“DEI really works when nobody notices it’s happening,” declares Peter de Norville. “It has to go on behind the scenes; it’s the systemic changes we bring.”
He admits that this backstage work can seem dull, so it was important to have some “little wins” visible front of house so that people were aware of progress. It was these small successes that motivated him to overcome obstacles and challenges.
As Global Head of DEI & Wellbeing at multinational technology company Sage, de Norville has achieved not only several little wins but also much larger gains. Not least in the collection of data, which is often cited as an obstacle by many DEI professionals.
“To understand what we need to do, we need to know the starting point, and our All About Us data capture project was our way of doing that,” he explains. “It’s purely voluntary and completely anonymous. But we want to capture as many people’s diversity data as we can whilst aligning to legislation, recognising cultural nuances, and testing some of those invisible barriers.
“I want to be able to look beyond just the numbers because, quite often, data can hide a multitude of sins. The aggregate data might make the team or business unit seem representative, but the real value comes when you intersect it with other data points such as role levels, tenure, and performance.”
De Norville had to overcome the all too familiar problem of people mistrusting sharing their personal data. He did this by going on what he describes as “an honesty offensive”. This involved speaking to as many people as possible to gain their trust, explain why it was important and, crucially, what the results would be used for.
“The other thing I did, and this was agreed before I joined Sage, was to be completely open and honest about what we were doing,” he reveals. “So, I published our DEI strategy on the internet. Anybody can read about what we want to do and how we will do it. At the end of that first year, we published our first DEI Impact Report, which showed what worked, what didn’t work, what I’ve learned and what we’re going to do differently, all those things.”
As a global company, there were geographical challenges, both legal and cultural. De Norville and his team consulted local legal advisers. They discovered that it was illegal in some countries to ask certain questions. Where it wasn’t illegal, the barrier was because it was not normalised as no one else was doing it, and people were not expecting the questions.”
The answer was to “focus on what you can do,” he says. “Don’t think about what you can’t. Get used to the idea upfront that you can’t do the same thing in every country. Then you’ve got the communications element; you’ve got local concerns. You need to listen to those from leaders and employee resource groups, take that feedback on board then formulate a plan of how you will communicate it. Then you have to make it business-led.
“In the UK, after all that work was done, we removed the barriers to filling in the form. So, you clicked on a personalised link straight to the form. Without the link, people won’t do it, so you have to make it easy.”
The result was that, in just two weeks, participation rates for the UK and Ireland went up from 19% to 68%. However, de Norville emphasises that it took 18 months to reach that point.
His determination to make a difference is underpinned by a never give up, never surrender quality that he developed from a young age. This first manifested itself in the playground when, at the age of five, he went to the aid of a Black boy who was being picked on by a group of older white boys.
“This sense of injustice just spilt out,” he recalls. “Obviously, we both got beaten up because I couldn’t resist going to his assistance, and we’re still friends to this day. A couple of years later, I was in a shopping mall, and two boys were picking on a child with Down’s syndrome. There’s the same result, with me laying on the floor yet again.”
At the age of 15, de Norville saw the movie Cry Freedom about the murder of Steve Biko in a South African prison cell, which further opened his eyes to prejudice. He followed his parents into the army but chose bomb disposal over infantry through a desire to “help, not hurt”.
He adds: “I was in Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland and northern Iraq; I saw humanity at its worst. It was a heart-breaking experience, and I thought we could be better than this as a human race.”
After putting his army training to good use by working on a game reserve in Malawi, hunting ivory poachers, he went into strategic workforce planning. He has since worked in DEI for several corporates, the legal sector and the Royal Mail before taking on his current role.
The lightbulb moment – that his life experiences had led him up the DEI path – came when Sage CEO Steve Hare asked him: “Wasn’t it obvious that you’ve always wanted to do this, bearing in mind who you are?”
Says de Norville: “What he meant was that I’m autistic, I identify as pan-sexual, my son’s autistic, and I’m the father of mixed-race children. I really didn’t see it coming, but I was led to this point.”
Foundation for change
He is justifiably proud of the impact he’s been able to make at Sage, especially with All About Us, which is providing the foundation for long-term sustainable change. The plan is to use the data to set tailored targets for each country and integrate data into all People reporting processes to enable better bias detection.
In addition, the All About Us data has been linked to the employee engagement survey to identify and tackle specific challenges. Measuring success will be key to DEI efforts. For example, a report from the board down to the executive team on how many leadership teams are meeting their gender diversity targets.
“We started last year with only 19% of our teams meeting gender diversity targets, and 40% had no diversity at all,” says de Norville. “At the end of the year, 33% were meeting the gender diversity target, and only 16% had no diversity at all. But we can track, measure and drive it if it’s not working. We’re going to do that with other dimensions of diversity as soon as we have the data.
“It’s not just about diversity – the data itself is a measure of progress. Then we have more inclusion-based targets. Our annual employee engagement survey is a DEI index. There are three questions: one about diversity, one about belonging and one about inclusion, and they make an aggregate score. I didn’t want it to be just a diversity score because if people don’t feel a sense of belonging, they don’t stay. So there needs to be a balance of both.”
Sage has an external Glassdoor score, published alongside internal scores and employee resource groups, which have increased in number in the last year, and are seen as important to engage the workforce around the world.
Make DEI relevant to all
The recipe for building an inclusive culture was creating an environment where people could showcase their skills, with the company working with their needs, instead of funnelling them into a system that suits the company.
De Norville believes it’s important to make the DEI strategy relevant to every individual, particularly those in middle management, who are traditionally the hardest group to convince. The answer was to link it to the business strategy and to raise the volume of diverse voices through mentoring and sponsorship. That leads to more innovation, better performance, identifying challenges earlier and, ultimately, more financial success.
Finally, what advice would he give to other DEI professionals who may be struggling to make an impact? “Don’t be disheartened,” he offers.
“We are all on a journey to be much better than we are now, and we are all learning. Also, don’t assume that Sage is doing this particularly well and that it will work in your own organisation. You have your unique challenges and culture. Tailor everything to your own business if you really want to be successful.”