Networks as businesses

It seems that since I wrote a blog about the importance of Purple Champions, they’ve become the new must have thing for disability networks (not that I’m claiming any credit!).  Since writing the blog I’ve been working with the always amazing Kate Nash and Sarah Simcoe on a new PurpleSpace publication on the topic of Purple Champions and we’ve been organising an event for senior disability champions and D&I professionals to talk about the role of Purple Champions in the workplace and it’s got thinking about how this only part of the picture.

I’m going to go off in a little tangent now but stay with me….

In the last few months of my role within the Reach Disability Network at Barclays I’d been working hard to bring in a new leadership team to drive the network forward. Whilst doing this I started to wonder about whether we should be looking at networks not as just a voluntary scheme but as social enterprises or business within organisations whose purpose was to provide consultancy, awareness and support in order that organisations become more disability confident. It’s this work that’s brought me to write this blog post about networks as businesses and why it’s so important that we arm disability network leaders with key business skills.

Networks as businesses

So you might be thinking – I’m not sure about this, why should networks behave like businesses they’re voluntary groups who just need to get on and do what they need to do. That’s all well and good but the fact remains that networks need a few things to survive and thrive – money, people and a strategy and all too often we see network leaders who don’t have the skillset to deliver these key elements.

By thinking of a network like a business it will also change the mindset of the network leaders in terms of how they manage stakeholders and access funding and resources. Which brings me back to champions (see I told you I’d get back to champions!). By changing how we view stakeholders and thinking of them in the context of a business network leaders will set themselves up for a more successful relationship with their stakeholders and, hopefully, enable the network to thrive.

As I’ve been working on developing a framework and best practice guidance for champions I’ve come to question why most networks have only one champion. I think we need to change this approach to truly enable to the networks as businesses approach. For year’s personal and professional coaches have been talking about the need to develop your own personal board with you as a CEO. The approach suggests surrounding yourself with people you trust but who  each provide something different, for example someone who you work with on your personal brand, your career path or your network. Why shouldn’t be adopt this approach for our networks.

A board of champions

Let me explain- by having just one champion, you’re relying on them to be knowledgeable about a wide range of topics and what I’ve discovered is that many champions feel pressured and uncertainty about fulfilling their roles because they’re being asked to know everything, which often means they don’t fully engage or buy into being a champion. What if we had multiple champions, each focused on supporting our networks using the skills and knowledge they bring to the table – rather than assuming they know everything. You could have a champion focused on the brand of the network, another focused on  being connections and relationships for the network and others focused on whatever your network needs. This approaches brings the skills and expertise they have to bear rather than hoping that one person can bring everything.

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Role models, heroes and motivation to change the world

I’m often asked ‘so why are you involved?’ and often the question is said with some apprehension because it’s likely that what that person is really asking is ‘so what’s your disability?’. More often than not I start my reply with almost an apology as I don’t have a disability, I’m an ally.

Now, that leads me on (rather conveniently !) to the topic of this blog. In the past, I’ve written about the role of allies and how they can be a really powerful vehicle for culture change. What I have never done before is write about my experience of being an ally, what drives me to do what I do and the story behind how I became an ally.

So, what follows is that story. It’s taken me a while to write this, I’ve bounced ideas round my head and quite honestly put off actually writing anything down.

Anyways, here we go….

As we grow up we’re often asked about our hero’s or what we aspire to be. In our early years, we often look to roles within the community – like a firefighter, police officer or doctor- and we imagine ourselves being doing this in the future. As we get older we start to identify individuals that we hold in high regard and aspire to be like and these people’s lives begin to shape our own and we aspire to be like them in a different way – not to be like them but to demonstrate the qualities that we see in them. For example, many people hold celebrities in high regard because of what they’ve achieved in their lives or indeed what they represent. Others hold influential business people like Elon Musk or Richard Branson up as their role models or heroes. And some look to less famous, but no less influential in their own way, people as someone to aspire to be like.

For my own part, my role models and heroes have, of course, evolved over time. At school, my answer to the ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ question was a policeman and then as I got older it became more vague as I became unsure of what I wanted to and could be and so it became ‘I’m not sure, something with computers’. But more recently, I’ve started to realise that my role model has been there all along, staring me in the face, guiding my passage through life and helping me to bounce back when I messed up.

Ask me now who my role model is and I’d tell you it’s my dad. This probably isn’t an unusual think for a young man and son to say but for me, my dad has shaped my life more noticeably in recent years than as teenager or child.

So, what do I say about my dad? Well, they say a picture paints a thousand words. If

My Dad

that’s true then this photo should tell you a lot about my dad.
This is him being relaxed, happy and playful. What you can’t see from this photo is that he’s pointing to a children’s colouring activity at Windsor castle and asking me whether I’m ready to go in. And the reason I love this photo is because it shows the side of him that I think best represents him. A loving, fun loving family man who would literally move heaven and earth to make sure his boys are happy.

This, however, isn’t why I admire him and consider him to be my role model. That’s a bit more complicated and, whilst I’m going to describe a bit more about the reasons why I’m going be brief as the story isn’t done any justice in a relatively short blog.

When my brother was born, my parents made the tough decision that my dad was going to become a stay at home parent and look after the pair of us. Today, in 2016, that sounds very normal but in the early 90’s it was unusual. My mum continued to work and whilst my dad did start his own gardening business his main occupation was as a house husband. Throughout my childhood, he was there doing the things that other kids mums were doing- collecting us from school, making dinners and keeping the house in order. And apart from this difference, our childhood was as normal as anyone else’s.

That in itself doesn’t make my dad my role model but it does make me proud of him. Increasingly we talk about how to defy gender stereotypes – with campaigns include ‘like a girl’ which set out to show that our historic gender roles are changing. My dad was doing it before it was cool to do and because of this, I adore cooking and cook many of the meals he made us over the years.

My dad is my role model because of how he’s dealt with tremendously difficult situations in a way I know I couldn’t. When he was younger my dad was diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder and then Diabetes and throughout his life, he’s managed both of these conditions with support from medical professionals and our family but it’s not been without its challenges.

For most of my childhood, I didn’t really know that my dad had Bi-Polar although, it was plainly obvious that he had diabetes and my brother and I both knew what to do if he became unwell. It wasn’t until my GCSE years that my dad started to find discover more about his Bi-Polar and for some of my GCSE’s he was in hospital. Much of what happened around this time isn’t what you’d all my dad’s proudest moments but I reminded myself that this wasn’t my dad it just looked like him.

I learn more and more about my dad’s illness and it’s past when I meet him. From the treatments, he’s undergone (including Electric Shock Therapy) through to the things he’s done when on a high (driving very fast seems to feature a lot!) and low (several attempts on his own life and sectioning). And by telling me all of this over the years has definitely lead me to where I am now.

My life course was set long before I learned about my dad’s illness and whilst I still work in technology knowing what I know through my dad’s experiences has fundamentally changed the direction of my life. I now spend a huge amount of my time working to increase awareness of disability and mental health issues in the workplace and ended up being a core driver behind a big mental health campaign in my workplace that’s now extended across the UK and beyond.

Earlier this year I went to the launch of ‘This is me- In the City’ the campaign which we started at Barclays two years before. Afterwards, I sent my dad an email telling him how it felt to be there. Below is an extract.

Today I talked about you. Today I talked about the motivation of me being involved. Today I told people that the reason I’m involved and the reason I want to change things for the better was because of my dad and what he, me and our family have been through.

Today I realised that some of the biggest companies in the world wouldn’t have sat down to talk about positive action had it not been for you. I realised that without the motivation of you, without the hard times we went through over 10 years ago that I wouldn’t be sitting listening to one of the most senior people in my company talking about work I’ve done and telling the world how proud he and the board are with the work.

And he replied

I’d never have thought that one of the worst times in my life & in yours would’ve resulted in such a global realisation of how serious & common mental illness is.  I am very proud of what you have achieved through adversity & of seeing you involved with such a worthwhile initiative.

So. Role models. Funny things that they are. They drive us to do things we might never have thought possible either to emulate them, impress them or to do their experiences justice.

I’d love to know who your role models are!

Ending the awkward

Hello! Yes, yes I know- over 2 months and not a dicky bird from me- rejoice say some! No real excuse, just been busy but thought I better pop in and say hello. Today, a quick blog on ending the awkward…

Desert Island Discs – a conversation about being awkward

Today I wanted to write about awkwardness and disability. The driver for this sudden desire to set the world to rights was, unusually for me, Radio 4. I was at home this week seeing my family and Desert Island Discs was on in the car. The

Warwick Davis
Warwick Davis

guest who was stranded this week was Warwick Davis – you can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer.

During his conversation with Kirsty Young, he spoke about his Dwarfism and the impact other people’s awkwardness and prejudices about him. He spoke about pointing children and the awkwardness of the parents who scold them for being curious and how what he tries to do is to educate both the child and the parent about his disability so that they become more aware and it becomes more normal.

It lead me to think about how the perception of difference and what is and what isn’t ‘ok’ to say or ask about disability. It also made me think about a conversation I had with a colleague who has Aspergers and his perception of what is and what isn’t ‘ok’ to ask.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that, to really progress the disability agenda we need to be even more open than, in some instances, we are. For some, disability still sits in the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ box and how this can be detrimental.

Happily, this is already starting to change. The Scope ‘End the Awkward‘ campaign which takes everyday situations and demonstrates how these shouldn’t be awkward. The campaign also tackles areas such as sex, relationships and more and challenges viewers to let go of their preconceptions and think about people with disabilities as just people.

As for the conversation with my colleague – during our conversation he challenged my biases and awkwardnesses. As an ally, it’s important that I continue to develop my understanding and work hard to focus on ability and not disability.

Curiosity and asking questions about disability is perfectly fine but remember, be respectful and polite.

Disability Allies – why they matter and why you should be one

We need to talk about allies. But before I say anymore let me be clear about what I mean by the term allies (or ally).

An ally is someone who doesn’t fall into a diversity category -in this case disability but more popularly in the LGBT and Gender agendas- but who is actively engaged and does something to support the agenda. Whilst they may not actually have a disability themselves, they may have a family member with a disability. Or they may not – they could just want to help create more disability confidence in their workplace.

I also want to mention that I’m an ally. I don’t have a disability myself but my dad has bipolar and he’s been my driver to be a disability and mental health ally for over 10 years. In this, hopefully short, blog I want to not only encourage you to become a disability ally but give you some of the things I’ve learnt over the last few years as an ally.

OK, so why be an ally? For me, one of the most important reason for needing allies is that by their very nature ‘minority groups’ like people with disabilities are in the minority and so, to really make progress, we need to have more than just those with a disability to be part of the conversation and part of the driving force for change. It also gives me huge motivation and energy to keep doing my day job and empowers me to take action – things I know other allies also feel.

So, I promised some tips and here’s mine. I’ll probably add to these as I go but I’ll make sure I add the date to any additional tips that I add :

  1. Assume you know nothing (or at least very little) – a key part of being an ally is learning from those within the agenda. Being an ally with no perceptions about disability is really important as you’ll learn direct from those with disabilities
  2. Keep learning – whilst it’s important to do point i you should also think about other sources you can learn from. There are some great videos on TedTalks (my favourite is ‘Im not your inspiration, thank you very much‘ by Stella Young) and plenty more on YouTube. There’s also #AXSChat every Tuesday on Twitter at 8pm- more details at
  3. Read up on some guidance about being an ally – a few examples include and 
  4. Remember that everyone’s experience of disability is different and that whilst someone with a disability maybe an expert in their disability they are unlikely to be an expert in anyone else’s.  As the saying goes ‘if you’ve met one person withe Autism then you’ve met one person withe Autism!’
  5. Be vocal and engaged – get involved in your disability network. Volunteer to do something and show up to events. Tell people – including your management – that you’re an ally so they can become one too.
  6. Don’t be a bystander – if you see or hear something that isn’t right then challenge it. Don’t wait for or assume someone with a disability will do it if you don’t because they may not feel able or comfortable to.
  7. Be yourself – you’ll get found out if you’re not being genuine so, from the start, be yourself.

Got any tips you’d add? Let me know in the comments box below!

Before I end, I have to say that bring an ally is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. You should do it too!

How are your Purple Tribes?

I’ve recent started reading ‘Tribes : We need you to lead us‘ by Seth Godin which I’d really recommend if you are or want to be a leader. (If you want an insight then watch his TEDTalk which is pretty good)

In the book Godin talks about the fact that we’re all part of at least one tribe and how tribes exist for different reasons. I tried to think about the different tribes that I’m part of but it started to hurt my head. What I know is that there are probably groupings of tribes that I’m part of – at least one or two relating to the disability work I do, at least one or two through my job and a handful relating to my personal life – most recently the winter sports one 🙂

In his book, Godin speaks about how tribes need leaders – whether it’s a highly involved leader who provides structure, instruction and action ( in the book he speaks about Greg Classman who created the highly successful Crossfit franchise) or an indirectly involved leader who provides the platform for the tribe but is a leader from a far ( like Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia).

It got me thinking about how leadership of disability networks varies and how it’s very much like leading a tribe. So, I thought I’d write a blog on it 🙂

Purple Tribes

As I wrote the last sentence I paused and thought about whether I meant it or whether actually leading a network is actually more like leading a tribe of tribes rather than a single tribe. From my experience it’s most definitely a tribe of tribes as there are clear and often definable groups of people who come together as part of the network for different reasons and because of different circumstances they also ‘take’ different things from the tribes they’re involved in.

Being a leader of a network, therefore, is probably more like leading tribe leaders than leading individuals within a tribe. And that can be challenging as by definition tribes will have different motives for forming and have different objectives for staying together.

It think it’s important to one that leading a tribe isn’t about finding people and selling them an idea – it’s about finding and connecting disconnected people with a shared interest or belief , sharing your idea for challenging or changing the status quo and bringing them along on the journey.

With any type of leadership, one of the most important things a tribe leader can do is listen- not only to those in the tribe but also to those who aren’t. One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt working within a diversity network is that properly listening to what members of the network (or tribe). I think one of the most important reasons why you should listen is that it will give you a great idea about how healthy your tribe is and that’s really important as a leader as it will give you an indication of what you need to do as a leader.

So, if your tribe is lively and ‘talkative’ then it’s generally a sign that they’re doing OK – the connections between tell tribe members are good and they’re building relationships (note that it’s important to hear what’s going on – they could be lively and talkative because they’re not getting support and are unhappy!)

If it’s quiet then it’s probably a sign that something’s not quite right – it could be that they don’t have a platform to communicate or that some key tribe members are missing. It could also mean that the tribe has run its course and isn’t needed – in either circumstance you probably need to be doing something it.

So – does thinking about tribes help us to improve our relationship with out networks? In some ways yes – it reminds us that we don’t have to lead by doing or lead by always being involved but that if we create the platform, share an idea and get people taking that we’ll on our way to leading a tribe!

The house that the DDA built

I realise that this is my second consecutive post about the DDA – I promise it’ll be the last for a while!

In my last post, I talked about whether we’ve seen any change since the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was enacted over 20 years ago. In the blog I touched on the three phases of change that we’ve seen within the disability agenda and wanted to write a further blog about these stages to provide more weight behind my argument that the third phase is, by far,the most important and impactful.

As a quick reminder the three phases are :

  1.  Legislation – a highly important but basic element to the change journey.
  2. Company disability confidence – the understanding of organisation that disability isn’t scary and that there is a huge talent pool
  3. Individual disability confidence and storytelling – the really juicy bit where disabled people stand up , are counted and show the world how amazing they are.

I’ve been pondering how to make the phases of change into an anology and I think I’m getting somewhere…bear with me…

The disability agenda journey is much like the building of a house.

House building is governed by a set of legislation and rules – planning laws. They set out what you should do and guides the general approach to house building. They generally don’t provide practical guidance. This is phase 1 of the journey – the legislation.

Once we’ve got the rules to follow we need to build a foundation for the house. They include the plumbing to make things work and will connect the build to the infrastructure that it’ll need to be a successful home. This is the second phase – companies putting the work in to understand how to support employees with disabilities.

Up to now we’ve done the basics. It doesn’t look very pretty and for most part is the same approach for all houses. Now comes the best bit. The design of the house.

Every house is unique in its own way – even those pumped out on new developments have differences. We can generally clump them together using different categories – detached house, flat, bungalow etc but they’re all going to look a little different and have their own strengths and personalities.

This is the third phase is the exciting phase where the house is designed and it’s personality is defined and then it’s built. This phase is where the potential is realised and built upon.

The third phase is the self actualisation and enablement phase where the stories of people with disabilities are curated and we enable the true abilities of people with a disability.

So there you have it – the house that the DDA built wasn’t made by the DDA it merely set the framework and rules that enabled its foundations to be laid and the true design and character to be built. The real beauty of the house – it’s ability and personality came once the foundations were laid.

I really hope this makes sense – it did in my head as I was writing it. I’d love to hear what you thought !

DDA- 20 years on- so what’s changed?

OK, so confession…My first blog is out of date. By several months. It’s also not an original. But it is one that I’m really happy with and think it sets the tone for the rest of what I hope this blog will become. So please, enjoy and tell me what you think. 

Note: Originally published for the InterLaw Diversity Forum’s Apollo Project : Architects of Meritocracy 2015.

November 8th 1995 is a very specific date in the passage of time, however for the disability agenda this date holds a lot of significance as it was on this day that the UK gained its first disability discrimination legislation – the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). As we drew closer to the 20th anniversary of this legislation earlier this year(2015), a large number of articles started to pop up looking back on whether the legislation had actually made a difference and has actually delivered what it was supposed to – to create a more equal society and protect people with disabilities.

20 years since the DDA was enacted has anything changed? The answer, of course, is yes but to what extent? I was only a nipper in 1995 (for reference I was 6), so to understand the impact of it I read a lot of the articles, stories and reflections marking the 20th anniversary.

What I discovered was that some things have changed – no longer are people in wheelchairs thrown out of cinemas or banned from cafes. Nightclubs, public transport and public services are increasingly accessible and the rights of millions of people are a legal must. Some of the biggest companies in the UK and around the world have recognised that accessibility isn’t just important but that it’s vital to their long term success – including Apple, Microsoft and many of the financial services organisations including Barclays, who I’m really proud to work for.

However, there are some things which definitely haven’t changed. The understanding and awareness of many is still significantly lacking. People with assistance dogs are still being asked to leave supermarkets and restaurants, shops and entertainment establishments are still not providing accessible entrances and the abuse of accessible car parking spaces goes on. The awareness of accessibility in the digital environment is also severely lacking leading to an ever increasing problem of access to information and online services. Without getting very political we continue to see a lack of understanding within government about the best way to support people with disabilities.

For those born post-DDA there has, very clearly, been a difference to their lives compared to those born before it came into law. Access to proper education, healthcare and accommodation are the expected norm as well as improved attitudes towards disability. For me though, the most important change has come from the business world who acted as one of the main catalysts for change in the early 90s, alongside the campaign groups.

Kate Nash OBE regularly talks about the three stages of change for disability confident organisations. The first was the establishment of the DDA (which I think we’ve covered!), the second stage is the process of businesses becoming disability confident through best practice tools, and the third is the empowerment of disabled employees to shape their own stories, so that organisations can really understand and invest in disabled employees’ talent, career and progression. Stage 2 continues but stage 3 has already begun.

Stage 3, for me, is the most powerful stage. Stage 1 is the hygiene factor – the roof over the heads of disabled employees. Stage 2 is the enablement of organisations to understand that people with disabilities can and should be employed in proper, meaningful work – it’s the stability factors. Stage 3 is about powerful self-actualisation, and enabling and empowering everyone to not only get in but get on and get up.

Stage 3 is also about developing disabled people and that’s where I think the real power comes. For too long, organisations have worked on the basis that it’s a one size fits all approach to development when actually, for most disabled employees, there’s a need for specific interventions. Organisations are increasingly leveraging the stories of disabled employees to increase awareness and understanding and to demonstrate their inclusive cultures. Of course, I’ll mention Barclays’ ‘This is me’ campaign but other great campaigns include Shell’s ‘Be Yourself’ and HSBC’s ‘Connect with Difference’ all of which demonstrate the value of diversity – and disability in particular.

Additionally, there’s a need to develop disability network leaders and ensure that they have the skills and opportunities to enable and develop disabled people within organisations. We’re beginning to see the change in this space too – a brand new community called PurpleSpace is leading the way. Led by Kate Nash as a result of her research into ‘disclosure’ and ‘declaration’ in the workplace, the community is the first of its kind – to support and develop network leaders to enable and promote the talents of disabled employees.

So… are we nearly there yet? Well, honestly, no. There’s still a long way to go to get to equality for people with disabilities. The ‘fight’ for equality continues but we’re making progress and I’m pleased to say that it’s the business world leading the fight. In the words of Lady Jane Campbell “Our liberation is only just beginning. There is so much more to achieve”.