Big Interview: Coralee Fitzgibbon, part-one.

GHD is paving the way as a true leader in D&I, having recently created the new role ‘Inclusion and Diversity Leader, Asia Pacific’, which Coralee Fitzgibbon has stepped into. 

In the first of a two-part interview, you’ll learn how Coralee found a career in this space, the skills and expertise required for the role, the work the role involves, and the unique challenges engineering and architecture face when it comes to diversity and inclusion. 

Can you tell us about yourself and how you got into this exciting role as GHD’s inclusion and diversity leader in Asia Pacific?

I think most Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) practitioners haven’t taken a direct path to this job. 

For me, I started my career in Psychology. I studied Health Psychology and was always really interested in understanding how to help people feel more able to be their authentic selves. 

At the time, it was related to how that impacted their health. At this stage, I was working with academics – but I wanted to work in the real world. So, I moved into the corporate landscape and spent about 12 years in the market research and customer experience space.

It was in my previous role at the Bank of New Zealand where I realised there was a real career in I&D. It’s not a nice, packaged up role you necessarily think about. It was one of those things where I started working alongside the person who was looking after at I&D at the time, and the opportunity came up for me to step into that.

Suddenly, I realised all this work I’d been doing voluntarily on the side (such as promoting employee mental health, wellbeing, supporting people, and unpicking what was happening for our staff) was a formal role I could move into. I was lucky to be given that opportunity.

Quite quickly, I ended up establishing I&D in a slightly different way and put lots of great initiatives in place and drove accountability in terms of measurement. But I wanted a role where I had more opportunity to learn from others who were practitioners. That’s one of the big challenges in New Zealand – this work is often a sole role. It’s one person who ends up looking after I&D in an organisation, with a network of colleagues supporting in a voluntary capacity. But you rely on external networks to build your I&D capability and exposure.

I saw this opportunity at GHD advertised, and I was attracted to the idea of being in a team. It’s unusual to come across this here – a team of I&D practitioners where I could learn from other people and share the load, because it’s quite an emotional space to work in. There’s a high degree of resilience required. And just knowing you’ve got a team of other practitioners you can talk with about those challenges and brainstorm together what the solutions might be… That was exciting for me.

I&D is hard work – because it’s about long-term cultural and behavioural change. You must be prepared for the long game because it requires that degree of resilience. Finding people who are eager to face into those challenges; it takes a particular type of person. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to join the team. 

When I started, I felt uncertain around what to expect in terms of looking after an Asia Pacific (APAC) space in the I&D world. I’m very familiar with the challenges we face in New Zealand, and somewhat familiar with what’s happening in Australia, but less so in terms of extending out into the Pacific and the Asia space. So that’s been a learning curve for me. 

Despite the unknowns, the reality is that it’s just about humanity. Regardless of geography, it’s still fundamentally about people wanting to be able to be themselves, without having to relinquish a part of themselves or assimilate when they’re in a workplace. With the added complexity now of a workplace being remote in some situations.

That’s fascinating how you’ve come into this work. You didn’t set out to get into I&D, but your background seemed to have led you there.

A big part of my background was in data and analytics. Those skills may not be traditionally thought about in terms of I&D roles, but this skillset is really necessary. Because if we can’t tell a story out of the data we have, and we’re not using data well, or driving accountability with our measurement, then change won’t happen and we won’t see progress. 

So, what does your role in your work involve? 

I provide advice, expertise, and leadership around anything related to inclusion, diversity, and equity. 

There’s a lot of overlap between elements of People Services, and I need to think about the relationship between I&D, talent, leadership, training and developing our people, graduates, and interns. I work on making sure we’re applying that I&D lens to all of those processes and systems related to people.

That’s something I&D practitioners are trying to encourage; a change in thinking around what I&D and this work means – because it’s not separate. It’s not a separate initiative or a separate piece of work that you do. For it to be sustainable and successful, what needs to happen is that I&D is built into the existing processes, systems, and ways of working.

As the leader of this space across APAC, one of our big areas of focus is driving more consistency. There has been a lot of great work done, and there is certainly a high degree of enthusiasm and commitment, but we haven’t necessarily linked it all up. Creating a more standardised way of doing this work across the business, globally, can be a challenge.

Is this a new role?

Yes, it is, I’ve been in the role since October and it’s a new way of managing I&D for GHD.

Around nine months ago our Enterprise I&D Leader joined GHD. That was a newly formed role off the back of our Board and senior leadership committing to an aspiration for GHD to lead the industry in the space. That clearly needed resource and expertise. From here, a small team of regional I&D leaders have been appointed – we are based in Canada, America, the Middle East, and New Zealand.

Previously the way I&D was managed was very localised or geography specific, but with us now having our own Community of Expertise, we’re able to take it up a level. The questions we need to ask are how could some of the things that have been implemented and worked nationally work across a larger region, or globally, and could we make greater impact if we think about things in a broader way?

I didn’t realise it was a brand-new role. That shows also just how highly GHD regards this work as well, which is awesome to see.

I would say it’s a central part of our people and business strategies. We have an aspiration to be leading the industry in this space, and we can’t do that without significant people, time, and resources. So, we’ve put our commitment into these roles.

Having previously worked at the Bank of New Zealand and other sectors, have you found that engineering and architecture present unique challenges when it comes to I&D?

Increasing women’s representation is something all organisations are striving towards – and compared to the banking sector is perhaps something engineering, and architecture is still a little bit further away from achieving. 

I think we need to challenge ourselves to think a bit differently about what skill sets and traits make great engineers or architects. It can be a challenging conversation to have, but there’s a lot of open-mindedness around that as well. 

The generations that are coming through now, they value different things. They’re studying different things, looking for different things in terms of employers and the type of work they want to do. And a lot of those things relate to that sense of inclusion and belonging, but also social impact and the impact their work is having beyond themselves. 

I think we need to go on that journey as an industry as well, to be thinking about that more front and centre.

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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