In today's competitive business landscape, forward-thinking companies are recognising the pivotal role of diversity and inclusion in crafting a positive and harmonious company culture, fostering innovation, and driving sustainable growth. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Brona McKeown, General Counsel (GC), Company Secretary, and Director of Human Resources (HR) at British Land.
Brona sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to talk about issues ranging from creating a welcoming and inclusive company culture to the traits and habits needed for successful people leadership.
Let’s start with the company. I work for British Land, one of Europe’s largest listed real estate investment companies. We have a portfolio of high-quality UK commercial property focussed on London Campuses and Retail & London Urban Logistics. We curate the space between our buildings: for example, our Broadgate campus has bars and restaurants, which have made it a seven-day-a-week destination. We’re a small company that does big things: we only have 649 people on the books, but we sit on top of a huge supply chain.
As for myself, I’m relatively new to real estate, having started out as a lawyer in a legal firm. I spent 20 years as a banking lawyer, working for Barclays and the Co-op Bank before I left the sector in 2017. At Barclays, I’d known Chris Grigg, who later on became the CEO of British Land. When he heard I was leaving banking, he told me there was a potential opportunity here, and since then, I’ve never looked back.
Well, I was hired as General Counsel and Company Secretary, which were roles I had held in my previous two organisations. Once our HR Director retired, our CEO asked me if I would think about taking over HR as well. When I thought about it, I realised my skills were more complementary than I had first thought. As Company Secretary, I was involved in remuneration policy, and as GC I had worked very closely with HR for a long time. At British Land, people are the common thread, and everything you do comes back to working with people, so in the end, it felt like a rational progression.
We recently relaunched our people strategy, and we defined our goal as “to foster a diverse, inclusive, and ambitious culture to develop, attract, and inspire the best people to deliver our strategy.” Diversity and inclusion are different: I once heard them described as “inviting someone to the dance” and “asking someone to dance with you.” While diversity is about having the greatest variety of people, inclusivity is just as important.
This year, we’ve initiated a number of programs, including a reverse-mentoring scheme with ethnically diverse colleagues for our executive committee and a new initiative called ‘Deliver At Pace’ which celebrates our ambitious culture. We want all our people to be true to themselves: if you need to hide behind a facade at work, that adds weight, and it will drag you down. So we’ve redesigned our management training program and have improved our survey methods. That’s had some excellent results — for example, by explaining how important it is that we have good baseline data so we can see what initiatives are working or not, we’ve boosted our ethnicity disclosure rates to over 90%. That allows us to identify areas where we need to improve so we can make changes. For instance, by changing how we asked people if they have a disability, our disclosure rates shot up, so we’ve been striving to raise awareness of both visible and hidden disabilities in the workplace. Data is a core part of our approach, and one of the advantages of a small employee base is that we can go through it all line-by-line.
You don’t need to be an extrovert. Not all leaders need to get up there and speak in front of the whole company. You just need to be the best that you can be. That being said, there are a few attributes that good leaders have in common. You need to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and have empathy for different perspectives. You also need to be curious and consistent — that doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind, but you need to have conviction. Personally, the leaders I’ve struggled the most with have been the ones who are unpredictable. It doesn’t matter how things are going in my life, the people on my team shouldn’t be able to tell if I’m having a bad day. Finally, you need to be clear. If people walk away from a meeting feeling confused, then that’s on you. Early in my career, I was struggling to get my team to listen to me, and my boss told me bluntly that I was to blame. He told me you need to see it from their perspective, put it in their language, and explain why it matters to them. I’ve always remembered that, and I now know if people don’t understand me, then that’s my fault, not theirs.
You need to explain how this work will make their lives better. That’s different for everyone: some people just want to do the right thing, others feel personal responsibility, some think it makes business sense, while others want to develop themselves. As a leader, you need to make sure your pitch covers all bases. There will be a few people you will never sell it to, but that’s life - you have to get as many people invested in the work as possible. Most of all, you need to make it as easy as possible for people to understand what the initiatives are and to get involved. And it makes a big difference to have a CEO who believes inclusion is crucial - as our CEO does.
Ask why. That’s it! Those two words will help you with any problem you will ever face.