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The vitality of social mobility

24 July 2018 by Sir Kenneth Olisa OBE

The vitality of social mobility

Business’s reluctance towards social diversity flies in the face of logic

I have reluctantly concluded that British business views social mobility in the same light as personal hygiene – despite not being a defined term, we take it for granted that everyone both knows what it is and practices it in private.

Frequent travellers on the London Underground may well query this equivalence but it is my belief that just as passengers on the tube would benefit from others’ greater attention to personal hygiene, so the UK would benefit if more people – especially business leaders – spent more time contemplating the importance of social mobility.

I have found myself becoming increasingly interested in social mobility. It began when I attended a lecture on the subject and learned that the original academic inventors of the concept envisioned a utopian world in which the child of a street sweeper had the same chance of becoming a brain surgeon as the child of a brain surgeon had of becoming a street sweeper.

Up until then, I had assumed that others shared my understanding that good social mobility meant a world where anyone can improve their lot based solely on merit rather than birth.This is the definition implied by the government’s social mobility commission. I say ‘implied’ because despite bearing the explicit responsibility for ‘promoting social mobility in England’, nowhere in the law that created the commission, nor in its literature does it define the term.

And herein lies the problem. Because it is not defined and there are no obvious business advantages associated with it, social mobility runs the risk of being categorised by business leaders as yet another woolly, nanny-state concept.

A do-goodist obligation requiring the HR department to draft a few platitudinous lines designed to be buried somewhere in the annual report section on corporate responsibility. Real executives worry about international trade wars, Brexit, commercial rates, pension deficits, and so on – and not social justice.

Yet it is precisely that last worry – beating the competition – which should make social mobility a priority. Employing people with a wide range of lived experiences – from the privileged to the disadvantaged – is not just a question of social justice, it is also one of competitive advantage.

The logic is blindingly obvious. If culturally you do not understand and reflect your customers, your staff, your supply chain and, where relevant, your regulators then you should not be surprised to see market share stolen by competitors who do.

“If culturally you do not understand and reflect your customers, your staff, your supply chain and, where relevant, your regulators then you should not be surprised to see market share stolen by competitors who do”

Importantly, this is not an argument for the power of cosmetic small talk. Admittedly, bonding with your regulator by swapping observations about Love Island or the World Cup may demonstrate a certain level of learned EQ. But it is no substitute for appreciating why their judgement might be coloured by having been embarrassed as a recipient of handouts, suffered from the consequences of relatives’ battles with the JobCentre, or coped with the roller-coaster impact on their self-esteem of being the first person in their family, school or estate to go to university. Or struggled with life in a wheelchair. Or come out as transsexual in their teens.

Experience tells me that understanding what makes your stakeholders tick is an incontestable contributor to competitive advantage. Take a look at any professional sports team – with the exceptions perhaps, of polo, real tennis and croquet. They do not recruit people in their own image or from a common background. They scour the planet for players of talent who can help them score goals, win races or hit sixes.

So why do businesses not recruit for talent rather than social standing? Because most hiring is carried out by middle managers driven entirely by KPIs. It is hardly surprising that middle managers are reluctant to risk damaging their performance by employing the unfamiliar – people who do not look or sound like them. No amount of diversity education can counter the fear of losing your job.
Consequently, businesses end up between a rock and a hard place – competitive advantage requires empathy with stakeholders, but managers will not hire from outside their own tribe.As you have doubtless already concluded, the answer is obvious – add a mandatory, measurable social mobility target to managers’ objectives.

How the target is defined and measured is entirely up to you. Not only because there is no widely accepted definition but also because that is the whole point of competitive advantage. Irrespective of its definition however, the guiding principle must be competitive advantage and not do-goodist social justice.

As I said earlier, social mobility is like personal hygiene. Anyone who has witnessed someone else being told to wash will confirm – it is better to do it because it is in your best interests and not because someone has told you it is a good thing.

Sir Kenneth Olisa OBE is chairman of Restoration Partners

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