Taking time to develop our writing skills

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The word ‘writing’ suggests an artistic craft which only authors do. Yet every day we type emails, comment on posts and message our friends. With the boom of internet communication we are spending more time writing. However, we spend very little time actively developing how we write. Much written information we read and write is non-fiction. In a business setting, our emails and memos set direction. Writing well is therefore key.

I’ve spent the last week reflecting on my work around this newsletter. This was prompted by reading a book around blog writing, which made me concerned that perhaps my articles were a little unfocussed. I did a recent LinkedIn poll, where I was happily surprised to see the majority of people prefer that I write about a variety of subjects rather than an individual theme. (I am always open to feedback though, so please do get in touch around things you like, dislike or want to see more of!).

With my recent focus upon blogging, I realised that I had fallen into this trap. It has been years since I reflected on my writing style, and how I could improve, which for someone writing a blog on personal development, it is not the best example to set! Following a quick Google search, I stumbled upon a recommendation for On Writing Well: the classic guide to non-fiction by William Zinsser, which is renowned on this subject.

I am half-way through reading, yet I have already gained plenty. Of all the principles, brevity, I think, is the most important. Unfortunately, through university we have gained an overly-elaborate writing style. This often means we see long and confusing messages with complicated vocabulary. The point of writing is to give clarity, rather than demonstrate your intelligence. Zinsser pushes us to consider the words we use, and edit out the padding. Even in the last sentence, I first typed this as ‘Zinsser pushes us to better consider the words we use’ – the word ‘better’ is unecessary, and the sentence is clearer without it.

The book also highlights the importance of bringing humanity into our text. I was honestly relieved to read this – I try to give my own perspective as I’ve found it is more interesting, so it is reassuring to read. He also says that people should write the way they speak, which makes sense. If you do not use fancy words when speaking, there is no need to put them in whilst writing (conversely, if you do use them, do write them).

Finally, I gained lots from the answer to his question ‘who am I writing for?’. We often hear about the importance of writing for your audience. Instead, his response is that you should write for yourself. Editors and writers do not know what they want until they have read it. Writing is an act of enjoyment, and if you enjoy writing your readers are more likely to enjoy it too. I found this incredibly refreshing in an age of social media, where we craft texts which are built upon chasing likes. This mantra – from a book written over 30 years ago – is sage advice.

Zinsser is meticulous with his editing and re-editing. I am personally less of a zealot – I believe the important thing is to write something and improve it to a ‘good enough’ level before publishing. Many of us get blocked from writing due to a perfectionist streak or a lack of time. I prefer to emphasise output rather than perfection.

I’ve learnt that my writing improves through brevity and humanity. I tend to add needless ad-verbs, or write in a roundabout way. Looking at what I see in emails and across social media, I believe those who come across best follow these attributes.

Why did I decide to start a podcast?

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Last month, I listened to an interview with Lucy Gourlay, a coach who had started a podcast called ‘Lucy Loves‘ over the last year. She detailed her trials and tribulations of whether to start it or not, and how it had since become a key part of what she does, ultimately supporting her business.

Fast forward a few weeks, I found myself releasing my first ever podcast episode, in a whirlwind journey of setting up tech, deciding on a name/concept and finding a first interviewee. So what pushed me to make the decision of starting ‘Behind the Suit and Tie‘?

The idea of a podcast has been in the back of my mind for a while. As a student, I had previously co-hosted a weekly radio show for three years; it was a Wednesday morning ritual which started nervously and awkwardly, but as time passed we improved and became relatively fluent. At some point we even won an internal award as the Best Playlist Show at one point, which we didn’t really expect. That being said, it’s been a many years since that took place, and honestly I actually had forgotten that I had even done any of that.

As to why I started this now, there were a few reasons that culminated together. Firstly, I had a push from listening to this interview, so I felt it was about time I acted upon an idea I have had for a while. Secondly, whilst it has been pointed out to me that the world does not need another podcast, it actually benefits my own wellbeing. I enjoy releasing my creative side through these blogs which gives me a wider sense of achievement outside of my job. I wanted to expand the sorts of things I do in a new area, and podcasting is something I think I can do well. Thirdly, the concept of Behind the Suit and Tie is to learn more about people and make work more human, something I have become more interested in as a theme as I have progressed in my career (as well as the trials and tribulations of the pandemic!).

It’s interesting to reflect how helpful an outside prompt can be – by listening to that interview I had a nudge to get going with something I had been thinking about for a long time. Once that happened, the seed was planted and I was keen to learn about how to make it a reality. Fortunately we live in a world where it’s possible to access guides relatively easily, as such I bought a book which gave some clear guidance relating to things like tech, recording an intro and outro and how to commission a cover art (the latter of which I’m very happy with!).

It also made me reflect that practicing skills in the past can always come in useful many years later. If you’re looking to start a new activity or hobby, but are questioning whether it is worth it – my answer would unequivocally be yes! I was fortunate that I had access to student radio and had a co-host who actually was more enthusiastic in the show than I was. But by doing this weekly, I learnt how to better use my voice, how to do basic sound editing and how to organise a timetable for a show.

My final reflection is how quickly you can go with an idea once one’s mind is set towards it. Because I had gotten into the idea of making a podcast and had set the concept, the awkward barriers suddenly just felt like hurdles to overcome in quick succession. A lot of what prevents us as people from starting new things is our own mental uncertainty, and once that melts away tasks that felt like massive barriers can be overcome far easier. For me, I took a lot of these things in my stride.

So I would love it if you gave Behind the Suit and Tie a listen: do check out my first episode here – https://anchor.fm/tahmid5. If you’re interested in being a guest, please do get in touch, I’d love to find new people to speak to!

My reflections three months into a job transition

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about my decision to leave government. I’ve now started a new role and have been working here for the last three months. Moving to a new job is a stressful time, though particularly so when moving to a new sector or shifting career. For me this was also combined it with moving countries, as well as having to do so during the pandemic which just made everything more complicated.

So I thought I would share some early reflections of what helped me settle into my new role, and the pitfalls to avoid when shifting careers, based upon my recent experience.

  1. Before starting – think about your new role, but don’t sweat the details

For me, I was shifting topic area into the world of climate change and sustainability, something that I didn’t have direct experience in. So when I knew I would be moving into this role, I tried to start building my understanding, reading books, listening into webinars and generally getting my head around some of the complexities of the subject.

That said, I realised that I was putting pressure on myself to know everything before I even started. I was hired based upon my current skills, and there was always an expectation that it would take time for me to get to grips with the new work. I was fortunate enough to have a break between starting roles (which I would also definitely recommend), and there came a point where I realised the best thing I could do was resting to feel fresh for the new role. Whilst some preparation did help, realistically I would never be able to learn it all within a few weeks. Instead, it was more important to set myself up mentally to take in lots of information when the job started.

2. On your first days and weeks, spend more time listening then talking

I remember my first day as a mixture of some nerves and excitement. It was a fairly intense introduction into the work we do and meeting people. Meanwhile, setting up IT and going through inductions took a while and was fairly tedious.

Sifting careers at a mid-level role brings its own challenges. Whereas when you join as a graduate or from an entry-level, there is an implicit understanding that you are there to learn your role from your seniors. For me though, I knew that my role was to set direction, with expected management responsibilities. So there was certainly a temptation to start impressing my colleagues with my knowledge and ideas from the first week to demonstrate that I was ‘up to the task’. In reality, this was more an internal anxiety rather than a particularly helpful reflex. If I had done this, I probably would have made some blunders as it is hard to give useful suggestions without knowing much about what is going on.

The first few weeks are the point you can learn the most, simply by approaching people with an open mind and listening to their thoughts and opinions. I took this opportunity to have different intro chats and have conversations to get to know my colleagues better, rather than jumping into the work to start crunching out the tasks I knew I would need to do. This allowed me to get a better idea of different projects, personalities and work cultures before diving head first into work.

3. Be open to a different way of doing things

Moving roles naturally means going to somewhere else where things are done differently. That’s obvious, right? Nonetheless, having worked around five years in government, I quickly became accustomed on ow ‘things should be’. So moving roles outside, there were basic things like meetings, HR and IT which were different to what I had previously been used to. So it was important for me to observe what this looked like to learn the way things were done here.

For me, I had to be open to a different style of working, particularly so as I was both moving from government (where decisions are made internally) to my current role where we look to influence through engaging from the outside. Furthermore, moving from the UK to Belgium also brought changes in terms of work cultures and the way in which people interact with one another, which is an area I have needed to adapt.

4. When the time is right, do not be afraid to demonstrate your value

The previous points were around listening and adapting. However, it is also important to remember that you were hired for a reason – you bring valuable experience and insight into your new organisation. For example, I bring a particular interest around certain areas such as wellbeing and diversity and inclusion, as well as project management having completed numerous courses on all of these areas. So I also have found it important to demonstrate that I have these skills when the opportunity arise. It has helped me to visibly demonstrate what I bring to the team in terms of experience, where my values are and how I can be helpful when integrating within a team.

There also came a point when I shifted from being a passive spectator, instead expected to drive my own work. In other words, hesitating and waiting for others to tell me what to do constantly is not what I was hired to do. Here I could pull in my experience from previous roles which set me up nicely to lead projects which were similar to what I had done before (which makes the penny drop somewhat as to why I got hired in the first place!). It was important for me to be humble about the things I did not know, which is fairly natural when starting in a new organisation, so building good relationships and asking for help is also key.

5. Don’t forget about your hobbies and outside interest

I was certainly tempted to put my life ‘on hold’ whilst I got accustomed to my new role. Whilst this is naturally going to be a stressful period, it is also important for your own wellbeing to find things that you enjoy doing. This has been particularly important during the pandemic where it has been hard to get away from work, due to the limited activities still available.

For me, I have been writing these articles on LinkedIn for over a year now, and I found it an extremely valuable source of accomplishment and wellbeing, since I can channel my creativity and provide a benefit for those that read it. So whilst I did take a little time before restarting, I’ve been keen to continue in writing these throughout the first few months. It is also good for my own confidence, as doing something I know how to do can counterbalance a day where I may have spent feeling quite lost or unsure about the new topic I was grasping with.

These are my reflections three months into a job transition. I would love to hear your views – has this been helpful for you, are there other pieces of advice you would give?

Are we too obsessed with the concept of growth?

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I’ve been recently reading about doughnut economics – the economic concept around how we consume as a society. In essence, the idea of the doughnut is that we should aim for the ‘ring’ of a doughnut to be our level of consumption. Any less than this leads to a shortfall, causing lack of education, famine and disease. Any more leads to overconsumption, damage to our planet and climate and issues such as biodiversity loss.

A large portion of our economic indicators are based upon GDP growth. Over the last century, our main idea of measuring a country’s success is as to whether it has GDP growth or not. GDP has often been heralded as the mark of doing ‘better’, and it is only recently that we have started to question this whole concept in mainstream discussions. Arguments for higher GDP growth are also complemented by arguments of trickle-down economics, i.e. that GDP growth will lead to benefits for the wider society. Unfortunately, modern society has shown that in reality an unbelievable amount of wealth is owned by the top 1%, who according to Inequality.org own approximately 43% of the wealth of the world, which rather than reduce, has actually increased.

We are now seeing a shift in perspective on how we view our economy starting to emerge. The doughnut leads us to think more holistically about our effect on a planet, and instead think about other measures such as wellbeing, happiness and sustainability. This is still quite a mindset shift which will need to take place – the idea that our aim may be to increase wellbeing but to not increase GDP (or even decrease) still feels like a radical idea. After all, we want to grow, get bigger, better and stronger.

This wider economic debate got me thinking about the idea of growth itself, including from our own perspective on personal development. As a coach, we often love using the word growth as a strong visual image of improvement – it harks to our childhood where we grew to fully formed adults. And yet, this obsession with the idea of growth may actually be unhealthy. After all, do I need to grow? My waist size certainly doesn’t!

I think our strong attachment to the idea of growth can mislead us. From an economic perspective, it can give the idea that getting bigger is always a positive thing, which furthermore trumps any other economic or social considerations. From a personal development perspective, the idea that we need to grow and ‘get better’ is often quite inhibiting when what we really need to do is take a step back and reflect – (One of the most common coaching techniques is even called ‘GROW’ which probably doesn’t help!). This can often reflect itself in the aims of a development conversation – to get a promotion, higher salary or be more productive.

What we are often aiming for is a change, transition or transformation of our behaviour. This is often difficult as it makes us re-evaluate what is important to us, and how we may act in our day-to-day interactions. However, when we constantly frame this in the idea of ‘growth’ we can build an element of guilt into this – if we are not constantly improving day by day we are failing in our quest to become ‘better’.

Even as a coach, I can fall into the trap of wanting to see either myself or the people I coach get better and more productive. This frames my own thinking – for example that ‘things will get worse before they get better’ and that the period of uncertainty is a bad thing when first starting a coaching relationship which questions underlying assumptions. Rather, it would help us all to see this as part of a journey towards development which gets us to where we want to go. We do actually see this take place as time goes on with coaching clients – when the goal starts as being more productive or a promotion, it often transcends this to something deeper, such as what the individual’s values and goals are, and what would lead to them being happy or fulfilled. The solution rarely is actually is about having ‘more’ to find fulfilment, instead it’s something ‘different’.

So I’m looking to reframe my own thoughts around growth. Whilst it can be a helpful concept in certain circumstances (e.g. when you are a child and looking to grow physically) when the word is overused it can often bring in underlying context which can often be unhelpful as it builds an assumption that ‘better’ is more, and faster, and this is often not the case.

I would love to hear your thoughts about how you frame growth, and whether you agree (or disagree!) with my thinking.

What can organisations do to tackle the Gender Pay Gap?

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This month, many countries held their ‘Equal Pay Day’. This is the day in which figuratively women stop earning compared to men due to the gender pay gap. In the UK, this was announced to be 18 November – based upon the fact that the gender pay gap is 11.9% in the UK. Other European countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Belgium also mark this day, all of which tend to fall around the first few weeks of November. Indeed, the European Commission marks the 10 November as the European Equal Pay Day – based upon an average of 14.1% lower pay compared to men.

Whilst in theory, men and women legally are expected be paid the same amount for the work they do, in practice this does not lead to the egalitarian society that we might hope for. Women are often past up for promotion to senior levels, or are undervalued for the work they do. Stereotypes still exist around the type of work women are capable of, meaning many organisations still do not see women as leaders, or typecast as secretaries.

Some high-paying fields such as engineering and IT are heavily represented by men which further skews the balance. Likewise, the gender pay gap also highlights unbalanced societal norms, where childcare are expected to be covered by women, whereas this is not expected of men. Similarly, the figure can also be further skewed by low percentage of women participating in the workforce in the first place, meaning at times the situation can be more stark than the figure itself shows.

Whilst Gender Pay Gap is clearly a wider societal issue, there is certainly far more that organisations themselves can do to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, the numbers have stayed consistent (and in the example of the UK actually gone up this year), meaning that we cannot expect the passage of time to solve the problem. Instead, here are some suggested ways for organisations to approach the problem:

  • understand own gender balance internally – Organisations could do more to internally investigate their own gender balance. A step further would be to start looking at whether there are pay disparities that have arisen over the years of promotions and salary negotiations. Some firms are now looking to correct these discrepencies by either offering top-ups to lesser paid females at the same grade, or by creating clearer salary bands which harmonise pay.
  • maternity and return to work schemes – Whilst generally we are seeing a generally balanced split of men and women entering the workforce in professional jobs, a large issue is women leaving work during pregnancy and maternity and not returning. This often places women having to make a choice between family and career, with corporate inflexibility making this feel a binary choice. Organisations can do more to put in place return to work schemes, regular check-ins during maternity and better policies to support women as they go through maternity leave and encourage their return afterwards.
  • Increase participation of women in sector – Certain sectors have systemic issues around underrepresentation of women. A commonly cited example is the lack of female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) graduates, meaning there is a lack of representation in this space in the workplace. Organisations have looked at developing a better pipeline of staff by supporting girls participation in these areas, for example through coding clubs or other initiatives. This does not just apply for technology though, but also other sectors such as construction where more could be done to make girls feel this is a viable career pathway for them.
  • reviewing internal culture – It is vital that an organisation itself does not simply chase numbers of women, but instead also looks at how the organisation is run, and how genuinely inclusive it might be. Many organisations do not realise that their processes and work culture can be exclusionary for women. For example, in tech companies which are often male dominated, they may have a drinking culture which may mean that a working mother is unable to progress due to not going for a drink after work due to childcare, therefore not being seen as a ‘team player’ and being passed up for opportunities.
  • Shifting performance management and HR policies – Organisations should review how they value their employees and see how they can make their workplaces more inclusive, for example introducing flexible hours and more options for part-time working and job-share roles. Importantly, those who benefit from these schemes should also be seen as viable for promotion as well. Another practical way to tackle this is to support the creation of a women’s network which can help women support one another within an organisation as well as advocate for more inclusive policies.

These are some of the ways organisations can tackle issues of gender within their organisation, though I am sure there are many other ways that I have neglected to mention here.

What do you think organisations can do to tackle the gender pay gap?

Why I chose to leave my government career

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In the last few weeks, I’ve connected with a number of individuals interested in knowing more about what it’s like to leave the UK Civil Service. So I thought it might be an interesting chance to write about why I chose to leave, what opportunities lie elsewhere and some of the issues I have had to face in doing so.

I’m going to talk about my own experience particularly working as an official in the UK government. Nonetheless, many of the points here will likely be relevant to anyone who is currently finding themselves interested in their next move, particularly so if you are either feeling a little stuck or in need of a new challenge.

I joined the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in 2017. Prior to that, I had shorter, placement and internship experiences in HM Treasury, the European Commission and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. So in total I had spent around five years in the policy making space.

My time at BEIS was definitely a positive one, and I would certainly recommend spending time in the UK Civil Service for anyone who may be interested. I gained a wide range of policy-making skills, spanning several varied roles and I took advantage of learning opportunities by building my own personal qualifications. In my four years there, I gained a Level 6 Diploma in Leadership and Management and became a certified practitioner Agile Project Manager. I also went on a number of training courses including a development programme over the course of the year. BEIS in all was a great opportunity for me to learn.

Like any employer, it was not all sunshine and rainbows. Working on Brexit for a number of years took its toll, and whilst the developments meant more job opportunities internally (which meant I was able to get promoted faster than usual), it also led to me at times working in poorly structured teams, sometimes with unsupportive and underskilled managers who had been promoted quickly without a whole lot of management experience.

I also became exhausted with the change, I had numerous director changes, Group name changes, policy shifts, ministerial changes and a few elections in my time. Brexit felt like a never-ending treadmill of new deadlines and changing goalposts, with pretty unrealistic expectations of what civil servants were meant to achieve.

In the last year or so, I found it particularly destabilising working under the most recent government. Namely in its public attacks on Civil Servants, who were often blamed for many issues publicly by Ministers, as well as being used as economic tools by being ordered during COVID to get back into our London offices to buy sandwiches and restart the economy.

I worked on Diversity and Inclusion issues throughout my time in government, and it became increasingly difficult under a Government who railed against a ‘woke agenda’, including within Government. This meant suddenly activities being arm-twisted away from ‘above’, including a lot of progress being halted due to some Special Adviser somewhere not liking what we did. It’s no wonder that a lot of BAME colleagues I know have recently left, many of which who were pioneers in advancing race and wider diversity issues.

On top of this all, I realised that the chances of me progressing further was pretty slim. Due to the way the Civil Service is structured, there are few opportunities for progression after a certain point of seniority. I also became growingly disillusioned at how I saw my white colleagues get promoted past me, often to find them having mediocre management skills which would often make my life a nightmare for the first 6-12 months as they actually learnt how to do their role. This happened to me several times.

I also realised my value and additional qualifications I had gained were not really valued – instances included senior officials ignoring advice around project management (despite sending me on a project management course!), and all my efforts around diversity and inclusion being boiled down to a £500 voucher, and when I would use these examples in job applications internally I was often sifted out as these seemingly not ‘the right types of examples’.

So with a mixture of disillusionment within Government and an impending deadline of Brexit, I decided I wanted to move to the Continent to build my career in the EU policy-making space. For me this was a culmination of decisions based around my personal-life (where do I want to live?) and wanting to try something outside of government with a different set of experience and more space for creativity.

It is quite scary moving out to the big wide world outside government. The system encourages people to stay within, to the point where people move around constantly whenever they get tired with their roles. It can be pretty easy to lose touch with how employers work outside of government, and how the application process can greatly differ externally.

The unfortunate reality is that job hunting is a lot of work, and it took me many months of re-learning the rules of the game and building a better understanding of what I really wanted to do before I ultimately left. This often leads to people sometimes feeling they get a little stuck within their roles, often finding themselves in a spiral of being unsatisfied in a role because of the pressure and expectations, meaning they do not have time to genuinely search for a new role. I certainly empathise with this situation, though unfortunately it is something you may have to grind out.

Now being on the other side of it, I would certainly recommend leaving, if not to only have it as an option. There are often far more interesting roles than we might realise outside of government, with a growing level of flexibility and opportunities that would suit your particular needs, often that government might not be able to (like in my example when it came to physical location). On top of that, returning to Government is actually far easier than previously, meaning you can leave and join again. Ironically for me, by leaving I’ve given myself a better space to progress and return at a higher level than I would have by staying.

The pain points will often be a mixture of overwhelm at what is out there, as well as uncertainty around how to translate government experience into what recruiters are asking for. This will take time and commitment, so if you are considering leaving I would highlight how much time and effort it takes. But being on the other side of the process, I would certainly recommend it.

I hope this article is helpful in talking through some of the things you might find yourself going through, or simply to understand more about why people leave organisations. I’d love to hear from you if you found this helpful!

Why a British, black, senior spy only happens in the movies

Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

It’s been a few weeks since I watched the new James Bond film. I very much enjoyed it, both since it had been months since I had been in a cinema, and because it was a well-directed and enjoyable ride. A little bit of escapism during a year of lockdown has certainly been welcome. If you haven’t watched it, some light spoilers to follow!

I enjoyed the thoughtful way in which a more diverse and representative cast was chosen, whilst also ensuring that these individuals had a chance to express themselves and subvert some of the older tropes – particularly around the ‘bond girls’.

The sequence in Cuba gave Ana de Armas a great opportunity to give personality to her character and act more than just an add-on – no doubt a positive influence from bringing Fleabag writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge into the team. It made the whole section of the film feel fresher and more human then just another old-style shootout that we’ve seen many times before.

The casting of Lashana Lynch as ‘Nomi’ as a new ‘007’ was an interesting twist which highlighted a sense of changing of the guard. I certainly applaud the increase in diversity within the cast, and the fact that Nomi was able to demonstrate her Afro-Caribbean roots in real terms within the movie – indeed that is how she is introduced to us as the audience. It was seen as giving her value, as it helped her blend in and not raise suspicion – a benefit to having an ethnic minority as a spy.

That said, having worked in Government I couldn’t help the niggling feeling of how this might give an unrealistic expectation of how inclusive the UK Government and the Secret Service is. Now I know this is a fictional plot, and that in reality spies don’t go around in high stakes missions shooting up the place every day. Indeed, I remember watching with a slightly furrowed brow that Vesper was supposedly an HM Treasury official heading off to an espionage mission in Casino Royale. I’m not sure I was aware of any espionage missions from colleagues at my time in HMT, but then again I was an intern, so perhaps they didn’t tell me about that stuff?

One area that was not meant to be fictitious was the idea that a black woman would make it as a young, ambitious individual into a senior position of responsibility and gaining a key role as 007. And whilst I can’t say for definite that this is not the case – I don’t have exclusive access to personal information about those who work in the secret service – what I can say is that the UK government still a long time away to reaching the utopian space where a black woman would be able to genuinely reach senior positions without barriers to progression, particularly at a young age.

My experience in Government demonstrated that the older, less transparent parts were the most lagging in diversity and inclusion. For example, I worked in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (again as an intern) and was struck by how differently it was run compared to other Government departments. The big rooms with old statutes gave an uncomfortable feeling of colonial pride, which felt odd as an ethnic minority. Hierarchies were firm, and open and inclusive ways of working were far less advanced. This was ‘just how things were’, and since it was the Foreign Office, the rules needed to be different.

For those of us who have worked in the space of Diversity and Inclusion, one of our main measures to drive change was an open, transparent approach to the issues, using things like representation statistics of individuals within the organisation, staff surveys and public perceptions of the organisation as a means to drive positive change. Without these levers, it is tough to move a big organisation (including those in Government) to drive any real change. So for the Secret Service, an organisation which is based in secrecy, this feels an extremely uphill battle.

There are also the practical points. For example, the highest UK security clearance in the UK requires extensive background checks on family members, including distant relatives. For those of us from ethnic minority backgrounds, we are far less likely to be able to track our full family history due to the movement across countries and continents. And even when we can, it doesn’t help that many of us having relatives in ‘suspicious’ countries which plays a part. On the one hand, an extensive background check makes sense, though on the other hand I have no doubt it would particularly penalise ethnic minority individuals. And to be clear, failing these checks would mean you cannot work in these posts. There may be some way this penalty could be mitigated, but I am not convinced this has been properly explored as of yet.

I have heard that the way that the Secret Service in the UK used to recruit was quite literally a tap on the shoulder of certain individuals from Oxford and Cambridge who seemed the ‘right sort’. Now naturally things have moved on with a more open recruitment process, but these stories have an effect of what is seen as the ‘right sort’ and how the culture of the organisation plays out in practice. If you were to be a young, black woman growing up in inner city London, what are the chances that you would seriously consider working in the secret service? My guess would be that you would probably not even think that they would want someone like you, and it could be that this is the case.

So I leave with some mixed feelings around the representation of a black woman as the new ‘007’ in the film. On the one hand, representation in films is critical, and can actually do wonders in inspiring those young black women to think about such a career. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel the film gives a false narrative of how truly inclusive we are of ethnic minorities in the workplace in Government, and how far we still have to go.

‘As ye sow, so shall ye reap’​ – the failure of organisations to tackle racism

When former Yorkshire Cricket Club (YCCC) player Azeem Rafiq made allegations around racism during his time at the club which led him ‘close to committing suicide’, one of the first interventions came from Roger Pugh, then Yorkshire South Premier League Chairman. Pugh took the uninvited opportunity to highlight Rafiq as ‘discorteous, disrespectful and very difficult’.

‘Indeed, over the five years in which we have been in existence, he is the only person in our league that I have had any issues with… I am not a religious man, but a biblical quote seems to me apt here. It is, ”as ye sow, so shall ye reap.”‘

In other words, Pugh took the opportunity say that Rafiq deserved to be subject to racist abuse due to him being ‘difficult’. Pugh was later forced to resign, but offered no apology when doing so.

This event in of itself would be quite shocking. Unfortunately, the saga around the Yorkshire Cricket Club’s handling around racism has only gotten worse as time has gone on. I’ve personally found this particularly depressing, both as an avid cricket fan and having previously gone to Headingley – Yorkshire’s ground – several times as a student during my time in Sheffield. With a high ethnic diaspora around Yorskhire, this compounds a club more worried about saving face than genuinely being interested in tackling racism, let alone building an inclusive relationship with minorities.

For anyone who has worked in Diversity and Inclusion, the following sequence of the ‘investigation’ around these events aren’t particularly surprising (even if they are depressing). Following the reports of racism, YCCC first ordered an ‘independent’ investigation. In reality, the ‘independent’ firm was Squire Patton Boggs, a former employer of the Yorkshire board’s chairman, Roger Hutton. The investigation was to be over the course by Xmas 2020.

Instead, it took until August 2021. On the Yorkshire board itself were two of the accused members of the investigation – chief executive Mark Arthur and director Martyn Moxon. In other words, several of those implicated had decision-making authority on what happened with the report.

After this long delay, the Board issued ‘profound apologies’ after it found Rafiq was ‘victim of inappropriate behaviour’, however they deemed there was insufficient evidence around evidence of institutional racism. This was all done without the report being released (claiming they could not due to ‘data privacy’), meaning a complete lack of transparency and questions only getting louder around the real contents of the report.

In September, the Board eventually released a summarised finding of the report which found that Rafiq was the victim of ‘racial harrassment’ and ‘bullying’. However, once again they reiterated that they could not release the report, and that there was no evidence of institutional racism.

By October, political pressure started to mount. An Employment Judge ordered YCCC to give the full report to Rafiq by 8 October, which to date they have still not done. A leaked version of the report highlighted that Rafiq was continuously referred to as P*ki – a slur against south asians – by team mates. Whilst the original version was reported by media to suggest this did indeed show a culture of racism, the Yorkshire board disagreed, and overruled this judgement, instead describing it as ‘banter’. Other comments included teammates of Rafiq asking him whether his uncles owned corner ships, and at one point a senior player approaching Rafiq and a few other South Asian players and stating that there were ‘too many of you lot, we need to do something about it’.

Last week, YCCC doubled down and released a report stating they were ‘pleased’ to announce their actions – no player or coach was deemed to face disciplinary action. Later, another teammate, Gary Ballance came out stated he was the one who used the racist slurs, but did so in an environment where this was common place, and said he was indeed a close friend of Rafiq.

With the lack of movement and growing anger at the opacity, sponsors are now pulling out – Nike will not renew their deal, whilst Emerald Group, Tetley’s and Yorkshire Tea are ending their association. This morning, Roger Hutton resigned as the chairman of Yorkshire with immediate effect. And whilst that would sound like welcome news, in reality he was one of the supporters of more transparency, whereas the aforementioned Arthur and Moxon were reported to be the larger blockers. They remain in place.

The drama does not stop here. Rafiq along with the YCCC Board members have been summoned in front of the House of Commons Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee to give evidence this month. Rafiq, under parliamentary immunity is likely to be far more explicit than he has been now, whilst we will likely see a mixture of denial and blame shifting from the Board members that turn up.

So what can we learn from this sorry state of affairs? On the one hand, it is positive that politicians, sponsors and fans are raising their voice against what looks as a cover-up and sham. On the other hand, this event highlights how ill equipped a business such as Yorkshire Cricket Club is at dealing with a culture of racism within its organisation.

Moreover, it demonstrates how the interest of the organisation can shift to cover is backs rather than actually dealing with the issue at hand. It also highlights the difference between what an organisation says it does, compared to how it is in reality – there has been a recent PR blast from YCCC around its pathways and inclusion activities to try and brush away the questions being asked. Most depressingly of all, both Arthur and Moxon sit on the Equality and Diversity Committee within YCCC, which suggests how flawed the committee really is.

The reality is that these sorts of incidents occur in many organisations. Unfortunately, many are not public-facing organisations like Yorkshire Cricket Club, meaning these attempts at obfuscation and faux-action often work. For Rafiq, has has had to wait over a year since the investigation was launched, and any attempts of genuine accountability is being resisted to the bitter end.

So what can we learn from this? Well, organisations must not assume that they do not have racist or uninclusive cultures simply because they affirm ‘they are not racist’. Allegations such as these need proper mechanisms to be dealt with, and these need to be taken seriously. With a growing level of consciousness around the issues of racism in the workplace, these sorts of cases are only going to become more common.

From a personal perspective, I believe this is going to be a long-term battle. It is tiring simply following this saga due to its poor handling and daily twists and turns. That is not to mention what it means for me on a personal level – would I want to attend a Yorkshire Cricket Club match in the future? (Indeed the England Cricket Board has suspended international matches for the foreseeable future at Headingley). The original allegations also brought up stories of racism that members of my family faced at grass-roots level which are still commonplace (‘do you even speak English?’)

To me, this whole saga demonstrates the importance for organisations to continue working on diversity and inclusion within their culture. Otherwise, we risk alienating those who are different. There is plenty of work to do, but inaction only risks a public blow-out similar to that which Yorkshire Cricket Club are currently experiencing.

What adult biking lessons taught me about successful sustainability policy

Having recently moved to Brussels, it was about time I built up my confidence of cycling. By chance, I found a bike shop that runs adult cycling lessons. So figuring I would probably put it off otherwise, I signed myself up during the summer and let me future-self worry about the logistics.

This weekend was the first class of four. It was a pleasant experience with the weather holding out (particularly considering it’s October in Brussels!). But as a policy geek, I found the experience fascinating as much as from my observations as the physical task of rolling down a slight incline without touching the floor.

Perhaps it was because the practice session was right in front of the European Parliament, however I could not help but make observations around what adult biking lessons meant from a wider policy perspective. (It was either that or I have worked in policy for too long and have lost the ability to socialise with normal human beings).

My first observation was the group. It was notable that our session was made up with a high majority of woman, many of which came from ethnic minority backgrounds. Of those, many had attested to never having ridden a bike before, or feeling embarrassed and discouraged from doing so. One woman mentioned that you would never see female cyclists in her hometown in France, meaning she never got into the habit. I wouldn’t be surprised if street harassment or catcalling played a part in that either.

Others highlighted that they had been looking for adult biking lessons for years – one person I even overheard attesting they had waited over seven years looking for a course. It was incredible to think that a lack of lessons had been holding these people back from something that many of my friends use as their day-to-day means of transport.

So what does this have to do with policy? Well firstly, it is incredible how a lack of adult cycling classes are currently holding our society back. The class I had signed up to was completely oversubscribed and was only running again in March. In other words, there was incredible demand, but nowhere near enough supply. The price I paid at 130 euros for four lessons was clearly very accessible, but my presumption was that this is not the most profitable for the bike shop.

You rarely see policy opportunities that are home-runs, though this is as close to one I have come across – a subsidisation of adult biking classes would lead to a greater number of cyclists, both combating climate change by changing consumer behaviour and Brussels’ horrendous traffic in one fell swoop. Better yet, these classes were being strongly attended by women and ethnic minorities, meaning it is genuinely supporting those who statistically tend to get left behind from policy actions.

Another observation was around the amount of psychological fear that individuals had to cross. Many of these individuals had traumatic experiences with bikes. This included examples of others telling them to jump on and it’ll be as easy as, well, riding a bike. The reality was usually a failure, as many of us forget the initial practice of learning the basics. Instead, we were fortunate to get proper practice by doing small exercises with support from instructors to build confidence.

From a policy perspective, we need people to feel secure in trying new things or using new technology. This needs proper guidance and support; moreover this does not magically happen unless we devote time and energy to do so. For those of us who already understand how something works, we often forget the difficulties of learning a new process – be it riding a bike or using technology. So when creating our policies, we need to dedicate the time to explain them and build confidence on the new tools we want people to use.

To zoom out even further, the experience highlighted the disconnect of policymaking at a supranational level compared to what we are seeing with individuals on the ground. I say this as someone who certainly supports the new EU policy measures announced this summer, including the European Green Deal which aims for Climate Neutrality by 2050.

Nonetheless, there is clearly more work to be done to link up long-term vision with what is happening on the ground – we need to better understand the way people act and how we can support them to be more comfortable around sustainability. Local action is just as important as the EU-supranational level, so we must not lose sight of making our policy have a genuine effect on the ground.

So I am glad I signed up for these cycling classes. Aside from learning that I don’t need too much more practice, it also gave a genuine insight of how we can tailor policy to be effective to real people on the ground. Now all I need to do is rest my legs for next week’s class.

Doing good deeds without expecting rewards will give you better outcomes.

I want to share a story about a good deed I did about four years ago. After a conference abroad, someone I had met was stranded in a bus stop. They needed 20 euros to get home, otherwise they would miss their connections, and ultimately not be able to get home when they lived thousands of miles away. Back then 20 euros was worth more to me than it is now, and yet it was still little compared to the complications of being stranded thousands of miles from home!

I lent the 20 euros, and quickly forgot about it. the person tried to send it back to me but because of bank issues we never fully organised the transfer of it back. I wasn’t honestly too bothered.

Fast forward to about a week ago, this person messaged me about this money completely out of the blue. Their financial situation had improved and they wanted to pay their dues. After about 10 rounds of figuring out how Western Union worked, this person ended up sending me double, i.e. 40 euros, which I collected on Tuesday.

I actually asked this person what made them send the money to me four years later, and they said they had noted it down they owed me all this time. I just find it remarkable that people remember a good deed you did for so long, and in the end I got double the money back without having even tried!

Acting with kindness and supporting others are ideas that most people will get behind. As humans, we are hard wired to want to help others in their problems. We like the idea of doing something that will genuinely help others. This can make us feel useful, powerful, and give us a nice little warm feeling when we receive a little message of thanks from someone we know.

Quite often we act to help others, though implicitly have some expectation of reward at the end. A waiter/waitress may be extra nice for a tip, with our clients we may go the extra mile to sign them on, or we may work even harder for our boss in expectation for that promotion.

Our kindness therefore starts to build some strings attached to it. If we are nice to our client, and they don’t give us their tip, or contract, we are likely to feel pretty disappointed afterwards. It makes it harder for us then to act kind with the next client, as our priority shifts instead to what the reward is for our actions, rather than doing it out of our own genuine will to help others.

The ironic thing in life is that often doing things without expecting a reward will ultimately bring you better reward than if you actively tried. As this waiter, if you act kind to all your clients, through the laws of averages you will earn more tips throughout your time than in the individual circumstances.

But perhaps the waitering example is a bit of a specific example, does this really happen in other places in your life too? After all, this sounds all a little spiritual for someone who works in a high pressure office environment, especially if it can be quite cut throat!

In reality, many people gain success through their personal and professional lives by being nice and doing kind deeds consistently. Elbowing your way to a promotion may get you the reward now, but people will remember your actions. Whereas someone who has consistently helped others will find that many will be willing to help them later down the line when they are struggling, for example a redundancy or personal crisis. And furthermore, in our world, networking and positive relationships are critical. We want to build genuine connections, and the best way to do that is by being nice, without expecting that it will lead to something with everyone you speak to.

As a coach, we spoke a lot about genuinely looking to serve. We aim to help our clients, so when we are stuck we can use the guiding principle of ‘what would actually be useful for this person?’. It means I can help my client genuinely find solutions to what they need, and gives me licence to say things either more gently if the message is not going to be received well, or sometimes stronger to deliver an uncomfortable truth that I think they will benefit from hearing. I’ve also found this an extremely helpful guide on how to speak with others in every facet of my life.

As a coach, I am loathe to ‘advise’ people how to behave. And yet, if I could encourage you to think about something, it is this: observe how you act in your day to day interactions, and see if you can bring more kindness into it. Where you are being kind, see whether there is some implicit expectation behind this, and see whether you can do anything to make this unconditional.

I hope you enjoyed my story, please do let me know what you think!