This month's PurpleSpace theme is all about leadership. To be specific, the art of asking the right questions.
And as I mulled on the ways in which I have seen the #ERG #Network community do this – often backed by remarkable allies and champions, I couldn’t help but think about Sir Philip Rutnam KCB, a senior civil servant in the UK, whose resignation we saw over the weekend.
Since the get-go the PurpleSpace Bursary Scheme has had the pleasure of being backed and sponsored by Philip – not shy of asking the right questions about disability inclusion across Whitehall and beyond, he had the uncanny knack of getting to the root of the challenges disabled employees faced. In 2015, not long after writing the book Secrets & Big News, all about what is often called the “disclosure” of disability he invited me to meet him and cover off the key ‘big ideas’ contained in the book. When invited into his office his copy had post-it stickers popping out of it – some of the pages had the edges turned down. He had written notes about the parts of the book he wanted to talk through. He had done his homework.
The book’s conclusions were about the fact the time was right to build the community of disabled employees via the creation of high performing Networks and Resource Groups. And to build a more sophisticated understanding about how hard it is to bring your authentic self to work, as a disabled person. We talked about the use of language. Inspiration porn. What allies & champions can do to help. He asked if he could help. I said yes, and his ‘sponsorship’ of networks and resource groups in the broadest sense has, in my view, been one of the most important components in the advances made over the last 4 – 5 years.
Is there more to do for disabled employees in the civil service? Hell yes. But as I penned this blog over the weekend and reflected on all those who have contributed to our story so far and the lessons of the great leaders, I felt an acute loss of such a remarkable Disability Champion. He will be missed, but his knack of asking the right questions about disability inclusion is something we must continue to do.
My top tips in leading the disability agenda
1. Map out your direction informed by asking great questions
It is all well and good being the chair of a Network / ERG but if you don’t focus clearly on your direction of travel and your goals you may as well stand down now. To be successful as a Network / ERG leader you need to break down your direction of travel into component parts – you need a clear vision, define the goals, take action and then monitor and measure your results. And to create that direction you have to continually ask great questions. Not just when you take up your appointment. Always and throughout your tenure.
2. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable
You have to move beyond your comfort zone. As a Network / ERG leader, you sometimes have to listen to uncomfortable information about the lived experience of disabled employees and, from time to time, you might need to say to some colleagues, ‘this is unacceptable’. As a means to an end, it is often prudent to call out unacceptable practice in private meetings, not public forums, enabling others to save face. But you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable at times. Successful leaders move out of their comfort zone.
3. In the face of doubt, you still have to bring people with you
Some of the social care decisions of the last decade have arguably had some of the worst outcomes on disabled people, including those in work. As leaders, it means hearing deeply moving accounts of how hard it is to remain independent, secure the right healthcare or support or sustain employment. Successful leaders in the disability landscape help others to transcend today’s struggles, build resilience and inner confidence and hone the strength to live life and move on. Successful leaders challenge folk to think new bold thoughts and they leave no one behind.
4. You have to learn from failure and move on with dignity
I haven't yet met a great Network / ERG leader that hasn’t at one time or another failed. It just isn’t possible to lead without failing sometimes. The only way to avoid failing is to lead nervously – and that means you are likely to fail anyway. Successful leaders learn from their mistakes and move on with dignity. See your failures as bruises, not tattoos. See them as a wrong turn, not the final destination.
5. You have to keep a cool head when there are lots of hot ones around
Michelle Obama famously said in 2016 “when they go low, we go high”. Great leaders ignore the ill-informed critics, those that fear your motives, those who see you as a competitor. Successful leaders rise high above the drama, keep a cool head and keep on going.
6. You have to be persistent
Yup. Enough said.
7. You have to stay positive
No-one loves a drain. Successful leaders radiate a positive spirit. If you are a “half-empty” person rather than “half full” you will find it hard to excite others. Progress for disabled people will largely be determined by how the leaders of tomorrow will create, promote and build a positive, life-affirming narrative. That will start with ourselves building disability confidence from the inside-out. Stay positive (if you can – and of course some of our number cannot, because of impairment related experience of mental ill-health – and that is ok).
8. You have to be kind and show love others even if it isn’t reciprocated
When did you last send an email to your CEO to praise him or her for something? For signing up to #Valuable 500? Or for rocking up at your #PurpleLightUp gig or recording a video message on 3rd December? When did you last buy abox of biscuits for your overworked Diversity & Inclusion colleague? Successful leaders go out of their way to tell others what they like about them as well as what they like about what they do. They offer praise when its due. Stick your neck out and personally acknowledge and compliment those who are doing well. Take the time to be kind, to show your love and to care.
9. You have to lead by example
Human beings tend to learn more by watching what others do than just listening to what they say. Be your own best self. Be someone worth copying. Cultivate the skills you need to turn other people’s heads – when there is no logical path, create one.
KateNash OBE is the creator and CEO of PurpleSpace the world’s only network of disabled employee networks – delivering professional development to disabled employee network leaders in all sectors in the UK and across the globe.
Her life's work has been to make it easier for employers to routinely anticipate, expertly accommodate and positively celebrate the skills of disabled employees. She does that by supporting disabled employees to take an active role in their organisations “third phase of change” – where disabled employees form positive networks/resource groups to drive and support their organisation’s disability strategy. Her book “Secrets & Big News” in 2014 shared the views of 2,500disabled employees in how they can bring their authentic selves to work in order to build inner confidence – and to help their organisation to build disability confidence from the inside out.
In 2017 she ignited the #PurpleLightUp with a simple tweet – a new global movement using the color purple to unite disabled people around the world and to encourage us all to celebrate the economic contribution of disabled people during International Day of Persons with Disability on 3rd December each year.
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