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Supercharging the drive for diversity and inclusion across our industry

Diversity and Inclusion By Olga Litkovets, Global Director of Business Development and Marketing – 05 December 2022

Olga in a pink trouser sort talking to two colleagues in the Dubai office


Olga Litkovets in office

Olga Litkovets

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Following the great success of the ‘Women in Construction Diversity & Inclusion Summit’, Middle East Consultant sat down with Olga Litkovets to discuss the steps Cundall are taking to drive the construction industry's diversion and inclusion agenda.

This article was originally published in the November edition of Middle East Consultant.

What initiatives have you put in place that have enabled the gender, diversity & inclusion agenda to develop more traction in this sector?

“The first thing I should say is that here at Cundall, we believe that it’s vital that these initiatives start at the top, so the right messages are then crystal clear and sent to everyone in the business. A big step in our D&I journey was appointing a Head of Talent, Diversity & Inclusion in 2019. Shortly after, we set about creating a strategy and driving an important series of improvements to how we do things.

"We set ourselves stretching targets and held ourselves visibly accountable for our successes and failures, not least through opening up regular channels for feedback and dialogue on our progress. Kieran has a proven track record in driving culture change within large, complex organisations, and is known in the construction industry for his contributions to diversity and inclusion - and we felt that this kind of experience would help Cundall to achieve our goal of becoming the most inclusive business in our industry.

“Moreover, in July this year, we further demonstrated our commitment to ‘walking the walk’ when we appointed Carole O’Neil as our Global Managing Partner. Carole is an incredibly impressive business leader, and one of the only figures from an HR background to lead a major international business in our sector. She is already breaking through many barriers as a non-technical female leader within the industry.

“We’ve also created several thriving, employee-run networks (sometimes known as “ERG’s”), which not only provide strong levels of peer-to-peer support but raise awareness outside Cundall, into the wider industry. Let me give you some examples of what they do.

“Firstly, there’s Mosaic. Mosaic is Cundall's ethnicity & culture network and provides a forum for people of minority and underrepresented ethnicities and cultures to connect and share experiences and ideas. Mosaic is influential in promoting ethnic diversity, representation and inclusion at Cundall. The network is inclusive, and as such welcomes participation from any colleagues (regardless of ethnicity) who would like to learn about and support diversity and inclusion on the basis of ethnicity and culture.

“Then, we have GAIN. GAIN is Cundall's gender, affinity and inclusion network working to influence greater gender diversity, representation, and inclusion across the whole practice.

“The GAIN network aims to facilitate discussion among women and gender minorities, and to encourage further gender equality at Cundall. The network welcomes participation from men as allies who wish to play an active role in challenging gender inequality in our business and our industry.

“Divergent is our newest network. This has been an incredibly popular network, and is focussed on neurodiversity - specifically driving neuro-inclusion across the practice. This means fostering a business culture and ways of working that removes barriers to success for dyslexic, autistic, ADHD and other neurodiverse colleagues.

“Did you know that 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent, but typically, only 1 in 20 people are identified? This means many of us are working alongside people in our teams and businesses who process information and the world in a way that is atypical. So, the goal here is to better appreciate the specific strengths and preferences of all of our colleagues, so we can all work more collaboratively towards shared success.

"Our neurodiverse community can bring new perspectives which will help us to work more effectively both individually and together. An example: let’s imagine for a second that we're building a set of shelves. Would we really try to use a screwdriver or tape measure to help with inserting a dowel or would we use a hammer? But if we were putting a hole in the wall to attach the shelves, we wouldn't be using the hammer. As fantastically as the hammer performed in the first scenario, a drill would be far better suited to this job. Both tools could be used in each scenario, but they both have specific strengths that we should take advantage of.

"In the same way, we should aim to develop and utilise the talents of our people to the best of their abilities. We're all human, we all have different strengths – so it is key that we enable those strengths to flourish.

“Something that I also want to emphasise is that, following the comprehensive overhaul of our recruitment and selection policy, we’ve adopted - for the first time ever - what’s known as the ‘Rooney Rule’ for our leadership-level recruitment.

“No doubt that this is a bold step. It requires us to interview at least one ethnic minority and one woman for all leadership roles. We feel this is a necessary tactic to ensure we are casting the net beyond our immediate networks and hiring the very best leadership from all backgrounds and identities. It also demonstrates the urgency behind our drive to bring about representative role models at the top of the business.”

Have you created diversity initiatives that are truly market-leaders, above and beyond those we see in other businesses?

“Let me give you some examples here of how we work both internally and externally.

“Firstly, we have a number of outreach activities. For example, we sponsor students from underprivileged communities and we offer three internship and student sponsorships. We reach out proactively and work with schools and universities to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity.

“We’re putting a big focus on working with schools, in fact, because it’s important that we can inform and inspire children before they get to university - this really makes a difference in terms of the gender balance across key subjects and courses. Just take a look, for example, at how well this approach has worked with business and management courses - and there’s no reason why it can’t also work across the STEM disciplines, too. According to Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Management, about 67% of all undergraduate and post-graduate business students in the UAE are women - and 42% of those are Emirati women! It’s only by better outreach to schools that we’ll see a similar shift across the relevant STEM subjects.

“Another good example is our dedicated inclusive leadership programme, which runs for 12 months and has been rolled out to 25 senior leaders across the business. This programme ensures that leaders are taking the time to understand their own biases, to engage with different views and perspectives, and to convert their good intentions around the principles of diversity and inclusion into visible action.

"The idea is for our leaders to understand the power they possess to influence the culture and practices in our business, and to use that power for the benefit of everyone through their every-day interactions and decision making.

“Linked to this, we feel strongly that a workplace culture that offers dignity and respect to all, that encourages the sharing of ideas and perspectives, and that values difference, is of benefit to everyone.”

“A key factor here, for example, is in recognising - and responding to - some of the classic difficulties that women have had to deal with in the workplace. So often, ‘returners’ have had to settle for second best, but here at Cundall, women returning from maternity leave are mentored by key leaders so they can revise their skillsets as required, get back context and equilibrium, and return to full productivity. ‘Returners’ can also work for three days per week, not five, in order to achieve better work/life balance in those early days of parenting. The key is that we take nothing for granted when it comes to the individual circumstances and ambitions of returners; but rather listen, adapt and respond in ways that help people re-integrate with the support they need to succeed.”

What are the key things that a business needs to action in developing an effective diversity programme - and how has your organisation been a champion of these?

“I believe there are four critical steps here; the following are the actions that Cundall took:

  1. The first key action was to listen to our people. We carried out extensive internal surveys. We can’t assume, we really need the facts, and that means listening to our employees and giving them the opportunity to be critical.
  2. Creating and empowering employee networks, as discussed earlier. This is a powerful channel and creates a community that can do things differently.
  3. Visibly taking actions - those networks each have a dedicated budget to run initiatives, and their voice is heard at Board level – but we have also been pushing to ensure that visible action is taken by members of our senior leadership team.
  4. Accountability - holding each other accountable and shifting to cultures where leaders can be enfranchised in the dialogue, reached, and if necessary, criticised.”

What would you describe as the key successes so far and what are your prime objectives?

“Our commitment is to continue on our ED&I journey, and to build a business that really embraces the power of difference. Our journey is just beginning and we have a long way to go, but we have already achieved some impressive results. I am excited about where we go from here.

“Plus, this has been an exceptional 12 months - we have doubled the proportion of women among our leadership, seen a 15% increase of women in our workforce and implemented 15 new policies to help drive improvements to our culture and ways of working.

“Cundall has set a clear strategy for diversity and inclusion, and is committed to substantially increase the proportion of women in our workplace and leadership roles.

“By initiating targeted positive action across recruitment and development we are super-charging our push for a more representative workforce, while simultaneously raising the standard of leadership and management across the practice. There is no question about trying to fill a particular quota – we are only interested in the very best people at all levels. But through the changes we have implemented in recruitment and development, we’re no longer fishing from such a small pond. There are exceptionally talented people from diverse backgrounds in our business and across our industry; and we are determined to ensure they are all welcome and supported to flourish at Cundall.

“We will continue to publish our reports publicly every year so we hold ourselves accountable in a highly transparent way, and continue to learn and evolve. Ultimately, for us diversity and inclusion is about collaboration, wellbeing, high performance, and commercial success. There’s probably no better incentives for an organisation to aspire to an inclusive culture than those.”