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Why being a leader and an ally go hand in hand

06 February 2024

Mark Thurston shares how his role as CEO of HS2 shaped his journey to becoming an ally.

Why being a leader and an ally go hand in hand
What the leader cares about and does, can and does set the tone. Image credit: Shutterstock

Becoming an ally, for me, was the natural result of becoming CEO of HS2.

HS2 was already deeply invested in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) when I got there.

The team was quick to highlight the role that I could play in amplifying this message and driving a more diverse workforce.

EDI wasn’t a new area for me, but when you’re the CEO, it becomes more focused because you get to set the tone for everything the organisation does.

What you say and do can be really strong if you use it as a force for good.

What kind of leader was I going to be?

We had several employee networks at HS2, and I’d get together with the chairs of these networks.

I remember the first meeting quite profoundly. They were all waiting to see how I was going to personally invest in EDI at HS2.

Was I going to become passive or active?

They were all very enthusiastic about the diversity of the workforce and the work we were doing.

What then cemented my position as an ally was that the team asked me to become the executive sponsor of the REACH network, which stands for race, ethnicity and cultural heritage.

Taking my involvement outside of HS2

Outside of HS2, Black Lives Matter (BLM) became a global movement, and it had profound effects in all sorts of places.

Inside HS2, we used that momentum to talk about what we were doing in terms of racial equality and diversity.

Externally, we worked with the supply chain, and I was invited to industry events such as the ICE’s recent panel discussion on race and ethnicity in the construction industry.

There was recognition that HS2 is a company that takes this seriously and that as its senior leader, I was invested in it.

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Encouraging others to follow suit

It was very clear to me that I had to be the ultimate ally of the employee networks.

I promoted the networks to other colleagues around the organisation, and encouraged them to become allies and sponsors.

When the CEO says, ‘I think this is a good idea’, people tend to go ‘well, if you say so’.

It’s about how you use the power of the authority of the office to really engage people.

How to bridge the gap in lived experience

At HS2, I used to join these sessions called Courageous Conversations.

Most of the time I would keep my camera turned off and keep my microphone muted because I was there to listen.

We’d done a lot of work to create a culture of openness, where people feel comfortable speaking up.

And so, at these sessions, you’d get this outpouring of lived experience and rich dialogue between colleagues in the comments.

This was so eye-opening for me.

I’d find out what we’d been doing well, and where more work was needed.

Encouraging people to call out unacceptable behaviour

Sometimes colleagues shared that they’d experienced discrimination or prejudice while at HS2.

In those cases, I’d come on camera at the end of the session and let them know that I was disappointed and angry to hear that discrimination had taken place.

While I didn’t single anyone out, I encouraged people to talk to their line manager, or their manager, or indeed, HR. Because it’s unacceptable.

As CEO, it’s my responsibility to say something.

I used my authority in a positive way to give people a sense of ‘permission’ to do something about it. I showed them that I’d listened, and I cared.

If we’re going to change this business, if we’re going to change the way we see ourselves, then we’ve got to call this stuff out.

Engaging senior leadership

At HS2 we did some work with the senior leadership team, where we’d get together twice a year and talk about EDI specifically.

We’d be joined by many engineers and as we know, engineers like data.

So, we’d use data and figures to bring this subject to life.

We’d have reports on demographics, gender and ethnicity balance at different levels of the organisation, trends for promotion and growth, etc.

Then we’d provide this team with opportunities and areas where they could get invested in.

Reminding them that this is how we grow

I would say to senior leaders, if you don’t embrace this and invest into this as an issue, then we’re not going to grow as an organisation.

These are the people that make the big decisions in the business, and so it was important that they understood what these figures meant for the diversity of the organisation.

We also agreed on corporate metrics around gender and ethnic balance.

We were aware that there’s great debate about whether these objectives can be tokenistic, and whether quotas work, but we were explicit about the balances that we wanted to achieve.

EDI isn’t a choice, it’s a requirement

The bottom line is that EDI was a priority for us.

It became a hard performance requirement, not a choice.

If you want to be in this room, with all the leaders, then I expect you to get invested in EDI.

Some people felt more naturally orientated to get involved, while others felt more uncomfortable.

So alongside making it a requirement we acknowledged that the team would need different levels of support and coaching. And we provided it.

And then of course, I was setting the example as executive sponsor of the REACH network.

So again, what the leader cares about and does, can and does set the tone. Not just for the rest of the leadership team, but for the whole organisation.

Everyone's business: race and ethnicity in the construction industry

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  • Mark Thurston, former chief executive officer at HS2 Ltd