Raising awareness and promoting engagement in D&I in a corporate workplace setting is not always a straightforward task, and it takes HR professionals who are passionate about building an inclusive workplace to make a difference.
Shelley Holmes, Global Human Resources Director at Watson Farley & Williams, spoke with Chris Mansfield about how she approaches this in her firm and some of the inclusive initiatives she has been a part of in her career so far.
I’m the Global Human Resources Director at Watson Farley & Williams, and I've been at the firm for four and a half years. We are an international law firm with a strong sector focus on energy, transport, and associated infrastructure. We’ve got nineteen offices in fifteen countries, having just opened offices in Seoul and Tokyo recently, which has been really exciting.
As an undergraduate, I studied languages, and for me learning a new language was always about the ability to meet more people and communicate, understanding different cultures and finding out what makes people tick. In my postgraduate studies, I specialised in HR and business, so my career choice became very clear to me and I never looked back. The great thing about HR is that it's such a broad profession with many opportunities. I learn something new every day, it’s a brilliant career choice.
The deep sector experience I've had in law and professional services is absolutely key. While HR skills are transferable to many sectors, knowledge and experience of a specific sector really enable an individual to be truly effective. That doesn't just mean tailoring HR practices to the business itself but understanding the competitive landscape, being able to work internationally, being aware of current challenges in the sector and creating the agility to meet future challenges. In one of my previous firms, I stepped outside of HR for twelve months and did a secondment working with the CEO on strategic projects as well as the day-to-day running of the firm. Although I did feel like a fish out of water at times, I developed an understanding of business leadership and had an opportunity to look at HR from the outside. That really provided clarity on what I needed to deliver to support the business.
I’ve applied all of that experience to my role here, but I’ve also kept my professional education going. A couple of years ago, I completed an MBA, and that was really helpful when we went into the pandemic, having a whole new set of business and leadership skills that I could employ immediately. Covid was a real catalyst for change, but that change isn’t over — it will continue. People leaders can’t rely solely on experience, we need to continue to invest in our development as well.
Working in an international environment, this is absolutely key. For us, it started by raising awareness in our leadership and partnership, which is critical because we need our leaders to role model our values. So we began with rolling out inclusive leadership workshops to help support this and ensure our leaders knew their role in developing inclusive team environments. We have a number of networks helping to raise the visibility of D&I within the firm, which comes in the form of events scheduled throughout the year. We’ve seen good attendance here at all levels. In these events, we discuss issues openly and hear from colleagues' own experiences. This has been more powerful than always bringing in an external speaker because it makes it much more relatable. What we've seen more recently is a great development of our networks joining together to host more events that bring together multiple voices and address intersectionality, too — the aspects of D&I are very much interlinked.
Behind the scenes, HR has a key role in applying the D&I lens and ensuring that our decisions are fair and based on merit alone.
We recognise that for some employees that engagement will come naturally as the right thing to do, whereas for others, you need to convey the business imperative to help them to make the connection between diversity and winning the war on talent and standing out in a crowded market. There is a lot of research out there that demonstrates this connection but in my experience, it has been about real-life examples and outcomes. That can be feedback from a client, the questions clients are asking about a team, a standout candidate that has come to us through an outreach or social mobility programme, or an associate that comes from a diverse background and has really developed with this opportunity. Examples like these really reaffirm the business case in relation to those that work here.
For me, it's about getting to know people and building your network. The way you get things done and navigate the business is often unwritten, so networking and observing helps you to understand how things are done and what the culture is like. Building those connections early on, in person, face to face, is the most effective way to succeed.
There are so many opportunities for people to get involved and make new connections at WFW, and I'm a huge advocate of that. It’s possible if you show an interest and you’re passionate about it too.