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Diversity and Inclusion

Building inclusion starts with empathy

How often do you interact with people that are completely different to you?


Stepping into someone else’s shoes can be an eye-opening and powerful exercise to help you to see how people relate to you when you’re out of your perceived comfort zone.


In the latest episode of the Inclusion Works podcast Fiona Young, Head of Diversity and Inclusion Practice at Hive Learning, spoke to Sereena Abbassi, Worldwide head of culture and inclusion at M&C Saatchi.


Sereena is also the founder of ‘All Here’ – a social enterprise that connects individuals, brands and agencies; supporting them to think more critically about the world and the work that they create.


Here’s a preview of what Sereena had to say…


Can you give us a quick overview of what you’re trying to achieve at M&C Saatchi?

Sereena Abbassi: Essentially, I’m trying to get people just to connect to each other. It’s all about connection and togetherness, and the way that I’m helping to cultivate that is by people sharing a part of themselves or all of themselves.


You know, we live in a very heady, cerebral world, and I think we’re very well versed. We know how to connect with people by thinking, but we don’t really know how to connect with people by feeling. The work that I do at M&C Saatchi is all about feeling, so I try to use the arts as much as possible to kind of create that sense of togetherness through feeling.


Can you tell us a bit more about the social enterprise All Here that you founded? What is it and how did it lay the foundation for your career in diversity and inclusion?

Sereena Abbassi: Having just got back from the US, and just really starting to critique the UK, it became really apparent to me that public transport is quite segregated here in some ways. And when I’m saying segregated I’m not just talking racially, I’m also talking about economically. You know, you get on the tube in the morning, and actually who is present on the tube… I think 44% of London is made up of minority ethnics, and you don’t really see that representation on the tube. You see it on buses, however.

So, it got me thinking how actually in so many spaces within such a multicultural city such as London, we’re still not next to each other, we’re still not connected. And then we’ll go into work, and at Saatchi we’re fully aware of this, and actually this is no different to most advertising offices. We don’t really represent the 44% minority ethnics within London, and something that I really believe in and which kind of lead me to All Here is that we need to start interacting with the local community. All industry needs to start actually representing the people that they’re supposed to be serving.


So, at M&C Saatchi, how do you make sure the messages you’re putting out on a global stage are really culturally relevant and also appropriate and reflect local nuances?

Sereena Abbassi: Yeah, that’s a really great question. In regards to making sure we really work globally – we work in 27 different regions – because of that, there’s a great opportunity for us to actually tap into local markets. Everything that we do here is very much grounded in a lot of research. We’ve got an incredible research team that collaborate with other offices – so if London wins a bit of business in say Australia, we’ll then collaborate with the Australian offices there. So, there really is an emphasis on locality, which is great.


And what do you think, just generally, about the current state of inclusion in advertising?

Sereena Abbassi: Yeah, the current state of inclusion in advertising, as you know, is not great. But, I would say that would be the case for most industries. Whatever happens within these walls is very much the case outside. These are the standard issues. So the injustice or lack of representation that we see within M&C Saatchi, for instance, or within our industry more broadly, are also issues that we see within government and in other industries.


So, we’re on the journey and we’re aware that we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we fully embrace that and I think my appointment is the proof in the pudding there, that I’ve got a great budget, I’ve been given complete autonomy, basically they respect that I am the expert, and I have autonomy to do what I feel is best for our organisation, which is wonderful.


We’ve got lots of different programs which we’re rolling out, to get great representation of women, great representation of black, Asian minority ethnics, great representation of people with disability, and people from different economic backgrounds. As you probably know, our industry is very middle class – upper class, actually – and we definitely need diversity in a broader sense, present within our walls.


Going back to what you said about inclusion and belonging really being about helping people connect to each other by feeling. Can you share with us perhaps one simple thing that anyone could do in their workplace tomorrow to build inclusion?

Sereena Abbassi: Absolutely. I think it’s about interacting with people that you wouldn’t usually interact with. If you are an account manager, if you are a CEO, how do you take the time in your kind of working day to interact with someone that’s completely different? Do you know the names of your reception team downstairs? Do you know the names of the operational team that we have? The HR team? You have to have willingness to engage with people that you’ve never engaged with.


That’s a really simple thing to do. Engage – ask your head receptionist or one of your receptionists how they’re going to be spending their weekend. Make sure that you know all of their names. I think it’s about humanizing people. I think, far too often within the corporate world, we dehumanize people without even realizing we’ve dehumanized them, and I think that’s a really easy exercise.


A really simple exercise that one of our competitors did was to get all their C-suite to sit in the receptionist’s chair for part of the day. Obviously that was just a one off, but I thought that was a really really powerful exercise, just to know how people relate to you when you are from a path, and the rubbish, perhaps, that you might need to put up with.


It’s about stepping into each others’ shoes – that’s the only way that you can actually cultivate empathy. It’s about me being willing to actually step into the shoes of you, for instance, and actually seeing and acknowledging, realizing your experience.

Catch up with more Inclusion Works podcasts

To listen to the full interview, including an exclusive insight from Sereena on advertising’s potential to change societies worldwide, download the Inclusion Works podcast in your favourite podcast app or click below.

Click here for more interviews

Fiona Young (she/her)

Having previously led Learning and Development for 3,000 people at Europe’s leading venture builder, Blenheim Chalcot, Fiona knows a thing or two about how to build high performance culture. As Content Director at Hive Learning, Fiona pioneered the organisation's leading guided content programmes which are designed to turn learning into action. Most recently, Fiona led the inception, development and delivery of Inclusion Works by Hive Learning - the world’s first diversity and inclusion programme focused on turning unconscious bias into conscious action - created from over 1,000 leading sources.