Listen above to this podcast by clicking the play arrow above or alternatively click below…

What is it about some organisations that can be going strong after literally hundreds of years?

What is it about these companies that they can maintain what it is that gives them such staying power, yet they can balance this with the renewal that it takes to keep them relevant in a world that keeps changing?

My guest on today’s edition of the podcast is Siobhan Martin, the Global Head of Inclusion & Diversity for Aegon, a multinational financial services institution that’s been in existence for 175 years.

In addition to drawing on her corporate experience Siobhan reflects on her role as a board member of All Hollows, one of the oldest churches in the City of London that’s been around since the year 675!

We explore this stability / renewal issue as it relates to the subject of improving diversity, equity and inclusion. And the role that executive leaders have in making it happen.

Jacqueline Conway  00:00

There’s an institution in California called the Long Now foundation, who aim to foster long term thinking. They’re in the process of creating what they describe as a monument scale mechanical clock built inside a mountain that’s designed to keep accurate time for the next 10 millennia. The foundation did a a piece of research a few years ago, that today’s episode brought back to my mind, and it was about what it is that gives organisations longevity.

My guest today is Siobhan Martin, who’s the Global Head of inclusion and diversity for Aegon, a multinational financial services institution that’s been in existence for 175 years. Now, in addition to drawing on her corporate experience Siobhan, in this fascinating conversation draws on her experience as a board member of All Hollows. It’s been around since 675, making it one of the oldest churches in the City of London. What I find particularly interesting is how organisations that have longevity can both maintain what it is that gives them such staying power, and how they balance this with the renewal that it takes to keep them relevant for the world. I’ll allow Siobhan introduce herself to you. And then we’ll get into some of these subjects more.

Siobhan Martin 02:24

Hey, Jacqueline. Well, so Siobhan Martin. I am Australian by birth, and I live here in the UK, in Edinburgh, and sometimes in London. I am the Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity for Aegon, a global insurer, multinational so we have people all around the world. I also sit on a number of Boards external to the firm. One of those is the oldest church in the City of London called All Hallows and we’ve been in existence since 675.

Jacqueline Conway

Wow. And isn’t that interesting that some institutions can have such longevity? And others just seem to be here, and then they’re gone.

Siobhan Martin 03:12

Well, indeed, yeah. So I was listening to a really interesting interview, or only yesterday about tech companies, because, of course, everything that’s happening around Twitter right at this very moment, and the interviewer spoke of companies that have been in Gone literally within the blink of an eye, that was so important to us at the time. And yet, yes, I work very closely with a group of people, and a very important institution for the life of the City of London that has been around for nearly 1400 years. It really gives you a perspective, when you’re taking these decisions every day as we have to as leaders,  what will be our legacy, and also what really matters.

Jacqueline Conway  03:58

Absolutely. An Aegon is also an institution with a very long and proud history, isn’t it?

Siobhan Martin 04:06

Indeed, yes, over 175 years of influence and activity and making sure that we help people live their best lives. That’s our purpose as an organisation.

Jacqueline Conway  04:22

And you have you have quite a new role, don’t you? Do you want to see a little bit about your inclusion and diversity role and where you came from before that?

Siobhan Martin 04:34

Oh, indeed, yes, yes. It’s very new in the making, for us. Lots of organisations have these roles. But this has been something that we’ve come to later and I think possibly for that. Wiser. So, it’s only a couple of months, that this role as a Gobal Head has existed in various parts of our organisation. We’ve had excellent practitioners for some time now, but to draw all of that together wherever we are in our world. So before I was doing that I was part of our Asset Management business. And I was the head of Culture, Leadership and Talent in that part of our world for the last three and a half years.

Jacqueline Conway  05:18

What you’ve had is this circuitous journey to where you are now. And obviously, the people who listen to this podcast are interested in executive leadership and what it means to exercise collective enterprise leadership, as we call it. So not just the functional role that the leader has, but how the make a contribution to wider society, by doing enterprise leadership within the institution that they work in. And so I guess I’m thinking about the role that you had around culture, and the role that you have now around diversity and inclusion. And I’m wondering what views you’ve come to around the importance of those things within the C suite? What do they mean for you?

Siobhan Martin 06:09

The importance of being inclusive?

Jacqueline Conway  06:14

Yes, the importance that executive leaders have in creating and maintaining a culture?

Siobhan Martin 06:24

Yes, indeed, yeah, because, of course, inclusivity is really just part of our cultural understanding. It’s one that element of that and how we operate and behave. Nothing is more important, when you think about it at its base level. Culture is how we behave around here. It’s what are the signs and symbols, what it is that we think and feel, and that we actually do? That’s quite a complicated subject, a lot gets blamed on culture. But then on the other hand, it is the vital grist to our mill. So being able to create a culture where people can really live at their best, I don’t think there’s anything more important that than a leader can do. And that requires a great deal of application, it is not something that you throw around some buzzwords around a table and think here, my work here is done. It’s every way that you show up every day with everyone. And by the showing up I mean, how you your body language, your speech, what you write, where you put your attention, where you turn up to who you enable opportunities for all of those, those things. Externally, internally. Everything that you do there is creating a culture, and is enabling other people to create the best culture that they can do, what you ask of them and what you pay attention to in them. And I think the criticality of that cannot be overstated.

Jacqueline Conway  08:14

One of the things that I’m interested in around how people move to the C-suite and what happens when sort of they are there, though, is do we give them enough support in understanding how important their impact is on culture? Because there is I think, I mean, I wonder what you make of this a disproportionate impact that senior leaders have on culture in an organisation?

Siobhan Martin 08:46

For sure, yeah, absolutely. And I think one of the tragedies is we rather, we’re more inclined to leave these things to accident, rather than conscious reflection, and building. And that’s not to say that by conscious reflection and an active building, that you’re doing something with artifice, not at all, you’re doing something with care, and you’re really digging deep into what is harder. I often hear in fact, even this very morning, I’ve heard someone refer to the softer side, meaning everything that happens around behaviour. There’s something that sounds quite diminishing by that phrase, because my experience is it isn’t soft, or in any way easy, but requires tenacity, courage, true commitment, a real cognizance of your own action. You’ve got to dig deep to that. There’s probably some more C’s that I can think of as we go along.

Jacqueline Conway  10:02

And one that another seed that you mentioned before we came on air and was actually compassion.

Siobhan Martin  10:12

Yes, absolutely. And this is, I think Compassionate Leadership is at the heart of doing these things well, now some people will listen to that, and probably immediately some part of them or react to that not in a positive way. And I have every empathy for that reaction it’s pushed through, because that isn’t about being soft. Being a compassionate leader is about finding strength, being pragmatic, really harnessing your wisdom, that’s hard to do. It doesn’t mean being sympathetic and spending time there veering anyone, or spending all your time talking to people and not finding difficult, you know, paths way through difficult things. That’s exactly what you have to do, as a leader to remove barriers. To truly understand the system, which systems are complicated, you need to apply a lot of your thought, you need to dig deep into yours, and lay yourself bare to criticism, to hearing things you really don’t want to hear, to sit in with complex and difficult situations that will bear fruit, if you can do that well. And if you can get the support that you’ll need through that activity, and allowing other people to do what they need to do. Because ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, is to be able to unlock the wisdom of others, and to allow others to do the best that they can do. By doing those things. Well, there’s a lot of evidence to show that the organisation has a much higher chance of flourishing, flourishing for whatever it is that that organisation exists for, whether that’s to be profitable, whether that’s to care for other human beings, whether that’s to make good products, whatever that organisation comes around for, we will have much more engaged motivated people who will be able to do what they do well in the service of that organization’s aims.

Jacqueline Conway  12:51

And yet, it’s still seen as you see as the sort of soft stuff. So there is still a transition that needs to be made doesn’t they’re in leadership, where it’s not just seen as well, they’re technically good on isn’t that nice? Because they happen to have these other behavioural characteristics. So they tick all the boxes. But these things still seem to be an add on to the really necessary technical skills that people have, rather than being leading with that or being hailed with the same priority that you think.

Siobhan Martin 13:30

Yeah, for sure. Because therein lies the difference of the step to leadership. If I’m really good at what I do content wise, technically speaking, fantastic, I can continue to be that person and deliver that I can be an amazing engineer, mathematician, great police officer, when I am now moving through the moving through the ranks now even that phase then describes that there’s an upward trajectory to that, but that’s how we’re set up so we’ll go with it. The when I become a leader, I have to be able to access other skills in the service of the people that I work with and work for because leaders are working for others, then then I will be truly acting as a leader not as the technical person who’s now the boss. And most often that’s exactly how that works in the vast majority of organisations and the vast majority of the time I am not saying this is easy, but I am saying that to get this right is a huge differentiator.

Jacqueline Conway  14:44

Your role now is one in which the organisation as you see it may become a little bit late to it. But with thought and care, coming to the recognition that diversity and inclusion is really important, do you want to say a little bit about your new role, and the impact that you think that that has on leadership and on the organisation?

Siobhan Martin  15:18

Yes, indeed, and really emphasising that, what I was saying before about the amazing people who have great craft who have been working in parts of our organisation around the world, in the Asset Management business, in our trans America, insurance business, in Brazil, and, and so forth. So people who get this really understand what it means to be a diverse and inclusive organisation, and have been working on the ground to make these things happen. What we’ve recognised, however, is the opportunity that we have to draw that up and have connections around the world. And in that, you know, create a system that utilises all of these great skills, because, yes, there are particular things that are true of life in Brazil, that are not true of life in Hungary, or in the UK. That’s a certainty and a given. But on the other hand, we are all human beings, and we are all trying to live a good life and deliver well for the organisation that we work for, in this case, Aegon. And that needs a thread that needs a drawing together that needs people who can lead and show their courage, their understanding their compassion, and create that voice around the world. So that’s a large part of what my job is setting the strategy which we have done around where we desire to be as a company, which is to be a fair and inclusive company. No more or less than that. But in itself, what we’re signalling there is that everyone belongs as part of this organisation. This isn’t about making an organisation that’s diverse for its own sake. But that is taking everyone’s gifts, and allowing the right opportunities for those people to flourish. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. Yeah. So, indeed, and that therein lies why some of these things don’t work because you have to give the right kind of energy and attention to all of these things. Rather than saying we will have programmes for this, and programmes for that I work here is done, we spent a lot of money because we organised for the women to go on these leadership courses, for example, I think, most people understand that that’s not the answer, then we need to fully understand the systems that we’ve created in our organisation and understand the impact that that’s having on others. And work towards removing any barriers to entry, or through engagement and involvement in the system. So that’s what my work is all about understanding those things, helping to corral the right resources, bringing people together, and crucially to navigate the tough stuff that are hard for people on the ground to be able to, to move through, have those courageous, but sometimes confronting conversations about behaviour with colleagues, for all of us all to learn for us all to grow, because none of us are perfect. And not all of these things are straightforward. The world is evolving, particularly in this space really quite quickly. And we need to, to understand that and be on top of it. Be careful that we don’t get taken by a fad, but that we know who we are and what the impact of these actions are. Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s about us continuing to grow as a company, not just because it is the right thing to do. That’s what society is therefore we’re a commercial organisation.

Jacqueline Conway  19:37

Yeah. And yet, at the beginning of our conversation, we talked about longevity. And some of the things that make organisations whether it’s a church or an institution, have longevity, is that there? There is a respect for tradition or respect for the way that things used to be and have always been. And there’s a reticence and natural reticence towards change. So it’s not to say that change doesn’t happen in those types of organisation. But the change is slow, often, and is very highly considered before it’s allowed to be implemented. And then once it is trying to be implemented it naturally the system itself has set itself up to naturally push against change, because it’s very survival has grown up out of being very slow to change. So in an organisation that’s been around for 170 odd years, then I would imagine, and I’m, you know, I would take your view on this but in that sort of organisation, I would imagine that change does happen slowly. Would that be right?

Siobhan Martin 21:01

Sometimes, and sometimes very fast, it can be extraordinary how quickly some things can happen when you’ve done it all. While it feels like it’s quick, but when you’ve done all the groundwork to make something. So a fantastic example of that is only a few weeks ago, we announced the sale of our business in the Netherlands. We’re a Dutch company, this is huge. This is huge. From a psychological point of view, as much as anything, it is absolutely the right decision for us as a commercial organisation. And now we’re in the process of doing what we’re referring to as disentangling so because that part of the business, We’ll then move to the organisation who has, who will be taking us on in from the middle of next year. So it’s happening in a really rapid pace. That has, it’s only just been announced, and it will be the middle of next year. That is in nearly 4000 people a part of that give or take. And that’s happened really quickly. Because we know who we are and what we’re about. You were then able to take advantage. Or in this case, it was making something happen. That was going to be right, it’s the Greg Norman, he probably wasn’t the first person to say this. But, you know, the more I practice, the luckier I get is exactly that the more we you focus and consider what your possibilities are and are ready for all sorts of eventualities, then you’ll be able to jump on a good action, and, you know, take something forward when it presents itself. And that’s exactly what’s happened here. And that yeah, that’s huge. That’s big change. So other things will have been slower. But there’s a great example of something that’s happened fast. The Church of England another fantastic example, because the history buffs which we won’t go off too far off the line, but massive changes within the church, since its inception, as you know, 2000 years ago, but then moving through and the Church of England and Anglo Saxon times from that period two now there are so many things that are different about its structure, about worship, and so forth. That’s the fundamental for any organisation small or large, faith based, commercially based, whatever that is: Why are we here? And when you hang on to the why we’re here, then you can make sometimes very radical changes, but still stick to the core of why you exist.

Jacqueline Conway  24:11

And what does that mean within Aegon? There’s a big conversation going on right now, around purpose based organisations. And it’s easier for a purpose based organisation like a church to see why it exists. It’s much easier to tap into the soul of other people and have them aligned to that or not aligned to it as the case may be. But if you’re a financial services organisation, where how do you tap into purpose there?

Siobhan Martin 24:55

Oh, yes. And that one has been something that we’ve been very recently coming to grips with very strongly ourselves. So earlier this year, we rolled out the new purpose and behaviours to our organisation around the world. So when purpose is to help people to live their best lives, and our behaviours, we tune in, we step up where our thought was for good. So the rollout to that was really, we had to be incredibly thoughtful about how to make that. Because if you think about those things where a financial institution, yes, how do you draw those things together? But again, it goes back to the core of who we are, why do we offer pensions? Why do we look after people’s insurance? Why do we manage people’s money? Well, that because people really rely on us. And if then what I do every day is not acting in accordance with good governance, fiduciary responsibility, we can have a terrible impact on people’s lives, whether that’s one person, or whole communities, or a country, or the finances of the globe. If you really understand that and tap into that, then it’s really quite a straightforward line. To that statement, “We exist to help people live their best lives”. So the work there is understanding what I do every day and connect that back to it. So what I did two things as a practical example, to help make that come to life was setting up this is in the Asset Management part of the business, what we refer to as cultural conversations. So nothing more fancy them getting teams together, facilitated by somebody outside the group to be able to talk about, if this is our purpose, and these are the behaviours that we’re aspiring to, how do I actually make that come alive? And where do we stand on that now let’s be honest about the in the honest conversation, then you can throw up the some things that are difficult to say out loud, but unnecessary to say. And then you’ve got a fighting chance of understanding what the barriers to difference might be. We did that with more than 1000 of our people. So the vast majority of our Asset Management organisation that really began to unlock it made it practical for people and it brought it to down to the every day from the abstract to the concrete. That’s an example of one of the things that we did there other things that happened, which I think were incredibly impactful, were all of our leaders talking very openly and directly about the application of this the purpose to their lives and their jobs, really connecting our people with the impact that we have in our community, because it’s such a strong social sense, as a financial organisation. And that’s amazing. That’s really very wonderful. So what does it mean for us as people who work here? What does it mean for our customers, our clients, our regulators, all the stakeholders that rely on us to do this well? And what does it mean for the people for the communities that we in which we live and that we serve? When you have that, that overarching perspective, it brings more meaning to the every day, that’s a massively difficult change for a faith based organisation. It needs to be navigated with great care. So there’s a good example of something that does take time and is being achieved by Compassionate Leadership, really listening or really being open, hearing all sorts of points of view, navigate and create the space, listen to things that are tough to hear. And then work through how can we, we square the circle? You can see there are times when we think yeah, these are organisations that are really in the past and aren’t diverse, but actually when you look closer, they can become so and do and apps to be celebrated and to be recognised as things can change, and they can be changed for the better. Exactly the same in organisations,

Jacqueline Conway  30:09

If we look to the year ahead, what feels like a priority area or an area where you want to concentrate your efforts, because you see the capability to make some change to make things happen.

Siobhan Martin 30:28

Yeah, indeed all. Like, again, many organisations around the world, not just here in the UK, but in common with many, we really do grapple with representation of different groups in leadership roles in the organisation, we’re making fantastic progress. I’m glad for that. But continuing work needs to be done, for example, around race and ethnicity and around representation of people of colour, in more senior roles in the organisation, being more open to different levels of ability, physical, mental health, for example, there are areas which we need to make great progress, I’m super proud of our organisation, as a leader around sexual orientation and represent representation of LGBTQ plus individuals through the ordinate, both through the organisation at senior levels, and all of the great work that happens to connect with communities, external to our organisation, but our particular work needs to focus in these other areas, to build on Summilux success, but to go beyond that,

Jacqueline Conway  32:00

I’m reminded of the expression “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. And so therefore, the importance at the very senior levels in the organisation, to have that diversity there so that young people coming up and through the organisation can look to see people who are like themselves at the senior level and see all it’s possible for me, I wonder what you make then of things like affirmative action in order to accelerate progress at senior levels, for example?

Siobhan Martin 32:35

Oh, yeah, indeed, this is a really one of great contention, quotas, targets, affirmative action, which is more in the US and South Africa, for example, but that the necessity of how do we measure ourselves? And how do we push ourselves to do better? Now, it’s fascinating to me that all organised commercial organisations, even noncommercial ones will have some will have KPIs, and they’ll religiously monitor them, and, you know, pay and bonuses and all sorts hand off the back of them. But as soon as we walk into this area, whoa, I don’t think so. Interesting. What’s going on there? Probably one of the things going on, there is worries and fears about losing out. When we think that we have a win lose situation, people aren’t going to be into that. So by having more women in senior roles, well, let’s be honest, that will mean there will be less men in senior roles. For example, it feels like a group is missing. And then that produces a pushback. We have people then who will say, Yeah, but shouldn’t we be hiring just from for merit, we shouldn’t be hiring for you know what you look like or who have sex with? Again, I hear that one a lot. Now, yes, that’s absolutely true. But underlying that statement is the assumption that the people in the other group, the diverse group, let’s refer to them as that there’s somehow lacking that they’re somehow other. And instead, what we’re missing is that perhaps those people are not at all lacking or other or special, but all they wanted was a chance to be able to show their worth and have a go. So it’s removing the barrier and creating some equity in an opportunity. There’s a lot of hidden barriers in the way of, of entry. It could be your accent, it could be the way you speak, it could be some, our social indicators that make another person instantly think, well, this person isn’t quite right, because they don’t fit. Instead of saying, I’m glad they don’t quite fit, because I need something different. I need a cultural add here. I need things that will challenge and they are we got to be honest about this managing diverse teams are harder, it is a lot easier for me if I have a whole lot of people who are like me and think like me, that I could manage and make that stuff happen. When I have that honest appreciation, then I can move forward and say, Okay, now I need to apply some different skills as a leader, I need to behave and lead in an inclusive way, which is going to require some more of those C’s cultural intelligence and commitment, the courage, the curiosity, cultural intelligence, or particularly want to underscore Yeah, that’s some hard stuff to apply. But again, evidence is really strong, you can loads of great scientific work on that, it means we’re going to do better,

Jacqueline Conway  36:26

There is strong scientific evidence that more diverse groups produce better results, even though it’s harder to work in a diverse group. And we are increasingly encouraging different sorts of people into roles that previously were closed to them. But then something happens when they’re in that role around how do we make that a comfortable place for them to be? So as I observe executive teams who are really well intentioned about bringing, deliberately bringing deference into the team, and they want to do that, I also sometimes see the difficulty that those people have in assimilating that difference into the team, by which I mean having different sorts of conversations, or not having conversations that they were used to having. So the fact that having a different grouping means that, you know, somebody may not want to spend 45 minutes talking about the World Cup final, before the meeting starts the following Monday morning, or other kinds of conversations that are subtly excluding people. Not in a huge, big way, but in a way that just signals you’re not quite welcome, or we’re not quite welcoming you into this group.

Siobhan Martin 38:03

Human beings are so incredibly well calibrated beyond almost any other sense of being included or being excluded. That’s something that is a procedure or leavings. From pre dawn of time, it’s absolutely with us now. won’t go away, live with it. That’s how you that’s how we’re set up. We the worst thing that we can do to another human being is to isolate them from people, solitary confinement, or the social equivalents to that ostracism, view, think about all the many great works of literature and art and drama. Through the centuries, there’s a strong theme of that, why did people act in this way, because they would lose their faith, they would lose their community, they would lose the love of others, that’s such a powerful and motivating force, we’re all very keenly aware of it. So little things can really make the difference. And that’s, again, back to well, if we want to put that into a positive way little things can make the difference. So you can do these things well, and you besides can be made and then you won’t do them and try a different way of doing that. But it does actually require openness on all sides, right? We all have to be understanding and compassion of others. If I’m in the minority, at a given time, it can be incredibly waring that people keep getting my pronouns wrong or you know, call me Mrs. when I’m doctor and, you know, fine. But and that’s, you know, speaks to micro aggressions, as well for another time, but you, you need to be able to be in an environment where you can see easily you can call that out. And it’s not a thing. When things aren’t working well, the prospect of calling something I like that feels like a thing, then you know, the culture of that is not right, then you know, as a leader, that you aren’t creating that, that psychological safety that has to be there. That, to me, is absolutely crucial. And it speaks to what you were talking there about the targets about avoiding the Noah’s Ark approach to diversity, we’ve got something of someone from this group and this group in this group, that’s not at all activity in an inclusive way. You can bring as many diverse groups into your organisation as you like, but it won’t bear fruit. If you’re not then including them in the decision making in the conversation, in the opportunities for advancement etc that, then, those people were wasting their talent, if they say, more likely that they’ll leave, that we as an organisation will not have a strong face in the market will be even harder to get good people to come into us. You’re quite right to call out that younger people are really looking for us as leaders to be different. I’m so well, I’m very lucky to be the mother of two young people and to be challenged by their views, we need to be open to that challenge not to be dismissive not to use dismissive language like wokeness, snowflake, that’s incredibly offensive. We should listen to what other people have to say and say, You know what, yeah, I might have grown up to this point and live this way. In this life. I need to be different. The world’s asking something different of me now, can I step up to now?

Waldencroft Podcast

Subscribe to Waldencroft Podcasts…

What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.