From Diversity to Inclusion: Creating a Culture of Belonging

26th June 2023

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How to build an inclusive culture is the most important conversation business leaders should be having this Pride month, says Soben Group Financial Director, Colin Smith.

Every June, the global LGBTQ+ community marks Pride month. It’s a time of celebration, but Pride is also an opportunity to consider how far we’ve come, and the work still ahead in the fight for acceptance. In the spirit of Pride month, I’ve been reflecting on how crucial it is for organisations to build a culture of inclusion – for all employees.


Inclusion – what is it?

A culture of inclusion is one that touches every single employee in a company – from all walks of life – regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. Pride month is a great opportunity for companies to talk about inclusion and more importantly, dedicate the time and resource to making real improvements. It’s a time for us all to reflect more deeply on the diversity of thought and experience that comes as a biproduct of creating an inclusive environment.

But what does an inclusive environment look and feel like? I think about it as the DNA of an organisation, determining who we are, and how we operate. Inclusion is not leaving anyone behind, it’s hearing every opinion, and making sure everyone has a voice. It’s about creating a safe space for every employee. When inclusion is baked into your organisational culture, it is reflected in how you say things, rather than what you say; how you do things, rather than what you do. And that’s powerful.


Inclusion at Soben

Inclusion is one of Soben’s four core values – but it’s also central to the other three – you can’t be brave, dynamic, and honest, without also being inclusive. It’s simply not possible to expect people to be brave, and act with integrity, if they can’t bring their true and authentic selves to the workplace. At Soben, inclusion is at the heart of how we must work to deliver on our promises to our clients.

I joined Soben earlier this year and my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Like many young businesses, we’re still finding our voice and solidifying our identity and culture – and it’s exciting to be a part of this formative journey. This is the first business I’ve joined where I haven’t had to re-live the awkward experience of “coming out” (something LGBTQ+ people do every time they meet a new group of people, yes… it’s not a one-off experience!). Here, there’s been no awkwardness – no tiptoeing around the subject – simply acceptance. This is a real positive and says a lot about the people here at Soben. What’s really struck me, is that this acceptance has been universal, regardless of geography, which is important for me in my global role.


Building inclusive teams

I’ve worked in many different industries throughout my career, in progressively senior roles. One thing I’ve found interesting is the varying degrees of acceptance across different industries and how that acceptance presents itself depending on the roles I have held within different organisations. So, whilst society is becoming more accepting and employers are doing more in this space there’s still work to be done! Organisations must combine top-down approaches to inclusivity with bottom-up, grassroots education – encouraging our teams to have the right conversations with their people.

My first role was in the shipbuilding industry. As the only gay man in a predominantly straight male environment (where every conversation was about football- which I am not the biggest fan of), the door wasn’t open for me to immediately interact and build relationships with my colleagues socially. This lesson has stayed with me. Now I lead my own team by taking the responsibility as a leader to create the right environment for every individual. I make the time to learn about each of my team members, their background, and interests, so that I can build a culture where every team member feels comfortable to contribute in whichever way is natural for them. I ensure every person in my team has a voice.

I believe there’s a lot of strength in people showing vulnerability – acknowledging that they don’t know the answers or admitting where they’ve gone wrong. As leaders, we must ensure our people are comfortable speaking up. Companies and leaders have a responsibility to create a supportive, safe space, a no blame culture. The onus is on those with more experience to lean forward and show true leadership, and kindness. As leaders, we should be recognising and encouraging positive behaviours – for the benefit of the whole organisation.


Building inclusive organisationsColin Smith

It’s not just about team behaviours. At an organisational level, there are plenty of things we can, and should, be doing.  I am sure we have all worked in businesses where every meeting starts with a “safety” moment. At talent-led businesses like Soben, where people are our number one priority, I’d love to see that safety moment become a people-moment. In the whirlwind of a growing business, we need to make time to stop and create space for human stories. There’s always time to pause and make a conscious effort to consider, and actively talk about, inclusion and diversity – discussing what’s worked well, and areas for improvement.

Companies that are leading in this space have working groups and are forming communities discussing and progressing cultural initiatives and policies for things like menopause and adoption leave. Seemingly small measures such as these can make a huge difference to the lives of the talented professionals who make us great. CSR initiatives, like Soben’s Shaping Futures programme, are a great way to expand that impact out into our communities – allowing employees to take time out to give back through important community-based work.


Why invest in inclusion?

There are plenty of academic and organisational studies that show the correlation between inclusive environments and organisational success. Inclusive environments create happier people, and that’s good for businesses, individuals and communities alike. Soben is already a diverse business, with a great culture, but as we grow and mature, we need to push this even further. Not because that’s what other companies are doing, but because it’s the decent, ethical and right thing to do.


Inclusion creates diversity

Businesses have been talking about D&I for years. And the focus has long been on diversity – something that is easier to spot and to measure- taking diversity of thought/experience to one side. But I believe we’ve had it the wrong way round all this time. We should be talking about I&D. Inclusion comes first, because an inclusive environment is what generates and supports a diverse workforce. Organisations can continue to focus on diversity but unless inclusion becomes front and centre, they will fail to develop a strong sense of culture and identity. Goodbye to the diversity dividend!

Inclusion is the culture we build and the way we interact – it’s the essential building block for diversity. Inclusivity doesn’t care who you are – it’s about everybody having their say, everybody having a place at the table. And that’s the spirit of Pride.

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