Why we need to talk about diversity

Our CEO Darren Ryemill has his say on why diversity is important in a companies hiring strategy... 

I was recently in the running for a position that I think would have been perfect for me. It would have been a high-profile appointment and I was told by a senior decision maker that I had everything they needed. I was excited. 

Then word came back from on high that I was no longer being considered because they wanted someone from a more diverse segment.

I know I’m in a privileged position as a white male. It’s very difficult for me to get too much sympathy for the atrocities I’ve faced in my life. But I was gutted because I knew I was the best person for that job. I had the right mindset.

Diversity is an emotive subject, which is why people so often get it wrong when hiring and setting their business strategy.

I think we all inherently believe that diversity and inclusion is the right thing when building teams. There are so many studies that show how diverse teams outperform that it has gone past the point where anyone sensible can or would deny it. It is a no brainer.

A Mckinsey report from last year, which examined 366 public companies across America, Canada, Latin America and the United Kingdom found that those firms in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective industry medians. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform their competitors in terms of financial returns.

There is a problem, though, when diversity starts to become an agenda point itself.

I strongly believe you should hire the person who is the best candidate for the job and for your company’s culture. You should never think you are overpopulated with a certain gender or ethnicity and therefore stop hiring from that group. Likewise, you shouldn’t think you are underpopulated and explicitly go after a certain group to make up the balance.

I do think it’s acceptable to positively target, but I don’t believe companies should discriminate at the final interview stage. If you find that you are receiving a limited amount of diverse applications, that is most likely to be due to your initial touch points. What is your employer brand? Who are you trying to engage with? What is your talent strategy? How does this align?

It’s important that all are considered, but I really think that the best people should get the relevant jobs. By best I don’t mean people who necessarily have the best skills now – and this is where it starts to get complicated.

Say you are looking to fill a senior position and have somebody who is slightly behind in their career than other candidates, but whose mindset and attitude is way more in tune. Who do you go for?

The answer at most FTSE companies is the safe option. You have shareholders to keep happy and quarterly results to report. Why take a risk when it can all be pinned on you?

I think that attitude should change. And this brings me back to diversity.

The secret of getting a truly diverse workforce is seeing the potential and hiring on mindset, not just skillset. If you just hire what you’ve always had, you just end up with more of the same – like you see at most FTSE companies. You need to believe in people and what they can add. Then you need to make the brave decision to give them that chance.

We did it at Opus, when we hired Amy Golding, who became the youngest female CEO of a $100m company.

With Amy, we identified the right mindset. We were open minded about what she could bring today, but also in the next five-to-ten years. That meant we ended up with a young female CEO, where we could have settled for some middle-aged man who had just been sacked from somewhere else.

Amy is not alone in being a business leader at Opus that some would consider against the grain. I also brought in Glyn Blaize in 2015 as MD of North Star, one of the tech businesses that I have invested in.  

Glyn is a black male, another under-represented group in the tech industry and in boardrooms generally. If I had hired on skills and experience alone, Glyn would not have got the job as he had never been a managing director in the tech sector. But his mindset is perfect for us. Both Amy and Glyn are already smashing it in their new jobs.

We are often asked by clients to help improve their diversity, particularly with finding women in the tech industry. A lot of clients are very conscious they are not a balanced environment.

There is one thing you do not do. If you want a diverse workforce, you don’t go out and say I want three black people, two women, one gay person, one disabled person and then I get the perfect team. It doesn’t work like that.

Think about mindset and potential and you will get there. And be prepared to take a risk.

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