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“Change your culture for the better” With Sheree Atcheson

Change your culture for the betterYour culture won’t change on its own. Create an inclusive, transparent environment that allows for feedback and makes people feel safe. This is something you’ll have to work at everyday, but the changes that you’ll see will create a space that will set up your company for growth and inclusion […]

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Change your culture for the better

Your culture won’t change on its own. Create an inclusive, transparent environment that allows for feedback and makes people feel safe. This is something you’ll have to work at everyday, but the changes that you’ll see will create a space that will set up your company for growth and inclusion in ways that you’d never expect.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Sheree Atcheson.

Sheree is Peakon’s Global Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. She is listed as one of the Most Influential Women in UK Tech, and is an international multi-award winner for her services to Diversity & Inclusion. She is currently an Advisory Board Member for Women Who Code, a Forbes contributor, and has written a book for Kogan Page on Diversity and Inclusion, Demanding More, currently available for preorder, to be released in Spring 2021.

For many years Sheree has worked with companies such as challenger bank Monzo and Big Four accountancy firm Deloitte to provide leadership and training to C-suite and leadership teams, and develop fully-formed, focused diversity and inclusion strategies.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?-

At three weeks old I was adopted from Sri Lanka by an Irish couple. It was a humble beginning as we weren’t financially well-off and I grew up on free school meals, and I was a woman of color in an overwhelmingly white space. I never imagined that I would achieve what I’ve been able to. Eventually I was reunited with my birth mother in Sri Lanka, which went viral in the news there.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’m a bit biased of course, but my new book Demanding More shares so much about the importance of Diversity and Inclusion and how we can all work together to bring about change in the workplace. It focuses on sharing and educating on the deliberate choices that have brought us to a society that greatly benefits some whilst disadvantaging others, alongside strategies on how we can be purposefully inclusive, moving forward — with each chapter paired with an industry-leader interview on how these people have embedded inclusion in their work.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I don’t have one particular “life lesson quote”. But I do have three guiding principles: 1) Never accept disrespect from anyone. Regardless of seniority level, disrespect is unacceptable and we should never allow anyone to inflict this onto us. 2) If I tell you I feel tokenized and nothing changes, I should leave. 3) Always be willing to be wrong, because you will never have all of the answers.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

When it comes to defining leadership in DE&I, I tell folks to look into three areas of focus:

1) Understand the harm we may have caused through a lack of inclusive practices.

2) Understand what our users need by asking them.

3) Using expertise, define solutions that work for society as a whole.

Focusing on these three reminders can help people lead in a way that those around them will appreciate. These areas of focus are often overlooked, but their importance is paramount.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I’ve found the best way to be stress-free is to spend time with the people most important to you. For me, that’s family. My partner (we’ve been together just over 9 years, married for 3), our dog Alfie, my dad, and my brother. I value my family ahead of my work — always. I am a huge advocate for the real need of a work-life balance, or at least the opportunity to choose if you want to have a heavier work balance, and so on. I’ve experienced burnout in the past, and it was one of the worst experiences of my career. A good work-life balance helps you feel less stressed and even ups your performance and clarity in high stake meetings, talks and decisions.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a spotlight on racism. It has forced us all — across countries and cultures, especially those who have had the privilege to disengage previously — to acknowledge its existence. In workplaces, diversity has been on boardroom agendas for some time, but Black Lives Matter has catapulted the related issue of anti-Black racism right to the top. Business leaders and their employees can no longer ignore insidious structural racism or the role they must play in defeating it.

More employers are now ready to address workplace racism, nurture more equitable workplaces, and support employees in becoming better allies to their Black colleagues. This is a positive step, but we need to keep the momentum going.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

The initiative we have taken at Peakon is to listen and learn from employees about their experience of working at the company. Listening and utilizing a data-driven lens to develop a strategy helps us create a more level playing field. We intend to do a lot of listening both internally, and also with the many organizations who are using Peakon right now.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Simply — you cannot create a solution that works for many while only considering the voices of a few. As a society, we cannot continue to hire diverse groups of people but only promote conformity.

We know that diverse organizations have healthier profits, but this is bigger than that. We cannot, and should not, be comfortable creating solutions that create additional exclusion in the world. We must all do more, and we must do it better.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Acknowledge the problem

The first thing you have to do is acknowledge the problem. If you don’t, you can never move forward in a positive and productive way, because your employees won’t feel that you’ve created a safe and open environment. Educate yourself and your leadership team, recognize history’s place in creating the modern work environment, and our need to break down unhealthy underlying biases.

2. Strategize

Create a strategy that hits all aspects of your business. It needs to be applied across the company evenly in order to be effective. Take a good look at your products and make sure that you aren’t developing them in a way that negatively affects vulnerable groups. Be inclusive in your marketing and in your product creation process. Your employees, customers, and bottom line will thank you for it.

3. Educate, and use data in the process

Data can’t be argued with. It’s unbiased, and can help you realize that although you now have more women of color, there aren’t more of them being promoted than before. If that’s the case, what can you do to create an environment that helps everyone grow, not just certain segments of your workforce. Employers need to recognize that doing nothing is doing something, and it’s not a good thing. You have to uproot negative biases and traditional structures that have no place in society.

4. Take a look at your hiring process

There’s a good chance that your hiring process isn’t as inclusive as you think. This starts with the job description — is the wording gender neutral? Are you discouraging certain segments of the population from applying through the words that you’re using or the unnecessary criteria you’re asking to be met? Want a stronger, more diverse, and more productive team? Fix this.

5. Change your culture for the better

Your culture won’t change on its own. Create an inclusive, transparent environment that allows for feedback and makes people feel safe. This is something you’ll have to work at everyday, but the changes that you’ll see will create a space that will set up your company for growth and inclusion in ways that you’d never expect.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain it?

Yes. These conversations around inclusion will keep happening, and we must be ready to deal with them appropriately. Peakon found in its 2020 Employee Expectations Heartbeat report that there was a 19% year-over-year increase in diversity and inclusion-related terms in employee comments. This included terms such as ‘POC,’ ‘race,’ and ‘minority’ occurring more frequently.

Society, people, and the world have been purposely and deliberately exclusive to uphold the power that white, able-bodied, financially stable people have. We must be purposefully and intentionally inclusive, and create a society that no longer greatly advantages some while deliberately disadvantaging others.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? They might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Given everything going on in the world right now, and the fact we’re all making our way through a global pandemic, I would love to meet New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Her leadership cannot be anything but admired — from dealing with natural disasters, to terror attacks, to a global pandemic and more. I can imagine I’d learn so much from even being around her, no less having a breakfast or lunch with her. Her type of leadership is exactly what we need more of: direct, empathetic, clear and compassionate.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can connect with me on LinkedIn — Sheree Atcheson

Follow me on Twitter — @nirushika

Read some of my columns on Forbes

And Pre-Order my book! — Demanding More: Why Diversity and Inclusion Doesn’t Happen and What You Can Do About It

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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