This article was authored and posted by Karl Simpson, CEO and Founder of Liftstream, an Executive Search and Leadership Advisory firm operating in Life Sciences. It’s contents reflect his personal views and experiences.
I am personally predisposed to look to the future, but in search of the best path, I find it useful to reflect on the past from time to time. Transitioning from one decade to another, I was given cause to look back on the previous few years and what I have learnt over that time. Working towards a more equitable workplace by promoting the opportunities and advantages for improved diversity has afforded me some of the richest experiences and some of my greatest lessons.
Much is written about the topic of diversity. In recent times, the torrent of information and assertions regarding a more diverse workplace have overwhelmed even the most avid supporter. All of which has undoubtedly raised awareness, while potentially risking a level of ‘diversity fatigue’ to take seed. Despite all of this tumult, the impotence of the argument seems to be laid bare in the glacial pace of change; highlighted by very slight incremental improvement in the statistical representation of women and workplace minorities at the board and leadership levels of organisations; the level at which the data are more abundant. Both the cadence and scale of change would need to increase if we’re to dramatically alter the composition of the leadership landscape in the coming years. This would require many things to happen, not least a higher engagement level by leaders of all identities who are willing to speak out and take action.
I know that choosing to speak out on this topic is not without hazards. While I believed strongly in the purpose, it is not always easy to see the route to commercial viability in taking up such positions, especially when so many are unreceptive to your ideas or what you’re promoting. Given my profession, this is illustrated by the fact that in the life sciences sector, in which I work, the representation of women at board level was in the single digits when I took on this cause, and it remains there today for people of colour. However, the purpose is an important one and I will try to avoid repeating many of my mistakes of the past. Below I have set out some perspectives which might help you formulate your own efforts to improve the levels of diversity in the workplace.
1. Bring the Data
Just 5 years ago (late 2014), my company published its initial report into gender diversity in the biotech sector (Diversifying the Outlook – The X&Y of Biotech Leadership). I’m not going to cover the findings of that report, or any since, but merely to state that this report changed things. Prior to this, our advocacy for diversity was not cutting through at all. Suddenly, with data in hand, we could penetrate the general discourse with more factual contributions, which had the effect we desired; which is to say people listened more intently and were often spurred to act. Bringing credible research to the discussion won more conviction from others. This was singly the most important step we took. Without good quality data, you’re just another person with an opinion.
2. Understand your WHY?
The question I have been asked more than any other over the past few years is “Why are you doing this?”
I have various motivations, some of which have grown organically as I’ve deepened my involvement. However, my founding motivation, or North Star, is that I believe deeply in the power of diverse teams; something I’m passionate about making happen in the life sciences industry. I have found it valuable to remain very connected to this ‘Why’, because it shapes how I think and it guides me, even in those difficult or defeatist moments. I recognise that not all people I encounter will share this view, however passionately I try to persuade them. Crucially though, I know that if I am to apply myself to this cause, then it has to be for a reason that I unwaveringly believe.
3. Solicit a wide range of opinions
There is value in ‘Preaching to the Choir’ – so to speak. Those people partly or fully persuaded of the cause often become useful and powerful allies in communicating a message at scale. With a core base of support; more evidence, demonstrative actions, and conviction; I found that more and more people were willing to support the mission. That said, you can quickly find yourself in an echo-chamber, where your ideas and world-view go mostly unchallenged. On a sensitive and unfamiliar topic like diversity, this effect can be more profound. Many who possess a different perspective are often reluctant to express it, which inhibits progress because the real debate is not taking place.
4. Don’t go into opposition
Many people over the past few years have asked me why we’ve had some degree of success in getting the argument for diversity and inclusion across. One reason that stands out to me is that I always knew that I didn’t want to oppose people. When I’m promoting gender diversity, I don’t see this as opposing men (after all I have a vested interest here), similarly when I’m tackling race, age or sexual orientation. Diversity is about growing the opportunities for all, becoming stronger together. To create an opponent and directly attack them is negative and confrontational. Neither of which seem like positive attributes of a change program and I understood very early that I’d need the support of a wide cross-section of stakeholders to enact any meaningful change.
5. Spend your political capital wisely
To make an impact, you must have an active community that appreciate and respect what you’re doing; the reasons you’re doing it, and the positive influence that it has on them or their environment. This cultivation of trust and relationships with people, who are broadly supportive of your efforts, begins to pay forward the currency of political capital. However, you have to be very strategic in how you choose to spend that political capital. There are many challenges that I faced, where it proved neither necessary or wise to employ the goodwill of my legion of supporters each time I met one of these challenges. Fundamentally, I understand the long-game and how that political capital is going to be valuable down the road.
6. Collaboration is hard to do
During the past few years, I have had many successful collaborators on the issue of diversity, among them, I point to Biogen, MassBio, MedCity and the NEVCA. These collaborations are vital. They allow you to communicate with new and diverse audiences, to accelerate ideas, establish new research, and add momentum to the mission. The expression “it takes a village” is as relevant here as it is anywhere. That said, even in villages some people are self-serving. I have learnt just how difficult collaborations are in this field. The justifiable cause for which you’re coming together begins to recede from view and suddenly you are met with the reality of a ‘partner’ who is not truly serving the cause, but hoping to elevate their own organisational or personal status. I have found many parties seeking our collaboration only to associate themselves with our excellent work in a complicated area. I have learnt an enormous amount about these types of collaborations and the requirement for a clear set of aligned objectives.
7. Revisit your assumptions
The diversity and inclusion field is an emerging area of social science with many prescribed solutions for solving its myriad challenges. Not all have the desired or sustained impact that is envisioned. An example of this is ‘unconscious bias’ training (UBT), which emerged as a ‘go-to’ option for many organisations. It turns out that UBT can raise awareness, but there is mixed evidence for its effectiveness in reducing implicit bias; no real evidence that it has a positive effect of explicit bias; and insufficient evidence to indicate it is effective for behavioural change. Yet, despite this, companies continue to spend considerable money and resource on UBT in an attempt to alter employee behaviour. This one example highlights a wider problem, which is that many individuals are inclined to regurgitate ideas that they themselves have insufficiently researched, and that companies are merely following the herd, and not continually measuring and assessing the validity or performance of their D&I efforts.
8. Take a positive, rational and business-led approach
At a high level, people’s motivation for wanting greater diversity tend to derive from three main categories; because it’s required by law, it’s right and just; or it is good business. I have almost always pushed back any personal moralistic stance in favour of focusing entirely on driving a sound rational business-led argument, which I’ve tried to frame positively (often difficult given the quite negative source material). Analogous with convincing a child to eat spinach because you tell them its good for them, intelligent and independent thinking business people need to more factual and compelling arguments. I have not chosen to single out individuals or companies, to apportion blame, nor ridicule or embarrass people, but instead to commend affirmative action. It has always been about allowing a way into the conversation for anyone who wishes to take part.
9. Never exclude the possibility that you’re wrong
The diversity and inclusion issue is multidimensional and complex. For this reason, it is incredibly important to me that I always consider the possibility that I’m wrong. I am constantly vigilant to the likely reality that my perspective, from where I sit, is entirely out of kilter. For example, it is improbable, if not impossible, that my understanding of issues of race can be layered with the context and nuance that someone of an under-represented racial group can offer – and you want to learn from those perspectives and ideas. There are so many areas of this topic where you can be wrong, and it is detrimental to consider otherwise.
10. Failure is likely but equality is not
I am under no illusion that an issue like equality, which is as old as humanity itself, is unlikely resolved in 10, 20 or 30 years. I accept that my efforts, meagre in totality, will not achieve equality, not in life sciences or elsewhere. Despite this admission of inevitable personal failure, I am excited and buoyed by the progress we make, and my passion and commitment to the cause are undimmed. I am prepared to make the sacrifices to push for a more equal workplace that is safer, more productive and fulfilling for all, knowing full well that I will probably never reach my destination.
11. Shared aspiration
I have travelled far and wide speaking to people on this topic. I have talked to people from racial minorities who I expected to be passionate and willing to engage, but weren’t. I’ve talked to old white men, a demographic often accused of being dismissive of diversity, who have been effervescent with enthusiasm to change things. The truth is, around us, many people share an aspiration for a more diverse, inclusive, equal and belonging workplace. Many of whom do not have the practical understanding, ideas, courage or tools to act. If you can find those people with a similar vision of the future and provide them with the vehicle to make an impact, then in my experience, they’ll drive that far beyond where you expect it might take them.
I am proud of our diversity efforts in the last 5 years (2014-2019) and I believe good progress has been made. I also enter this decade with great optimism about the future, while acknowledging there is still very much to do. The years ahead provide an excellent opportunity for transforming the culture of the life sciences sector toward an even more diverse place where more people feel they belong.