november 2016 | Cover Story
Embracing Diversity and Inclusion
Sofia Falk’s company We Are The Story Doers rewrites processes and procedures in businesses to bring them in line with modern approaches to diversity and inclusion.
“This we do by exposing biased perspectives that are preventing businesses from achieving their best operative effect now and in the future. We show them how to harness the brainpower within and the positive effect diversity and inclusion has on the bottom line of their financial statement,” she explains.
When The Society for Human Resource Management asked businesses and other organisations whether diversity was on their list of priorities, twenty-five per cent answered yes. Fifty-one per cent only focused on diversity because they were forced to follow the rules. Fifty-four per cent lacked a company function for diversity and inclusion, and those that did exist were run by volunteers. Nowhere was diversity a budgetary item. Despite the majority of respondents (68 per cent) having various ways of measuring internal diversity, only ten per cent claimed to adjust their organisational strategy on the basis of the feedback it gives. Inclusion is a recurring theme in the modern world and an issue that is high on the agenda of many of today’s business leaders. The business world is becoming increasingly international, meaning that more and more businesses are having to learn to embrace different cultures.
Not only do businesses have to employ more people, they also have to ensure that new employees have a say in their work situation. It is all about development and growth. Diversity and inclusion are essential if a business is to grow. It needs to know its market, which can be done using improved business intelligence. Working with people from different backgrounds also becomes a matter of course because it facilitates a broader knowledge base. If a business is to grow it has to attract people with the right skills. Race, religion, sexual orientation and gender do not really come into it. Or to put it this way: No inclusion without diversity. Gender is often associated with women, while diversity is linked with ethnicity and nationality. A lot of businesses make that mistake, and in doing so miss the obvious fact that diversity is much, much more. It embraces life experience, work experience, ability, attitude, leisure interests, socio-economic background, personality and values.
For Sofia Falk, diversity is about a broad spectrum of perspectives, experiences and preferences. With this reasoning, it is clear why we benefit from it, she says. If we have attended the same schools, have the same hobbies, are used to making decisions in the same way, have a similar view of the world, normality, the meaning of skills and good performances …
“If everybody has the same vantage point it becomes very difficult to reach out and relate to a diversified customer segment, have a broad definition of the meaning of talent and to seek it out to work for you. It’s also difficult to put together a high-performance team that will give us time to adapt to the rapidly changing world we live in.”
Today we see an excess of businesses that employ people with similar skills who have worked on similar things and produced similar products at similar prices and quality levels. And this is happening while the world we live in becomes increasingly global and diversified.
“But diversity gives us nothing if we don’t include a diversity of experiences, perspectives and preferences in our agenda-setting and our decision-making processes. It’s a bit like inviting people to a party, but not asking them to dance. Your guests leave well before the party ends.”
Profits, sales, market shares, being an attractive employer, a more efficient decision-making process, more accurate customer analysis, more flawless innovation and product/service development, greater commitment, greater loyalty, more cash flow per employee, better teamwork, improved wellbeing, less sickness absenteeism … Basically all the good things that a company needs to be competitive.
“Businesses know and understand that. More evidence of the need for mixed teams and an inclusive culture is not what’s required. What’s needed is more action to modernise business processes in order to attract a more diverse workforce and to give them the freedom to contribute with their ideas.”
Sofia Falk has worked on diversity issues for ten years and says it is from this perspective that she responds. These days businesses and organisations are generally good at formulating equal opportunity and diversity policies – on paper.
“There is probably no organisation that does not have a plan – a few fine words in a glitzy vision and some statistics in their annual report showing the headcount of the ’visible’ diversity in management positions. It was certainly not like this back in 2008. Claiming to have a diversity focus is as natural today as saying you work with environmental sustainability.”
She goes on to say that businesses have caught on to the fact that it is not about politically correct goals concerning networking meetings and leadership programmes for ’underrepresented’ groups. Or to try to ’fix’ and ’equip’ those individuals who are not, to a sufficiently large extent, in management and decision-making positions.
“They’re beginning to understand that we have to alter our business systems, upgrade our processes and procedures and revitalise our leadership skills in order to bring about the change required. They understand it because they’re beginning to realise that it does show up on the bottom line of their financial statements and that they cannot find talent to the same extent as before. Ten years ago it was just fine words on a piece of paper. Today businesses are eager to find solutions.”
Basically, Sofia Falk’s company works with organisational development, something she has done since 2008. Their clients include banks, law firms, heavy industry, high-tech firms and companies supplying consumer goods. We Are The Story Doers collaborates with over 50 businesses with workforces of 20,000 to 100,000 that are active in over 100 countries. They work closely with the employees of these businesses using teamwork to add more diversity to development processes and help their clients become more successful.
Sofia Falk has a fascinating background. She was born in Sweden, grew up in Colombia and has studied in many parts of the world. Her engagement in diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities stems from frustration she felt as a 20-year-old when doing her military service at the Armed Forces Intelligence and Security Centre in Stockholm. Her irritation grew during military intelligence service in Kosovo and Bogotá when she felt that she could not be herself and work to her full potential. Four years later when continuing her career in civilian life as a crisis management consultant in the hope that it would be an improvement, she discovered that things were exactly the same there. Even though there were more women than in the armed forces, the top positions were filled by men and the management role was shaped to suit them.
“Before I began my military training I thought I would have the same opportunities as the young men, that I only needed to be myself.”
She says that the first three months of her military training was tough. The recruits crawled in dirt and did close combat exercises. One day they ran a half-marathon while carrying a backpack with 15 kilos of equipment and holding an automatic pistol. She came tenth out of 60 runners. The man next to her said: ’What a lucky girl you are to finish tenth like that.’
“Lucky? I’d just run 21 kilometres in one of the most gruelling exercises there is with 15 kilos of equipment on my back, and he put it down to luck!”
She gives another example from the shooting range. She shot better than all the men, but was still told it was plain luck.
“There were three women and 60 men. We were obviously influenced by our surroundings.”
Sofia Falk changed tactics. She tried to modify her behaviour by talking and acting like the men around her. But for them she was still a young woman so all of her top marks were put down to luck. It was not until she began working as an intelligence analyst for the armed forces in Kosovo that it began to sink in what being a woman in the military actually entails.
“My colleagues − all Swedish men − couldn’t relate at all to the Muslim women. Our task was to compile as much intelligence as possible for analysis. When I visited the women they spoke to me freely as another woman and gave me plenty of insights to help us in our work.”
Events in Kosovo changed the Swedish military’s understanding about distinctions in compiling intelligence information from a gender perspective. They realised the importance of inclusion and speaking to as many people as possible to get the best perspective.
After Kosovo, Sofia Falk left the military and began working as a risk and crisis management consultant, giving lectures and training courses to management teams in heavy industries. She was 24 when she was assigned to give a lecture to a management team comprising of men only, not a woman in sight. She was starting her computer to prepare her lecture when one of them looked up and asked: ’When is the consultant coming?’ ’I am the consultant’, she replied. ’Surely not. You’re a young woman, what could you possibly know about risk management?’
“I told them what I’d done before, but it fell on deaf ears. In their eyes I looked nothing like a risk and crisis management consultant. They felt that I had no credibility.”
Another thing that surprised her was that, in stark contrast to military life, nobody talked about operational effectiveness,
“I couldn’t continue in the job because I was a woman. My expertise, however great, would never be sufficient in that business. As I couldn’t be myself, I couldn’t work to my full potential.”
She took a job in a communications company where there were more women than men. But it was still the same. All the processes and procedures were drawn up from one perspective – a man’s. Or as Sofia Falk puts it:
“Everything was neatly in place and I stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t act like a ’normal person’ in their eyes so didn’t fit the bill. It made me angry. Would I forever be prevented from reaching my full potential because I was a woman?”
Sofia Falk took stock of the situation. Perhaps recruitment was the thing for her. She set up meetings with human resources people in large Swedish companies. She asked questions like: ’How do you go about finding women to fill management positions?’ The first answer she received was: ’We can’t find any competent women.’ She countered this by asking: ’How do you define competence?’
“Several of the people I met said they had an equal opportunities policy, but that nobody knew who was responsible for it or what was in it. But they did have a policy …”
The second answer she received was: ’We have an internal network for the women in our company. We bring them together to discuss important issues, outside working hours of course, as we can’t squander valuable work time. We meet over a glass of wine and the women learn how to improve their chances in working life by lowering their voices and learning how to negotiate, how to behave and what to wear.’ Then there was the third answer, the so-called highly successful mentor programme, or, more accurately, men in leading positions who instruct women with potential in the art of climbing the career ladder.
“This was, of course, done through their gender perspective, not the perspective of the people they were instructing.”
It was at this point that Sofia Falk started her own company, Wiminvest, and switched from banging her head against the wall in the gender-divided business world to actually creating diversity and inclusion.
“A couple of years ago it struck me that it wasn’t only about labels, but also personality. About perspective. And know-how. So we changed our name to Story Doers.”
Sofia Falk doesn’t just talk about creating diversity in the business world – she gets it done. She is an organisational hacker who sees the business world as her playground. She teaches large businesses how to find simple and applicable solutions for achieving diversity, and shows them how increased diversity improves decision-making, motivates employees and provides know-how that could help their company to thrive. She started her first company because she tired of nothing ever happening, saying there are many fantastic women’s networks, great ambitions, captivating rhetoric, but no practical roadmaps and very few actual solutions.
“We’ve still not managed to create conditions that enable all women to pursue a career on their own terms and fulfil their potential.”
She says that women’s know-how, knowledge and talent have all too often been ignored by companies.
“So we put the onus on the talents of women in order to get companies to put resources into getting women to both want, and be able, to reach the stars. It’s about how you select talent for your business or organisation, people who have something new to bring to the table. Also, how you interact with your customers in a way that helps you to relate and really connect with them. How you develop your products and services to capture a new market or win market shares, and how you get your message across to those who want to buy your products or services. All this is significant for the bottom line of your financial statement. When you’ve implemented the changes that are both relevant and profitable, you need to go a step further to ensure that your smart, exciting changes become a part of the company’s DNA.”
The question that Sofia Falk and her team hear most is ’Why should our operation have to embrace diversity and inclusion?’ The quick answer is: It doesn’t have to. Rather, you should care about all of your staff because it’s not particularly wise or profitable to separate your company’s DNA from your employees’ personal development. Sofia Falk argues that no matter how we look at it in today’s business world, we are in the era of human capital, diversity and inclusion. The demand on everyone today is to be sustainable in all aspects, which only reinforces the fact that your business is about your employees. Ensuring that everyone in your team is able to perform to the best of their abilities is not just a ’good thing to do’.
“You stand or fall by the way you handle these issues. You have to develop along with your team. Once you understand the potential of diversity and inclusion, it acts as a catalyst for growth. It will most likely have a positive effect on your company’s efficiency, productivity, quality, competitiveness and market share. It may be a high risk, but the rewards are worth it if you get it right.”
Knowing how diversity manifests itself in the business world, it makes sense to renew the language we use when referring to it. Google ’diversity’ and you get the definition: ’quality or state of having many different forms, types, or ideas’. But when applied to people, the term often becomes the positioning of a group, for example: white, male, heterosexual as standard with all the others grouped under ’others’. Is it perhaps time to apply a more holistic approach?
“We’re not here to tell stories. It’s a fact that our work actually makes a difference to the bottom line of your financial statement. That bears repeating.”
So what approach does Sofia Falk’s company use in their business collaborations? “If they’re looking for real change then we need to seek out the missing links, the narrower perspectives. Explain to them that their out-of-date autopilot is not the best option for the future, and that it doesn’t always feel comfortable. We also need to assure them that working with us will not harm a single part of their business. We prepare businesses for future scenarios before they happen. As a bonus they get more empowered and satisfied employees. Therefore, we have to ensure that as a business developer they are in favour of working this way until they are actually ready to take the step.”
One could say that the approach is based on self-help. It is not so much about Sofia Falk and her consultants analysing the business, more about the employees being given the right tools.
“These are the experts on your organisation who know the solutions required. Before proceeding, you need to be sure that the business is ready to convert to the world of diversity and inclusion. This is an absolute necessity and starts with meeting the management team to determine whether they are keen to invest the time required to bring about change. If they don’t buy into the idea of visualising their future, if they can’t see the benefits of giving their employees the space to utilise their wealth of perspectives, preferences and experiences then we pull the plug on it, move on to the next assignment and press the start button again.”