Building inclusive cultures take grit, hard graft and raw emotion.

Learnings from a creative team on their journey towards an inclusive culture — with all of it’s ups and downs.

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A brief introduction: We’re in the midst of #NationalInclusionWeek, and PwC is celebrating all week in dozens of unique ways. In the spirit of that celebration, we wanted to share our personal journey as a diverse creative team. Along the way, we also hope to inspire those following a similar path.

So, you’ve probably heard ‘We’re building a diverse team with an inclusive culture’ a million times. I imagine you’re already thinking ‘here we go’, but hear me out.

Our team is 50% female, 50% male, and 10% BAME*, but those are our visible distinctions. We also have some invisible ones. We’re a multicultural team, with different societal, behavioural, religious and political values. We have worked in design studios, ad agencies, innovation labs, architecture studios, in-house design teams, and consultancies. And some of us have distinctions no one can see; from anxiety, to dyslexia, to period cramps and things a touch more serious.

[*We’re working on this!]

Through all this we have a common thread; we’re creative problem solvers. We’re here to use our creative thinking to help solve important challenges the world is facing. We know we can make a difference, and we’re here to try our best in doing so. And in doing so, we’re on a journey to understand each other and build an environment where we can all be our true self. Warts and all. To see this endeavour and journey in action makes me proud every day.

I joined over a year ago to help build a design capability talented enough to answer the strategic challenges our clients are facing. We were a handful then. Today we are almost 40, and really hitting our stride.

As a female Executive Creative Director, I feel responsible and empowered to create an inclusive culture. A culture that takes the best of my past, and leaves the worst at the wayside. A space where we can work together with different voices, and be ourselves without fear of judgement.

I’ve learned — somewhat painfully — that an inclusive culture is not something you can build once, and then leave to manage itself. It’s a veritable moving feast of emotions, needs, and desires, and wants.

Sustained success relies on hard work, constant adjustment, team engagement and alignment, ownership, reinforcement, and honesty. Here are a few tactics we use to do that, and make sure we stay on track everyday.

Signal your intent to others

Your team is looking for you to set the standard as a leader, so never assume people know your intent, or your beliefs. Everyone has their own emotional work baggage. Fairly or unfairly, they will superimpose their past experiences onto you. So be clear with your expectations, establish rules of engagement, walk the talk, and always try to be the epitome of the culture you want to create.

Openness needs constant encouragement

Practice makes perfect, and an inclusive culture takes effort from the whole team. As a team member pay attention to those talking, and to those that aren’t. Work to elevate their voice by giving them space — physical and psychological — to be heard. This can be in the way you run meetings, to identifying roles and responsibilities of each team member, to even defining ‘rules of engagement’ at the beginning of a project. An good way to establish this behaviour is to include constructive feedback / crits into your design process. This allows team members to practice listening, as well as giving others feedback, until it becomes the everyday behaviour.

Radical candor is hard but worth it

Over-communication is important as you work to understand each other and build bridges. It’s difficult to make progress if you and those around you don’t feel comfortable to be honest though. To create that environment requires you to set rules, and declare yourself open. Everyone is different, but for me, honesty needs to be clear, concise, and constructive.

I do this by asking for honesty back in meetings, presentations, and discussions. This helps to set the tone for others, and gives them the required permission for this behaviour. I also do this by being available to the team for a coffee when they need it. They can book in my calendar to talk, knowing I will make time and listen without judgement.

You need to be ready to hear honesty back though. That can be raw and difficult to hear when you’re not used to it. I’ve had moments where it has been tough, but acting on that feedback afterwards has made me a better leader.

Tell more stories

There’s daily stand-ups, and meetings, and deadlines, and presentations and everything in-between. It’s easy to forget the little things. So we create the space for little moments, where we have a chance to tell our own story. Every Monday we share experiences from the weekend. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we tease, and when it’s been tough, we’re there to support each other. Every month, we also share news on projects, and our side hustles. Instead of status updates, we strive to tell authentic stories about how we worked better together, and we always take the time to thank each other.

Be brave and trust by default

We’re lucky to have a flexible working culture. We work from home when we need quiet, when we have handymen over, when we get anxiety on the Central line or when we want to spend time with our new family. That flexibility is given freely, because everyone is trusted. To work, it takes rigorous communication, respect, and a touch of bravery to trust from the outset.

Resist temptation to remould individualism

As a new team, it’s been difficult to establish a group culture and when it locks into place you want to keep it that way. As new team members join, it is easy to want to mould them to that because it’s working well. This trap is exactly how you form ‘bubbles’ of the same thinking. Every time new team members join, re-evaluate your dynamics, working habits and behaviours. Everyone’s experiences and perspectives can contribute and make us better than we were.

It’s better to show not tell

Listening to each other is important, but actions always speak louder than words. Nothing is more effective than working on an initiative, and making a difference. At the moment, we’re sponsoring D&AD New Blood Shift again, we’re volunteering for a charity, we’re creating Inclusive Design Cards for those with Access needs, and we’re designing a new initiative ourselves*.

* ‘In/Visible’ will tackle the topic of intersectional diversity in the creative industry. Keep your eyes peeled!

Our journey to being a successful creative team, that is truly inclusive in the way we work and behave is going to take time and hard work. New team members are join every few months, and we need to embrace those unique needs and differences as we grow. It’s not always perfect, but the effort is there.

We’re not perfect, and we definitely haven’t entirely cracked it. We’re always looking at ways we can learn and improve. Here are the key things we’re working on at the moment.

Be mindful when composing teams

We’re moving at pace, and balancing a myriad of requirements with a small team. It’s easy to default to the individuals you had on a previous project because it’s known and safe. ‘Known and safe’ doesn’t get us to interesting solutions though. So we’re working on growing our awareness of talent available beyond our team. We’ve realised how crucial it is, for the project and client, the team, and the individuals own personal development.

Be aware of ‘invisible’ differences

It isn’t rocket science. We’re all made up of visible and invisible differences that define who we are. Over the past year, we’ve built bridges with each other, and this has meant a focus on our visible differences. Now that we’re working better together, we have shifted our focus to our invisible differences, like mental wellbeing. This means introducing open conversations around worry, anxiety, self-esteem.

Take the time to listen, but never forget to act

Time flies right? Particularly when you’re in a start-up. You’re learning new skills, working in a new team, pitching and winning work, and all the other mayhem in-between. After the effort of building an environment where people can be honest, then taking the time to listen is one thing. Not following up on that afterwards is almost worse than not listening at all. It generates a culture of apathy. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I have to write down every note, no matter how small in a To Do app otherwise things drop by the wayside. Not because I don’t care, but because I’m a human too.

I hope you’ve seen one of our tactics that will inspire you as you’re building a diverse team, and inclusive culture. Everyone is different — crazily different sometimes! — and that’s half the fun. To create an environment where we can all contribute as our true selves is better for us all. I’m proud of what we’ve created and continue to create, and look forward to seeing where this journey together takes us.

#EverydayInclusion

[Thanks to all our contributors: We asked our team to tell us the tactics that build our culture, as well as ones we want to work on more together. This article is the result of those entries.]

Written by

ECD and Co-Founder Experience Consulting, PwC UK. Top 30 Female Creative. D&AD Jury President, BIMA Council & Sponsor of D&AD Shift. Who’s your Momma. ☕️🥃🍽🍾

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