Leading from the front: a diversity & inclusion podcast series

In the Robert Walters Group Workplace Inclusion podcast series we discuss key learnings and successes with Ireland's leading businesses who are paving the way in diversity inclusion. Over the coming months we will be speaking with industry guests discussing all things diversity & inclusion.

In this episode Suzanne Feeney, Director Robert Walters is joined by Gavin Hennessy, Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Irish Life & Canada Life.

Gavin is an alumnus of UCC and UCD Michael Smurfit Business School, holding a BSc in International Development and MSc in Management Consultancy. In his early career, Gavin worked across the globe in Africa, India and Eastern Europe developing projects to support the education and livelihoods of people living in extreme poverty. Today, Gavin is Head of D&I at Irish Life & Canada Life, having previously held D&I roles at LinkedIn and Business in the Community Ireland. With his work he has established groundbreaking programmes to reduce barriers to returning to the workforce for family carers, hard to reach youth, persons with disabilities, and refugees. 

We hear from Gavin as he reflects on his career, why he became so passionate for driving a more equal and diverse workplace and discusses how employers can bring authenticity to corporate culture and drive change in the most challenging areas of inclusion.   

graduates as an asset to your company

 

Gavin Hennessey
Head of Diversity & Inclusion
Irish Life & Canada Life

graduates as an asset to your company

 

Suzanne Feeney
Director
Robert Walters Ireland

Transcript:

Suzanne Feeney:
Welcome to Leading from the Front a Diversity and Inclusion podcast series by Robert Walters. Over the coming months we will be speaking with industry guests discussing all things diversity & inclusion. I'm Suzanne Feeney, Director at Robert Walters Ireland and joining us today we have Gavin Hennessy, Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Irish Life Group in Ireland which employs over 2500 staff. Gavin’s team also supports the Canada Life Europe business in its Dublin campus. Gavin, you're very welcome to the podcast, Thank you for joining us.

Gavin, you've been leading diversity and inclusion at Irish Life Group for a number of years now. Where did your passion for driving a more equal and diverse workplace come from?

Gavin Hennessy:
Well thanks very much for having me first of all, and delighted to be here. I think a really great question, and I suppose there's probably two parts to this. I suppose to give a bit of context, I think most people in the D&I space have some sort of lived experience that kind of drives them to want to provide you know better access to education or employment and I very much fit into that category. From a personal point of view, I suppose, a lot of people see me as a white privileged educated male, but under the surface, my background is, I'm a member of the traveling community and a lot of people wouldn't know that. It's something that has really driven my passion for diversity & inclusion. The Irish traveling community are really still to this day discriminated against in Ireland, and so my passion to provide access to education and employment comes from that personal lived experience. I think from a professional point of view I had an initial career in international development where I worked a lot overseas in East Africa, India and places like that. I think as you get to a certain age a lot of traveling becomes a bit tiresome. I really wanted to transition back home and have more of a job in Ireland but I suppose, trying to find an area that really kind of lived into my passion of helping people, and while still, providing a great career path for me. So the space of diversity & inclusion really provided that great transition where I could transfer my skills from the international development sector into the corporate sector. And I must say that they've transferred really well and that really kind of diversity of perspective, from my point of view has been really helpful for the corporate world coming from that more non-profit charity space.

Suzanne Feeney:
Was there a defining moment when you realised that you could be a very active driver of change within this area? Is there any point, personally or professionally when you realised actually, I can really be a catalyst for change?

Gavin Hennessy:
I think going back to maybe college, I studied International development and food policy at UCC initially and we used to have lots of debates in class around what was the best approach, and even to this day I still define people, as warriors or diplomats in a sense. So you had the warriors who just wanted to hit it head on, you know, and really just go straight at the problem and I was always in that diplomats space in the sense, I always felt like working with everyone was the best solution to making a change and that's really stood out to me in my career. I suppose that there isn't really one defining moment where I could see where I was a catalyst for change but I think some of my favourite moments in my career are when you open that door and provide access to services to someone that was a barrier to them previously. Some of the programs i've worked on like the first physical therapy program for kids in Uganda a community physical therapy program. I worked on the first Syrian refugee integration program in Ireland, fast tracking Syrian refugees into employment in Ireland, and in programs like that we've established that Irish life where we've established the first corporate family caring program in Ireland. It's all those I suppose moments in time where you provided someone with that kind of pathway and open door to walk through themselves and be the change for themselves. So I very much see myself as a facilitator, rather than, you know, an actual change maker. So my job is to open the door and let other people run through it.

Suzanne Feeney:
And Gavin there are so many initiatives and programs, I think you've only probably given us a sprinkle of them there that you've been involved in, whether it's in the corporate world or on the not for profit side. Are there any particular initiatives or projects that you're really proud of that you really feel they made such a difference, a really effective change?

Gavin Hennessy:
Yeah, I think one of my favourite programs that I have worked on, It's very close to yourselves in Robert Walters geographically is I led the first youth employment initiative in the Northeast inner city in Dublin One, where I worked with Trinity College, a number of local businesses and the community organisations to provide access to employment for the most hard to reach young people in the area. So these would be young people who would come from really challenging backgrounds and would have dropped out of education and would of really found it difficult to access employment. We developed a program there to provide work readiness training and an access to some of the top companies in Ireland in terms of work placements. It was researched in by Trinity College and I think one of the proudest things was the graduation ceremony that we had at Trinity College for those who took part and then the research found that it had a 90% success rate. So seeing that journey from the first interview when people felt like they didn't have the skills or expertise or the drive to do it and then coaching them through that whole process, which was my role and seeing them at the end at Trinity College getting their certificates with their parents and really kind of having all these mentors and networks developed and most of those people know or have either gone onto education or are in employment. So I suppose that's probably one of my proudest because it is very much a program at home and you know very much still local to where I work and live today. That's amazing and it just really changes the opportunities as well that people have in front of them.

Suzanne Feeney:
I think what's been really interesting around the D&I conversation in the last few years, I think, particularly in financial services has been such a weight on the gender side that it's so important to remember that inclusion is about so much more than that. I'm really interested in your move from the not for profit sector to the more corporate, you've worked in the tech and financial services side. So I am really keen to understand or get your views on key challenges that you've seen in those sectors around D&I in terms of making improvements. What was your experience in recent years on the corporate side around making change?

Gavin Hennessy:
Yeah, I think the perspective that I learned almost to keep myself sane working in the international development sector is around not trying to fix everything, and being really focused in terms of your interventions. Coming into the corporate scene then, that’s something that I really noticed was that we were trying to do a little bit of everything and really not making an impact anywhere. I know even when you talk about gender as a single topic, you know, it was trying to do everything in relation to gender and really not looking at what are the core challenges. What are the real hotspots here for our organisation and how do we tackle those. So for example, you can you can run a female leadership program and you can have everyone take part in this, but realistically, if your problem is at a certain level, you should really focus that program on that level and make sure that people are getting through that hotspot, you know. I think having those targeted interventions and really kind of fixing any broken rooms as McKinsey calls it are really important. I think that's the knowledge i've taken from the non-profit sector being really targeted, really focused and brought it to the corporate space. The other thing as well is you know, working with partnerships in the non-profit space, funds are really tight. In the corporate space we're not the best at cooperating or having partnerships with people sometimes, but what I really found is, you're not trying to reinvent the wheel so finding an expert in the field, whether it's a non-profit itself or non-governmental organisation they really accelerated our programs. So instead of trying to design something in house, do it ourselves, which a lot of organisations do. I've a really great network of supporters in the D&I space now who I can pick up the phone and innovate with as soon as we've done something and I want to go further and that's really great. I think if there's any D&I professionals listening to this podcast, one of my big points is it can be a very lonely role, sometimes you know you can feel like that you're pushing a boulder up a hill, but having those partnerships and having those organisations really provide a support network and provide that really great opportunity to look at different ideas and look at different ways of doing things and getting their support to push open that door.

Suzanne Feeney:
And what about, because you mentioned an interesting point there in terms of the D&I piece, you can be in a lonely space trying to drive this forward in an organisation. I think some D&I professionals will certainly find it challenging when they're trying to bring around change and potentially an organisational culture is that this is a tick box exercise, you know, it's something that needs to be done and just let's get on with it, I suppose. What's your guidance or advice to people who feel that D&I is just a tick box for companies?

Gavin Hennessy:
I think, definitely. I suppose, it’d be really relevant for Robert Walters, in a sense of, if you're looking at a D&I role and you're looking at some key things that you need to look at in terms of the role description, you know, where does the D&I role sit in the organisation? who does it report to? you know what is the level of influence you will have? So if you are the first D&I hire and the role is, you know, very far down the pecking order the amount of influence and change that you're going to have in that role is going to be limited. But I suppose one of the things I've learned is when I look at a role from a diversity & inclusion perspective is where's it positioned? and who do you report to? and will it give influence to make change? Because at the end of the day, it is a really strong change management portfolio. And I think, you know, when you're in an organisation then, as well as sometimes D&I professionals feel like they have to do it all themselves. One of the biggest things that I've learned is that you can't do it all yourself and that's where I said before, where I see myself as a facilitator as a consultant. So I work through some amazing volunteers in our organisation. We have a D&I governance steering Committee with over 20 of our senior leaders from across the organisation and they're really the D&I champions and the people who get the work done on a day to day basis. So my role is to guide them, to support them, to facilitate them in making sure that they have budgets, that they have the leadership support. You know, all those different type of things and that what they're doing is best practice, you know, and very much I suppose we follow it at Irish life, a methodology in the sense that we call our triple A model. So first we build awareness on a topic that we're looking at. The second A is action, so we don't want to just keep building awareness talking about our topic we want to take action on it. And in the third piece which is the most important and relevant piece to this point, is the allies. So what is the community? and what is the supporters that you can build around a topic? As a D&I professional we can get really bogged down in you know programs as we develop more and more and sometimes we feel like that has to be owned by D&I, where realistically, you should be finding a space in your organisation whether that is via you whether it's your L&D department or your talent department or other spaces, and as a D&I professional you need to have those conversations. So, and I suppose that very much is then an essence of how you can be more of a change maker in the organisation by moving on to the next topic and not holding onto something for yourself.

Suzanne Feeney:
Fantastic AAA, awareness, action and allies.

Gavin Hennessy:
Exactly. And if you think about it in terms of change management, it's very much the change management methodology, you know that you want to build people's awareness and change their thinking. You want action, makes a movement, and then with the allies piece that you want to make sure that it sticks and that it really is going to be sustainable in the organisation.

Suzanne Feeney:
An important point that you mentioned there was in terms of your steering committee and the volunteers that are part of that is the involvement of senior people are leaders in the business, so they're championing that as well within the organisation which you know shares the message that this is important and it's something that people believe in. What is your advice, then, to a line manager on how to build a more inclusive team? Because I think there are a lot of line managers who maybe are not at a senior level and perhaps maybe don't fully have that level of influence organisation wide yet at that point in their career. What can line managers be doing to help build a more inclusive team?

Gavin Hennessy:
Yeah, I think, again, as I felt my career, I think the most important person and you'll see this in a lot of research around D&I is middle managers, line managers, you know, they’re the person, day to day who have to carry out any of the changes that you make as a D&I professional. I think it's really important to recognise, too, that they’re really I suppose, a squeezed part of the organisations, because they're kind of trying to manage up and trying to manage down as well. A lot of D&I programs are focused on line managers. So, in essence, you know, we've done lots of programs to support line managers in that way, in being more inclusive and how to manage. But I think some practical elements is for yourself and for your own team is to look at your system and processes and how you go about things. So if you're in recruitment, where do you look or where does your recruiter look for your next employee. For your recruitment ads, what is the terminology that you use there, is that inclusive. If you are looking at things like promotions, do you give people higher grades in terms of if you like them, you know, to do you take time to stop and think of all the work that's done in your team and the different individual there to make sure that you're not having any bias in terms of your decisions. Equally with succession planning and things like those. So I think the big number one thing I would say to any line manager is pause, stop and think is there any bias coming in here in terms of my decisions, and those kind of I suppose moments to pause are really important before you make that decision and they really can influence how your team develops and then I think the second part is just to listen. You know, to really listen and make sure that everyone has a voice in your team as well and that's really important. Sometimes especially in this current environment, you know that sometimes some people in your team might not speak for a number of zoom meetings and I was at an event recently and a really good tool that was suggested was around having a list of everyone who's present in that meeting and just put a tick next to their name every time they speak. Then towards the end of a topic or the point if there is anyone who doesn't have ticks next to their name then you can ask them for their opinion or if they'd like to contribute. I thought that was a really nice way of just a practical element, especially in this current climate when you're not looking at everyone around the table that's something that's a really, really good tool for inclusiveness.

Suzanne Feeney:
Definitely, and it's really interesting Gavin because I was reading thematic assessment of diversity & inclusion by the Central Bank of the insurance industry and they found that most entities in the sector don't have a D&I strategy or D&I is not sufficiently prioritised within the business. But from a firm's perspective, a lot of firms responded that there was actually real difficulties in collecting data on D&I in terms of their HR systems, but also around, you know, managing sensitive information. I think one of my key takeaways, though from what you've mentioned there is that even outside of your complex HR systems and access to information that actually your line manager, middle management actually has a really important role to play within that because within the confines of their own team they do have access to the information, and that taking a step back and looking at how the team is formed and how people communicate, how inclusive it is even potentially for other people to come on board and join is really, really important. So I think the point is that with D&I everybody has a responsibility for it and for driving change.

Gavin, what are your tips to professionals who are really actively seeking an inclusive company culture and what questions should they or can they ask, or what should they look out for to get a sense of how inclusive an organisation's culture is?

Gavin Hennessy:
Yeah, I think it's a really interesting point. I think it's really important to look at, lots of organisations have snazzy reports and snazzy sections under their websites. But I think you can get really a good sense in terms of their recruitment process itself and how that made you feel, you know the people you've met, their approach to you, can give you a really good idea of their corporate culture. I think equally, you know, there's always that awkward moment at the end of an interview where they’re saying do you have any questions for us, and I think really kind of respectively just delving a bit deeper into their D&I, Could you tell me some examples of your D&I programs. What does D&I mean to your senior leadership. Those types of things, those type of questions can really give you a sense of where the company is at. If the recruiters are stumbling over words or maybe looking for the reports under the table or something like that that'll give you a sense of where they’re at as an organisation. I think if you know a recruiter turns around and has a happy experience of a certain program that would tell you that it's gotten through to everyone in terms of D&I and that people are really getting it and that they've had some sense of belonging within their D&I program.

Suzanne Feeney:
Gavin, just going back to what you mentioned earlier on minority groups in Ireland. Just what challenges still remain for minority groups in Ireland?

Gavin Hennessy:
Yeah, I think I would have seen experience of this from a multitude of perspectives. So from my personal experience being part of the Irish traveling community. From working in places like Business in the Community, which provides inclusive employment programs from minority groups. You know, there still is a lot of stigma and there still is a lot of discrimination within the Irish market. If you talk to any leader of any ethnic minority group, they'll each have their own personal experiences. So I think we really need to look again at how do we access minority groups, how do we make sure that we're communicating to them, that our organisations are open and safe places for them. And how do we provide opportunities for maybe parts of minority groups who have fallen out a formal systems. How do we provide access points whether through education or whether it's through employment. I think apprenticeships are great options there for people as well because what sometimes people forget to realise is that different cultural practices within minority groups don't lend to maybe going to college for four years and maybe getting your masters. So earning and learning is a very important part for certain minority groups as well in terms of being able to still work and still learn and get your qualifications it is really important. I think what we need to do as well is to make sure that we're providing those processes and maybe those spaces as well, where if there is challenges, if you are maybe like the first part of a minority within an organisation that there is those spaces and processes to find support and to report any issues that you might be having as well. I think just maybe to finish that point as well sometimes organisations, particularly in D&I can want diverse candidates and try to hire as many diverse people as they can, but sometimes their organisation and the organisation culture isn't ready for that level of diversity or that level of maybe diversity of thought and challenge. So I think I would also look to organisations to really look at their systems and processes and how you do things and see is that open to change and open to new people and new ideas.

Suzanne Feeney:
And Gavin, just with regards to the current environment with everybody remote working, I think there's just so much uncertainty from an economic perspective, it's just it's so unclear perhaps how long people will be with restrictions and perhaps remote working, working from home. But for you, what's your hope or vision for 2021 in terms of developments around D&I in Ireland?

Gavin Hennessy:
Yeah, I think we can focus on all the negatives and really want to acknowledge all the people who are unemployed or in difficult situations at the moment, but I think one of the positives that we can look at and I've already seen it happen is around accessing people who maybe weren't based in the capital city. So, whether it be Dublin or London or any of the major urban areas, now we have an opportunity to access people who maybe were in more rural areas and other parts of the country and for one reason or other, couldn't you know move to where the jobs were. Now I think for 2021 jobs are going to be more and more flexible, more ability to be remote. And that really, I think, share the wealth, in a sense more equally across Ireland and the UK. As an organisation we're talking about definitely not going back to the normal of what we had before this and looking at a hybrid model in terms of how we do things and really focusing on any time in the office around collaboration and innovation, you know, and really connecting with your team and that’s really going to be what we're looking at going forward. So I think you know, the big hope for 2021 is that obviously we get a vaccine that works that we can get rid of Covid. I think and then once we try to get back to some sort of normality that we keep the inclusiveness and flexibility of this kind of new world. I think as well with educational institutions going more online, people can now access education more readily, more easily and I think that would be really important for people also. But I think it's really important for people to take those opportunities and take that leap in terms of the new world and make sure that you're ready for it.

Suzanne Feeney:
Gavin. Thank you so much for sharing all your experience and insights, it’s so valuable and there are so many takeaways from what you shared today on how we can create a more diverse and inclusive, not just organisations but society. Hopefully, as you've said there from 2020 actually come greater opportunities for this, certainly in Ireland. I think my key takeaway is this, this isn't just a company or a group agenda, individually everyone can take responsibility for driving change and create a more inclusive society. So many takeaways, and I think we could speak to you for hours Gavin just giving all your experience in this area, but we thank you so much for your time and joining us on our podcast. Thank you so much.

Gavin Hennessy:
Thank you. Delighted to be here. Thanks

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