Solat: When I last saw you here at your wonderful Leeds HQ, I was part of a panel your colleagues had organised on Fairness & Decency. I remember you gave a wonderful and articulate speech. What particularly struck me was how expressive, confident and personal it was and I want to capture some of your insights today. It was also a revelatory moment for me as I watched you speak comfortably on EDI issues in front of a number of business leaders. It dawned on me that 2018 was the moment, and forgive the phrase, that so many white, male CEOs were running with the EDI theme so confidently.

Mike: Yes, that was a great meeting, I recall Tom Riordan [Chief Executive, Leeds Council], speaking particularly well that morning…

Solat: It’s not always been the case that men talking about this have had the confidence. Now, in addition to Tom, I have heard the Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable, Ian Hopkins, articulate brilliantly, as well as David Hurcomb, CEO at NG Bailey, and Phil Garrigan, Merseyside Chief Fire Officer. You can see that EDI is for them… and that’s what makes it so interesting.

Mike: For me it is quite simple. It resonates with what I think is important and particularly what I value. What is important to all those people you mentioned is that they all talk passionately about Equality, Diversity and Inclusion – and that’s a big deal. We have been doing loads of work on the whole of your Fairness, Respect, Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement (FREDIE) agenda, which as you know, Solat, is broader than just EDI. This is happening because the leadership team at YBS and I all believe that these are really important things and we should be doing more to promote them. As an employer, we know that nothing is going to happen unless we as leaders in the business sponsor and believe it is the right thing to do. It’s figuring this out that is the critical first step.

Your point by the way, and I agree with you, is that in the past couple of years, there have been a lot of white male middle aged CEOs…and I will quote something back that you said that really resonated with me in a minute…. who do feel more confident to own and drive the EDI agenda now because they can see how much impact they can personally influence. From my perspective, I certainly feel very privileged as I had a good upbringing, a good education, a good job and you end up where you end up in life. Some of that is down to circumstances and some of it is down to the individual. I think a lot of white male CEOs can talk about the issues legitimately, can stand up and talk about things they are doing with credibility and can make progress. Before the sentiment was – “what does he know?” or “what right does he have to tell me about diversity?”

Just going back for a moment I said I would quote you. I love what you said about the pale, stale male comment which is fantastic…

Solat: Sexist, ageist and racist.

Mike: Yes. It is an expression that is commonly used and it is certainly what I felt a couple of years ago – that because I’m white, middle-aged and male I somehow don’t have the moral right to sponsor an EDI agenda. I do believe I have the obligation and right to talk about these things in the way I do. Unless people like me openly talk about EDI and make change happen, it is never going to happen.

That is the biggest thing that has changed.

Solat: People like you advocate EDI and actually you are the primary owner of EDI in your organisation. You speak sincerely and authentically about it, clearly why people respect you.

Mike: I genuinely believe it is the right thing to do…. Let me give you an example. Last December we took the decision to pay all the catering, cleaning and security staff who support our business day-to-day a real living wage; not because it was being forced on us but because we all felt it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do and we executed that change from February so all these people working for contractors are now paid at least the real living wage. From a fairness perspective, we and certainly I, felt that is what I wanted us to do. Obviously, it costs money but it is the right thing to do for those 250 people.

Solat: Doing the right thing, how does that make you feel? I know it sounds like a strange question but even now we are still getting the refrain from senior executives: “Give me the business case”

You give them the business case and it is almost like they are not listening in a very David Brent [The Office] type of way. You can tell they don’t want to hear the answer and are struck by inertia wanting to preserve the status quo.

Yet, when you hear people like Simon Sinek talk eloquently about what makes them happy in the work place, it is not the pay rise or getting promotion, which is important, it’s often about that heart-warming experience such as nurturing someone’s career.

Mike: We have all had times in our careers where you do things that work because there is a business case for it and you don’t always necessarily feel good about the way that is.

The beauty of being a Building Society CEO is that I always remember that it’s our members who own the business – our customers. That means we can make commercial decisions that are in our owners’ best interest and our customers’ best interest. We don’t have to abide by the same industry rules around the way things work, we can do it differently.

How does it make me feel? It is uplifting, makes me feel good and makes me want to do more of it; as simple as that.

Solat: Exactly, a virtuous circle. When you do a selfless act it’s just agreeable and wonderful.

Mike: Coming back to the business case. For those people who want to see the business case for everything, you’re right. In business there needs to be a business case. But one topic that academic literature is in a buzz about at the moment is the failure of capitalism and how shareholder ownership and value maximisation is not the only goal. I completely agree with that and organisations need a much broader vision for their overall societal impact as a whole and that includes their environmental impact too. It certainly includes the well-being of their employees as well as the interests of their shareholders. Typically, if you make decisions that are in the interests of the broader societal need then you find the payback will come.

Solat: Our Investors in Diversity has a reputation for being challenging.

Mike: Yes, the challenge and the improvement is what makes it all worthwhile.

Solat: It makes me happy to hear you say that.

Mike: It’s all the small steps that lead to the final goal.

Solat: So, why of all the easy badges to collect, did you go for such a challenging one?

Mike: It was an easy decision. You have got to set a high bar – haven’t you with everything in life? If you want to achieve great things you have to set aggressive targets and try and punch above your weight. For us the starting point was inclusion. We wanted to make sure that we had an inclusive environment where everyone felt welcome and respected, whatever their background. And that is where you have to start.  At YBS, Nicola Hosty and Marion Kneale did fantastic jobs with us ensuring we understood what that means.

It was really important for our people to understand what barriers, lenses or filters, they were using and to look at their experiences.

We wanted to set the bar very high, and let me reiterate, that is why we did Investors in Diversity. However, there is still a long way to go.

Solat: That is the same for every organisation we deal with. Huddersfield New College will have the challenges that everyone else does and they rose from 57 to number 1 in our Top 100 list, (the NCFD 100 best companies delivering on EDI). Huddersfield New College has stayed there for three years in a row which, I think you would agree, is just incredible.

Mike: Absolutely, what do they do so well, what really works for them?

Solat: There are lessons that can be drawn. It takes me back to the first time I went to visit Huddersfield New College, and by the way I wrote a blog on the experience to be found on my LinkedIn page.

When I got there, I was struck by how beautiful it was, how clean it was and how well organised everything was. I walked into reception and straightaway I saw the ‘Leaders in Diversity’ plaque, proudly displayed in the reception office. I spotted it and excitedly, I said “Oh wow I can see your Leaders in Diversity plaque”. The person at reception, equally as excitedly, beamed and said “Yes we have. Look!” and she very proudly showed me her Diversity Champion badge. What a start! I was just another visitor. I wasn’t there to do an assessment or anything like that. That’s just the way this person was. So, the start is the reception area. I came in here today and it was the same a warm welcome. It is a mission, a cause with EDI built into the fabric of the place. They are brilliant.

Mike: We are trying to do similar things. I have had a good morning. I was at one of our branches in Northallerton. One of our branch network diversity and inclusion sponsors wanted me to go and hear what they are up to … it is brilliant. She has nominated a branch manager in her patch who is responsible for well-being, another for diversity and inclusion and one for engagement and communications. It’s encouraging to see what they are up to and have achieved and also what plans they have for the future especially around the stigma of mental health. The way you tackle the stigma is to improve awareness… from a customer and colleague perspective … it’s been amazing

Solat: Absolutely true. This was picked up on the night of our awards. YBS won 3 awards: Craig Downing scooped one of the hardest categories, Employee of the Year, your team took home the Diversity Steering Group of the Year and you yourself the accolade of CEO of the Year. Quite an achievement and what a hat-trick of awards to win!

Mike: It was a great evening. Frankly from my perspective I could not believe it… it’s a shame you don’t get to hear the stories about what the winners have done but I appreciate it is difficult to squeeze everything in.

Solat: That’s not a bad idea. We need to think about how we publish the nuggets of information. Maybe as a best practice document.

YBS was also number 57 in the Top 100 just seven behind Leeds BS. How does that feel?

Mike: To be honest, the value I get from the rankings is so our teams can see what their efforts are helping us to achieve. It is also a good sense checker because the objective way you [NCFD] assess progress tells us what we are doing well and where things can be improved… As for the Leeds, it is good to have healthy competition in the sector as well as the same city. There is a lot we can learn from what they’ve been doing. The lovely crew from the Leeds came over for a chat and were cheering for us as we were for them.

Solat: Talking about best practice what other things are you doing?

Mike: Last month REBA – the Reward & Employee Benefits Association – gave us two awards for what we’ve been doing on employee wellbeing.  We were lucky enough to win best initiative for colleague mental wellbeing and best initiative for financial wellbeing… It is not about coming up with loads of new ideas, it is about ways of finding how people can raise awareness of the ideas. There is so much basic stuff not being done and so much good practice out there to share and discuss. We can go a long way to help companies that have done so little to take the next steps.

Solat: You have so much passion and enthusiasm, how to you incorporate it all in to your leadership? Can we get the sector to take EDI more seriously?

Mike: We were talking about small and big organisations earlier and that is the key. In a smaller business, with up to, say, 100 employees, the character at the top often has a particular personality that creates that ‘followship’. However, when you move to larger businesses with thousands of people across multiple sites, it is harder for 3000 people to get to know you as a leader, and you can end up spreading yourself too thinly. It is impossible to touch as many people as you would want to and often those leading these big businesses don’t have the same personality as those running SMEs.

Solat: Jim Collins wrote that in his book. He said when you look at the good to great leaders, they were not the ones that were super hero leaders, they were the ones that just quietly went about the job. He described it in terms of a flywheel.

Mike: That is what you need; the flywheel effect so what you have to do is find enough role models across the organisation that span all the areas you operate, enough of the geographies. You want them basically to try their best to inspire the people they come in contact with and that is the only way you can do it, because you can’t do it all yourself. It’s not hard to do that if you can empower them. If you convince them this agenda is something you believe in and it is something they also have a passion for, then you can encourage them to go away and do what they do best with your full support.

You also need to give them the tools and resources that they need which can generate the results. They’ll sponsor the agenda because they share a passionate for it; no incentives are needed. They’ll make the organisation a better place to work for everybody, a more inclusive place and that’s what we all want to achieve… so you need to inject them with the gene that makes them go off and make things happen in the best way they can. You can also create the structures for them to spend time sharing best practice with each other. In that way if someone comes up with an idea that works, others can replicate it elsewhere. This leads to another important word here – ‘momentum’.

Solat: Yes, I see…

Mike: You have to keep the momentum going because in any organisation you need a strategy, and you need to be able to execute on that strategy, but you also need momentum because that is where positive reinforcement comes from. Find the things that are working, call out the role models and recognise the things they do in support of the things you are trying to achieve. That is what those champions do so positively and brilliantly and that is why we make such a fuss of Craig and the Steering Committee as well as the diversity champions because it’s a brilliant and incredibly valuable job that they do.

Solat: An interesting point you make. It is the flywheel … that word momentum

Mike: Momentum is critical absolutely critical because you can kick off a load of things but unless you keep building on them and fuelling that momentum then they run out of steam.

Solat: OK. On a scale of 1 to 4 where 4 is the highest how important is culture

Mike: 4

Solat: Then on the same sake of 1 to 4 how important is strategy?

Mike: 3

Solat: Yeah, exactly.

Mike: Culture is everything

Solat: Culture is everything – that would make a great strap line

Mike: The classic line is “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. They are both important – don’t get me wrong – but culture is what everyone feeds off … you have to work out what you want your culture to be…. Let me share an example of what we are doing on culture. We encouraged people to think about how they feel when they come to work every day, and we asked colleagues to nominate who in the business most influences how they feel at work. We ended up with a list of 100 people out of the 3500 colleagues who work here. These were the biggest culturally influencers of how people actually feel about YBS day-to-day, and they came from all levels and all parts of the business. And what they all had in common – the one trait they all shared – was that they were all passionate about their fellow colleagues.

Solat: So what we did you do?

Mike: We took those 100 people –incidentally there are 200 as it was so successful we did a second wave – and we took them away for four separate days to focus entirely on culture. We talked about what it feels like to work here and the great things about working at YBS. We also touched on some of the less positive things about the culture and agreed four behaviours which we collectively believed would make YBS a better place to work. These are the four different dimensions of culture that we are trying to dial up right across the organisation with the support of these culture champions. Trust and Empowerment is a really big one… having Open and Honest conversations is another. We have traditionally been a fairly paternalistic organisation, like many big organisations.

There’s a feeling that the organisation knows best and the people at the top make all the decisions. That is not the culture we want here as I’d like all colleagues to feel that they’re empowered to make the decisions they feel are right. These 100 colleagues’ role is to point out positive behaviours when they see them and try to encourage people a bit more when they don’t see them. A good example is how we have tied these people in to the work we are doing on diversity and inclusion, and wellbeing. These 100 people are a really powerful group of people to help influence a number of things across the organisation…

Solat: What you have done is influence the influencers.

Mike: Yes, we’ve influenced the influencers. They then go out into the YBS community and influence.

Solat: That is clever. The principle behind FREDIE.

Mike: FREDIE is critically important

Solat: Well it is. Everything you have been talking about all of it shows how everything is tied up in that acronym. What people realise is just how important and thought out FREDIE is. We work closely with DCU [Dublin City University] which has a centre for excellence. We are working with them on the are six pillars of inclusion for any organisation and those are FREDIE.

Mike: But critically it is all about engagement and if you haven’t got engagement you haven’t got inclusion as people sit to the side and observe when they are not engaged.

Solat: Exactly, if one of the elements of FREDIE is missing, you don’t have an inclusive organisation because they are all interlinked and interdependent. If you don’t have fairness you might as well forget it.

We talk about difference between culture and climate. Very often people don’t know the difference because its brand new and it is stuff we are discovering with DCU. Organisational culture can take years to develop and it can be great and if something goes wrong the organisational culture kicks in and over a period of time settles. Organisations have to be mindful of the emotional climate though, so nothing breaks down.

So, what next Mike? You are doing well you are making progress.

Mike: Small steps.

Solat: The next logical step is Leaders in Diversity once you have that you are at a good stage and can leap forward and continue to do spectacular things.

Mike: We will do our best

Solat: Thank you