Diversity and Inclusion
An Exclusive Interview with Natalie Sigona, Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at BAE Systems
Early in her career, Natalie Sigona applied for a promotion. She didn’t get it. She knew in terms of the work she’d done, and in terms of her submission, that she was deserving of the promotion.
When she went to get feedback from those involved, one of the things they mentioned was the pink handbag she’d been carrying. They said she needed to be careful about how people might perceive it. Even though she was very angry, she handled the situation with grace. In fact, the way she addressed the situation actually enabled her to get a double promotion.
This story highlights how remarkable Natalie is, and how committed she is to diversity and inclusion.
In this interview, Natalie shared some of the personal experiences that made her aware of inclusion. She also talked about what inclusion means to her and how we can all start taking steps to increase inclusion and belonging in our own workplaces.
FIONA: Our guest today is Natalie Sigona, head of diversity, inclusion and engagement at BAE Systems. Natalie is also founder of IncluDIBle, a consultancy to educate and coach individuals and businesses in diversity, inclusion and belonging issues. Natalie previously worked at Rolls Royce for 18 years where she started as an undergraduate recruiter and left holding the role of global D&I consultant. Natalie has a very full life between her work at BAE Systems and IncluDIBle, being the mother of two children, serving on the board of Nottingham University Hospital as a non-exec, and running five miles a day. Welcome, Natalie.
NATALIE: Hi. Hi, Fiona. Thank you for speaking with me today.
FIONA: Of course. Can you give us a quick overview of the work you’re currently doing at BAE and what you’re trying to achieve?
Which is very inclusive of difference, where difference can thrive, and therefore we can be innovative, high performing, competitive and model our global customers and represent our global customer base and employee base.
FIONA: Today, I’ll be chatting with Natalie about her experiences with inclusion and the work she’s been doing to drive inclusiveness in her career. First up though, I want to ask you something which we ask all guests on Inclusion Works. Can you tell us what personal experiences made you aware of inclusion and diversity issues and led to your work at Rolls Royce, IncluDIBle and now BAE Systems?
NATALIE: Sure. When I was thinking about this question, I think there’s probably four things that have led me perhaps to where I am. You can only see this when you look back on things. But one thing from a very early childhood I think, which really creates this fire in my belly and this appetite to make sure that difference is always included and that there aren’t out groups, is that when I was young… Well, when I was born, I had very sticky out ears. I remember at school being teased about those. I’ve got this memory of being in the playground and seeing everybody else playing together and me feeling kind of on the side because of my ears. I’m sure it wasn’t true at the time, but that’s the memory that I have. I think the pain of being in an outgroup and not feeling included and also standing out from the crowd has stuck with me. Now I must say that I now coach others to stand up from the crowd and I want to make sure everybody can stand out from the crowd and can celebrate their difference. However, at that time, I did end up having my ears pinned back, and low and behold, I was no longer teased for that anyway. I’m sure there were many other things I was teased for, but that feeling of making sure people are included has stuck with me throughout my life. I think it is something inside and outside of work. I also always make sure is everybody included in this group and how can we make it easier for anyone. I always look out for the minorities and bring them along and say, “Come on. Celebrate your difference.” That’s one thing. The second thing is that earlier on in my career, I remember not getting a promotion and being absolutely gusted because I know that in terms of the work that I’d done and my submission for that at the time, I was deserving of that promotion. When I went to get feedback from those at the time that were employed in the organization, part of the feedback was about, “Well, Natalie, you had a pink bag. You just need to be careful about the perceptions.” Obviously at that time I was very angry and the spirit in me was I’m going to now kind of address this and sort this out. However, I didn’t. I didn’t go down a lawsuit or a discrimination because that just isn’t me really. I always want to try and find a different way to address something. What I did was go to speak to all of the individuals involved and try and understand their perception because ultimately their perception was a reality. Whatever they saw in that pink bag was… Did result in that decision. When I understood that, that was very helpful to me. But the way I went about addressing that situation then enabled me to get a double promotion because those people had a completely different perception of me as opposed to this one image that they’d had previously. I learned a lot from that. I learned how not to lead in some ways I’m afraid to say, but also how to take a positive from a negative and how to really make sure that you are aligned with your own integrity and your own values and address something and be curious and try and find out and address that in a very professional way, which is luckily what I did. I’m sure I was very angry at home. I’m not perfect. I’m human, but how I dealt with it in the workplace was I think I can be proud of that. After that, I must say I did go through a phase where I felt, “Right. I now need to fit in.” Went away the pink bag handbags and on came on the glasses and the blue suit and very corporate attire. I did go through a stage thinking that that’s what I needed to do. Then when I came into diversity and inclusion, I was like, “No way. I’ve got to show and role model that
I then changed again and I feel very confident and comfortable in doing that now. I know that that does have a knock-on effect with people around me. That was another area when I look back on this I think was very useful. Then two other things very briefly was I must admit I didn’t want to go into the role of diversity and inclusion when I was asked about it because at that time in the organization, it was very much around or I perceived it to be very much around employee relations, political correctness, all about gender data and things that you could and couldn’t say because that was the world I’m talking 10 years ago now. That was the world that we were in and that was how it was addressed at that time. I just thought that is not me. A friend gave me some advice and said, “Go and say you’re not passionate about it and that will get you out of this development area that you’re being asked to go to.” My manager at the time, who was a great leader and really phenomenal, said to me, “Natalie, you just don’t understand that you will be passionate about it. I know.” Because he knew that I liked change, that I was desperate to… The values that I had and desperate to disrupt the status quo where I didn’t see that those values were being meant. He saw in me what I didn’t see in myself. He encouraged me and I trusted him. These are all things that I think are very important about a leader. I went and now you can’t… Probably I’m the most boring person in the pub. You can’t get me off the subject of diversity and inclusion. I do feel I live and breath it. Then finally coming here to BAE, which I’m really loving, is to do with the lead that interviewed me and my current manager. I’d gone through a series of interviews after Rolls Royce, and I was getting very deluded and disappointed I think with some of the ways that I was being recruited for heads of diversity roles. There was one example where there was a telephone interview and I got some fantastic feedback about my competence and what I’d said. The feedback was, “Oh, but,” it was a video interview, “we saw that there was a glitter ball behind you. Just saying that didn’t matter. That wasn’t into our decision, but just be aware of where you are.” I thought, “Wow. Okay.” I’ve got all of this great feedback, but I’ve not gone through to the next stage because where I chose to be, I needed a quiet area and I went and did the interview in my summer house. I was like, “Wow. I’m not going to work for that type of company because if they can’t embrace difference at this stage, then how am I going to be supported? Where’s the tone from the top when I go into that company?” I gave them some very nice feedback about that. The manager that I have now and the reason I came to BAE is because she was very human. She had lots of energy. She was curious. She spoke to me on a human level. She was passionate about change and disrupting the status quo. I couldn’t wait to work for her. She’s really going to think at the time that I’m really sucking up now, but it does matter to me who I work for and I was inspired. I was very excited to come here. It was very flexible. Everything that I wanted to represent was the opportunity for me personally. I thought well, yeah, I can role model that. I can prove the point. I am. I’m working very flexibly. I’ve been supported every step of the way on ideas, on initiatives, on things to change. I think those four things I’ve just said, the personal experiences, the leadership, being out yourself in an outgroup and feeling that pain I think is an experience. If you’ve experienced it yourself, then you can try and have empathy and try and make changes for others. I’m sorry if that’s a very long winded answer, but I hope it helps.
FIONA: No, that was amazing. That was amazing. Some of the bias coming through in those stories as well about the glitter ball and the pink handbag. It’s amazing really and it’s interesting too looking back how you kind of fell into this role, but actually looking backwards how of course you can kind of connect the dots.
NATALIE: Yes. Yes.
FIONA: I’m curious. Some of the stories you were telling really touched on both issues of inclusion and belonging. Could you talk about what does inclusion mean to you, what does belonging mean to you?
NATALIE: Sure. Sure. I think that this is interesting when we talk about inclusion and belonging because inclusion for me is around… I think if you can think of inclusion from your own personal perspective as a person to work on yourself to be inclusive is not everyone else’s job actually. It’s all of our jobs. I think when you come to diversity and inclusion, people often are saying, “Oh well. Is everyone else doing this? Is this ethereal topic?” First and foremost, it’s about have I got an open mindset myself? Am I always open to learning? Have I got a growth mindset or am I very fixed in some of my habits and my thinking? Can I put myself in other’s shoes? Can I be curious? Do I ask open questions? Do I ask what and how? When somebody responds, do I really listen? Am I really listening? Am I open to their response and trying to dig into that or am I waiting to jump in with what I think? Am I free judgment or am have I already judged this? Have I got the perception or am I open enough to challenge that perception myself? Do I feel free to be myself? Do I feel safe to speak up in this environment or are there barriers around me? Are there symbols around me which is making me think no? For me, is the energy from the other person or the signal is telling me that I can’t be myself here? Am I collaborative? If I then think of well, how am I and am I present and am I mindful and am I conscious, then I can see it elsewhere. I know what I’m expecting. When you think is this environment inclusive, is that person inclusive, you can spot it. I think it starts with ourselves and then the other people around you and your teams. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I mean these are not diversity really in terms of the strands that we think about, but on the weekend we were looking for somewhere to have lunch with a group of friends. One of the individuals had a bike that he didn’t want to just leave outside. We didn’t have a lock and so on. Several of the cafes just… It was impossible to take the bike in. But this one place was like, “Absolutely. We’ll open the back gate. Yeah. We’d love for you to come in. There’s even a backyard if you want to sit there in the sunshine,” and so on and so forth. Now immediately even just going into that place, you could feel the inclusion. I went back afterwards and thanked them for their service. Then lo and behold, you look on TripAdvisor, they’ve got five out of five stars because you can sense the inclusion there whether the food is good or not, the energy and the personality and the people. I went and thanked them and said that’s very unusual. It comes into everyday life, and I’m always constantly trying to spot it now. Unfortunately, I’m now finding myself that I won’t go into places that don’t feel like that because it’s so fantastic when you feel it. I bet that café is the best sellout café in the place and will be high performing and high profits. Why would it not make sense for inclusion? Would you like me to talk a bit about my thoughts on belonging?
FIONA: Yeah, absolutely.
NATALIE: Because I think… You’ve got inclusion there and then inclusion is about embracing all of that difference and being open-minded and so on. I think belonging is really, really important. I know that there’s a lot of talk about that. However, I do think there’s pros and cons to belonging because the pros are that if you feel that you belong… The saying is diversity is about being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to get up dance, and belonging is dancing like no one’s watching. If you think about that belonging piece, it is when you feel totally trusted, supported, you have peer relationships which are very close, you’ve got loyalty, trustworthiness, there’s that psychological safety, which is all good stuff and what we all thrive for. If you go back to my childhood experience that I shared about you, children want that sense of belonging. They want to fit in. They want to be part of the ingroup. Now unfortunately, you’ve got a yin and yang here, haven’t you? Because the adverse impact of belonging is that therefore you might have some assimilation. People may want to assimilate and belong so much that their uniqueness and diversity no longer shows up. I do see an issue with that as well. It’s just kind of just being aware of that and considering have we got too much ingroup here? Do people feel so comfortable with one another that actually we all agree with one another and there’s group think and nobody is standing out from the crowd and being different? It’s tricky, isn’t it? It’s so nuanced this whole subject.
FIONA: Yeah, I agree. I think that’s really interesting and controversial sort of take on belonging. Can you tell me a little bit more about… In an organization, how can leaders be accountable for inclusion? Also, what role do you think does vulnerability play in this?
NATALIE: Yes. I think accountable leaders is absolutely critical in order to create this safe space and an inclusive environment. It starts at the very top. Going back to what I talked about inclusion anyway, it starts with that individual, their own mindset and their own being. How do they lead? Are they able to flex their own style and have an open mindset and listen to other people and really truly be curious? What shadow do they cast? How do they role model authentically that inclusive behavior? I think that’s very tricky in organizations where the leaders that are at the top or that have been promoted have been done so on technical ability and knowledge and because they know their stuff and because they’re experts in their field. All of a sudden, we’re talking about a world where being inclusive means suspending some of that knowledge because you’re not telling people everything that you know and all of a sudden becoming vulnerable and coming from a place of not knowing or at least even showing that you don’t know and having a willingness to learn and have this growth mindset that I talked about, willingness to learn from other people that maybe younger than you, that may not have had as much experience, that may not have the qualifications, that may come from a completely different background or education system. That’s hard, isn’t it? Because that means to suspend… I’m sorry to get into the psychology of this, but it means suspending the ego. All of a sudden, kind of caring more about the person in front of you than you do about showing what you know. If leaders have got rewarded for that in the past, then that’s really hard. We can’t blame leaders or ourselves for having those habits and having been brought up in a world where that’s what leadership is. It’s about having gravy tasks. It’s about knowing your stuff and being the go-to person. All of a sudden, that’s no longer in. That’s no longer the way to lead. In my opinion, I think kind of being much more growth mindset, open-minded. A coaching leader is, in my opinion, much more effective. When it comes to inclusive, it’s everything. I think this vulnerability piece is really, really tricky, but I think it’s critical. I even read a story where there was a CEO who purposely poured water over themselves or the tea over themselves in the beginning of a board meeting to show that they can make mistakes too. Then all of a sudden, everybody else in the room feels, “Oh, that’s okay. Thank goodness that’s happened. It’s safe to do that.” But creating that safe space is really important. It’s something that I’m very conscious of in any conversation I’m having is inviting, “Please disagree with me.” There is hierarchy in organizations and so on. People are scared of thinking, “Gosh. If I disagree with this person.” But actually leaders often love that too. They want to invite it. They assume that everyone’s okay with it, but it isn’t explicit. I think we need to make it explicit that it’s okay to have different opinions. Please disagree with me. That’s healthy. We’re not going to get innovation if we don’t disagree.
It’s beneficial to everybody, but we need to make it safe and we need to show people that if we can assume positive intent from all angles, if you disagree with someone, we’ll give them some feedback. Assume positive intent and that it’s for the positive I think is all of that. I hope that’s answered your question.
FIONA: Yeah, absolutely. What you were talking about with vulnerability and humility of leaders really reminded me of a podcast I heard recently with Amy Edmondson, who’s the researcher behind the concept of psychological safety. She coined the term. It’s all based on her research she did about 30 years. It was interesting because she was talking about how when you get in a hierarchical sort of organization, when you get to the upper levels, it’s like an absolute vacuum for humility. We’re taught as leaders, as managers and so forth that we always have to have the answer, and actually that’s not helping anyone and that’s not leading to the innovation, that’s not leading to psychological safety. One little tip she gave was just like just say I don’t know more as a leader.
FIONA: Just say, “I don’t know. Why don’t we discuss this? What do you think? Why don’t we ask someone who’s an expert? Why don’t we bring a bunch of people together and solve this big issue,” rather than always relying on the leader to have the answer.
NATALIE: Yes. A story has just come to me where I remember going to speak to a CEO of an organization. I was then telling my then manager and I said, “He was just really humble. He was really normal. I was expecting all of this.” He said, “You’re in the waiting expecting for God, Natalie, and you were faced with a human. You’re disappointed.” I just thought yeah, they are human. We are all human. If we can remember that, if we can humanize diversity, inclusion and belonging, I think that’s where we will begin to really see shifts and change happen. I think there’s a risk that at the moment it gets very procedural and people are scared of it when actually it’s very easy. This is something I really want to share in particular with managers and leaders. The biggest tip is that this doesn’t have to be hard. It starts with you and it starts with your mindset. You don’t have to have lots of books or toolkits or letters of the law with you. Obviously that’s very useful to know, but actually if you can be curious and be inclusion and think about your own mindset and be in a place where you can be present with the person in front of you, then there’s some very practical ways that you can address that because it’s you. It’s in your gift. You can change you. You can’t change anyone else around you.
FIONA: I think as well going back to the story you told at the beginning of our chat about being a child on the playground feeling like you’re getting teased or maybe even bullied for the way you look, I think getting everybody onboard as you say with this idea that we all have been excluded, right? It’s a human thing. We all need to be part of the solution of inclusion by getting curious. It’s just a brilliant takeaway.
NATALIE: Yeah. Yeah. How great at that time… I’m sure my parents were fantastic, but what I try and teach my children now is that difference is great. Everyone’s got some difference. It’s unfortunate. Just kids don’t want to stand out, do they?
FIONA: Yeah, exactly. That logic behind why it’s good to stand out doesn’t quite land.
NATALIE: But if you can show that that you’re not afraid to show… If you can role model that you’re not afraid to make mistakes and this again… I’m sure I’ve read something on this that teachers… You will come into a classroom and show that they get something wrong on the board or that they make mistake to role model it’s okay to be wrong. I think if we can all give signals to children much earlier and therefore they can be confident that it’s okay to stand out from the crowd and be different.
FIONA: Just to shift gears a bit, you currently sit on the board at Nottingham University Hospital as a non-exec director. How did that role come about?
NATALIE: Yes. Well, I left Rolls Royce last year and had some time where I had an open world in front of me really so to speak. I think I told myself that any opportunities that come up I’m just going to say yes. I’m going to keep saying yes and see what happens. A friend shared with me that role. My first thought was, “Oh, I definitely won’t get that. I’ve done a bit of non-exec work, but I’m not experienced. This was a typical piece kind of thing I can’t do.” But then I thought, “Well, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m going to go for it,” and actually that’s really exciting. That’s an area that is completely different to me, that I’ve not experienced in that type of work environment. I applied and lo and behold, get an interview. I went for the interview and yeah, got the job which was a really pleasant surprise. I’ve learned so much. There’s many similarities actually to the NHS and the places that I’ve worked, but it is great working as a non-exec and working with the board and being able to influence things at that level. What I really like about it is that I could put myself in the shoes of all of those people that are working underneath the board as well, kind of at different levels in the organization, because I feel like I’ve been there too. I’m constantly trying to think how can we include these and make it safe for them when they coming to present? How can we be curious about this? How can we help them and how can I in my role and the rest of the board make changes which are really impactful for those people?
FIONA: I’m curious to know, as a member of a board, how do you navigate sharing your thoughts and opinions in that kind of environment and perhaps as well when you’re challenging the status quo?
NATALIE: Yeah. I think it’s similar to some of the style which I’ve talked about previously. I remember some of my first board meetings being really conscious of asking what and how questions. As opposed to giving my opinion and saying, “Well, we didn’t do it like this in Rolls Royce or in BAE.” Rather than to tell, kind of being curious and suspending my judgment because I might not know. I didn’t know the NHS. It might be very, very different in that world. Of course, it is. Really asking questions to see the picture and then sharing, “Would you mind if I provide an insight here? There might be nuggets that I’ve got just to share with you also.” That’s how I try and do it in a more collaborative way if possible.
FIONA: I imagine being a qualified coach that these are kind of the skills you’ve learned in your coaching, right? Asking the questions, suspending judgment, all those great things.
NATALIE: Yes. Yeah. The coaching call. I think that’s something that’s very, very helpful for anybody really because I think it’s the 1% of effort that gets you the 99% or 100% of impact. I’ve learned it with my children. You try and tell a child what to do or ask them something and find a competitive or fun quiz way to do some thing by asking questions. Lo and behold, it completely changes because they don’t have to rebel against you. They completely changed their mindset and they’re like, “I’m being asked now.” I found coaching not that I’ve just used it to manipulate my children by the way, but it would be my top tip to ask instead of tell and be curious instead of assume. These are skills I’m very privileged to have learned and to have. There are times, of course, as a leader that you have to lead the way and you have to say this is… You make a decision. I’m not saying that it’s everything to do with collaboration and you don’t make a decision, but I found that that’s very effective of bringing people with you, engaging and listening, working as a team and showing that everybody’s in this together. Then okay, this is what I think. This is based on my decision. We’re going to go with this. But having everybody have their say is very, yeah, empowering.
FIONA: It takes a lot of practice though, doesn’t it?
NATALIE: Yes. Yes. Yeah. Going back to my children, I’m sure I don’t always get it right. There are times when I’m screaming at them to get out of the door and there’s no coaching going on there.
FIONA: I’m not a parent, but I have had many conversations about the similarities between parenting and leadership. I feel you in that way. What is one simple thing that anyone could do this week to build inclusion in their workplace?
NATALIE: I think there are a couple of things that could do, but if I have to choose… Could I have two?
NATALIE: The first one would be do something different to change a habit. This comes from a book which is… Can’t remember the author, but called Flex. I’ve taught a lot on this growth mindset. All about kind of how our brain is wired and we are habitual creatures. We think the same thoughts, and we have the same habits. It’s very hard to suddenly wire our brain differently to think differently. But if we change a habit and do something different over 60 days or something, then our brain will rewire and that becomes normal. I would encourage everybody to do something different. Think about what are they habitual about. Do they always go and speak to the same person in the office? Do they always look out for the person that loves the same sport as they do or loves the same shops or whatever it is? Do they always eat in the same restaurants? You always drive to work the same way. Because if you do something different, then you’re likely to one, get a different perspective, but overtime then you’re rewiring your brain to have this flexible growth mindset approach. That would be one. The second would be to experience being out of your comfort zone and being in someone else’s shoes. I think these two go really, really well together. Experience difference. I know that there’s lots of data and lots of research that can happen to convince people that diversity is a good thing. But in my experience, getting people to feel in the minority for example or to experience being… I was the only white face at a black women’s conference once and I really felt what it was like to be the minority and that was very helpful. I know that men have said, who are in a highly male dominated organization, when they go to an all female conference, “Okay, now I know what it feels like.” Feeling out of the crowd sometimes and experiencing that and putting yourself in the shoes of others. Try and get around London in a wheelchair for a day. We’ll suddenly see everything that needs to change in order to make places more accessible and the places that you would go to. Then all of a sudden, you’ll think, “Right. Have we got this here? I want to make changes because I know how it felt myself.” I’ve seen that that’s very helpful for people.
FIONA: I love both of those. I’m so glad I let you have two.
NATALIE: Thank you. Thank you. Sorry. I always push the boundaries, Fiona.
FIONA: Thank you too for sharing all the insights with us. I’m sure there’s a lot for our listeners to takeaway from this session. If anyone listening wants to stay connected with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
NATALIE: They can find me on LinkedIn. Natalie Sigona on LinkedIn. I would love to hear what people think about what I’ve said. I hope it’s been helpful, but I’m very happy to onward share as well.
FIONA: Awesome. Well, thank you so much-
NATALIE: Thank you. Thank you very much.
. . .
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An Exclusive Interview with Natalie Sigona, Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at BAE Systems
Check out our other interviews with inclusion’s change-makers, thinkers, and influencers.
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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