Big Interview: Ralph Johns.

For our final Big Interview of the year, we talk to Ralph Johns, CEO of Isthmus Group and a committed Diversity Agenda Accord signatory.

Ralph discusses their D&I journey, how data collection and employee surveys opened their eyes, closing the gender pay gap, and their journey to truly embracing and embedding te ao Māori.

Tell us about yourself and your role?

I grew up in South Wales, at a time where there was the impetus to ensure the Welsh language and culture didn’t die out. We experienced a cultural resurgence from the mid 1980s – and now Wales is fully bi-cultural, and the language is back in everyday use.

I went to university to study engineering, but wished I was doing architecture. I graduated just as the early 1990s recession started to bite. There were no jobs. I got a paper round and scooped ice-cream for six months. My ‘year out’ turned into six years. My mum had a lodger who was a landscape architect, and she thought I might be interested in doing that as a proper job. I was.

So, I went to Sheffield University for two years and came out with a Masters degree. I then worked for a landscape architect that inspired me, Robert Camlin. I learnt how to read the layers of ‘cultural marks’ within the landscape and design with meaning and purpose.

In 2000, I spotted a job at the new School of Design in Wellington. I got the position and travelled here on a one-way ticket. I worked with a small team to establish the landscape architecture programme. After five years, the programme gained accreditation, and I left to join Isthmus as the Wellington Studio Manager.

I’ve been CEO for eight years now. My role has changed a lot over the years as the business has grown. We employ over 90 people with studios in three cities. My role is to support everyone to achieve their potential, guided by our kaupapa, values and strategic plan.

Tell us about Isthmus?

Isthmus is a studio of architects, landscape architects, urban designers and graphic designers. And specialists such as finance, IT, HR – diversity, within a cohesive, tight-knit culture.

We focus on projects, working across these disciplines, remaining closely connected to land, environment and natural systems.

So, it was about five years ago, that you started your journey in the D&I space and stepped up your game. What led Isthmus to this?

As a lot of good things are, it was a bottom-up initiative. In our business, our people are creative, curious, and confident – they ask the hard questions, which is great. We try and maintain a culture that’s very transparent and open. That stuff doesn’t just sit there, unspoken.

That was the beginning of things, having an open culture. And then these questions started popping up – and I want to acknowledge, there’s real bravery from these people who asked the difficult questions. They were the working mums, the curious graduates, asking: Do women get paid the same as men? Why are the directors all men?

So instead of just fobbing people off or thinking, “Oh my God, we’re being attacked. We need to come up with some answers.” We just really opened up and created a safe space to unpack the conversations.

At the time, there were some people who were nervous about that happening. They were worried that we’d open a tin of worms. It was hard having these conversations and people were a little guarded at the beginning. But you’ve got to build trust and maintain openness.

Yeah. Well, I guess, although five years doesn’t sound that long ago, we’ve come so far in that time regarding these conversations. Back then, those topics were only beginning to be discussed in the mainstream.

Yeah, especially when no one else was talking about it. It’s easy to think “Can’t we just carry on ignoring it as we have been for ages?”

But that’s the thing about leading, you’ve got to go into uncomfortable territory. You’ve got to make yourself vulnerable.

You’re an Accord signatory of the Diversity Agenda and you are also a founding partner. Why was that important to you?

As soon as I learned about the Diversity Agenda, I knew we needed to be in this collective conversation – we didn’t need any convincing because we’d already started that journey. 

I could see being part of a broader industry conversation meant we could have the opportunity to learn from what others were doing, compare notes, and we would be able to share some of our experiences at the front line with this stuff.

When the Accord came a couple of years after that, it felt really good to be a part of it. Because it wasn’t just clicking to subscribe – we’re now actually being held to account on something. So, I think that was a good move for the Diversity Agenda and a good thing for us, because that started to give it some level of commitment.

As part of the Accord, we have the data collection. How you have found the data collection and how have you approached it? With some firms, there’s hesitation around asking people questions to do with D&I. Do you have any advice on this?

To be honest, we found it straightforward. It was a really useful prompt for us to do some type of analysis that we hadn’t done. So the data is one thing, we had all of that within our systems.

What you asked for meant that we had to analyse and look at that data, perhaps in ways that we weren’t doing as part of our normal reporting.

That was interesting. It prompted us to start our internal diversity survey. After we sent you our data, we realised there was a couple of areas where we needed more information.

We initially thought we knew our people well. But we realised, when it came to knowing things like people’s ethnicities, we had never asked that question.

I guess some people don’t know how to ask those questions. They don’t want to offend by asking. So, from that, with your internal diversity survey, was that when you began to ask those questions?

Yeah. It was fascinating seeing the results were different to what we might have guessed.

Gender identity, sexuality, functional impairment, activity limitations, and neurodiversity, were other things we added to that questionnaire. Now, things like dyslexia sit very closely with three-dimensional skills. So, we think perhaps dyslexia and design talent tend to travel together.

So, having this data, does it help you as a business cater to all the different facets of diversity within your organisation?

Absolutely. Just knowing and being aware, then starts to subtly impact the culture. We hired somebody who was six months pregnant – she was only working with us a month before going on parental leave. And now she’s back, it’s like, right, we need to create a place, where the baby can come in a couple of times a day and be fed. 

We’ve done a similar thing in the Tāmaki Makaurau studio. We hired a graduate who needed to pray three times a day – and we needed to make space for that.

These things do translate into, not just a culture, but removing the physical barriers that can get in the way of being open and supportive. 

It starts to give us a way into opening some other conversations. We share articles and have a heap of internal channels like Slack. So just being able to share stuff, from everything on wellbeing, to diversity articles and so on. That’s a good easy way of starting conversations – as a business we’re saying this is interesting and relevant to us.

And I want to make mention of the Diversity Agenda Accord network. Recently, our People and Culture Leader reached out to Diversity Agenda, and you were able to share one of the bigger engineering firms’ information, as an example for us to go off. Having that Accord hub is brilliant. People have got to start their own conversations, but then when it comes to what to do next, there’s a wealth of information and people that already started the journey. So, through the Diversity Agenda, everyone can tap into those resources. 

Am I correct in thinking Isthmus has closed the gender pay gap?

Yeah, we have. We’ve made sure we have.

It’s one of those things that’s awkward at first. It was probably over five years ago when I was first asked if we had a gender pay gap. And I was a bit defensive at the time, “No, of course, we don’t… everyone gets paid and gets promoted based on their attributes and who they are and how long you’ve been here and how much responsibility you take.”

And then when we ran the numbers — we had an independent HR consultant at the time – someone removed from the situation looking at the facts and the figures and then testing. They’d ask, “why is that and that not the same?” And I’d say: “Oh they left and then came back, or they’ve had two babies, or they haven’t been on the management team”.  Then they’d question, “But the job they’re doing now is this is the same. Why don’t those align?” So first it was a process of accepting that there were gaps. 

As soon as we acknowledged, understood, and accepted that gaps did exist, and some of the gaps were a reasonable size, we closed them over two or three iterations of promotions and salary reviews.

It’s not an exact science or algorithm, and there’s always some under and overs within a band. So some of our bands at the moment, when you run the equity numbers, the females are paid more than the males. The bands are equal and some are a bit the other way, but it’s a function of how people are moving through.

So, the process is useful. The calculation is a data point, but other factors come into it. Everything makes sense and stacks up now – and when it’s tested, it’s robust.

It’s also something that can change as well. It’s something you keep needing to review, isn’t it? Because, as you said new people come in and promotions get made. So, it’s always just having that lens, accepting it does exist, and keeping it at bay.

That’s a really good way of putting it. Because things creep over time, don’t they? So it’s making sure that it’s a lens that is applied every time and it doesn’t slide or backwards.

I also read in that great article that you’re doing awesome stuff when it comes to embracing te ao Māori. Could you tell us about this?

Again, this one’s very much a journey. With adventures, often the hardest bit is setting out. It’s easy to think and talk and plan, but then one day you’ve got to leave. And you’re off and it feels a bit scary.

It was driven by our strategic plan, which is very much a map and it’s set up to be a journey of exploration rather than a linear set of goals.

Out of the five big moves in the strategy, one of them was called the Mauri – Use the force. Mauri being the energy and life force within things. And that spun out into a few sub-goals. And one of them was really about embracing mātauranga Māori. Not just knowing the knowledge is there and something that we needed to relate to, but embedding it.

Our approach is not to add or apply it like a sticker. Our approach is to embed it through everything that we do and therefore in everybody. So, give everybody the ownership and the confidence. 

Now, that takes a while to build. But it’s starting to gather its momentum. As a core group of people put in the mahi and become confident in te reo, they bring the less confident ones along behind them. It’s working well and shifting the overall studio culture towards where we want it to be in terms of embracing and honouring te Tiriti, and partnering with mana whenua.

For us, it’s not just how we relate to each other together in the studio, it’s about our purpose, why do we do that? It’s for the projects, clients and communities that we work with.

It gives us the confidence to go out and work with collaborators, and with mana whenua to have deeper conversations, more engaging processes, and all of that leads to doing better work, which makes more of an impact.

Do you have any examples of how you embrace mātauranga Māori and embed it in your culture?

Matariki goes back the furthest. We first celebrated Matariki as a studio in 2008. And it was maybe about 10 years ago that we made it a day off. We have dinner in the studio and invite everybody’s partners and whānau.

We thought Matariki needed to be a public holiday for everyone in Aotearoa. So we put our voice behind that collective movement. And it’s so cool that next year, for the first time it will be a public holiday.

So that gave us a way to start going deeper and broader by engaging with mātauranga Māori. We’ve always had an annual conference, the one day a year where we get everybody from all the studios in one place. We don’t call it the conference anymore, we call it the wānanga. 

We have a different theme each year, but last year, we split into smaller groups and made connections with people we’ve worked with, with mana whenua all around the country. It took the form of a hīkoi, which was a really deep dive into the land, people, and culture of the mana whenua groups that we were working with.

We pulled all of that together in a story map. It was a rich learning experience. And I think you must do it together in an immersive way that creates a mass and momentum to it. 

And in terms of governance, we got to a point where if we want to go to the next level, we acknowledged that we’re a bunch of Pakeha sitting around the board table; well-intentioned Pakeha.  So, we went out and sought an additional independent director to close that gap. So we’ve got Danny Tuato’o on our board now and that’s given us even more depth.

It’s a continual process and I think we’ll go deeper with it, but yeah, it’s not enough just to have the bottom-up. It needs the governance to create the top-down mandate.

Around the board table now, having Danny challenging us all the time and bringing his knowledge of te ao Māori and his perspective going through working with other organisations, that’s really starting to move things forward even more.

So, in our strategic plan, we’re going deeper with tīkanga, that support our kaupapa, getting the concepts and the language more aligned, and going deeper into that world with confidence.


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

Scroll to Top