BDO and the path to inclusive and diverse leadership

“In our differences lies our Treasure”

Write an article about reverse mentoring. That was the task. But once you talk to Tessy Martens, Inclusive Diversity Manager and Sustainability Services Lead at BDO Belgium, the story got a much broader perspective: how do you create inclusive and diverse leadership?

Awareness first!

How many people are aware that their behaviour is driven by unconscious prejudices or biases? This means, for example, that women are less likely to progress to managerial positions. Who sees and understands the dynamics and impact of sub-cultures within the organisation? Why, for example, after an acquisition, the two corporate cultures could work more against each other than reinforce each other? In what way does BDO look at the parent journey (the career-parenthood trajectory of employees) and do we have a vision regarding it at all? The chances of success depend to a large extent on being aware of the barriers that stand in the way of the evolution towards an ID (inclusive diversity) culture (also read the insert ‘Five barriers, as many opportunities’).

Reverse mentoring

BDO approaches reverse mentoring as part of its integral inclusive diversity strategy. And that strategy must ensure that BDO becomes an inclusive and diverse workplace in which all colleagues contribute from the viewpoint of their unique ‘being’. A workplace that offers growth opportunities for everyone in every phase. “Because the more divers we are and inclusive we manage talents and ideas, the more strongly we, as an organisation, can offer answers to the challenges of modern society,” says Tessy.

“Inclusive diversity is one of the focal points of BDO Belgium's sustainability strategy. From the viewpoint of the ‘inside-out’ approach, we can better support our clients in their sustainability journey.”

Tessy Martens, Inclusive Diversity Manager and Sustainability Services Lead BDO Belgium

Three focus domains

Besides this incredible strength and added value, diversity brings many challenges with it. Think, for example, of the unconscious prejudices (biases) that stand in the way of an inclusive policy, a dynamic society with rapidly changing realities, different generations in the workplace and the evolution towards sustainable entrepreneurship. This means that organisations need to operate in a completely different way. Tessy: “The growth towards such an ID-driven corporate culture is a long-term story. It is important not to tackle everything at once, but to define priorities and focus areas. By the way, we are not doing all of this alone, but together with UPOP, a group of experts in inclusive diversity.”

At BDO, we are currently focussing on three domains:

Tessy: “In the parent journey we look for solutions to support parents better and more proactively in their work organisation. This journey begins before their first child has even arrived because many future parents are already concerned about whether they will be able to combine parenting with their job. With our reverse mentoring programme for women in leadership, we try to identify and neutralise the barriers that women experience in progressing to leadership positions. With regard to sub-cultures, we are looking for a model in which we bend the differences in culture (between disciplines, work locations, etc.) to the advantage of the greater BDO culture, the organisation and the clients.”

Keys to Growth programme

“In short,” says Tessy, “we must ask ourselves what keys can we deploy to further develop into an organisation in which inclusive diversity isa given and part of our culture .” Together with UPOP, we have established the Keys to Growth programme. In this Keys to Growth programme our entire shareholder team choose to contribute in three ways and roles. They could take on an active role as a learner, amplifier or mentor and thus strengthen their inclusive leadership. However, not every manager feels the need to be, for example, a mentor. Or has the time or the touch for a particular role. “But to our great joy and satisfaction, all(!) shareholders of BDO Belgium have committed themselves to one of the three roles,” says Tessy.

The learner is curious to learning more about what inclusive diversity means. What its importance, opportunities and challenges are for BDO Belgium and how you can get started with it as a manager.

The amplifier makes a personal commitment with regard to actions leading to a more inclusive and diverse corporate culture. The amplifier acts as a kind of lever behind specific actions (such as parenting).

The mentor helps to identify the (perceived) barriers that hinder women from progressing into managerial positions, specifically within BDO Belgium, and to initiate actions to break them down. They do this through reverse mentoring between women and shareholders.

Five barriers, as many opportunities

  • 1

    The affinity bias or similarity bias. The affinity bias is the unconscious human tendency to prefer people with the same background, interests, lifestyle, etc. Take now the example of promotions or recruitment. Because of this bias, specific profiles can be better understood and therefore more valued and promoted than other profiles, simply because we feel more comfortable with people who look like us. Awareness of this bias is important in order to do things differently, because it stands in the way of creativity and innovation.

  • 2

    Work-life balance. Many people struggle with the balance between work and private life. Research shows that this is even more so for women than it is for men. This is because it coincides with a gender bias whereby women are still often seen as the ones pulling the strings in the household. The feeling of having to compromise or choose between career and family (or some other priority) causes stress. Fortunately, this is not always the case and we are also seeing progress here.

  • 3

    The ‘impostor syndrome’. Far more than men, women struggle with feelings of doubt about their qualities and level of expertise. According to research, women set the bar mercilessly high for themselves and are more likely to underestimate their own performance. And that can hinder progress towards leadership. The BDO culture must be supportive and encouraging.

  • 4

    The ideal leadership model. In many companies, there is a thing called the ‘ideal leadership model’. Research shows that a leader is still often seen as someone who is visible, outgoing, has an entrepreneurial personality, likes to take the stage, works long hours, etc. Such a leadership model is an obstacle for those who look somewhat different, and do things differently, but who are perfectly capable of taking on the role of manager. Think introverted leaders. For many women, this model is also a barrier to seeing themselves in managerial positions.

  • 5

    The sponsor. A sponsor is a person who can support you in your growth trajectory on the way to a managerial position. A sponsor has an open mind, supports you, works above the radar and believes in you. This person gives you the chance to prove your abilities and talents by, for example, putting you forward for projects. The sponsor offers you opportunities to make your talents visible and to put yourself in the spotlight where you do not do so yourself. Having a sponsor is important in order to make promotion towards senior management or partner.