Sitting in a big Office. Four of us. One very senior leader, two of their direct reports, and myself.
I’ve designed a seriously kickass Talent process. Bringing genuine merit right to the fore. We had metrics on performance, going back years, measurement of potential, around all the things that matter most, 360o feedback, and awesome comparative analysis. There I am, feeling just a tiny bit smug about the quality of the work my team and I have delivered.
We start the conversation – Who’s best placed and most capable to be an Executive of the future? I fold out the pages of information – comparative grids, individual assessments, personal development plans, aggregate data from multiple leadership development programs, and even a summary of each person’s impact on direct reports over time. Looking good. It’s an awesome foundation to fairly debate the best and brightest of this serious organisation.
At stake is the future. After all, who you place on the big tables determines the strategy and plans that define the working future of thousands of employees and the day-to-day treatment of countless customers. In return, they’re paid handsomely and live well, with a daily opportunity to make a difference.
We’re now twenty minutes in. As the Talent person, I stay true to my neutral philosophy. Present every person in the best possible light, while always being absolutely honest. Bring as much information as you can to the conversation without having favourites or bias. That said, at the twenty minute mark, we’re discussing a really exceptional person that I do like a lot. Hardworking, smart, friendly, honest, decent, treats everyone well, leads FOR people not for themselves. I maintain a neutral face.
An Unexpected Turn
Then the conversation takes an unexpected turn. We’re talking ‘gaps’ – areas we’ll need to develop and keep an eye on. My pen is poised. This is my area – fill the gaps and give the organisation the best possible and broadest talent pool for the future.
“Well, you know where they grew up, don’t you?”, the Director asks the Senior Leader.
“No”, they don’t.
“Wollongong”, my heart stops beating and I dare not look up, “and not just Wollongong, but (names a suburb). It’s the worst”, they continue, almost laughing. “Let me put this way, they are not ‘our people’”, the Director nods knowingly to the Senior Leader.
Wollongong is my hometown. I grew up on the posh side of Wollongong, in Mount Ousley, but I know the other suburb well. Used to play netball there every Saturday. It’s green and not far from the beach, but it does have a lot of fibro homes, remnants of its history as a working-class suburb – Housing Commission homes. We knew growing up it was a tougher part of town, but we all had heaps for friends who lived, grew up there, or went there to see their Nanna and Pop on weekends.
I glanced – a sideways dart type glance – at my boss. As a person who espoused diversity, surely this had crossed the line. They looked intently on the speaker, nodding earnestly, as if the critique was technical and valid and technically valid. I wondered whether they knew I was from Wollongong. If so, surely they would know this had just got personal.
The Director continued on with their commentary. “How on earth she got this far, I don’t know. Good on her. You can still hear it her speech sometimes, the things she talks about, but she’s done so well. She just doesn’t speak our language or know our world”.
‘Their People’ vs. ‘My People’
And, with that, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
I wasn’t ‘their people’ either.
I finished the meeting, kept my head and didn’t break mask. But I walked out knowing everything had changed.
Up until that point, I designed systems to bring merit to the fore, to make opportunities possible and fair. In that conversation, I knew I’d not only failed to this point but more so that I would always fail. Because nothing I could design would impact the hearts of ‘these people’. I didn’t even know their language. Hell, before that day, I didn’t even know they had one.
Quite sometime later, when I’d resigned and was leaving, I put in my farewell speech “For a kid from Wollongong, albeit the posh side of Wollongong, being here amongst you has been such a privilege….” And I glanced at that girl from that suburb, and she smiled and winked. And I glanced at the Senior Leader from that day and saw the tiniest flicker in their eye. They had a big brain and I knew they remembered the conversation. They knew I’d seen inside their sanctum. Heard what ‘my people’ were not supposed to hear.
I also learned a much more important lesson. From that moment, I understood that ‘merit’ and fairness starts in our hearts and that’s where our work would always need to begin.
That day in that room was a long time ago, but the feeling has stayed with me. Always will. Having worked all over the world, it was the first time I’d ever ‘felt’ I didn’t belong.
When people ask me what’s most important in creating belonging and inclusion, I always say ‘hearts’. Anyone can intellectualise clever models, or articulate a lovely policy, but before you think or talk, you ‘feel’ inclusion.
Its starts when ALL people are not “yours” or “mine”, but “us”.