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IWD21 Podcast with Sam des Forges, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, MoD

Wavell Chats - Interviews
Wavell Chats - Interviews
IWD21 Podcast with Sam des Forges, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, MoD

WR Podcast Sam des Forges Director of D&I MoD recorded 5 Mar 21

[00:00:00] [00:00:00] As we mark International Women’s Day 2021, where the theme is “choose to challenge”, we got the opportunity to speak to Sam des Forges who’s just been appointed the first ever Ministry of Defence Director of Diversity and Inclusion. Her role is to support and challenge colleagues across the whole force to ensure that Defence harnesses, the power of difference to drive capability that safeguards our nation security and stability.

[00:00:25] I spoke to her to find out what the role entails. Her thoughts on leadership leading inclusively and you also got to pose my own, “choose to challenge” question, and get the benefit of her experience and role as Defence as D&I Director to answer it.

[00:00:37]  Billie: [00:00:38] Sam, welcome to the Wavell Room you took up your appointment just last month, brand new into the role. That must be hugely exciting. What’s the scope of your role and what are the key issues that you’re dealing with?

[00:00:51]Sam des Forges: [00:00:51] Well so you’re absolutely right. It’s really exciting. It’s also slightly daunting as well. But I’m really excited about just the opportunity to genuinely make a [00:01:00] difference to the lives of our people, right across Defence. Because absolutely inclusion is not just about certain minority groups. It’s about absolutely everyone.  I think I have a whole bunch of things at the top of my to-do list, which, which is very, very long and detailed.   But in, in terms of what we are doing as a team and, and sort of the creation of my role in the investment that Defence has put into diversity and inclusion in recent times, you know, it’s, it’s been a priority for Defence for a number of years now, but, but we have really, really struggled to gain the traction that we really wanted to gain.

[00:01:36] By having myself in the centre, , it’s really about sort of cohering and pulling together all the work that is going on across Defence. We have some fabulous people. We have some brilliant networks and brilliant champions and advocates. But actually, is there a way to really draw those threads together?

[00:01:54] Is there a way to really empower those networks more effectively. Is there a way to really [00:02:00] amplify the great work that they’re all doing? So,  there’s absolutely an appetite and  real demand and expectation from our people and senior leaders to make Defence a more inclusive and a more diverse place.

[00:02:13]And really my role is, is making that happen. What it is also to do to you is, , not just to support, but also to challenge. So I’m very much there, in senior meetings, spending time with our most senior leaders and, you know, encouraging them to, to really lean into this with which to be honest, they are doing, they really are doing. Our senior leaders do understand the importance, not only in terms of it being the right thing to do, but actually that it’s fundamental to our ability to, to really maximise the talent of our people to face the, the challenges and the threats that our nation faces. We need innovation, we need diverse thinking. We need to avoid group think. The importance of diversity and inclusion [00:03:00] has really landed amongst our senior leaders, but I need to, I need to make sure they’re also doing their job in terms of embedding that in the, the whole organization.

[00:03:09] I also think about, you know, what are some of the key areas for me to focus on?  You know, there’s a real range. There is a bit as you would expect in the world of Defence, making sure that we’ve got the mechanisms in place  we’ve got the support in place.

[00:03:23]One of the really interesting bits of work we’re doing at the moment is something called the network review. We’re actually, we’re talking to our networks who are, our people who, understand what is really happening and asking them, you know, what are the challenges you face? What are some of the barriers?

[00:03:38] How can we better empower you? How can we better share your knowledge and help you work together. So, so that’s a really important piece of work. Another one that’s sort of close to my heart as a member of the LGBTI plus community is the work on historic hurts? So recognizing,  the impact of some of the historic rules, the ban on [00:04:00] homosexuality in the Armed Forces being reversed 20, 21 years ago now.

[00:04:05]But actually how do we better recognise and support, the impact that has had on folks. So, you know, recently I think on the 16th of February, we announced a policy, whereby personnel who’ve been impacted by this or families  of deceased personnel can apply to have their service medals returned.

[00:04:22] That is just a part of that piece of work. So, you know, really wide-ranging portfolio from understanding how we better help the organisation and empower the folk that can make the difference to reflecting that sometimes Defence has got things wrong. And how can we fix that, to actually looking forward and saying, okay, what are our future opportunities?

[00:04:43] How are we really going to deliver a diverse and inclusive organisation?

[00:04:49]Billie: [00:04:49] What do you think has prompted the creation of the role now?

[00:04:53]Sam des Forges: [00:04:53] It was just a reflection amongst our senior leaders that, you know, if we [00:05:00] want to deliver  transformational change, we have to change the way we’ve been trying to deliver diversity and inclusion in the past.

[00:05:06]And actually, you know, if we look at, what’s been happening over the last year or so,  the COVID pandemic, deaths of  George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor,  all of those sorts of themes that were really impacting, folk, you know, globally and really making people stop and think. One of the,  initial changes that we made in Defence,  and I used to , be the gender champion in Defence I recently changed to be the LGBTI plus champion, but,  they invited myself and the race champion and disabilities champions to start attending our ExCo meetings when we were talking about people issues. And they really did that because the senior leaders recognise when they looked around the room, and they were making some big decisions there weren’t very many diverse voices. So by bringing us as the champions in, we could say, you know, this is what our networks are telling us. This is [00:06:00] what our people are telling us and just amplify those voices. And that really led to a discussion about, well, what more can we do to, cohere our efforts to, amplify voices and to really ensure that we do deliver the changes that we absolutely want to and absolutely should do. And hence, Defence’s invested further in the central team and created this, Director of D&I role. So yeah, it’s,  always been a priority for a number of years, but actually how do we really deliver transformational change?

[00:06:30] And that’s really behind much of this current focus and future focus as well.

[00:06:35]Billie: [00:06:35] I was really interested when I read your bio about your professional experience, focusing on preventing fraud, fraud detection anti-corruption. And I wondered if there was any kind of crossover between that expertise and what you’re facing now.

[00:06:53] Sam des Forges: [00:06:53] So, yes. So my, my background is as a forensic accountant to investigating fraud corruption, [00:07:00] but, but also that whole space, very much fed into to ethics and culture. So, , I spent, , you know, quite a time with the, the sort of big four accountancy firms advising organisations across a range of industries about ethical culture. And I very much see diversity and inclusion as part of that integrity, piece part of ethics, part of how you treat other people.   From some personal experiences investigating fraud and corruption over the years, one of the things you do is read the emails that and the correspondence of folks that are being investigated.

[00:07:35] And I often found there’s no science or evidence behind this, this is just my, my personal experience was that, you would find that some of the folk who were not following the rules in terms of finance and policy were also in that space of the rules dont apply to me in terms of treating others with respect in terms of safety, in terms of,  other forms of ethics and [00:08:00] integrity.

[00:08:00]So, I’m not saying that that every person who, who is non-inclusive is a fraudster and vice versa, but I think that there is, there is a continuum and a similarity in terms of how we view societal rules, how we perhaps view process and control rules and decisions that we make to step outside of those rules.

[00:08:22]So actually I find there are a lot of similarities. I think, we are talking not only about processes and controls, et cetera, for, diversity and inclusion. We are also talking really fundamentally about culture change. And that is not dissimilar. I think the other area of work that I’ve been involved in, which has a lot of parallels is whistle blowing.

[00:08:44] I’ve done a lot of work over the years, working with whistle blowers, working with folk who,  want to raise a concern who feel uncomfortable about something. But don’t really know how to raise their hand. And again, there’s a lot of links there with active bystanders,  and [00:09:00] just bringing challenge, you know, and in the world of Defence, we go back to concepts like Chilcott challenge, bringing challenge is uncomfortable, whether it’s about seeing something that is non-inclusive or, or seeing something that is fraudulent.

[00:09:13] So, they sound like very different areas, but actually I found there’s a, there’s a lot of connections and similarities.

[00:09:20] Billie: [00:09:20] I’m really interested in your perspective on leadership and a second question to that is in your role as Director of Diversity and Inclusion, what would your advice be about leading in an inclusive manner?

[00:09:37]Sam des Forges: [00:09:37] I’ve always looked at leadership as  a whole bunch of tools that you have in your tool kit in terms of how you lead teams.

[00:09:45] And I’ve found it really interesting to explore some of the gender aspects on  that. And you think about,  leadership and sometimes you have what are seen as traditionally masculine leadership traits. And I say masculine deliberately, it’s [00:10:00] not about men and it’s not about women. There are women who will, have masculine leadership traits.

[00:10:04] And there are, men who will have more feminine leadership traits.  It’s just a sort of language as we look at it. Now, I think my leadership, , has always tended to be sort of the more feminine side. So being more focused on,  inclusion and empowerment and, the emotional intelligence side of things, And I think I’ve really seen a change in the civil service and more recently in Defence, recognising the value of some of those more feminine leadership traits.

[00:10:34] And I think, you know, I think COVID has given us a really interesting opportunity to just view leadership differently. And those traditionally masculine leadership, elements are becoming less important. And the traditionally feminine leadership traits, really sort of coming to the fall.

[00:10:51]You know, everyone’s experience of COVID has been different from those who are homeschooling to looking after elderly relatives or perhaps vulnerable [00:11:00] relatives.  We really have, got to know and understand a bit more about our, our colleagues, and being an inclusive leader,  showing empathy, having high emotional intelligence has really been a positive trait and really understood far more through the COVID pandemic.

[00:11:19]I think my other reflection,  which is one of the things that I did find quite, um, strange or unusual coming into the civil service and coming into Defence is feedback. Now I grew up, if you like in an organization where, you know, every time you did a piece of work, that was two weeks long or longer, you would get feedback from the folk that worked for you from your peers, from your line manager, from the client, you were absolutely drowning in feedback.

[00:11:48] But  actually it was absolutely brilliant because you, really got to understand what you were doing that was working well, but also where you needed to improve. Where could you develop? And that [00:12:00] wasn’t just from a technical perspective. That was also from a leadership perspective, from a cultural perspective, from a behaviours perspective, you know, if we don’t know what our blind spots are, if people aren’t sharing feedback with us, we’re not going to learn. We’re not going to improve. So I think one of my other reflections on leadership, you know, I have absolutely got things wrong on many occasions and I still do, and I’m sure I will in the future, but it is feedback that has really helped me.

[00:12:27] Billie: [00:12:28] Thank you so much for your personal perspective on, your own leadership and what you value. Do you think there’s anything else, that you could give us in terms of, leading inclusively?

[00:12:39]Sam des Forges: [00:12:39] I think it is something about just understanding that, you know, you are leading a team that are trying to deliver a particular objective, a particular deliverable. How are you going to make sure that that is at its best? And you’re really going to be able to do that If you bring together diverse voices and you listen to them as well. [00:13:00]

[00:13:00] One of my first big investigations, we work jointly with some. Lawyers, um, as a group of accountants. Um, and we used to joke that lawyers wrote everything in word documents, and we wrote everything in Excel. And we, you know, we, we just came at things from a different perspective, but it was so powerful because things that we didnt spot as accountants, the lawyers spotted and things that the lawyers didn’t spot, we as the accountant spotted.

[00:13:22] And although that’s a quite simple example, it really taught me very early in my career that you need to listen to folks who have different backgrounds and different perspectives.  And you are really only going to do your best and deliver your best for your organisation if you do bring in that diversity, you know, we all understand the risks of group think, you know, the Chilcot report has really, highlighted that to us, you know, the importance of challenge, but it’s not just about challenge it’s about listening to that challenge. And, and I think there is something as a leader about acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and being really open about that.

[00:13:59] And [00:14:00] saying I am in this particular role, I’m leading the team, but I’m here to support and empower you. And if I’m getting things wrong, please say, please do. And when some folks do put their hands up and say, actually, Sam, I think there’s a, there’s another way. Or have you tried this to really embrace that and, and learn from it.

[00:14:19] And there will be times where,  part of my role is to say, no, no, I hear you. But I really do think that we need to go this way. But creating  a team that is diverse and, and creating the safe space for that team to really challenge to innovate, is absolutely critical.

[00:14:34]Billie: [00:14:34] Finally, I’d, I’d like to ask a question my choose to challenge, is around, women carrying the lion’s share of the mental load  and I feel that one of the biggest blockers to many women’s professional, progression is rooted in the disproportionately large share of that load that women take in the home, whether that be taking the lead in childcare [00:15:00] arrangements, running the home, running the lives of members of the family, which can leave women with less capacity for their career and often affects women’s physical and mental health. But I’m aware that I come from this perhaps from a heterosexual perspective. And I was wondering in your, D and I role, whether you have seen any better balance across, for example, LGBTQ couples and families.

[00:15:26] Sam des Forges: [00:15:26] Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a really interesting question now. So, so I, myself am a gay woman. I’ve been married to my wife who’s a paramedic for, or I forget the date that we’ll be in trouble about 15 years and we’ve got our 10 year old daughter, I guess my, my very personal experience, I think being in  a gay relationship, it gives you some flexibility. It allows you to kind of redefine the relationship and the way that you want, you are not obliged to stick, to traditional, gender expectations. We have always been,  pretty much 50 50 in [00:16:00] everything. Um, although my wife might disagree when it comes to housework,  but certainly, we very much share the load,  and play to our strengths and weaknesses.

[00:16:08]It gives you almost the ability and the permission to do things differently.  From the perspective as the D and I Director and also, really interested in gender too. I think one of the things that we really need to do in Defence and all focusing on is actually how to empower our men.

[00:16:26] To be able to lean more into, parenthood. There are many men who would love to work part-time who would love to work flexibly. But you know, they will tell me that they are worried about how that might look, how that might impact their career. We’ve got some terrific, pilots going on in terms of different sorts of flexible service different ways of, supporting the family.  You know, that there are a bunch of policy options available, but we still see most of the uptake coming from women as opposed to men. So there’s something about really normalizing that about.

[00:17:00] [00:16:59] Highlighting our role models, who are men who are taking on those opportunities. We often talk,  you know, certainly as a woman in meeting saying, look, I need to finish by five because I’ve got to go do the school run. Um, which will be, uh, a reality again, what homeschooling is over. Um, but actually it’s great to hear sort of some fathers say that every so often and say, actually, you know, I’ve got to finish early because I’ve got parents evening or something like that.

[00:17:25] So how we really make that okay. And not just okay. But make it something that’s really positive and desirable.  Overall, you know, I agree we have a reality where women do,  tend to take on more of the burden of, those sorts of  childcare, for example, and other caring responsibilities.

[00:17:42]I think we are creating a framework that would allow men to do more. So, yeah, it’s exciting lots of opportunities but really one, I think that is really important from an inclusion perspective for our men who often feel excluded by things like D and I.

[00:17:58] Billie: [00:17:58] I absolutely agree with [00:18:00] that. I’ve been nodding frantically in agreement and it’d be wonderful if Defence could lead the way in terms of overcoming some of those cultural barriers and stigma that comes along with leaning into, some of the load that women at the moment tend to pick up.

[00:18:18] Sam des Forges: [00:18:18] Absolutely. I think, you know, the old fashioned way of looking at careers is a career ladder that it’s step after step move, moving up to a particular point. I think, you know, I’ve heard others use the phrase the career sort of jungle gym and recognizing that at points in time, you might go down a bit of a dead end or you might actually you know, because of things that happen in our personal life or other areas of focus, just take a step back and there is nothing wrong with that. That is life. And I think if, if the pandemics taught us anything, it’s taught us that there are priorities, important priorities beyond the day job, or the career.

[00:18:51]You have to get a balance, right. Obviously, but, I think it’s really opened up opportunities for everyone to, approach their careers differently.

[00:18:58]Billie: [00:18:58] Sam. Thank you [00:19:00] so much for your time. It’s been such a pleasure speaking to you, and I wish you all the very best of luck as you continue with your role as Director of Diversity and Inclusion for Defence.

[00:19:10] Sam des Forges: [00:19:10] Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.


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