S02E34: Ella McCann-Tomlin, Ardent

This is the fifth episode of our DE&I series. In these conversations, we want to explore issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and our hope is that these help to build a world in which people from all backgrounds and with different views can thrive. Our aim with these series is to chat with inspirational guests who can encourage us all to look at the industries we work in (media, comms and tech) from different perspectives.  

Our guest for this episode is Ella McCann-Tomlin, a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Consultant at Ardent with a passion for organisational change. She works with companies to transform their leadership cultures, the diversity of their teams, and their social mission. She spent almost a decade working in high-growth tech before setting up her own consultancy business. It was this experience in fast-paced environments that led her to want to work with other companies on how to get their culture right, and how to live by their values, as they scale. 

In this interview hosted by Tyto’s Shamina Peerboccus, Ella discusses her incredible journey of starting her own consultancy supporting the leadership of organisations. In the interview, Ella challenges the performative nature of companies when it comes to DE&I and discusses the need for companies to be held accountable. She recognises that many companies may not know where to start when it comes to DE&I strategy and transforming management culture and therefore leaves practical tips in the interview for companies to adopt. Ella emphasises on “working from the inside out” and focusing on strong internal processes by means of building DE&I strategies that leverage the voices of people most excluded within organisations. Supporting companies empathetically and focusing on long term strategies will inevitably produce meaningful results and transform society in the process.  


Shamina Peerboccus: [00:00:00] Hello everyone. Thank you for listening to this new episode of the Without Borders podcast. Today’s podcast is the fifth in our series of conversations with inspirational speakers coming from the world of technology, media, and communications. And having those conversations help us and challenge us in the way we look at our industry and it gives us different perspectives. You can listen to our podcast in your preferred podcast app or watch the recording on our Tyto PR YouTube channel.

My name is Shamina Peerboccus, I am an Associate Director at Tyto, and I will be the host for today’s show. I am delighted to be talking today to Ella McCann-Tomlin, founder and CEO of Ardent. Ella is a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant. She works with companies and help them to transform their leadership cultures the diversity of their teams and their social mission. She spent almost a decade working in high growth tech before setting up her own consultancy. It was this experience in fast paced environments that led her to want to work with other companies on how to get that culture rights, and how to live by their values as they scale. Welcome, Ella.

Ella McCann-Tomlin: [00:01:12] Hi, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Shamina: [00:01:13] It’s good to have you. How are you?

Ella: [00:01:15] I’m good, thank you. I’m hot, (both laughing) but I can’t complain. We’re, in London and whenever it’s over 20 degrees, I try not to complain.

Shamina: [00:01:23] It’s true. It’s, it’s not gonna last long, so…

Ella: [00:01:26] Exactly.

Shamina: [00:01:28] So, I gave a little bit of an intro, but could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, your professional experience to start?

Ella: [00:01:37] Yeah, of course. So, as you mentioned, I’m Ella. I’m an independent consultant, and I tend to work with organisations on one of two things: either their diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy, or on kind of transforming their management culture and actually, what I normally find once I get into that kind of work is those two things are kind of linked and symbiotic. You know, I think once you start looking at diversity, equity, inclusion, you can’t help but look at someone’s leadership culture and if you’re looking at the leadership culture, you can’t do that in a way that you don’t kind of bring DE&I into the focus. So, they kind of tend to be, to be linked and before I set up my own kind of consultancy, I was in high growth tech for about a decade. And so, I joined a company, when as their kind of second employee, and I kind of grew with that company taking on lots and lots of different senior leadership roles, generally on the commercial side of the business and then I moved kind of laterally on into the people team and took on a diversity and development role and after doing that for a couple of years, I decided to kind of set up on my own and try and work with companies rather than from within. So, what I try and do is work with companies in a really empathetic way because obviously I know what it’s like to be on that kind of journey and trying to grow and scale and focus on the kind of urgent business priorities whilst also trying to do so from an ethical perspective.

Shamina: [00:03:16] Yeah, that’s kind of like leads to my second question. Really is, you know, why you decided to start your own consultancy? Like, I guess something was missing maybe from your previous experience or you felt like you had more to share. And really what’s your mission now?

Ella: [00:03:31] Yeah, so in terms of kind of why I wanted to go out on my own sort of thing, I think part of the reason quite simply was I wanted to have more of an impact and I think working with as many different types of companies at different stages of their journeys as possible was kind of felt like the next step for me. I was really enjoying the nature of the work that I was doing within the company I was at, but obviously that’s just within a single organisation and I wanted to, I guess, have a bigger impact. And so, my mission now, now that I’ve set up Ardent, essentially is to transform the way we lead organisations and I think that if we do that, we can also transform society in the process. So, I think that at the moment, a lot of talent is, quite frankly, being wasted in organisations. I think that people from different walks of life who think differently, who perhaps learn differently are not always being nurtured because we have grown business in the corporate world in a way that is very binary and rewards certain ways of thinking, certain types of schooling and that kind of thing and I really feel like that’s a colossal waste. And so, my mission, I guess, is to try and transform that and I think actually, we all benefit if we can transform that. Because if we leverage all the diversity of the talent that’s out there, then it will make us better. It’ll make our businesses better. It will make our leaders better and that’s kind of what I’m out there to do. But I think we’re at an interesting point in time right now because leaders are realising that we’re at this kind of watershed moment where we need to think differently about things and also there’s a lot of pushback coming from people who benefit from the way things have always been. So, we’re at an interesting kind of crossroad, I think.

Shamina: [00:05:20] And from your experience in, you know, the tech fields what are the challenges that businesses are facing when it comes to implementing these DE&I initiatives?

Ella: [00:05:31] Well, they’re lots and they are complex, but I think there are few key kind of main challenges. I think firstly, most companies don’t really know where to start and they don’t know how to approach DE&I in a way that is kind of meaningful and isn’t a performative thing. So, I think that what’s happening in a lot of cases at the moment is leaders are starting to kind of cotton on the fact that their people are holding them accountable as to whether or not they’re engaging with DE&I and to how well they’re engaging with it and if your company isn’t doing it properly, or you’re not engaging with it at all then people are gonna leave and obviously a lot’s been written about the kind of great resignation and lots of people leaving companies because they’re not values led enough, or they’re not kind of living by their kind of mission. And so, I think for the first time for a lot of executives, they’re realising the power that rests within the people of their organisations and how much they’re gonna be held accountable for whether they’re doing this this right. But what I think that often leads to is that people sometimes will come to you, approaching this from a place of fear. So, approaching it from a place of people asking us about it, our employee are kind of demanding that we do something about this, but we don’t know where to start. And also, we don’t wanna get it wrong and so I think that there’s a kind of fear of getting things wrong. We don’t wanna kind of wade into the waters of talking about race and ethnicity for instance and then say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. And so, there’s this kind of trepidation and this kind of avoidance of PR disaster that people come to this work often with and the difficulty with that is fundamentally, this is messy, human, complex work. You know, you’re gonna get stuff wrong. It’s personal for a lot of people, it’s political. You’re gonna have to kind of wade into those difficult waters and it’s, perfection is almost the enemy of this stuff. But that’s one of the kind of key challenges to work with clients on is that they feel this need to get it absolutely right, first time, and put out the absolute right statement on this and actually we need to kind of put that to the side and get to work really and then the final big challenge I would say is change just isn’t happening quickly enough, actually. And maybe this is just a bit of a bug bear of mine, but I think because people are tentative, and understandably so, change isn’t quite happening quickly enough and sometimes perhaps there’s an attitude that change will naturally come. You know, progress will naturally happen over the course of time, and we don’t really need to do anything super active about it. And actually, there’s a lot of resources out there that say change isn’t happening quickly. If we keep going at the pace that we’re going at now, it’s gonna take decades. And so, we need to kind of get a bit more of a move on and people need to realise that they actively need to push to change their systems. That’s not gonna just happen organically.

Shamina: [00:08:37] So, in that sense then if business leaders, if they would like to start on the journey of, you know, building a DE&I strategy, what is, what would be a recommendation? What’s the must thing to do?

Ella: [00:08:50] Well, so I would firstly say, so at Ardent, one of our values is community. And how we kind of interpret that is that we kind of say that our work is designed to support your people and not your executives. And I think that’s one of the first things that I think a company, if they’re implementing DE&I, should think about who is this work designed to serve. And I think sometimes is a very top down approach that people instinctively have. The issue with that is that DE&I partly exists because there is this inequality and that means that sometimes the top team tends to be one of the least diverse teams in an organisation. And so, if that group is the only set of decision makers on how we approach this, then they’re probably not necessarily best place to make those kinds of decisions. So, I think leveraging, the one must do is to leverage the voices and the communities that exist within your organisation. Sometimes companies already have networks that exist. That’s the great thing to tap into. But regardless, find some way of kind of leveraging the voices in your company. And I would say actually the highest priority should be leveraging the voices of people who are often the most excluded. And so that’s another thing that we kind of try to do in our work. Sometimes what companies will do is say, well we’ll start, you know, we’ll start with gender because gender’s kind of safe. We want more women in the C suites. That’s a kind of safe zone for us to start talking about. And actually, I can see the kind of temptation to start safe, actually you’re still excluding a huge wave of people in your organisation who are from marginalized backgrounds of some variety. And actually, I think tap into those people first and prioritise the voices of the people who most are unable to speak up generally. Because if you do that, you will make life better in your organisation for women anyway, right? And so I, and then the other thing I would say is process is everything. I know that that doesn’t sound very sexy, but I also think that sometimes it can be easy to focus on the kind of shiny stuff. So by that, I mean, Pride Month merchandise, PR videos, you know, things we can put on the socials. And when organisations get accused of approaching things in a disingenuous way, what’s often happening, if there’s too much of that stuff going on, and there’s not enough of the kind of fundamental processes being changed. And so, that unsexy complex work that might take months, might take years, is actually the stuff that I think is incredibly meaningful. And so, I kind of talk about this as operationalising DE&I. So, you know, most companies will say we use slack for instance, that’s our communication system. It’s, non-negotiable, that’s what we use and I think that kind of attitude that we have about a lot of our kind of business systems needs to apply more to things like DE&I. This is the way we do things. It underpins our hiring process, our development structures, the way we think about retaining people, the way we think about nurturing people. And it’s just a kind of non-negotiable. And, sometimes we get kind of wrapped up in the what could we talk on LinkedIn about? And often I think some of those things are useful, you know, having speakers come and speak to you for Pride Month and things like that. Those kind of things can be really meaningful for people in your organisation. But it’s not necessarily gonna move the dial for you in terms of belonging, unless you  operationalise it a bit more than that.

Shamina: [00:12:47] And do you have any like, tangible example of this kind of like processes that, you know, businesses can start and put into place?

Ella: [00:12:55] Yeah. So I think it’s about actually… I don’t think it’s necessarily putting in a load of new processes. I think actually what sometimes happens is people think of DE&I as like a new process. So, it kind of sits to the side of everything and it’s DE&I. And maybe we’ve got a committee and that’s why we talk about it. Actually, I don’t think it’s a single new process. I think it’s, it should become part of all of your existing processes. So, some obvious places to start are hiring, our exit interview process when people leave, and how we incorporate that feedback back into to changes we make. What we do around promoting people, and how we measure how inclusive they are as a leader. We’re often measuring certain things along these lines within an organisation already. We’re already making these kinds of decisions, who to hire, who to promote, who to ask to leave the business. But it’s that DE&I should be kind of woven into those existing processes, I think. Rather than sitting as its own, almost like extracurricular, which is sometimes what happens.

Shamina: [00:14:02] Yeah. There’s a real shift of mindset in a way in the way we do things I guess, across the whole of an organisation.

Ella: [00:14:10] Yep, exactly, exactly. And I think it’s also about really thinking about things as a long-term strategy. I think that because even though DE&I has been around for a long time and there are practitioners who’ve been doing this work for decades, you know, there are various points in time that we can point to where there was a kind of surge. And the kind of summer of 2020 was this big surge in DE&I becoming in a forefront conversation piece because of all of the horrendous things that were happening in America and the kind of watershed moment of the Black Lives Matter protest globally. And so, I think in that context, of the kind of people are talking about this right now, so let’s put in some quick fixes. Let’s do some stuff we can talk about. But actually, if we want this to be really meaningful, it’s a years-long strategy, you know, changing your hiring process. Even just that one process isn’t gonna happen overnight. There are about 20 different components of that process. You’ve gotta retrain people. You’ve gotta change their minds about what good looks like. You’ve gotta think about where you’re drawing from in terms of your pools of talent. You’ve gotta then attract and kind of win over people to join your organisation. And if it’s already not very diverse, trying to attract diverse people into a less diverse environment is tough. So that’s just one single process. And so, I think people… it’s a whole long-term reframing and people need to have a bit of staying power with it, I suppose.

Shamina: [00:15:50] Yeah. And do you have any examples of, you know, inspiring tech companies that are already kind of like leading the way when it comes to really implementing inclusion and equity in the workplace?

Ella: [00:16:04] Yes. So the temptation, by the way, with DE&I is always to talk about the people who are doing bad things, (Ella laughing) which is normally the bigger ones. So I’ll call on a couple of kind of smaller companies that I’m really inspired by. So, there’s a company called Ohne, O H N E. And they are a kind of fem tech company. They basically sell a lot of like period products and things like that and they’re super sustainable. I think they’ve won awards for sustainability. They’re female led, as I’m sure you can imagine. But they’ve got really high inclusion scores, really high ratings from their employees and I really like companies that have almost like a holistic approach, like what they’re putting out in the world is good. The way that they’re approaching their internal processes is really good and really ethical as well. The way that they’re leading, you know, it’s the kind of whole, yeah, holistic approach, I suppose. And then there’s another company that I have worked with a little bit called Circle. Very different type of company. They do a lot of leadership coaching basically. And so, they pair, what they call future leaders, which tends to be young people who are from historically marginalized backgrounds. And those people, you get paired up as a leader with a future leader, and you both learn to coach, basically by coaching each other. So, there’s this kind of circular process that’s happening. And you know, what I really love about them is they are also really inclusive, and they apply this kind of attitude to their internal culture as well. But again, there’s this kind of multifaceted attitude that they have, which is, you know, we’re doing a social good, we’re pairing companies with perhaps talent that they haven’t, that they’re not ordinarily tapping into. We’re also doing some leadership coaching. So, our leaders and our leadership culture internally should improve into more of a coaching culture. So, there’s all of these different kind of facets to it. And I find that kind of company really, really inspiring.

Shamina: [00:18:22] Yeah, definitely. Thank you. Thank you for sharing. Is there anything else you would like to add today?

Ella: [00:18:28] Ooh, good question.

Shamina: [00:18:31] One that I haven’t asked, maybe.

Ella: [00:18:33] Pardon?

Shamina: [00:18:35 Something that I haven’t asked maybe?

Ella: [00:18:37] Um, yeah. There’s one final thing I think I would say is for companies who are operating from a bit of a place of fear and are not sure how to do things in kind of quote-unquote “the right way”, one kind of piece of advice I guess I would have is operate from a kind of inside out rather than outside in approach. And what I mean by that is rather than thinking about, let’s say it’s international women’s day. What are we gonna say on social about that? Oh, let’s highlight all of our fantastic women rather than thinking about that in things in that way, actually just focus year long on what you’re doing to make your company more inclusive for women. And how are you nurturing women? How are you developing women? How are you supporting women? How, you know, what are your parental leave policies, those kinds of things. What’s your pay equity? Have a tangible impact on the women in your company. And the more you do that stuff, the more stuff you have to talk about anyway, so. Do it that way around.

Shamina: [00:19:41] Absolutely. Thank you so much, Ella, for your time. And for, you know, all these great insights. It’s so great to be having these conversations. I think, you know, it really helps with like improving our consciousness. I really appreciate how much you shared today and I wish you all the best for the future and for your business.

Ella: [00:19:58] Thank you so much.

Shamina: [00:19:59] Thank you.

Ella: [00:19:59] Such a pleasure.

Shamina: [00:20:00] That’s it for this episode of the Tyto Without Borders podcast. If you’d like to find out more about Ella’s work and her company, you can visit their website, BeMoreArdent.com. We would also love to hear your comments and receive any suggestion you may have on who our next speaker should be and you can share your recommendation via our social media platforms. You can find us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or YouTube. If you like what you heard today, please give us a positive rating and review on any podcast app. This is greatly, greatly appreciated and really helpful. And lastly, if you want to keep track of our new episodes make sure you subscribe to our Without Borders podcast. And that’s it for today. Thank you so much for listening.

Shamina: [00:20:48] Thank you. Bye.

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