can’t see it, you can’t aspire to it, so the role models really need to be there. 

CB: In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of working in a diverse environment?

DR: A diverse working environment shouldn’t be a challenge; in many organisations it is exciting and stimulating. But as many workplaces lack diversity, there is obviously still a way to go and for some it can be a challenge. As we touched upon earlier, it may be necessary to ensure that non-minority employees don’t feel alienated by any positive steps being taken to strengthen diversity. Leadership and good communication should help bring everyone on board.

CB: And finally, if you had an extra hour in the day how would you spend it?

DR: This feels like my luxury item on Desert Island Discs! Top of the list would be scheduling time to talk to colleagues about any issues or concerns, or even just catching up on life, particularly given how many are now working from home. And if I could also use it to get to the end of the to-do-list so there was plenty of time for exercise, family and friends (not that I can see any just now!), then that would be an enormous bonus.

CB: Thank you Debbie for your honesty and insightful answers.  It has been a pleasure talking with you today.