Big Interview: Coralee Fitzgibbon, part-two.

In the second half of Coralee’s interview, you’ll learn the challenges that come with the role of Inclusion and Diversity Leader. You’ll get insight into how New Zealand’s is doing in the D&I space – including areas we could improve on and where we’re doing well. And for our small to medium sized firms who mightn’t have the capacity for a standalone D&I position, you’ll get advice on where to start.

What’s a big challenge you find with your work?

This just my personal reflection. And there are a few things.

Often, the way businesses operate has traditionally been set up in a way that doesn’t work well for more diverse perspectives and underrepresented groups. This includes all facets of diversity and identity – not just gender, but everything that makes people unique. Neurodiversity is a good example; usually processes and systems are set up for neurotypical ways of thinking. So, to try and undo those things can be quite challenging. Investment is required to address and implement new systems or new processes. 

There are often a lot of passionate, enthusiastic, committed people when it comes to this space. I very rarely find people who don’t agree making organisations more inclusive and representative is the right thing to do. That’s not the struggle. People want to be part of an organisation that allows them to be who they are and work in a way that works for them without having to fit a mould. Most would agree having different opinions and thoughts and ways of working is helpful in a team situation.

The challenge is how much accountability and responsibility you’re prepared to take for that change. Because often, it gets put back on the I&D practitioner or the HR team. But the way we are going to make sustainable change is not if we continue to do separate things, but if we integrate I&D into what’s already there – or challenge and change the things that are already there. And that requires everybody’s effort and application and preparedness to challenge the status quo and have vulnerable conversations.

We’ve talked a lot about systems and processes, but it’s also people and leadership oriented as well. The traditional view of what a great leader looks like might not be conducive in all situations for that real inclusive setting. So, how do we encourage people that may have been leaders in an organisation for decades to review their own leadership approach, and be prepared to go on a journey to alter that slightly for the benefit of themselves and the colleagues around them? It can be quite confronting.

It’s emotional and it can be uncomfortable. We can’t just launch a program and miraculously I&D is solved for an organisation. The sustainability of those programs, their success and the long-term impact requires ongoing, relentless drive and commitment – and accountability and responsibility from everyone.

That challenge isn’t specific to GHD or certain organisations. It’s a challenge in this space more broadly.

On the flip side, there are amazing stories of progress and sometimes it’s the smallest thing that can make the biggest difference as well. So, it’s not all negative and there is definitely positive change happening. But if we’re talking about challenges, they can be quite embedded.

Have you found there’s areas that we do need to focus on, or on a more positive note, are doing really well?

I’ve got the benefit of looking at this work both from the New Zealand context and now also being able to consider what’s happening in other countries across the APAC region. 

I think New Zealand is in a unique position. A lot of our organisations, particularly in this sector, are global companies. This means the flexibility to adjust things is less than if you were a bespoke New Zealand owned company, but at the same time, because we’re a smaller market, we often have an opportunity to try different things. Often other parts of the world will look and see what’s happened here and maybe learn from that, because we can act as a pilot or test case.

I think that allows us to try things a little differently. Maybe with a slightly smaller amount of risk. That being said, I don’t think there’s much risk in doing things to create greater inclusion… but for some, they might consider it a risk if there’s significant investment. It puts us in an interesting position. 

There’s also a lot of great pieces of work being done here to improve cultural representation and capability. I’m realising other countries aren’t as far along in that journey – not to say that there’s not work happening, because there is. 

The Treaty of Waitangi provides us with a foundation from which to partner with and uphold Tangata Whenua, and I see more and more organisations embarking on journeys to better understand and incorporate Te Ao Māori into their business. I see it in this sector, because so much of the work we do requires us to engage and work on iwi land – and our clients are asking us to demonstrate capability in this space.

New Zealand is on a real journey with this. We’re seeing a reclamation of Te Reo Māori – you only have to look at the waitlists to enrol in Te Reo learning to see the resurgence of the language. But language is only one element and there’s certainly still a huge degree of work to do to truly create equity and equality…

For us, with a lot of the work that we do, we talk to people, like yourself, who are part of large organisations – and they have the resource to put behind the sort of work. Do you have any advice for smaller firms who don’t have the capacity for a standalone D&I position, but they have the same level of commitment and want to drive that?

I think it’s just about starting. Often there’s all the desire in the world to do something, but uncertainty around what to actually do. Often, I&D efforts will focus on tactical things like running some celebrations or having a guest speaker come in, but I don’t think that’s enough. Of course, those things help and drive a sense of connection for people, but I don’t think they are the things that are going to drive systemic change. 

It goes back to what we were saying before – if you’re a small organisation and you’re committed to this, it’s about reviewing what you’re already doing.  If you’ve got people systems and people processes in place, looking at those, and thinking about inclusion and diversity in all of the areas of the work you’re already doing, rather than trying to implement new things. That’s the way that you’ll see sustainable change.         

I see I&D starting down a similar pathway as health and safety or sustainability – where previously they were seen as separate things. But quite quickly, we’ve realised it’s about building them into what’s already there and making it part of your DNA and how you operate. 

That would be my advice – it might take time to do those things, but I don’t think you need to have a separate standalone I&D person doing it. You can take that into what you are already doing. 

That might mean you need to have an external person provide advice or conduct a review of what’s there and give some recommendations. That would be a great first step, to think about it in the context of what you’re doing and applying an I&D lens.

Do you have anything else to add? 

I&D is an area which, if we manage to get it right, we’re only going to see success for our people, our communities, and the societies we’re operating in. But I think another challenge in the engineering and architecture industry is the nature of organisational culture change and how this compares to the nature of the work most engineers and architects do. Engineering and architecture is planful and is usually timebound; you have a program of work you’re going to deliver – and it might be years, or it might be months, but there’s limits around when it’s complete. Something is either built, or it’s not. Has consent or not. Whereas cultural change and I&D isn’t necessarily like that. 

My advice is to take individuals and stakeholders on that journey of thinking about I&D in a slightly different way. 

Because it’s not just done – or not. Efforts in the space of I&D will always be needed, we need to think about it in terms of continuous learning and improvement. So, we need to talk about I&D in terms of longer term and ever-evolving cultural change, and that can be challenging. But it’s exciting, because often it just takes a conversation and the mindset is shifted with a response of, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about this that way. Of course.” And then you move forward. 


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

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