Diversity Matters: More inclusive teams are better teams

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Nancy Lengthorn, MediaCom’s new Global Chief Inclusion and Culture Officer, compares diversity and inclusion (D&I) to a huge boulder wedged in a corridor that we are all guilty of trying to squeeze around, instead of smashing through.

“We’ve all been trying desperately to work out an easy and painless way around it, without doing the hard work of tackling the actual boulder,” she says.

Those days are now over after the global wave of solidarity for Black Lives Matter - the anti-racist movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder finally forced a tangible shift in attitudes. Finally, after years of talking, people are ready to take to action.

It has been a long time coming, according to Lengthorn, who says even 16 months ago people would roll their eyes when she spoke about D&I. She adds: "For the first time in my career, there is a collective understanding that this thing isn't moving and that we have been just trying to avoid dealing with it."

MediaCom and Lengthorn have been chipping away at the boulder for several years already. As Head of Inclusion and Belonging for WPP UK and MediaCom UK, she has been working on D&I initiatives in various roles since 2011.

BRING BACK THE HUMANITY

However, progress is being made, particularly at MediaCom UK as highlighted in its annual Pulse+ survey, which looks at how people feel about their workplace. It found that 89% of people felt the agency values diversity and 86% agreed they felt comfortable talking about their background and cultural experiences.

"We're not perfect, and we would never claim to be, but we are further along our journey than a lot of other organisations. We haven't nailed everything, but when things haven't worked, we have learnt from it, and keep moving forwards,” Lengthorn explains.

Over more than two decades with MediaCom and WPP, Lengthorn has led initiatives such as Mental Health Allies, (which originated in the UK under the leadership of Josh Krichefski, MediaCom’s Global COO and EMEA CEO, and is now rolling out globally), inclusive entry-level recruitment principles and allyship training. Even with that progress, MediaCom has more work to do to achieve its ambition to be the most inclusive network in the world.

Lengthorn is up front about the need for bolder, braver action and a more progressive approach. The first step is dropping the tired talk about the business case for D&I. "We know the work will be better. We know teams are more creative and better at problem solving when they are diverse. We don't need to keep going over that ground. It's dehumanising when we talk about D&I only as a way of making money. I want to bring the humanity back into the conversation.

“Let’s talk about how we spend too much time at work, for it not to be a place where we all have dignity and value. Let’s get excited about creating workplaces where nobody feels the need to hide who they are and where there is space for us all to thrive.”

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

We have recognised the need for a bolder training programme for the network's leaders, which will get underway this summer and piloted across multiple markets.

"After everything that has happened in the last year, people are now feeling exposed as they realise they don't have the level of knowledge and understanding they need.”

"That is problematic for leaders as they are being asked to do things differently and to put different processes and systems in place. They are being asked for representation, but we can't ask people to make these huge changes without them understanding what they are fixing."

This is why Josh Krichefski believes it is crucial that time is also spent understanding the D&I challenges unique to each market as, too often, frameworks are developed at a global level.

“You need your focus and initiatives to be based in their specific reality. Focusing primarily on gender, when in that region, gender diversity is strong and its disability where real problems lie, is clearly a missed opportunity. This is all about context, market understanding and cultural insight.”

Working with training partner Fearless Future, Lengthorn wants to tackle the knowledge gap head-on with a challenging education programme. It will help leaders understand inequity, oppression and why society is structured in a way that is not inclusive.

"This is where we are putting a stake in the ground as it is not gentle unconscious bias training, which unfortunately often gives people a free pass for problematic behaviour. We are going to look at oppression and where we all sit in that system. We will look at all the elements, where we are upholding things and where we contribute to the problem. There is collective and individual responsibility. It will be challenging for people, but it will also be liberating when we all understand what our own individual role is in creating a better way."

Addressing people's fear of doing or saying the wrong thing is central to this style of training, adds Lengthorn. "Knowledge is power, and once people understand where they are in this issue, they know what they need to do to dismantle it. Then it becomes a practical, logistical task. So many people know there is a problem and don't know what to do. It is about better equipping people.

"Until we have that deep understanding, our progress will be slower than we would like, and we risk doing things that are tokenistic. Education will help leaders get to the heart of the issues and understand how to redesign systems to make them inclusive.”

For Marina Gunther Guzman, MediaCom’s CEO for Latin America and Caribbean, the onus is on today’s business leaders to get out front and lead by example.

“We must lead by example by creating diverse teams where everyone is heard and can contribute. This diversity of ideas will be a true reflection of who we are and will add to our other strengths in understanding the complexity and diversity of the audiences our clients face, and consequently, we will be better business partners.”

Lengthorn wants to see changes filtering through from the training immediately, although she concedes that redesigning the way MediaCom works will be an ongoing process. "We will always need to evolve, particularly as representation changes. So, we will have to keep redesigning."

That is why the training is starting at the top, says Lengthorn. "We need people who have the power to challenge the status quo but, generally speaking, the more senior you go in an organisation, the less diverse it is. A lot of our young people know this stuff. They live it.”

SEEING IS BELIEVING

Supporting that philosophy is a major drive to improve representation across MediaCom through a sponsorship programme, which has already been introduced in the UK. Rolling it out across all markets is a top priority for Lengthorn, who believes this adaptable initiative is "a huge part of the answer".

"Until we make in-roads in our representation, why would anyone 100% believe that we are an inclusive environment? We can do all the nice cultural things, but until people from marginalised groups can look up and see that people like them are progressing and becoming more senior, they won't believe it. It is the ultimate safety sign."

The 18-month programme, which is about halfway through, has paired Black and Asian staff and with senior leaders from a different part of the business, who are tasked with getting their sponsee ready to take the next step in their careers.

"Mentoring can be beneficial, but it fundamentally comes from a place of privilege and, once it ends, the mentee is left facing the same systemic barriers. In a sponsorship, something must happen. It is action-oriented.

"The sponsor should push and challenge their sponsee by getting them on account teams that they maybe don't feel 100% ready for, by connecting them with senior people and advocating for them when they aren't in the room.

"The senior leaders are lending their sponsee their privilege and while acknowledging there are barriers, helping them push through them to get ready for the next step.”

Too often, D&I initiatives are focused on the entry-level talent piece, which is essential, but it is not where the answer lies, says Lengthorn. "We have to look primarily at the people already in the business but who may be struggling and getting frustrated because they are not progressing as they feel they should."

AUTOMATICALLY INCLUSIVE

Accessibility will continue to be a major priority for Lengthorn. She has already been working with Microsoft for the past year on a variety of accessibility issues. "For me, this is an absolute must that we have to tackle. All MediaCom staff have access to tech and tools that they are not using, that make for a more inclusive workplace."

Microsoft provides accredited accessibility training, which Lengthorn wants to make mandatory across the global network. It covers topics such as colour blindness and dyslexia that are often overlooked but significantly impact how effectively people can contribute and how included they feel.

"There is a huge piece around inclusion, belonging, and efficiency, which also ripples out to clients, as clearly we have clients with hearing or visual impairments, colour blindness, ADHD. All of these things we can easily cater for but don't currently have the knowledge or the push in the right direction to do it."

Lengthorn is clear that no one should be under pressure to disclose any issues they are dealing with. Instead, she wants the agency to modify its thinking and behaviour, so everyone is automatically catered for and included as a matter of course. She believes this action will build the confidence to allow people to speak up if they want to.

RESHAPING THE NETWORK

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Lengthorn will be overcoming the negative perceptions that diversity and inclusion initiatives and programmes are often little more than lip service.

Data, she says, holds the key to tackling such misconceptions. "We will increasingly be setting goals and targets for people so we can see representation changing.

"This isn't about initiatives - it is about reshaping our organisation and those targets and goals help people understand this is not something I am doing on my own. We have a collective responsibility."

Alongside the hard numbers of targets and goals, the Pulse+ survey also collects the cultural workplace data that captures how people feel and whether they are comfortable. "We can cut that with lots of different demographics, so we can see if a particular group faces barriers or challenges, and we look at what we are doing to address it.

"Without that data and insight, it is an intangible thing, and everyone just assumes everything is okay."

SHARING AND COLLABORATION

But no matter how ambitious MediaCom is about driving its agenda, it cannot achieve it without collaboration from clients and the wider advertising industry. The London agency has already begun sharing work with clients including Sky, TUI and Tesco. With Lengthorn’s new role, it will start to do this with worldwide clients too.

Indeed, collaboration is vital, concludes Lengthorn.

"We have to work on this together. It is not something we do in isolation. It is a journey we have to be on together. We want clients to reach out to us about projects we can partner on or areas where we can help them. We have to share what we have already done and collaborate so we can do more.”

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