A diverse culture helps move a business forward

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace has been a key subject of debate for a number of years.  However despite its importance, it is something that continues to be a challenge.  Many industries – and organisations – are succeeding in creating winning diversity strategies, but at the same time others have struggled to create a culture of inclusion. 

Today, Asset Finance International caught up with Ylva Oertengren from Simply and Karima Haji from Auto Novo as senior executives in our industry to get their thoughts on this hot topic.


What does diversity mean to you?

Ylva Oertengren: The easy answer is that organisations should reflect the mix of people in society at large. As 80% of senior roles in the finance industry are held by men, this is the most obvious place to start. But to me, it’s something that’s much wider than just gender.  It’s about inclusion regardless of specific definitions – and bringing different mindsets together to change the culture in an organisation.

Karima Haji: It’s also about opening yourself up to inclusion and being prepared to listen to everyone in your organisation.  Every individual in a company must have a voice.  Senior execs need to be reminded that it’s not only their opinions that count.  They have to make a conscious effort to listen and allow people to put their own ideas forward and take account of / value the different perspectives in meetings.


How does diversity and inclusion drive value in an organisation?

Ylva: The value of the company is the sum of the ideas that we all bring to the table.  Different backgrounds mean that as a team we are more creative and innovative and this increases the bottom line.  There is a distinct connection between diversity and positive business outcomes.

Karima: Becoming a truly diverse and inclusive company is not only the right thing to do, it is crucial to helping grow businesses.  Ylva has already said that it fosters innovation and creativity but it also attracts and retains talent with a broad range of experience, makes for a happier work environment (a happy, inclusive workforce works harder than an unhappy one) and ultimately engages the people who buy our products and services.


What should employers bear in mind when they are recruiting?

Ylva: Look at what the individual can actually bring to the team – it’s not necessarily about qualifications and background, but the right attitude and skills that leads you to the right person for the job.  At Simply we’ve consciously gone out and recruited graduates or school leavers looking to start a career in finance.  Their willingness to learn and interest in the organisation has made sure that they have climbed the ladder very quickly and done really well.  We also employ experienced people with very diverse backgrounds which is crucial in adding to the core strength of the company.  This means that I am now working with the most diverse team that I’ve ever had.

Karima: I agree.  We all need to have an open mindset and make sure we’re not hiring people like us, otherwise we fall into the unconscious bias trap and end up with individuals who come up with the same ideas as we do.  Look outside of the industry, look for people with a different set of qualifications and perspectives.  A diverse culture means we’re all more productive.


You mention young talent – what attracts them to certain organisations? 

Ylva: I think it’s down to feeling valued, and being able to work in an enjoyable and entrepreneurial atmosphere.  Culture and feeling inspired are really important.  We’re competing against fintechs and neobanks for talent and we need to make sure that we have something special that makes us stand out because asset finance still has an air of being old-fashioned.

Karima: Absolutely!  Candidates, especially the younger cohort, want to know if a company will allow them to be themselves.  Are colleagues and bosses open and approachable?  Is there room for development and to have a voice?  Candidates now look more at the value and culture of an organisation.


What are the barriers to diversity?

Ylva: A diverse culture helps move a business forward.  But’s important to have buy in at the top. Breaking down barriers is difficult enough, but if the leadership isn’t on board, it’s impossible.

Karima:  Also if an organisation has been around for a long time, it will have an existing, deep-rooted culture which often means resistance to change.  And because of this, we may come across certain attitudes and perceptions that go against the grain of diversity. Both men and women have personal commitments and if we allow for that across the board, it will show how progressive a company is.


How do you think the asset finance industry is doing?

Ylva: Asset finance has got a lot better in the last five or six years, but it was a very low benchmark to start with!  Now you meet more females in the industry, at meetings, conferences and events. But it could be much better.  The industry needs to open up, allow people to be who they are and see the value in differences.

Karima: I think the auto finance industry has even more work to address diversity and inclusion, and remains very much a male dominated environment.  It’s changing but not at the pace with other industries.

Ylva: Diversity in itself isn’t a target.  You want a multitude of different ideas and diversity is just a short cut to get there. Some larger institutions like RBS are doing sterling work on appointing female executives and promoting people from different backgrounds.  It shows there is a genuine movement, but even then, some organisations have boards where women and people from minority groups are less influential in terms of decision-making, which misses the point completely. This is where inclusivity comes into play. Ticking the box on having diverse leadership isn’t enough, you also have to empower and listen to those who bring a different perspective.

Karima: Diversity also doesn’t guarantee success.  There’s no silver bullet.  But hopefully it will help create an environment where everyone is heard which means there is a better chance of being successful.


What have been your own personal experiences?

Ylva: I have witnessed and experienced some incredible examples of sexism and discrimination, both in the law firm where I started out and also in the asset finance industry in general. But I have always had brilliant bosses who have believed in me and pushed me to take the next step in my career. And there have been times when I have really had to rely on their support. I remember one senior executive telling me, when I said I was ready for a new challenge, he thought I would be happier if I would ‘calm down and focus on looking after my husband and daughter’…

Karima: I’ve luckily never had that kind of experience but I do get quite deflated when people talk about recruiting women and then, in the next breath, flexible working is mentioned.  Everyone needs flexible working, not just women!


What would your top tips be in terms of increasing diversity in the industry? 

  • Create a diverse workforce because you believe in it, not because it’s ‘the right thing to do’ or, even worse, because you ‘might get into trouble’ if you don’t have one
  • Lead by example –for instance, if you have a sick child and need to go home, be open about that to show that everyone has family commitments and that is ok
  • Promote your drive for diversity and inclusion in the presentation of you as an employer to attract a wider range of talent
  • Make sure you have a diverse shortlist when interviewing. And ensure that any recruitment consultant that you work with knows and delivers on this
  • Invite a junior member of staff or someone with a different point of view to a meeting and ask them to share their opinion about the topic
  • Don’t create a separate ‘diversity’ unit – it needs to have a company-wide agenda
  • If you’re not sure what to do to promote diversity or inclusion, then ask someone from a different background to mentor you. Ask them what they would do in your shoes
  • Bring one or two new faces to every conference or event that you go to, especially if they wouldn’t normally go to them. Expose them to new things, help them network
  • Be open to what diversity can bring – listen.


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