Diversity & Inclusion - The Key to Unlock Performance
“It goes more than just putting a ramp outside of the front door, beyond tick boxing or having a list” - Lessons on Diversity & Inclusion from Sport, Ensuring Performance No Matter What
Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has become an essential priority for most organisations, keen to embrace and meet their ESG targets. These Environmental, Social, and Governance standards measure the impact a business makes on Society and the Environment alongside how transparent and accountable the business is in reaching these standards. Additionally, it also provides a benchmark for investors, potential clients, and prospective employees. The Social element in ESG especially makes the pursuit of D&I a prime concern.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) defines the words Diversity and Inclusion as follows; “diversity is about recognising difference. It’s acknowledging the benefit of having a range of perspectives in decision-making and the workforce being representative of the organisation’s customers.” “Inclusion is where people’s differences are valued and used to enable everyone to thrive at work. An inclusive working environment is one in which everyone feels that they belong without having to conform, that their contribution matters and they are able to perform to their full potential, no matter their background, identity or circumstances.”
The issue at stake is how can a business effectively and genuinely promote D&I in order to make positive and meaningful change beyond the use of buzzwords. This presents one of the most significant challenges faced by the corporate world. While considerable efforts are now being made to positively drive change, there is still a huge amount of work to be done in order to cultivate diverse and inclusive workplaces, mindful of everyone. Taking lessons from the sporting world and athletes’ stories can be used to start overcoming such an undertaking.
Recruitment is undoubtedly a building block in the path to corporate sustainability; putting in place sophisticated and mindful hiring processes and building inclusive cultures must be at the forefront of business strategies. Accessing a diverse, gender-balanced, and aspiring pipeline of talent is a prerequisite to succeed in progressive hiring efforts. This is where individuals with a sporting or a military background are a promising avenue to enrich workplace diversity, their uncommon experiences and distinct mindset empower them as effective drivers for D&I growth.
Diversity & Inclusion in Sport
Sport has two reputations. On one side, sport is universal; a truly meritocratic and non-discriminatory field where athletes are judged purely on results, promoting a set of fair-minded and ethical values. On the other, sport is held back by persistent stereotypes related to a lack of inclusivity and unequal representation. This is especially true for some sports where financial barriers exist, often leading to a limited demographic representation. As well as on a national level, where some countries are more progressive than others in their approach to D&I.
Louis Gittens, a British hockey player placed at Santander bank, shares his own experience: “At secondary school, we had quite a diverse team which I assumed was normal until I began to play at university and then premier league hockey, where there were only a handful of players from ethnic minorities. The lack of diversity became increasingly apparent in my sports career which took me some time to get used to”.
Carmen Lim, a Malaysian para swimmer who undertook an internship at Citigroup in London, encounters a similar experience in her home country: “I have been fortunate to train alongside able-bodied swimmers, allowing me to be with like-minded student-athletes who share the same understanding of the combined demand of sports and academics. However, sadly, this inclusivity has not always existed when competing at home n Malaysia at both district and state level”.
Paradoxically, playing sports is also a fundamental means to develop the skills and the capacity to overcome diversity hurdles.
Sport – A Catalyst for Resilience & Openness
Sport can play a pivotal role in personal development, providing athletes with a wealth of skills that define their identity and ultimately drive their achievements within and beyond sports. One of those skills is resilience, which Carmen has embraced to adapt and ultimately empowered her to trailblaze many successes in her life. Born without a left arm, she competed on an international level and broke world records, before going on to study Law at the University of Cambridge and begin her career in Finance “I have always had to balance the demands of sport with my academic performance. I often describe juggling the two aspects of my life as if I were working 2 full-time jobs at once. The physical and mental challenges this posed meant that I developed a degree of resilience when met with difficult situations”, she says.
Sandhya Balakrishnan is a former Taekwondo champion and Commonwealth Bronze medallist, and a recent investment banking intern at Numis in London. The exposure she got from her sport has defined the person she has become, now championing teamwork and diversity in the workplace.
“Taekwondo has definitely instilled resilience, determination and commitment. Every challenge that I am faced with whether it’s corporate or personal, I am able to bounce back, find a solution and achieve that goal. I believe every failure leads you to something greater because you get to improve yourself further. My sporting experience also allowed me to have determination and drive to succeed in everything I commit myself to. Additionally, it has taught me how to work in a team, and help me build strong people skills by constantly meeting and socialising with new individuals. Being exposed to different skill sets and personalities adds to the whole concept of teamwork and how I applied it to the corporate world.”
Educating D&I – The Only Way to Move the Needle
David Wetherill, the three-time Paralympian table tennis medallist, and recent intern at BlackRock is a huge advocate for inclusion, accessibility and disability. He explains why understanding is key to championing D&I efforts in the corporate world. Building a culture of understanding that fully comprehends D&I at every level of the business, in which questions are routinely asked to everyone and therefore normalised, is the right track to follow.
“A lot of people with a disability don’t want to come forward, therefore if it is forced coming with processes already in place like provisions and someone offering it to you that is so much better than asking. Organisations could often be more proactive rather than just reactive to avoid this mindset of crossing bridges when you get to them; if there is a problem then we’ll deal with it when they arise. The more they ask at the hiring stage or later on with some kind of anonymous streams that employees can always go through, then the less the company will be surprised about the extent of needs and requirements an individual may need. Finally, everyone is different, there might be someone’s requirement that no one else in the whole world needs and this is why D&I is so broad and tough, requiring companies to be ready to have an individualistic approach to it. If a company can build that culture where it normalizes talking about people’s differences then individuals are going to be themselves more open to talking about it”, explains David.
Only D&I processes that are tangible, available, and inherent to the corporate culture affect positive and durable change. “When working at BlackRock, I was given a footrest which was really helpful but there was no way I was going to ask for it.”, appreciates David. Alternatively, Carmen remembers: “when applying for training contracts at law firms, one of the firms only asked about my disability and the potential required adjustments from assessments at the first stage of the application process. Since then, they have implemented the relevant modifications for my assessments in the later stages, without having to ask me repeatedly at each stage. This continuity throughout the application meant a lot to me because it showed that there was practical application of their D&I policies, and that they respected me as an individual to be mindful of such adjustments from the outset”.
“It goes more than just putting a ramp outside of the front door. It goes beyond tick boxing or having a list”, stresses David Wetherill, three-time Paralympian table tennis medallist.
The level of understanding and appreciation both managers and organisations are able to convey is what matters the most – reinforcing a genuine sense of belonging and empowerment.
The Role of Society – Raising Awareness Beyond the Workplace
One of the strongest barriers that prevent greater inclusivity and equality is access. Society faces multiple accessibility challenges, which inherently fall within a broader and multi-stakeholder system consisting of politics and governments, cities and communities, investors, NGOs, etc.
One of those challenges is how to make cities and infrastructures more accessible; “there are issues outside of work that directly impact businesses but have nothing to do with them, such as commuting and getting to the office. London is terrible for wheelchairs in the underground for example”, observes David. There are also other unnoticeable barriers to tackle such as achieving a greater outreach to a wider community within some industries – typically the access to more women and ethnic minority groups in the financial sector.
Society plays a pivotal role in representation. The more adjustments and D&I conversations are brought up within society, and available in our everyday life, the more it becomes normalised. This is a process that takes time but supports the private sector in making an impact – reinforcing the corporate internal mentoring and training ensuring D&I is ingrained within the company culture.
The Power of D&I – Making a Real Difference to the Bottom Line
It has been proven that higher levels of D&I lead to high performance and drive excellence. A 2020 McKinsey report outlines the business case for diversity and how companies with the highest gender and ethnic-minorities diversity financially perform better than others.
The influence of diverse leadership and role models in the workplace and in sports has a direct impact on people’s performance and retention. Sandhya felt empowered when she was interviewed by a female Indian Managing Director: “it really motivated me to have someone senior of diversity, like me, and made me feel at ease and inspired that I too could work my way up to make it to that same position one day. It left me feeling encouraged and motivated with a drive of wanting to achieve similarly”.
Returning to the sports world, both the Paralympics and Invictus Games have widened the length on D&I, resulting in long-lasting and beneficial effects. For example, the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia conducted the para-sport programme in a . This is an event Carmen remembers fondly: “I truly saw the impact it had on para-sport in terms of publicity and exposure to the public, which allowed for an increase of potential sponsorship deals for national paralympic councils and the athletes themselves”. To a similar extent, it may be noted the positive rise of interest in football among women since the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022. The final was watched by double the number of viewers compared to 2021. The women’s football fan base, already large, has the potential to double over the next decade to 328 million fans by 2033.
It’s often a lack of opportunity rather than a lack of abilities. Whether it is on the field or in an office, building and maintaining a diverse team/workforce is the key to bridging the gap towards performance and retention.
Diverse teams who have an inclusive culture perform better. It creates value for employees which ultimately enhances their employer branding and Employee Value Proposition (EVP). Therefore, it is fundamental for companies to ensure they hire individuals from a wealth of backgrounds, personalities, skills, and experiences. Athletic and military diversity is an asset for hiring managers in achieving this gender parity and driving greater diversity. The skills developed through sport/military and their transferability are a real value for employers.
It is clear that former athletes and veterans have unique life experiences and stories that set them apart, leading them to be best suited to perform within the corporate world. Once companies access these available resources, the question of all that remains is how they will leverage this strength and translate all those diverse experiences and knowledge into one stream of collaborative and performing teams.