The Four Conversations

And so it came pass that on Friday of last week I went to the PM [Pharmaceutical Marketing] Society Awards 2020 – the biggest annual awards show for my bit of the industry, where clients and agencies come together at a posh London hotel, dampen their Dry January, listen to the celeb compère and comedy turn who’ve been booked for the afternoon and then wander round catching up with former colleagues and co-workers. 

And the winner is…

This is an event I’ve been going to for twenty years [more on the seismic generational shift of that in a future blog!], but this is the first time when there’s been an explicit focus in my job, my title and my role, on inclusivity and diversity… and the first time since I’ve been writing this blog and sharing my thoughts out into the world. Perhaps unsurprising then, that all of this became the focus of so many conversations I had in the day.

What was surprising was the kind of conversations – or more accurately, the themes those conversations fell into. Four clear, distinct themes, with four distinct groups.

I’ll call them The Supporter, The Convert, The Cynic, and The Conspirator. Let me introduce you to them… and the four conversations that came with them…

The Supporter Conversation

This was heart-warming. A diverse mix of people – in age, race, background and gender – who were kind enough to tell me that they had seen what I’ve been doing and wanted to offer me their encouragement and support. Some I knew well, some less so. But all passionate and enthusiastic and earnest, and many saying that they had been reading some of this stuff over the last couple of months.

Every time I spoke to a Supporter I had a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation full of determination about the future. Without fail, they made my day better.

The Convert Conversation

Not sure if the nomenclature is quite right, but The Convert is part of a group of people whom I’ve known for a while, since we were in less inclusive, less forward-thinking times and organisations. When we were led by the generation before us, some of whom held beliefs and exhibited behaviours then which would be totally unacceptable and inappropriate now.

The Convert Conversations were about what life used to be like. Men and women, we talked about our past lives with bewilderment really – the stuff we saw or heard but didn’t say anything. About how much we should judge our younger selves for not doing or saying more at the time. How we had grown and learnt and how we would do things now we had the opportunity.

Again, they were good conversations. Mutually supportive and full of care for each other. Full of optimism too about where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The Cynic Conversation

This one I’ve come across before. Usually male (although in my experience not exclusively), and usually a little older (although again not exclusively), and usually someone I don’t really know that well. Or perhaps thinks they know me better than they actually do…

The Cynic Conversation usually starts with a “I’ve seen you doing all this diversity stuff…?” type of non-question, and from there it develops into them saying how inclusivity is a “very clever move”, or a “good thing to align yourself with”, or good for my “personal brand”. All with a nod and a wink, like getting into this was all part of a career master plan. Perhaps something I’m interested in, but more for self-serving reasons than anything else. Distrustful and disparaging.

This, I find, is the bloody difficult part of being an “ally” – particularly one who is the “Default Man” (from Grayson Perry’s book I mentioned in a previous blog). Usually it’s people who are from a minority group who are interested in minority groups, right? So there must be an angle I’m working… an ulterior motive. Right?

I know this is a conversation that’s going nowhere because it’s not for me to convert The Cynic. But it is an opportunity for me to reaffirm my beliefs. I know why I’m passionate about this – personally and for my agency – and inclusive, authentic and vulnerable leadership is where I’m going anyway.

The Co-Conspirator Conversation

The Conspirator (or to be precise, The Mistaken Would-Be Co-Conspirator) exclusively male, exclusively white, usually a little older (but not necessarily), usually someone I used to work with in some capacity and who (usually a few of drinks in, when the alcohol has thinned the blood just enough) feel they can put a sweaty arm round the neck, pull me in and say something like:

“What’s all this diversity crap about? What a load of old bollocks eh? I suppose we all have to do it now don’t we? But bloody hell, everyone’s a minority nowadays aren’t they – except us white middle-aged men?! Can’t say anything to anyone now with all this political correctness stuff – I guess you haven’t got a choice eh? But we know what’s really important, don’t we? Anyway see you later yeah?”

Like I’m going to agree. Agree that it’s all just a show. That I’m playing the game whilst thinking the opposite. I mean, who the hell would do that?

And even if they did, would they write a bloody blog about it every week to double down on the deception??

I never say anything in this one. I’m not there as part of a conversation, I’m there as a leaning post. I’m not sure anything I could say would make a blind bit of difference. Perhaps in time I’ll find the right words, but right now all I’ve got is “why don’t you just fuck off?” and I’m not sure that level of confrontation is a good look in front of the whole industry. So I just wait for the end, and let them barrel off somewhere else.

It’s a mixed bag, I think you’ll agree! 

From the life-affirming and motivating, the forward-looking and hopeful to the saddening and infuriating, the downright annoying and prickly. The whole spectrum of ideas in one afternoon, in a posh hotel somewhere in London.

But do you want to know the good part?

There were a hell of a lot more Supporters and Converts than anything else. Only a couple of Cynics, and about the same of Conspirator. Much more positive energy than anything else. And that wouldn’t have been the case even three years ago, let alone twenty.

Yes, we are moving forward. Yes there’s a long way to go on all this, and yes, sometimes it feels like things are moving glacially slowly. But we are moving forward.

Thanks for reading. Let’s crack on shall we?

The more you know…

Diversity. Inclusivity. Intersectionality. So much to get your head round (especially from the perspective of being The Man – see previous blog), and just when you think you’ve got your head round one bit you realise that while you were playing catch up everything wasn’t just standing still waiting for you and now the conversation has already moved on; the language is different.

Like walking up a mountain and thinking that at long last you’re reaching the summit only to see even higher hazy hilltops climbing into the clouds, there’s a distinct sense that the more you know, the more you realise how little you know.

Weirdly it can sometimes actually feel quite ex-clusive. Especially when you’re really trying to do and say the right thing: both because it’s important to say the right thing for all the good reasons and because you want to show you’re someone who knows what the right thing is to say.

And as I’ve got deeper and deeper into a world of inclusivity, I’ve found that there are things that only D&I ‘novices’ say, which the vanguard might even scoff at. You quite often hear something along the lines of “it’s not about concept X anymore, it’s all about concept Y” – and I’m pretty much always thinking “I’ve only just worked out what I think about concept X, and I’ve never even heard of concept Y”.

As an example, I always thought that getting people to understand their own biases seemed like a good thing, but increasingly I find myself in conversations where the ubiquitous “unconscious bias training” is derided for being “Diversity 101” – the thing that corporations do to say they’ve done something. Or in the (approximate!) words of Ruth Hunt, erstwhile CEO of Stonewall, it’s where people can realise they’re a little bit racist but it’s not their fault…

Not everyone would agree with that of course, but when you haven’t quite worked out what you think about it yet it’s easy to feel… well, uneasy. Like you should know what you think, about everything, even if it’s constantly metamorphosing into the next thing…

And of course the discourse around Diversity & Inclusion isn’t standing still either.

Diversity is the thing we all understand, but that’s just facts and numbers – how diverse an organisation is can be measured today. And when it’s Diversity 101, all too often it’s just visual. We’ve all seen diversity used tokenistically in corporate communications (if you didn’t last time, check out Diverse-ish – it really sums this up perfectly).

Inclusivity is more forward-looking: a mindset, a set of choices and decisions and associated actions and behaviours. Because of that increasingly you can start to see the initials D&I flip places to I&D, where a focus on building an inclusive culture comes first so that the diversity that it drives has a chance to thrive the right environment.

But even with the seismic shift from D&I to I&D (so innovative Phil, you must be very proud on how you picked up on that one) I’m still constantly feeling that I’m behind the curve. Or certainly a curve.

It’s not a comfortable feeling really. Perhaps if I were a different person it might be too uncomfortable – to constantly being shown my own ignorance; constantly learning more about how little I know. Constantly seeing another peak loom into view…

What I have learnt, is actually what keeps me climbing.

I’ve learnt that everyone is on their own journey or understanding. Some are a little further on, have read a little more or had to challenge their initial thinking a little more deeply, but nobody is at the summit, looking down.

From that point it becomes clear that it’s really about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Because knowledge is less important than inquisitiveness; pretending you’ve considered all the possible angles and thus have all the answers is less authentic than discussing your ignorance and asking all the searching questions.

And authenticity is everything.

Who am I to argue?

And so it turns out knowing nothing is the first step in any journey of discovery.

Who knew?

Hold the line – a message for the Inclusivity Warriors on their knees

There are people you meet by involving yourself in D&I whom you wouldn’t necessarily meet otherwise. Interesting people (almost without exception): passionate, thoughtful.  Often kind and generous with their input, advice and time. People who are determined and resourceful, strong and inspiring.

Most of them do it in their spare time. I say “spare”. They do it in their own time. On top of the day job.

But when I’ve spoken to some of those same people recently, I’ve noticed that there are other adjectives that I could use which I hadn’t seen before.

Dejected.

Disillusioned.

Exhausted.

“It feels like I’m getting nowhere”

“I’m just so tired of having the same conversation over and over”

“I can’t do this on my own”

“I’m not sure any of this is making any difference”

I know how they feel. Because I’ve felt the same recently as well. Too many to-do-lists where the urgent pushes the important to the bottom. Too many Too many conversations where people are agreeing because they feel they have to, not because they actually, truly believe what I’m saying. Too little actually changing.

In a twisted way I think it might have been easier before #MeToo, when lazy sexism (or any -ism you care to mention) just got blurted out by thoughtless idiots and was there, right in the open, to be challenged and argued. But only the most aggressive provocateur or mindless bigot (or arrogant, power-crazed sociopath like you-know-who) would blurt it out now. And as a life rule I try to make a point of avoiding people like that.

And now I’m constantly wondering if I’m having a conversation with someone who gets where I’m coming from, or someone who knows they have to pretend to.

There are tell-tale signs of course. Any mention that their organisation is fulfilling all legal requirements, or that they’re “looking into D&I really carefully”. Anyone who talks about the ‘unconscious bias training’ that everyone had to do… as though understanding bias actually changes anything…

If you haven’t seen the amazing “Diverseish” work done by some of my colleagues at AMVBBDO for #Valuable500 then check it out below – it’s a demonstration of the conversations across D&I that we’re having all the time…

And we’re all impatient. For others to see the world the way we see the world. When you have conviction in what you’re doing it’s incredibly difficult to see the other person’s world – it’s like having to explain to someone why you believe the grass is green or the sky is blue. You run out of words. Out of energy.

So what words do I have for those people who feel like they’re fighting a losing battle. Good people feeling isolated and small, confidence rocked, idealism shot to shit?

I say this…

Hold the line.

Hold the line and don’t take a single step back.  And know that I am here, alongside you. Arms locked, standing strong. We are all locked together, across geographies and oceans, and our strength comes from one another because in spirit we are as one.

Don’t doubt for a single second that you are making a difference, and even if you have to change the world one person at a time then every single second to that end will be a second well spent.

Listen, I know nothing will change overnight, but believe me, it’s changing. And we’re on the right side of that change, right now.

No Smoking

This is the time of year when dusty decorations are being eagerly extricated from a cupboard, and suddenly tinsel and sleigh bells take their short-lived but disproportionate place in all our lives.

It’s also the time when the season of office parties deliberately blur the line between work and leisure, with games and organised fun and the drinking that goes with it can blur judgement and dissolve inhibitions. It’s the inhibitions bit that makes me a bit uncomfortable.

When I was younger I worked somewhere where there was a senior man who was… you know… a bit ‘handsy’. The young women in the office brushed it off, and just made sure they didn’t find themselves passing on the stairs at the office party or (God forbid) sharing a taxi with him.

There were always stories about someone who’d seen something or spoken to someone, and you know, there’s no smoke without fire, right? But what could I do? He was much more senior than me and it seemed like ‘the girls’ were handling it. We even joked about it a bit at the time.

We don’t joke about it now.

Now, when I meet with people I worked with back then, we feel embarrassed – guilty even – that we didn’t speak up, challenge, DO something. 

Because we all left eventually and went our separate ways, but I’m damn sure this guy carried on doing exactly the same thing for years and years and years. God knows how many young women who added a #MeToo to their social feed a couple of years back, as a small fuck you to the man that made them feel uncomfortable and unsafe at work.

Today it would all be different. In today’s world he probably wouldn’t dare do it in the first place, but if he did then the young women involved would (I hope) feel more empowered to speak up.

And I know that I would stand up to him too – forget the seniority, you’re out of line and I’m not going to stand by and pretend the talk is just talk. Because you can get smoke without fire, but not this much smoke.

I can’t beat myself up for not doing then what I’d do now. I wasn’t the man then that I am today, and I think if I met my younger self I’d probably think he was a bit of a dickhead for various reasons that have nothing to do with this. But he didn’t know what I know.

What I can do is encourage you not to ignore that tell tale whiff of smoke in the air – in a meeting room, a lift, a conversation. Because if there is just a little smoke, then maybe you should break the glass and press the red button just in case.

Better a false alarm than someone getting burnt.