Five simple steps to improve social mobility

I was genuinely saddened by the news this weekend that Alan Milburn and others were resigning from the board of the Social Mobility Commission. I’ve had interactions with this work for the last seven or eight years and I’ve been a big champion of their agenda.

If there is one good thing that comes from this, I hope it is a renewed focus and energy to address the topic. At the Skills Summit last week I was really pleased to hear the Minister for Education Justine Greening make it a central point of her proposals. But talk on its own won’t change a thing.

I personally believe that businesses and employers can do so much more to drive the social mobility agenda forward, without the need for Government to lead the way. So if you’re serious about putting your effort and energy behind change, here’s a few simple steps you can take.

1. Check out the data. There’s a brilliant social mobility map from the Sutton Trust that you can find here and the State of the Nation 2017 report from the Social Mobility Commission (here) to understand the make up of the geographic area in which you operate. Until you understand the problem you’re going to struggle to fix it.

2. Review your approach to new talent. Do you really need a graduate? And if so, do they really need to come from those universities? Are your recruitment processes stuck in the past? Do they really focus on finding the best possible talent? What are your obligations to the communities within which you operate? Quit whingeing and get behind the apprenticeship levy and make it work.

3. Build relationships with local schools and colleges. Providing opportunities isn’t enough, you’ve got to show that the opportunities are really available – and obtainable. Building a long-term commitment to relationships with local education providers helps not only support the education of all, but also can help raise aspiration.

4. Create sustainable careers. Not only in terms of fair pay and benefits, but training opportunities, security of employment and opportunities for progression and advancement. Mobility is exactly that, it isn’t about charity but opportunity. And that opportunity doesn’t stop when you make the hire.

5. Start to measure. Like every other aspect of diversity within the workplace, you need to understand the construct of your workforce and start to target improvements. We’re more familiar with measuring other areas of diversity (and I’d argue more comfortable with asking the question), but there are some good indicators that can be used some of which you can find here.

And of course, if you want to chat about it or think that we can do some work together, you can always give me a shout.

Cultures of permission

I’ve had the honour to work in a range of different organisations, in different sectors, to see and support teams that operate both successfully and…well, let’s call it sub optimally. And in every organisation I’ve worked in, at one point or another, I’ve seen teams operating in a culture of permission.

There’s many a definition of a  culture of permission, but for the sake of argument, let’s call it “an organisational system where people have given up their work based autonomy (either consciously or subconsciously) and choose to respond instead to instruction and direction”.

It’s important to separate this from an authoritarian culture where permission is explicitly required – we’ve all worked for leaders in teams that have an inherent need to control and pass everything through a system of sign off and approval. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Cultures of permission fascinate me, particularly the disconnect that is often witnessed between espoused desire and actual contribution. Employees and line managers will talk about the desire to change things, or the desire for people to take action and contribute more and yet the status quo persists.

If only people would take a bit more responsibility
If only we were allowed to take more responsibility

At the heart of this is often organisational memory. Something or someone at some point in time has caused this stasis and the disconnect between belief and action forces the team into a form of vicious circle. The manager becomes more and more hands on and more directive in order to try to get things moving and inadvertently reinforces the learned helplessness.

Ultimately the answer is not to do, but to coach. To support and encourage a new behavioural system and new way of working that align more closely with desired intent. That of course takes time and courage, recognising that not everything will immediately go according to plan.

They say if you want something done, give it to someone busy. That’s an alluring thought, but in a culture of permission one that has to be avoided at all cost. Encouraging and allowing everyone to step up is critical to breaking the vicious cycle that exists.

Change your words, change your thinking

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again –  the language that we use matters. It matters, because through our use of language we convey messages of importance or unimportance, of trust or distrust. Our choice of words conveys more than the simple message we intend to send.

When we talk about our employees or managers as “they”, we differentiate ourselves from them as leaders. “We” think about things one way, but “they” think about it another.  Indeed much of the language that we use in our corporate worlds creates barriers and boundaries that need not necessarily exist. It is the manifestation of an underlying fragmentation in the culture of most organisations.

Let’s take a simple example:

“I have to deal with all these stupid requests from employees, because their managers can’t be bothered”

Whilst the words aren’t exact, this is the kind of phrase I’ve heard throughout my career – and have probably muttered once or twice in the past too!

“I’m helping to find answers to employee problems and support their managers in running their teams”

OK, so I appreciate talking this way sounds and feels a little unnatural – but why? Why should it feel any more unnatural than the first?

Then let’s think about the impact to others of thinking and talking in this way. If your belief system was based on this second statement, how would you think and act differently and what would others see of you in your role? Would you be part of something bigger, or fragmenting yourself into something more isolated?

Choosing our language carefully, every day and in every situation not only changes the way that others perceive us, but it can also start to change the way we think and perform. Our language carries much more importance internally to our belief system and externally to our ecosystem than we sometimes give it credit for.

That’s why language, and the way we use it, really does matter.

Cohesion is the next big thing

You want to know what the next big thing for business is going to be? Of course you do, we always want to know the next big thing. Right?

But this time it’s serious. I’m serious.

The next big thing is cohesion.

When we talked about the future of work being human, we were almost there. But not there enough. I’ve been writing on this site for seven years, talking about being the need to be more human focused, but it isn’t quite right. We’ve been distracted by debates around AI and technology and missed the main point.

The future is something much bigger and much more important.

In my forty-four years, the political, economic and social environment has never felt more fragmented, more fragile and frankly more perilous.

As organisations, as employers we have an obligation to bring something to the party that is greater than the simple exchange of labour for money. We have an obligation to bring something that creates more than we extract. That binds and helps communities to heal.

This isn’t simply about corporate responsibility, used by too many organisations as a social-conscious healing makeweight. This is about endeavouring to change the existence of the communities in which we operate through our work, our practice and our existence.

This is about creating workplaces that are safe, both in terms of physical and mental wellbeing. Where individuals are respected for who they are, regardless of similarity or difference. That the rules of tolerance and respect are adhered to by all.

This is about building long-term and meaningful partnerships with employees, either individually, collectively or through their organised representation. Ensuring that decisions are made for the benefit of all stakeholders.

This is about developing skills and education for the long-term, both in the workforce and the community – recognising that we have a power to teach and to give, even to those who may not work for us.

This is about looking after those that work for us, on a financial and emotional footing. Ensuring that people are fairly paid for their labour, that the pay is representative of their skills and their contribution, not their gender or their race. That they need not worry in times of sickness or difficulty.

This is about ensuring that we are commercially successful so that we can invest back into the infrastructure that supports employees, creates new jobs and allows us to share that success both directly and indirectly.

And it is about leadership that recognises the importance of every single individual that works in an organisation and genuinely respects the roles and the participation of everyone.

Cohesion is going to be the next big talking point in the world of HR. Don’t forget you read it here.