I&D in consumer goods and grocery - M&S case study

Date : 22 November 2021

Paul Friston
Managing Director of International, M&S

What does I&D look like at M&S?

We take an inclusion-first approach. There’s no point in bringing in excellent diverse talent if they won’t feel they belong once they’re here. Inclusion also allows for intersectionality. When I first heard this term, I’ll admit I thought it was overcomplicating an already complex issue – but, after learning more about the topic, it’s clear how important it is; we don’t want to pigeon-hole anyone into one ‘category’ of diversity. 

You’ve made fantastic progress on gender diversity in the past few years. How have you achieved this?

At M&S, we’ve nearly reached our target of 50% women at leadership level. Having balanced teams brings diversity of thought and is proven to be good for business. As 70% of our customers are women, shopping for themselves and the family, it makes absolute sense that we should have balanced leadership when it comes to decision making in our business. 

We took a number of steps to get here. Firstly, we were very clear with setting and communicating our 50% target. Then we introduced dedicated programmes to make that a reality. We offered women in middle management roles access to mentoring and accelerated programmes to build leadership skills. We launched an inspiring speaker series programme to showcase great female role models inside and outside of the business, and as leaders we have supported the gender equality network to raise awareness amongst colleagues.  

We spent a long time working out how we could level the playing field between men and women. We thought about ‘imposter syndrome’, and educated our hiring teams around recognising it in interview settings. We have also worked on ways to give women the confidence to know that their male counterparts are equally as doubtful, just expressing it differently. We have introduced the concept of unconscious bias through learning and development programmes to help line managers spot their own bias at play.

There’s no silver bullet to progress – each thing you do brings a 1% improvement. You have to do one hundred things to get to 100%! 

Your priority today is advancing ethnic diversity. Can you speak a bit about that? 

We’re now asking ourselves what lessons we can learn from our progress on gender diversity and apply them to increasing ethnic minority representation. 

We want to do more to make sure we’re servicing a broad community. Particularly around food, for example planning for key festivals, or having Muslim product directors who can understand what it’s like to be part of a Muslim family. 

One way we’re doing this is by partnering with external organisations who can shine a light on where the best talent is, which might not come from the traditional places. The 10,000 Black Interns programme, for example, is a phenomenal scheme. Our first intake will join us in summer 2022. These will be our future leaders in ten, twenty or thirty years’ time – so it’s not a quick fix! 

You’ve recently hired a group head of inclusion and diversity. What did that process look like? 

We knew that we needed one person in a dedicated role, with a small team to mobilise action. It’s been fantastic. Cleo acts as a single point of contact on inclusion and diversity for the different divisions of M&S and has the expertise and experience to drive change through the business. Her network is outstanding, so whenever we need advice or to bring in a speaker, she just whips out her digital Rolodex! 

What impact has having a dedicated I&D lead had on the business? 

From the moment we advertised the role, the signal it sent to the broader company was just fantastic. We have seven employee network groups – covering six of the protected characteristics and the veterans in our business – who were the first to say “Wow, M&S is serious about this.” Once Cleo had been brought in, it really hit home for the senior leaders in our business that I&D is something to which we are committed. 

With Cleo leading the efforts, we’ve identified eight areas of focus for I&D and these are:

  • Diversifying our recruitment, including Early Careers
  • Internal careers, talent development and succession planning
  • Sponsorship and reverse mentoring
  • Expanding our knowledge via I&D education and learning
  • Building I&D plans for use across M&S
  • Elevating and creating awareness of our Zero Tolerance stance on racist, homophobic and other non-inclusive, behaviours
  • Celebrating our multi-faith, multi-cultural colleagues, customers and communities
  • Knowing who we are: better data on our colleagues, customers and communities

Additionally, Cleo is the recently appointed Government Disability and Access Ambassador for the retail sector, so her focus on making the industry a more inclusive place to work and shop for the 14 million people in the UK who have a visible or non-visible disability, also supports our inclusive strategy and ensures that M&S continues to be a leader in this space.