Social mobility: The next evolution in transformational leadership

A diverse group of people standing around a table with laptops in front of them

In our Transformational Leadership report, we highlighted the importance of diverse, inclusive cultures for all, and the growing recognition among boards of the competitive advantage provided by diverse perspectives. We predicted that social mobility will increasingly play a role in shaping leadership teams over the next five years, with the majority of CEOs (55%) agreeing that there will be a major push on social mobility from the very top of organisations.

However, right now this remains a blind spot for many employers. According to the CIPD’s 2023 “Inclusion at Work” survey, just 9% of employers are considering social mobility and socioeconomic background when focusing on improving diversity and inclusion in their organisations.

Social mobility is a crucial element of the ED&I (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) agenda, but what can businesses do to better harness this underestimated factor?

To provide some insight into this, we turned to three leaders in the field: Catherine Hearn, HR Director – UK Country Lead at Amazon, Nik Miller, Chief Executive at Bridge Group and Rob Bray, Chief People & Sustainability Officer at Wildfarmed.

The benefits of social mobility

The benefits of a truly diverse and inclusive team, one that includes members from across the socioeconomic spectrum, are numerous. Such teams will have access to a much greater breadth of experience, as well as being far more reflective of the customer base.

“Our customer base is wide and diverse,” explains Catherine Hearn. “We need an employee base that brings that kind of cognitive diversity and thinks about things in different ways.”

It’s also vital if organisations want to access and, crucially, retain the widest possible pool of talent. As Nik Miller says: “Diversity, in terms of socioeconomic background, affects who feels included in the workplace, wellbeing, and the ability to access diverse talent.”

When it comes to leadership, 26% of senior leaders in our Transformational Leadership Report found that over the last two years, they have seen an increased appreciation for the competitive advantage of a diverse perspective on boards. This diversity of thought is a growing discussion in leadership teams.

Social mobility in the next wave of ED&I

Businesses have been paying a lot more attention to ED&I in recent times, especially following the prominence of social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.

“These movements pushed businesses to significantly ramp up their inclusion strategies and actions,” Rob Bray explains. “What we’re moving towards now is more of a focus on actual lived experience and social background.”

Businesses are increasingly conscious of the benefits of inclusivity and diversity, but some are less aware of the part socioeconomic background has to play. “If everyone is going to Oxbridge, then regardless of gender or ethnicity, you’re not really driving diversity as much as the more obvious metrics around inclusion would indicate,” says Rob Bray.

Nik Miller agrees, adding: “In much of our research, socioeconomic background actually has a stronger effect on access to a profession, on pay and on progression – compared with some other characteristics, including gender and ethnicity.” That’s not to say such factors are unimportant – far from it. However, if socioeconomic background isn’t considered, then a vital piece of the puzzle is missing.

“I feel social mobility is probably the fourth wave of diversity and inclusion,” Rob Bray adds. “And quite rightly so. A huge amount of untapped talent is being overlooked or excluded based broadly on your postcode, in some shape or form.” As the perception of social mobility is shifting, organisations are beginning to implement programmes to consider social mobility within their workplace. Organisations are beginning to not only offer mentorship programmes and inclusive hiring practices, but also providing an environment which educates existing employees on the organisation’s vision for inclusivity and it’s importance.

It comes down to culture

A key issue for social mobility is that the highest echelons of a business tend to be the least socioeconomically diverse. This not only affects the culture of the entire organisation, over which leaders can have a strong influence, but also makes it harder for people from different backgrounds to access leadership positions.

According to the Social Mobility Foundation’s Employer Index report: “The culture of the workplace usually replicates the culture of the dominant group.” When the dominant group is those with privileged backgrounds, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds face a minefield of unwritten rules and unconscious biases, and can struggle to feel they belong, impacting their productivity, and damaging retention.

“In terms of career progression,” Nik Miller points out, “the data clearly shows that individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds progress faster in middle management and senior positions, across sectors. This disparity is often less extreme in early career progression. It’s around the middle management area where we see socioeconomic background having a really significant effect.”

It’s no coincidence that this is the point at which technical skills matter less, and softer skills come more into play, soft skills that are more readily accessible to people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. These include hard-to-quantify traits like gravitas and confidence, as well as key advantages like access to social and alumni networks.

And the impact is clear. According to the Social Mobility Foundation’s Employer Index report, just 19% of senior employees are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, dropping to 16% for UK Board/Management Committee employees.

Data is a valuable tool

Data can form an incredibly useful baseline for taking action on improving social mobility. However, data collection can be a challenge, especially in organisations where ED&I is still in its early stages. As we highlighted in our Transformational Leadership report, the more comfortable people feel, the more likely they are to be willing to contribute to internal social mobility surveys, which will allow companies to monitor the effectiveness of their ED&I strategies and make more informed decisions going forward.

“Without that baseline of social mobility data it’s really difficult to identify where we need to put our effort and where we need to really scale initiatives to address issues,” explains Catherine Hearn.

Nevertheless, while useful, it’s important that organisations don’t use data-gathering as a delaying tactic. “Data is important, but there’s much you can do without it,” stresses Nik Miller. “I think there’s a risk that we cultivate a narrative that says until we’ve got the data, we really can’t act, and that’s unhelpful. We must also recognise the value of qualitative data – the numbers tell us what’s happening, but not why and what should be done.” The time to act is now.

See the bigger picture

It’s important to understand that taking action on social mobility should not come at the expense of other diversity factors – and it doesn’t work in a vacuum. Catherine qualifies this, saying “not everyone is one single diversity characteristic, so that opportunity to think about intersectionality is incredibly important”.

“We don’t experience our diversity characteristics in isolation,” says Nik Miller. “Resources like employee networks often isolate diversity characteristics, which is helpful in one respect because, of course, there are unique challenges and opportunities associated with lots of these characteristics. But socioeconomic background is a thread through them all.”

These issues do indeed go hand-in-hand. Women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds take 21% longer to progress to senior roles as compared to women from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, to take just one example from the Bridge Group’s 2023 report on socioeconomic diversity in financial services.

Catherine Hearn advises adopting an intersectional approach. “If you’re less advantaged in terms of socioeconomic status, you’re much more likely to be from another marginalised group as well. It can lead to all sorts of compounding forms of disadvantage. But by looking at social mobility, we’re able to impact more broadly and talk about the big picture of inclusion and equity, and start to make real change.”

Three things organisations can do to tackle socioeconomic inclusivity

What steps can businesses take towards socioeconomic inclusivity? Our panel has advice on three key areas to focus on.

1. Take an in-depth look at your recruitment criteria

Rob Bray stresses the importance of challenging what is required within a job when recruiting. “Are the ‘must-haves’ really must-haves?”

Catherine Hearn agrees, adding: “Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen more degree requirements come in for every job, regardless of whether they’re actually required. This contributes to job polarisation, where you see people with very high skilled work and then people with low skilled work, and little opportunity to progress between the two.”

It’s high time to reverse this trend. “Abilities and aptitude, and the ability to learn, are far more crucial than formal education,” stresses Catherine Hearn. “There’s little evidence for a strong correlation between years of education and job performance. The correlation between cognitive ability and skills is much stronger as an indicator of performance.”

Organisations are beginning to adopt leadership development programs over outsourcing talent, focusing on internal employee progression. Therefore, employers are developing high-potential employees while providing greater access to opportunities for those disadvantaged by socio-economic barriers.

2. Enact cultural change from the top

“We work a lot with people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds helping them navigate the workplace,” says Nik Miller. “But it’s just as important to enlighten the dominant group as well.”

It’s not just about mentoring and providing opportunities, change has to start from the top. That’s the only way to ensure that the philosophy of inclusion permeates the whole business. As Rob Bray stresses: “You can only drive change if you have an engaged leadership cohort around it.”

This kind of cultural change can involve difficult conversations. “It can be uncomfortable to challenge senior leaders on innate bias,” Rob admits, “but you have to get people to reflect deeply on the biases and prejudices they hold, for example, around who they perceive to be hard-working or who they perceive to be clever. Think of it as a ‘Cultural Intelligence Quotient’ – alongside EQ and IQ, leaders need to have CQ.”

3. Use what you’ve got

Businesses can benefit from looking within, both to capitalise on existing talent that could be overlooked, and to start fostering diverse talent for the future.

Below the middle management level, there tends to be a greater diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds, and boards should be looking at this employee base as a hotbed of potential future leaders. As Catherine Hearn puts it: “Employers have a really important role to play through education and career development.”

It’s not enough to simply impose programmes from the top down – your workforce may know more about their needs than you do. “I would go and talk to your employees about what it means for them,” Catherine adds. “I learned so much by going and talking to people.”

“An early stage mentoring programme can be a great place to start”, reflects Rob Bray. “Take very basic talent principles – find talent, encourage them to develop themselves, give them supported learning – and push it way further through the organisation, to people who are typically lost in the talent pools.”

“Help them raise their consciousness and realise that people like them, however they define that, have an opportunity to grow and develop within the business.”

For more advice and guidance on enriching your ED&I programmes and improving social mobility in the workplace, reach out to our team and read our Social Mobility Guide.

Written by

Eoin Canty

Eoin is a qualified accountant (CIMA) and a Consultant within BIE’s finance team, with a particular focus on delivering executive search assignments.

Eoin leads the ED&I agenda for BIE including a quarterly event schedule for clients and ensures that ED&I is firmly embedded in the way we work.

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