In this episode, I spoke with Cheryl Iontton from Electricity North West about her work delivering the company’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and the benefits of getting regular coaching in her role.
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Speaker 1: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.
Toby Mildon: Hey there. Thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth Podcast. I'm Toby Mildon, and today I'm joined by Cheryl Iontton, who's a client of mine and Cheryl works for Electricity North West, which is based in the North West predominantly of the UK. And I've been working with Cheryl for several months now. I think we were tryna figure it out, doing one-to-one coaching with her. And prior to working with Cheryl, I also worked with other members of the HR team to have some input on the design and the development of the businesses inclusion and diversity strategy. But in this episode, we're gonna catch up with Cheryl and just talk about the coaching that we've done together. So Cheryl, thanks for joining me. Great to see you.
Cheryl Iontton: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
Toby Mildon: Cool. Cheryl, before we kind of get into the thick of the discussion, can you just give us a quick overview about what Electricity North West does and your role in the business?
Cheryl Iontton: Yeah, certainly. So Electricity North West, we distribute electricity. So if you imagine electricity is generated at your power stations, it's transmitted across the country through National Grid and we take it from National Grid and we distribute the electricity across the majority of the North West. We're responsible really for making sure everybody's lights are switched on in their home.
Toby Mildon: Yeah.
Cheryl Iontton: My role as an inclusion manager, as you know, Toby, you worked with us about a year and a half ago to help us look at what our D&I strategy looks like and help us formulate that. My role in its essence is about delivering that strategy. So helping the business keep focus on that strategy and delivering all those great initiatives that we've committed to in that strategy.
Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And it's worth checking out your strategy because it is publicly available on the web. So somebody can just google Electricity North West Inclusion strategy and I'm sure they can find it. It's a...
Cheryl Iontton: Absolutely.
Toby Mildon: It's a really good document and I actually use it as, in the training courses that I do, as an example of best practice for being able to visually communicate an inclusion strategy and making it publicly available as well, rather than just keeping it, keeping the cards close to chest as they say. So Cheryl, let's start with your own personal journey into the role of inclusion manager. 'Cause you've been in the role now for what, over a year now?
Cheryl Iontton: Yeah, about a year and a half now. Yeah.
Toby Mildon: So what was your journey into the role and what were you doing beforehand?
Cheryl Iontton: So my background, for I started as a, within diversity and inclusion has been learning and development. So for the last 17 years I've worked in the learning and development sphere and actually I came to Electricity North West to work on a project for learning development and that project ended up coming to a halt. And in the meantime, because I got some background of learning and development that the HR team got me working on a number of initiatives to help them out. And some of those were connected with a diversity and inclusion strategy. And I kind of fell into the role a little bit. It wasn't even a role that I was aware of really existed at the time. I started working on a number of initiatives and really got hooked into and really passionate about diversity and inclusion. Understanding all the work that's, that is there to do 'cause we've got some challenges that we are committed to within our strategy at Electricity North West. So lots of great work and initiatives for us to kind of get involved in and some real opportunity to make a difference.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. What was it like when you first entered the role having come from that learning and development background?
Cheryl Iontton: It was a really daunting experience actually when I first came into the role because it's not something that even though I've touched on and done some elements of equality training within my role as learning and development, it's not something I'd like a very deep level understanding of. So it was a bit daunting. And I think that the thing that made it daunting is feeling like I'm not a subject matter expert in this field and there's so much to learn and so much to understand because everybody's got that very unique lens of looking through the world and how can you possibly learn all this knowledge. I think that was the most daunting thing for me at the time entering this role. Is my own knowledge about challenges for different groups and understanding of different groups and cultures and everything like that.
Toby Mildon: Yeah. So how did you begin to overcome that feeling of, that dauntingness of being the subject matter expert in this field?
Cheryl Iontton: I think that is one of the benefits of us having coaching together because I remember it being one of our very early conversations about actually not necessarily needing to be that expert in everything all at once and actually take things as they come along. And actually it is very much a journey of continuous learning. So speak to the people who are subject matter experts and kind of learn from other people. So I think throughout our coaching sessions, I think it gave me the confidence that I didn't necessarily have to be the expert in everything, but what I did need to do is be open to speaking to lots of different people and understanding the world from their perspective.
Toby Mildon: Absolutely. And how do you feel that you've developed over the last year or so in the role compared to when you started?
Cheryl Iontton: Oh massively. I would suggest there's so much to learn, and I've said it quite many a times over this last year enough, every day is like a school day. Every day I learned something new. And I would say my, in, certainly within my last 20 years of my career, this, the last year and a half, I've had the most growth working in a diverse and inclusion kind of space. And that is about understanding different kind of aspects of diversity and inclusion and actually what that means to individuals. So yeah, I would say, massively in terms of knowledge and understanding of what the world's like from people, different people's experiences.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Having that kind of understanding of other people's lived experiences within the workplace.
Cheryl Iontton: Absolutely.
Toby Mildon: Yeah. What have you felt particularly challenging when trying to really affect change within, within an organization? 'Cause Electricity North West is, it's not a small business, so it is quite a challenge to have an impact. So what have you picked up?
Cheryl Iontton: I think there are a number of things quite challenging. I think communicating your strategy and getting people on board with the strategy and the why. So really selling that, the business case for why we really need to invest in diversity and inclusion has been a learning journey for everybody really, I don't think anybody's an expert in this, so understand being able to talk about the business, the strategy for why it's in inclusion and the benefits to the business to invest time in the diversity and inclusion space. One of the things that's helped me with that challenge is the data, is really kind of looking at the dynamics of our company, what the data tells us, because they're the facts really.
Cheryl Iontton: And that's kind of helped people understand the why do we need to put time, effort and focus into this space? And I think within Electricity North West, certainly now there is a really good understanding and appreciation for the benefits of investing in diversity and inclusion. I think the other thing as well is people being a bit worried or feeling a little bit threatened when you talk about diversity and inclusion, and I think you have to be careful not to disengage people as well, particularly when you've got like a large majority group, and how do you make them part of the journey too? So things like, how they can support in terms of allyship and just being open-minded to everybody has a different experience depending on what their starting point is.
Toby Mildon: Absolutely. Those are the points that I talk about quite a lot. It's about how do we take everybody on this journey? Because diversity can often feel like those people over there at arm's length. And actually diversity is about all of us. We are all diverse in one way or another. And it's about actually how do we create a more inclusive culture and environment that enables everybody to thrive? And that's really where equity comes in.
Cheryl Iontton: I think one of you... Coming back to your point about my biggest growth as well is understanding the value of my own contribution to diversity. I think when we think about diversity, sometimes it's very easy to think about the obvious things like age, gender, race, and actually, diversity is so much wider than that. And, I've looked back on my experiences and really appreciated how them experiences has helped shaped my way of thinking about things. But it's because I've had those diverse experiences. That's kind of helped me be able to contribute and add value into conversations, collaborations. So I think it's appreciating my own kind of, what I contribute towards diversity as well as something that I've learned this last year and a half.
Toby Mildon: Yeah. That's really good. I'd like to just go back to the point around the business case and the data that you were talking about, because one thing I'd like to encourage my clients to think about is, what is the unique reason why inclusion is important? Simon Sinek wrote a really great book called Start with Why, and he says, "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." And then I've kind of paraphrased it as, "People don't buy into what you do, they buy into why you do it." So if you want to get inclusion going in an organization, first of all, you have to connect to the why and also get the senior leadership team to connect with the why and then to create that vision and cascade that throughout the business. So for Electricity North West, what is your why behind inclusion and diversity?
Cheryl Iontton: So, the why, and again, it comes from the data. What, why we need to invest. We recognize that we have got some gaps in our diversity when, we're not a company that it currently is reflective of the community we serve. So actually how does our data compare to the data of the North West? And we know that there are some gaps. We don't fully understand why those gaps are there, but we know that they are there. So regardless of why we are where we're at, it's important to look forward and think, right, okay, how do we now kind of bridge those gaps? But the data helped us understand that actually if our strategy is to become reflective of the communities that we serve, the data suggests that there are some areas where we're not reflective of the community that we serve.
Toby Mildon: Absolutely. And I think what's quite unique about Electricity North West is that you are a regional business, your kind of services are very much kind of based on the North West of the UK. So it is quite easy for us to get data from the government about what does the North West of the country look like or what's the diversity of that country and how does the business stack up against that demographics. The other thing is you are in a line of business where everybody consumes your service really. So if you work in an office or you've got a house or a flat and you put the [0:13:56.5] ____ curtain on, or you turn on the oven or you turn on the lights at night, they're going to be using your services whether they like it or not. [chuckle]
Cheryl Iontton: Yeah, absolutely. We touch everybody.
Toby Mildon: Exactly. And I think it's a bit like when I worked at the BBC, BBC is a universal public service funded through the license fee. So therefore it's really important that everybody is reflected in the content that the BBC produces. So in a way, it's quite a straightforward business case.
Cheryl Iontton: Definitely. But starting with that data really helped us understand kind of do that analysis on what are the gaps that we've got in diversity and like you say, we serve practically every person within the North West, so it's important that we are reflective of our customers and the people we serve in the North West.
Toby Mildon: What would you say is the risk to the business if it doesn't reflect the community it's serving or helping supply electricity to?
Cheryl Iontton: I think the risks are, is not really understanding everybody's needs within our customers base. You know what I mean? Because like, if we've not got diversity of representation of thought, then we are gonna be thinking quite single-mindedly in how we approach things. So us having diversity of a good representation of people from our communities means that we're better placed to be able to thinking about what we do from a number of different perspectives. So without that diversity, we've got the risk of leaving somebody behind or somebody out. No company wants to be leaving anybody behind, and chance is that like it wouldn't be an intentional thing, it would just be a lack of, don't add the knowledge or thought from that perspective. So it's really important that we do have that diversity within our business.
Toby Mildon: Absolutely.
Speaker 4: If your company has a great diversity and inclusion strategy, if your organization has an amazing work culture where productivity is peaking, if the best talent in your industry are working for you, if all your employees are happy and feel included, then feel free to skip this message for about 30 seconds and continue listening to the podcast interview with Toby. But if you feel that your company is lacking in any one of these areas, your employer reputation is taking a hit. Toby Mildon is one of the UK's leading diversity and inclusion experts who has helped top companies like Deloitte, the BBC, Sony Pictures, and Centrica, as well as numerous scale of businesses who want an outstanding inclusive culture. To go further in your diversity and inclusion journey, log on to Toby's webinar at www.mildon.co.uk/free-webinar to accelerate your company's diversity and inclusion strategy in 40 minutes. Thanks for listening. And now back to the podcast interview with Toby.
Toby Mildon: See we've done some coaching together over the last few months. How do you feel coaching has helped you in your role in the first sort of 12 months or so, given that you did come from a learning and development background?
Cheryl Iontton: Oh, massive. I mean, I'm a big fan of coaching anyway, but for me, it just gives you that space to think externally. In this role it can be a very lonely place sometimes because I'm the only person in a diversity and inclusion role at Electricity North West. It's one of those roles where you do tend to work in isolation. It's not like a team-based role. So I think it's really important to have a space where you can connect with other people in the business, whether that's through coaching or networking, and really have that opportunity for some external thinking for you to think and hear yourself out loud and be challenged as well on your thought process, to say, every day's a learning day for me. And it's really useful to have the challenges that you throw into our conversations to really get my thinking, to be thinking a bit more lateral sometimes and a little bit wider. And like I said, particularly in this role where it can be a little bit isolating. And having that external team and those external connections is really useful.
Toby Mildon: Yeah. I hear that quite often from clients about how isolating an inclusion and diversity role can feel sometimes. Why do you think that's the case? Because you're not the first person to have said that to me.
Cheryl Iontton: I think, one, you are working by yourself a lot of the time. You can be in a team and within a team environment, but still feel, I think, isolated because you are the only person doing that role. But I also think that this is the role where you are responsible for implementing and landing a lot of change. And as you know, when you try and progress change, sometimes it can feel like an uphill struggle sometimes, I think especially when there's lots of other change going on the business at the same time. So, it can be quite kind of tiring in terms of stakeholder management, making sure that everybody's on the same page with the change that you're looking to implement and having that resource and support as well because, you tend to beg, borrow and steal a lot of resource, but a lot of people volunteer the support and help. I think that that's why it can feel quite a difficult, isolated. Well, I read somewhere the other day about characteristics required by somebody in a diversity and inclusion role. And I think what you said is that you've got to have some good grit, you've gotta have some good staying power?
Toby Mildon: Yeah.
Cheryl Iontton: Yeah. About that resilience. Yeah.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, definitely. 'Cause sometimes you need that resiliency because sometimes you are not always pushing on an open door, with your senior leadership team who you really need on your side. It might appear that you're pushing on an open door, but they're just paying lip service to it. And they're nodding along and saying all the right words, but they're not really walking the talk that I come across that quite often. And it can be quite an emotionally draining job as well. I think, having difficult conversations with people at times. And also, I think once your eyes have been opened to problems that we've got in society, so, inequalities and racism and homophobia and things like that, you just become more aware of that stuff because you activate...
Toby Mildon: I remember when I did my neurolinguistic programming training, we were talking about activating your reticular activating system. So once you become aware of something, you just can't stop seeing it. So it's like when you buy a car and you're thinking of buying a red car, it's like suddenly you notice red cars everywhere. Whereas before you hardly ever spotted a red car. But now we've activated our reticular activating system. You start to see all of the inequalities in society.
Cheryl Iontton: I also think as well the reason... What can be challenging in this role is because it's a real... What I've found is it's a subject that really people have great enthusiasm for talking about, but people have got different viewpoints on different things. And I think not just in work, those conversations in work, but having those conversations as well that filter into life outside work. So sometimes it can feel quite tiring, even if you are out with a few friends and then a conversation comes up about diversity and inclusion. And actually you are looked at because people consider you to be the subject matter expert in this role. 'Cause you've got the title of an inclusion manager. But I do think as well, navigating lots of different viewpoints and kinda can be quite tiring, especially when it's outside working hours. [laughter] It's... You feel like you live and breathe it quite a lot of your time.
Toby Mildon: Yeah. So how have you managed to build up your own resiliency?
Cheryl Iontton: In terms of building up my resiliency, I think having a plan, having structure really works for me and having a good structured approach to things. And actually, when I feel like maybe, I am knocking on a bit of a closed door looking for who can support me to open that door as well, and making sure that I've got them points of support. So it may be exec sponsor that may be able to help or it may be our HR director that can help, with those things. So, that's really useful in terms of my resiliency. And I suppose there's also that things about not taking things personally because if there is a challenge back on things, it's generally because, people don't understand or they don't understand the benefits. So they're missing some information as to kind be able to make a decision in the right direction.
Cheryl Iontton: So it's understanding what information are they missing, how can I support them with bridging this gap? That's a big part. And in terms of my own self-care as well, because, we were talking about this before, not everybody's gonna be on the same page with diversity and inclusion. And I only really tend to particularly outside work engaging conversations where I feel like there's some impact to be made here. If you are speaking to somebody and you feel like that's such a fixed mindset, no matter what I say or do is not gonna change that mindset then, I choose which conversations to be part of and which conversations not to be part of. But if I think there's any opportunity to help influence or help somebody develop their mindset, then absolutely. They're great conversations to have.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. Brilliant. So, now that we've done a few months of coaching, what's next in store for you over the next year or two and how do you think coaching has helped you prepare for the next few months?
Cheryl Iontton: Well, we've got a five year diversity and inclusion plan, so, I hope I'm fortunate enough to see that five year plan through at Electricity North West and that's great having the strategy because it really gives you a roadmap of what's coming next down the line. I think, I wouldn't consider myself to be an expert in diversity and inclusion and I think there will be...
Cheryl Iontton: Having that opportunity to have ongoing coaching, even if it might not be on a monthly basis. But we've talked, haven't we, about having a quarterly opportunity. But knowing that you've got that opportunity to bring things to the table and to talk through your thinking and be able to have those conversations is part of my strategy moving forward. For me, coaching is an ongoing process and no matter who you are and what level of expertise that you've got, coaching is always something that can still bring value to you.
Toby Mildon: Definitely. And what I like about coaching is because the premise is that it's about you and that you have the answers within you already but the coach is there as a facilitator to try and get those answers out of you because we get so caught up in the daily grind of our day-to-day work that sometimes we just don't have that luxury of stopping, pausing, breathing, reflecting, and then trying to bring some of this stuff up to the surface.
Cheryl Iontton: Yeah, absolutely. And I do think there are times, like if I'm having a development day, so it might be if I'm having coaching with you or even attending an external network event and it's out of the office. It's in their moments that you think actually, I don't give my brain enough opportunity to just sit and absorb and process. And I think they're so beneficial and I understand why people put them to the bottom of the pile because especially if you're working in a very reactive business, it's something that we should all get a bit more practiced at prioritizing.
Toby Mildon: Yeah. If the person listening to us right now wants to go and get a coach for themselves, particularly around diversity and inclusion, 'cause that's obviously that's what you and I specialize in. What would you suggest as like the top two qualities that they look for in a coach?
Cheryl Iontton: I would say, it has to be someone who you feel comfortable in talking to first start. You've got to be able to feel somebody who can create an environment where you feel safe to share what's going off in your mindset without any fear of judgment. You can be open in that space and even though what you are saying might not be wrapped up in the right language or that might be something that you think, I should really know this answer. That you can just have that freedom to land anything without fear of judgment. And I would also say, look for somebody who is gonna challenge you. Look for somebody that actually can present you back with challenges in a constructive way. Because otherwise then it's just a counseling session.
Toby Mildon: Yeah.
Cheryl Iontton: You know what I mean? Coaching is there for me to help you shape your thinking and you need to be thinking about things outside your own mind capabilities. So challenge is good.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. And I talk to lots of people who want to move into a diversity and inclusion role quite often. They came from a similar place as you actually working in learning and development function or working as a HR business partner and then want to become a diversity specialist. What would your advice be to somebody who wants to make that career switch like you did?
Cheryl Iontton: I would say, mine wasn't a very well thought out process but if I had the chance to think about that more constructively, I would say if that is what you are looking to do, maybe look within the organization that you are working in currently 'cause the roles might not be there right now for you to walk into or you might not have seen something I've asked, but look within your own company about how you can get involved in diverse and inclusion activity. Whether it may be being part of a employee network group or looking at opportunities where you can maybe work alongside whoever's your diverse and inclusion manager and lend some support to them. Or even looking within your own team space or your own director, putting your hand up as a champion, a diverse and inclusion champion within your own four walls if you like, anything that's going to really expose you to this line of work. And if that opportunity's not there within your company at the minute, then look at your external network. Connecting with companies like Inclusive employers, D&I leaders are all great companies that help you, they've got lots of resources there and for you to actually get involved in and research or be part of webinars, be part of conferences, all that things that you can do as extra personal development.
Toby Mildon: Exactly. And I would add that there's often industry specific forums as well. Within the technology industry there's the technology talent charter, it's worth checking them out within the energy market. There's... You've got powerful women, haven't you, for example. Again, there's these kind of different industry specific forums that a bit of quick Googling can quickly identify and it's worth getting involved in those activities as well.
Cheryl Iontton: Yeah, absolutely.
Toby Mildon: Cool. Well Cheryl, thanks ever so much for taking time out of your busy day to catch up with me. I'm really pleased that the coaching that we've done together has been beneficial and helped you in your role and Electricity North West are doing some really great things and as I said at the beginning of this podcast, I often hold up the Electricity North West strategy as an example of a great way of communicating and presenting the strategy and how it's structured as well. If you are listening to us right now and you want to have a look at what that looks like just to have a quick Google Electricity North West diversity and inclusion strategy and you can get that online. Cheryl, thanks ever so much for joining me. Great to catch up with you.
Cheryl Iontton: You're welcome. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Toby Mildon: You're welcome. And thank you for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Podcast with Cheryl and myself. Hopefully you've learned some things along the way and taken away some interesting hints and tips that you can use in your own role. Maybe you are even thinking about moving into a diversity and inclusion job. Maybe you like Cheryl, you are working in learning and development right now. You are a HR business partner and you're looking to make a career switch. If you are, then it is a great job to be getting into and me and my team are here to support you. If that's something that you want to do, just feel free to just reach out to us through our website. Until then, I'll see you on the next episode of the podcast, which will be coming up very soon. Bye.
Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website @mildon.co.uk.
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