Inclusive leadership and speaking up: BMS Group

BMS Group logo

BMS Group, a dynamic global broker providing a specialist insurance, reinsurance and capital markets advisory service, is the independent broker of choice in the insurance market. Employing over 800 staff across 28 offices globally and on a 15 per cent organic growth trajectory, their leadership team in the UK knows the importance of inclusive leadership.

Recruiting and supporting a diverse team is central to BMS Group’s growth plan. Recruiting DEI specialist Louisa Erwin as group head of diversity, equity and inclusion in 2022 was a key part of this strategy. Louisa brought with her deep expertise in delivering DE&I strategy and knew exactly what she wanted to achieve.

Inclusivity goals

The initial goals she set, with support from the wider leadership team, were:

  1. To create a culture where employees feel empowered to speak up
  2. To work towards and build a more inclusive culture
  3. For employees to be allies for colleagues from marginalised groups.

DEIB training strands

Working closely with our team, Louisa identified three DEIB training strands to reflect these goals:

  1. Inclusive leadership for executives
  2. Inclusive leadership for managers
  3. Speaking up for all employees.

Together, we designed a bespoke Inclusive Leadership programme, including Speaking Up sessions for all employees.

The BMS ‘Inclusive Leadership & Speaking Up’ programme

For each DEIB training strand, we ran pre-sessions, as well as sessions. Pre-sessions are the foundation of our personalisation process. For any HR training to work, employees need to be emotionally engaged. This means the content needs to be meaningful to them. For DEIB training, this is particularly important. Poorly designed and delivered DEIB training can easily backfire by triggering confirmation bias. This is where participants, when faced with discomfort, strengthen their previous beliefs, even if they were not aware that they held them. Building a sense of belonging is the key to getting this right, and is something we’re experts at. It’s one reason why BMS chose to partner with a specialist DEIB training provider.

Pre-sessions

So, to maximise the potential to cut through this tendency, we spoke to a range of employees from across the globe at all levels of the organisation. The intention was to gain a deeper understanding of the company’s culture.

From these conversations, we pulled together several word-for-word comments which revealed some uncomfortable truths. Then, with the permission of those who had originally spoken the words, and the leadership team, we recorded actors speaking these truths. In this way, marginalised employees’ lived experiences were brought to life for all to see with full emotional impact.

Sessions

Informed and armed with these recordings, we built three sessions. Each session was designed to protect those whose experiences were being voiced, to cultivate compassion, and to enable colleagues to feel a sense of allyship. Each session was two-part, with a growth gap between parts one and two. This growth gap allowed participants to absorb and embed the learning. Our coaches were available during this gap to provide support to anyone who needed it. Given the emotional impact that DEIB training has on participants and the known nature of confirmation bias, this growth gap is vital, as is the presence of expert coaches.

In part one, our expert facilitators led sessions using a range of drama-based techniques to deepen the learning. These included:

  • Group discussions aimed at cultivating compassion after hearing the recordings
  • Energiser and warm-up games for participants to explore how they felt about the company’s culture, aimed at opening up an understanding of what belonging could look and feel like
  • Bespoke forum theatre scenes placing the company’s current culture on stage, aimed at deliberately inciting innovation by inviting participants to work together and solve the problems presented in the scenario.

Having witnessed first-hand the experiences of marginalised colleagues, AND collaborated on finding empathetic and practical solutions to their real-life situations, participants got to experience what allyship feels like. Armed with this experience, they were now open to learning. And so, each session ended with one of our coaches expertly weaving in the company-specific scenarios participants had been focussed on during the day to help explain in an easy-to-understand, emotionally engaging, and memorable way: 

  • How power and privilege work
  • Why allyship is needed
  • How equity, diversity and inclusion benefit the business
  • What marginalisation is (and what is costs)
  • What intersectionality is (and why it’s important to understand).

This ensured a company-wide shared understanding of the topic of DEIB, and the organisation’s expectations in relation to it.

Realistic practice conversations

Following the growth gap, part two of the session saw each participant having a 30-minute practice conversation session with an actor-coach. Each conversation focused on either a real-life conversation they’d had in the past or a conversation they’d like to have in the future. Whichever, it was a conversation where they needed to speak up and challenge unacceptable behaviour or encourage a colleague to do so. 

Professional feedback

Each participant practised their conversation and received feedback from the actor-coach. There was a ratio of one actor-coach to three participants, so participants could observe and learn from their colleagues’ conversations and give feedback too. 

Did it work?

Yes! By building belonging, cultivating compassion, and inciting innovation, our DEIB training programme is helping BMS achieve its goals. 

In fact, the leadership team is so pleased, they’ve commissioned refresher and new recruit sessions to run throughout 2023.

Don’t just take our word for it though. Here’s some feedback from the leadership team:

These sessions have been incredibly impactful … to build a more inclusive culture at BMS, in which employees feel empowered to speak up.

Louisa Erwin, Group Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Internally, I’ve seen our conversations really progress following the roll out of our Speaking Up and Inclusive Leadership programme, focusing on effective communication, allyship and leading with empathy. We designed this in partnership with an excellent provider, using forum theatre and actor-coaches to bring scenarios to life and the impact has been huge. We recognised the real shift comes from continued conversations and have invested in ongoing workshops and touchpoints for all colleagues.

Ian Gormley, UK CEO, in Becoming Part of the DE&I Solution interview with Insurance Business Magazine