Diversity and Inclusion
An Exclusive Interview with Denise McQuaid, Customer and Innovation Director at Connor HR Consultancy
We’re all trying to build a more inclusive workforce, but ‘minority labels’ can be dangerous if they’re not used in the right way. To truly build an inclusive culture, we need to stop making assumptions about people because of their label. We all think differently, and harnessing the power of our neurodiversity often means giving everyone the right to offend.
In this interview, we spoke with Denise McQuaid, Customer and Innovation Director at Connor HR Consultancy, about inclusion, the courage to be vulnerable in the workplace, and how to build bridges around the D&I agenda.
In this interview, you’ll discover:
FIONA: Our guest today is Denise McQuaid who over the last 20 years has helped companies around the world deliver transformational change. She is currently customer and innovation director at Connor Consultancy working with organizations to undergo transformational change centered around their people agenda. Connor is a people and change consultancy that supports businesses to evolve and thrive. And Denise describes herself as having a massive sense of curiosity about people, places, culture and technology. Welcome Denise.
DENISE: Thank you. Thank you for having me Fiona, it’s lovely to be here.
FIONA: Likewise. So can you start by just giving us a quick overview of the work you’ve been doing lately and what you’re trying to achieve.
DENISE: Yes. So I have recently joined Connor Consultancy as you’ve mentioned as a customer and innovation director which is a very exciting time for me to join a professional services organization with a very strong focus on the customer and the challenges that they face particularly in the ever-evolving world of the workplace at the moment but also looking at the innovation agenda around people and talent and I think Connor have been at the forefront for the last 25 years of making and supporting organizations to evolve and thrive but I think we’re embarking on a very exciting time now, when everyone’s talking about the future of work, high technology is impacting the workplace. What behavioral analysis is. What social networking analysis is in terms of the people and I’m hopefully going to be able to support companies to do that and to embrace the change.
FIONA: Brilliant. So today I’ll be talking a little bit more with Denise about her experiences as well with Inclusion and the work she’s been doing to drive Inclusiveness in her career but first before we jump into all that I want to ask you something which we ask all of our guests at Inclusion Works. Could you tell us what personal experiences made you aware of inclusion and diversity issues and kind of led to your passion in this area?
DENISE: It actually happens in two stages. Back in 2006 I was promoted internally into my first managing director role and I thought it was would be an easy transition. I was running the design editorial on production side of a publishing company and I didn’t really anticipate that there would be too many challenges stepping up into an MD role taking on the sales and finance function as well. I soon realized quite quickly that I had a certain level of imposter syndrome in taking the position, but I soon also realized the importance of role models and because I had become quite a significant role model for a lot of my team. In being in an internal promotion from stepping up and moving into that role and I suppose for me it was about the research that I started to undertake to find a role model or a mentor or somebody who could help guide me in my 12 months as a very young and inexperienced managing director. I realized there wasn’t that many, so that was kind of the first point. The second I would say was when I took myself to China for a position to run a business in China and being a woman in his senior level in Asia made me feel like I’d taken a step back to the to 2006 despite the fact that it was 2010 and it was a much further arm. For me realizing where women’s place in Chinese culture and Chinese business was a frightening awareness of the journey that women have to go through. I had come from, obviously a Western environment for the last number of years having lived in Boston and the US and then you move into China and you realize the agenda so far done in terms of priority. So they were the two that probably were the catalyst for me to take it on as a personal agenda as well as one within a business context.
FIONA: And then I know that you made waves in the kind of D&I world actually with a really candid article you published about the choice to not have kids and all the kind of assumption and judgment from others that came along with that. Could you share the whole story with us?
DENISE: So this is an interesting journey that I’ve been on. I made the decision very early that I didn’t want to have a family but I suppose it only came into heightened awareness when people were making decisions about my career based on the fact that I may be on maternity leave in 18 months’ time and I suppose I hit a certain age, so there was a certain highlight and spotlight on it. One of the things that was really important to me was when I lost my dad a number of years ago and it was the judgment that he would never get to see the children I would have and I hadn’t expected that to be part of my process or my journey in the initial months where people felt sorry for me. I’m actually sorry for him. I thought it was a really interesting perspective that I hadn’t looked at before. I had spoken to my parents on this journey. I think my dad was okay with the fact that I had made it in a very rational mindset and I think my mom challenged me a little bit because I think she knew having run her own business that there may be some preconceptions embedded in the world of work. She had challenged me and to make sure that I was making the right decision, but they were both incredibly supportive and it was from a very you know late twenties early thirties stage in my career. So I didn’t realize how reactive the worlds of work would be to this decision and I think post my dad passing away it was a real catalyst for me because I was at that inflection point again in my career and my personal life and people were assuming that I couldn’t be on a fast track or a high potential growth journey within an organization because we’re making the assumption that she’ll have children in a number of weeks or months. So it was a an interesting time. The reaction to the blog was quite significant and I had a lot of support in terms of it being a decision and people understanding that, but I felt I needed to write a blog for a number of reasons. Firstly, we’re talking about the gender pay gap. We’re talking about women in senior roles. We’re talking about inclusion in the workplace and where there is a very strong bias and unconscious bias in a lot of organizations towards the agenda. I felt I needed to put it out there so that other companies wouldn’t actually make assumptions and the reaction was pretty powerful.
FIONA: Yes, that is awesome. I love that story and it just continually amazes me how such a personal decision is brought into the professional sphere without really any questioning of why we should be judging people or their capabilities or their future progression on this stuff. Just amazing.
DENISE: I think you know for me I’ve had a lot of friends go through a very difficult time to have their family and have had career decisions taken away for them or assumptions made in their own personal journey. I wanted to highlight the fact that we have a choice in this. Some people choose to embark on incredibly arduous Mount Everest climbs to have their family and then some people just make the decision that they just don’t want to be. In making that decision I think some of the interesting reaction to that they people assume I don’t have a maternal instinct and I would refute that. I think I’m a pretty maternal person and I’m definitely a maternal leader. I think people make the assumption that you know you’re cold or that you that you don’t actually have a caring bone in your leadership style because you’ve made that decision. So it’s quite a quite a fascinating journey and one that I struggle for employer is because they have an unconscious bias around but they’re obviously also not in a position to ask their female talent if it is a choice for them or are they going to be going on maternity leave in 12 to 18 months and what the impact of that is to the organization.
FIONA: There’s a lot of assumptions going on, right.
FIONA: For my view this sort of judgment is just another flavor of stereotyping. Obviously, that’s dangerous because it puts all women in a box and also then tells us it’s you’re less of a woman, right. If you’re not fitting into that stereotype and it’s a classic double bind because on the flip side you know if you are having kids, the data shows that you will pay for it. In the UK certainly the gender pay gap data shows that the pay gap starts at the age of 40 and that’s largely the driver is you know having children and maybe leaving the workforce and those sorts of things. So I guess this is a really really big question. So I don’t know if you can answer it fully but I’m curious to know in your view what’s the answer here. How can we shift these really outdated, outmoded norms about womanhood about motherhood in the workplace?
DENISE: Yes, I think a lot of the journey is underway. You know we fight for women’s right for education for a long time. We fought for a place at the boardroom for a long time and we fought most recently in the last number of years for women’s right to be in traditionally male-dominated industries and we see that in some of the brilliant CEOs that are leading traditionally male-dominated industries today. These are acceptable you know causes that were being very very open and mindful of but the choice to have a family and not have a family is not one that businesses are being mindful of and it’s a decision you know I didn’t anticipate that these acceptable causes and then one that so personal could have such a magnitude of difference in the world of work. So to answer the question I think you pay for it in different ways. So having children you pay for it in one sense and the gender pay gap legislation has obviously highlighted that and they’re reporting for a lot of organizations but you pay for it in another way when businesses aren’t in a position to ask you about this because in lots of points and inflections in my career and particularly when I was in Asia working for a very very progressive organization. My promotion was probably questioned a little as to whether I could go on and do a bigger and bigger and more strategic role in Asia because from their point of view I am wise, I am without children. I have so many labels associated with me that I think people possibly struggle a little. So to answer your question Fiona I think
If you look at the work I do currently with a lot of company boards who are looking at their talent pipeline and looking at somebody like me in my early 40s and they assume that they can’t put me into a high potential pot because I’m going on maternity leave. So the legislation doesn’t legislate for decisions and choices unfortunately, but I’ve spoken to lots of women of where this has affected their choices as we strive to promote more women to the board and as we as we strive to get more people into senior leadership, you know positions. Businesses need to stop making assumptions about their talent and really need to be focused on building bridges around the D&I agenda.
FIONA: I think you’ve spoken before about you know needing to be quite flexible in the approach, right. Not taking a sort of one-size-fits-all approach to these sorts of talent practices in the business. I know that for instance in recruitment processes and in pay negotiation, pay decisions are just some areas where you know bias oftentimes seeps in as well. What are your top tips for leaders to sidestep their bias through those practices?
DENISE: That’s really interesting question. So for me the D&I agenda and yes it’s one that I believe that we are striving to build inclusive workforces but I sometimes struggle with putting it people into pots and labeling them. So, I could be female, and I could have a disability and I could be gay. So I hit a number of the D&I strands and I hit a number of the quotas that were putting into businesses today or that has been driven by society to put into businesses today and I think labeling can be very dangerous and quotas can be very dangerous, if not used in the correct manner within the organization. For me the D&I agenda should really focus on divergent perspectives within organizations and one where I am becoming a very strong advocate for neurodiversity in the workplace and that is a label or a pass that I do believe in because I don’t believe we can get to a truly inclusive workplace without being aware of the neurodiversity agenda because I’m sure there are employers that have already hired neurodiverse talent and we definitely as organizations have neurodiverse customers. We need to be able to be moving forward to bring a very divergent perspective to the workplace in order to address the D&I agenda, not just labels and quotas.
FIONA: So you mentioned as part of that you know that labeling is dangerous. I know that from my perspective certainly that some people come up feeling like they’re you know on the wrong side of diversity, right. Could you speak a bit about how labeling can be problematic in that way?
DENISE: Absolutely. I think for me I see it in the work that I do currently, and I see it in the talents that I talk to. I talk to I do a lot of mentoring coaching of young women particularly in the early stages of their career and looking at organizations, they want to know that they have a D&I agenda. They want to know that if they’re gay or if they have an accessibility issue or a disability issue that that employer is inclusive, but sometimes it feels that they’re putting a tick box exercise in place to make them more attractive in the workplace and it’s actually quite a facade to the reality that’s in the organization. So if for me I think there is an importance for organizations to be very open and transparent around their D&I and if they don’t have an accessibility agenda, please don’t say you do. So it’s not a necessarily a black tick against you if you’re not addressing all of the paths or the labels or the pieces of the jigsaw in the D&I agenda, but be open and transparent about it and I think it’s really for organizations to understand that actually talent just want to be in a safe place where they can truly be themselves and you know that
So everybody should for me in the workplace be coming to work for an organization where they are respected and they are equally valid in terms of their opinion and that for me is what true inclusion means.
FIONA: And to your point about the labels, I think what you’re getting at through that is that tokenism right, is a risk here that if we are trying to tick this box and say okay yes we are really we never try to hire people from different backgrounds in all that sort of thing that actually you run the risk of having people feel as though they’re there just to tick a box as well, which isn’t great for anyone involved right, that authenticity is key.
DENISE: It is and I think the authenticity piece is a real struggle for some CEOs and leaders within businesses because at the moment I mean I had a conversation with a CEO of a FTSE 250 company last week and he said to me Denise I’m not gay and I’m not a woman and I’m not disabled and I don’t have an accessibility issue but my HR and learning and development people and my talent management team are pushing me to have a position on this and he said how can I have a position when I have no understanding. For me that was really quite a transformational reflection for himself and a level of self-awareness for him and I went we’ll just go out and say that you know to the talent that you have within your organization be authentic, be yourself and say you’re working to understand and appreciate and that you don’t struggle with any of these elements within your own life but you’re learning. To me the authenticity against that was quite powerful.
FIONA: Yes. Absolutely. Just coming out and saying you’re recognizing. You’ve had some advantages, right? And that kind of I’m sure leads down the road of really starting to map your privilege and all that great stuff which you know as I am myself sitting here as a [Unintelligible] white woman, pretty privileged too. Like I’ve done that exercise and like I get it like it is hard to walk a mile in someone’s shoes but as you say the authenticity of being vulnerable and saying that is the first step.
DENISE: Totally, because his question to me was, “Can you teach me that? Can you coach me in that?” And I said, “No” I can’t teach you authenticity. That’s something that comes from within. I can help you on the journey with your team and your board to change your mindset and behavior around the D&I agenda and I can certainly do that, but I can’t teach you authenticity.
FIONA: It’s powerful to ask that question, right? So just to go back to another thing you said earlier talking a little bit about how you know in businesses sometimes you can’t have an agenda for all these various different demographics for instance and
So meaning they cut across demographics, really benefit everyone, whilst also designing quite targeted initiatives which are also needed and by definition are going to be exclusive for instance like on the parenting stuff, child care supplements for parents which obviously are not going to benefit people who don’t have children. So what is your view on this? Should we be doing both? Is there is it problematic having quite exclusive and targeted initiatives?
DENISE: No, I don’t think it’s problematic but I just I get frustrated with companies who pay lip service to this. I absolutely think we cannot take our foot off the pedal in any of the agendas and I feel really really as I said quite passionately about neurodiversity, accessibility, disability not only the female piece because obviously I was exposed to the female piece so early on in my career that the world is moving on and in order there are female people with disability too and accessibility issues and we need to be building roadmaps and frameworks for organizations to be able to see this and not put one label in one box and one path. For me it’s really interesting. My colleague Julia has just been working quite significantly on a very high profiled returners to work program and she came to me to have a conversation in relation to and I said I oh, returners to work program, I’m not sure I can help input on that because I’ve never done that journey and actually what’s been really really interesting in that is that program was a co-creation. The organization said we want to co-create this with a consultancy, and we want to talk to the people that we’re going to put through the program because we don’t know. I think companies who are acknowledging that they don’t know everything, and they are engaging in with their talents to find out what they really want as opposed to what looks like best in practice in a particular industry and sector. I think the technology industry is one which is really quite fascinating because I think they are ahead and behind in the same breath and you know when you look at and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing technology companies recently. Both from a client both being a client and then also working with their teams is that they have embraced so much creativity, neurodiversity that their agendas are so– some of their agendas aren’t even agendas in their organization but yes they’re still tackling the female agenda because they can’t get enough female developers or they can’t get on a female UX or researchers. So some of the newer trends within probably older organizations are completely alien and then in some of the new industries they’re not alien because they’re part of their DNA to begin with. So for me the piece around culture and what you want your culture to be sometimes can be quite difficult to get right.
FIONA: Yes, it’s an interesting insight. I think it was Martha Lane Fox who said the same sort of thing before. I’ve heard her say that it’s so ironic that the tech industry you know one that’s so cutting edge and forward-thinking actually has one of the worst issues with diversity and how does that happen and yes I absolutely agree with you, it is down to the culture.
DENISE: But they’ve probably made more advances in inclusion and I think that’s the real piece that we need to to co-create together as organizations with different skill sets and different industry backgrounds and traditional CEOs versus new founders and entrepreneurs that come with a different mindset to their organization and I think you know where companies are looking to co-create with consultancy companies like Connor I think there’s a lot to be said for companies co-creating together in terms of what that looks like in learning best practice. We need to be sharing all of this as much as possible. I’m thinking some organizations that go, well this is our competitive advantage if we are perceived to be ahead on this agenda. I sometimes feel this isn’t time for copy books. If we’re going to make and strive towards a truly inclusive society and workforce, then we’ve got to open up best practices to each other.
FIONA: And do it as a collective.
Fiona: I totally agree and that’s what this topic is all about by the way [laughs] I want to shift gears just a little bit because I know that you are super passionate about and have done loads of work in the space of the future of work. So can you speak a bit about your predictions for the future and also what businesses and individuals as well need to do now to stay relevant?
DENISE: I think the future of work is a really interesting topic and I think there’s a lot of emotion around us and one of those particular emotions that I’ve been working recently with boards and leaders on is fear, because it’s not defined and leaders are currently struggling to navigate what it means but they really need to be the catalyst within their organization and embrace what it means. So for me the future of work what we hear about robots and we hear about technology, and we hear about job losses and all of those things is what we really need to be doing is enabling organizations both leaders and talent coming through is to have a mindset a behavior as prospective so that they can step forward into the future of work. If I take myself back to my very first career when I move to Boston, I didn’t have a mobile phone. I didn’t have a laptop at work, you know the future of work is here, it’s ever-evolving it’s ever-changing but it’s how you build and behaviors and mindset to take that forward and be able to be resilient in the unknown because in some ways it’s like are you going to stand on the surfboard and take the wave or are you is the wave going to take you off your surfboard. I think the behavior mindset within organizations is really really key.
FIONA: And what sort of mindset have you seen as sort of best in maybe leaders you’ve worked within the past. What are the behaviors like I said that you need to be really resilient as we mentioned?
DENISE: Yes, I think it depends actually on the organization in terms of the type of industry sector. I think one of my favorites and I’m not just saying this because he’s Irish but one of the leaders that I most respect as Ronan Dunne who was ex-CEO of O2 here in the UK and is now in the US. I think he’s so authentic in his approach and he communicates so incredibly well both internally and externally, and he very much is very human in his approach. So I think there’s a you know and I mean this is probably going back to Chinese philosophy that I’m quite passionate about and Buddhism and that but knowing what you know is knowing too and I think leaders who can get into that mindset of going I don’t need to be the authority on everything. I need to surround myself with better people than me and I need to be able to lead them through this and I think that’s really important.
FIONA: I think the subtext of that too is humility, right. That sort of idea like I don’t have all the answers like I’m going to be have to be humble and accept it and put my hand up and say don’t know, actually let’s open this up to the collective. Let’s hear other voices in this and actually that goes back to diversity too really, doesn’t it?
DENISE: It’s open.
FIONA: So what is one unpopular opinion you have around diversity or inclusion [laughs]
DENISE: I really loved this question when you sent it through, and it actually took at me until this morning to really think about what my unpopular opinion would be. I think if you want a truly diverse company you can’t remove the right to offend. I think it’s probably my position on that. We have to be tolerant of all views and the only thing we shouldn’t be tolerant of is of people enforcing their views on others. So I think we need to become much better listeners to address the agenda but I think we have to be able to have an opinion. We need to also know how to deliver that opinion and how to take feedback and I think feedback is really important in this but I think you know we talk about inclusion and you know how that works within the workplace and you can’t say this and you can’t say that and you can’t have this opinion and you can have that opinion and if we’ve really got to the point where we can’t offend, I think that would probably be my unpopular position.
FIONA: Actually I love that, I think there’s such truth in that if we can’t talk about these issues you know, if we’re made to feel like oh, my gosh I have to be so politically correct, you know I’m just not going to say anything at all because I might offend someone or I might use the wrong terminology and then that’s problematic actually because then we’re not engaging and actually having the conversation about diversity or about inclusion and all these issues. I love that. Thanks for sharing. I have just one more question for you which is one that again I love to ask all the guests on the show. What’s one simple thing that anyone could do this week to build inclusion in their place of work?
DENISE: I’m not sure I can do it in one, but I could probably do it in two.
FIONA: Even better.
DENISE: I think there are two things from me that I think I’m seeing as a real need with an organization is to be a conscious listener. I think there’s so much technology, so much talk about transformation and change, so much talk about the future of work, so much talk about praxis, so much talk about the political and social economic things that are going on around the world that I think were possibly not listening enough to the people who are sitting left and right of us, and I think if we can do that better we’ll probably find out some of the things that are challenging them or had their feeling about things and actually be able to support. So listen would be number one and be kind. Kindness for me goes a long way, you know respecting your colleagues and actually you know being sincere in what you do, and I think that you know again it’s the speed at which things are moving within organizations. The speed at which decisions are being made whether they’re right or wrong. I think people don’t always go on a journey as fast as one another and I think there’s an element of just being kind to one another and trying to support people on that transformation and change.
FIONA: Thank you so much and thanks for sharing all those insights with us Denise. I’m sure there’s a lot for listeners to take away from our chat today. So if anyone listening wants to stay connected to you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
DENISE: So I’m on Twitter probably ranting sometimes around this agenda and hopefully sharing some good information and some good articles. So my Twitter handle is @DeniseMcQuaid and I’m obviously on LinkedIn as well. So if there anyone wants to get in touch, please do.
FIONA: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much.
DENISE: Lovely. Thank you, Fiona.
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Be sure to follow Denise as @DeniseMcQuaid.
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An Exclusive Interview with Denise McQuaid, Customer and Innovation Director at Connor HR Consultancy
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Check out our other interviews with inclusion’s change-makers, thinkers, and influencers.
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.
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