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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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”.