Career Nav #32: Demanding More: Why Diversity and Inclusion Don’t Happen

Career Nav #32: Demanding More: Why Diversity and Inclusion Don’t Happen

Written by Sheree Atcheson



Sheree Atcheson, Group Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion at Valtech, Women Who Code Advisory Board Member, and author of “Demanding More: Why Diversity and Inclusion Don’t Happen and What You Can Do About It,” shares her talk, “Leading From Every Level: Demanding More Now, Not Later.” She discusses leadership at every level and how you should always practice leading for the position that you want in the future.

I’m excited to talk about leading from every level. It’s such an important topic, especially given the workforce that we have today. It is the most diverse workforce regarding the age that we have ever had. I think that’s a critical point when we remember that experience and expertise aren’t necessarily permanently attached to seniority. Thinking about how we all make an impact and how we all lead and demand more is essential. When I started my career many years ago, I began as a software engineer. That’s also when I started helping with Women Who Code, and at that stage, their UK expansion over seven years ago.

I was a relatively junior engineer. I spent a lot of time as a senior leader in the industry helping organizations create partnerships with Women Who Code, working on their diversity and inclusion, and so on. That meant I had a natural balance of both. In one part of my life, I was very junior, but in another part of my life, very senior. That happened for several years, and it was a tricky balance. Now, as a senior leader in all elements of my career, I could take that skill I had from being more senior in one avenue and utilize it as a junior engineer. Here are some things that work well when we try to do that. The first thing is being very brief. It’s tough for people to get on board with what we’re trying to say if we’re not quite sure what it is ourselves. The reason why that’s difficult is, ultimately, we want people to receive what we know that’s in our heads, and sometimes it doesn’t come out of our mouths.

When we think about leading at every level, we start to think about how we communicate in a way that’s comfortable for us and gets the point across that we want. At the start of my career, I found writing things down useful. Having notes or bullet points that I could speak around, but ultimately had a skeleton, helped shape how I do presentations. I deliver global keynotes to audiences of thousands and thousands of people, and it doesn’t phase me. It doesn’t bother me because of that framework that I have ingrained into my head of being very concise and wrapping back around. The second thing to leading at every level is finding a mentor or a sponsor. Sometimes it’s daunting to do this by yourself. Sponsors and mentors have also played a big part in my early career. If you find someone or think that someone might be a good fit for you, maybe because they’re of a similar background to you and in a similar industry, is that you ask them.

There are few things more flattering for me than when someone asks me to be their mentor, even if I’m not the right fit. Ultimately, it means that someone sees something in me and thinks, “Maybe I can learn something, and also, she’s done something cool.” Ask someone. Never keep it to yourself. The only thing that will be detrimental to you is not asking. If you ask and someone can’t do it, that’s okay. You start again. Finding a mentor helps you guide that decision-making, bringing you across the things you are interested in. Remember that not all mentor relationships work out, and that’s okay. Please remember that telling someone is okay if you get a pairing that doesn’t feel right. “You know what? I don’t think this is what either of us wants, and if it’s not working, we should call it quits.” That’s fine. Any good mentor will understand that.

If I feel like someone isn’t quite the right fit, I will tell them, “I appreciate that you’ve asked me to be your mentor. Do you feel like you’re getting what you want out of this? If you do, that’s great. But also, I think maybe I know someone that could be an even better fit for you.” I’ve spent more time when people have asked me to be their mentor, and from the beginning, I knew I wasn’t the right person. I’ll find someone else that will be. I can at least be that avenue. The third thing in leading at every level is finding a community. Sometimes it isn’t easy to do these things yourself as a junior or a mid-tier person in your career. You will not be the only person trying to do that. Try and find some sense of community. I love the work Women Who Code does because it’s about creating, bonding, and finding a community of people going through similar things with similar paths. It all won’t be linear.

Listening is the fourth thing that’s important in leading at every level. All too often, we speak more than we hear. The problem is that we make very biased decisions because we’re just serving ourselves and don’t want to do that. You will be at some stage even if you’re not a senior leader. It’s critical to start to think about the leader you want to be in the future, and great listening is a good part of that. I want you to think about how you listen to people, really making sure that. Don’t just listen, waiting for your turn to speak. Listen and digest what someone has said, and then provide a response. That’s one of the best leadership skills I think anyone can have. My final and fifth point on leading at every level is practicing vulnerability.

We want leaders that are empathetic, invulnerable, and can make decisions. We often don’t have that, and then we make rushed, biased, or exclusionary decisions. When you’re starting to lead at your level, practice being the leader you want to be in the future, and think about what it means to be open about mistakes and successes. Give credit to everybody in the room. Leading at every level is a possible thing. We mustn’t just raise our heads and mimic the leaders that we see in front of us. Our leadership style is our leadership style. Always remember that you have a voice. Given the work I do in diversity and inclusion, I know that not everybody’s voice is heard in the same way.

My call to those within the majority demographics is to remember that you have an avenue to provide those underrepresented folks with avenues to speak and to be heard. Remember that leading at every level doesn’t mean you are the only one speaking. It means that you provide avenues for other people to speak, be heard, and have their insights actioned. Leadership is a gratifying job, but it is busy, and it cannot be easy. Knowing that we’ve made an impact, we’re doing something to change something, and leaving it better is the best part of the job.