Fairer Future Case Study: Louise Parkes

Think Tank

5 min read

Photo credit: Adam Lawrence.

In our Fairer Future case study series, we interview leaders who are taking action to create a fairer future. Louise Parkes, CEO of Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity (GOSH Charity), is one such leader. Here, she shares her experience of transforming the organisation’s approach to Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) — and why being nice is not enough.

What was the challenge?

When I joined GOSH Charity in 2019, I was struck by how lovely everyone was. We knew we had some issues with diversity, especially at leadership and board level, but it wasn’t high on the agenda. That changed when George Floyd was murdered.

Many of the team were angry — about the situation, about oppression in general, and at the organisation, the senior leadership team, and me. Our HR Director organised an open meeting for everyone to share their views, and I couldn’t attend because it clashed with an important presentation. A lot of anger was directed at me for missing the meeting, so I wrote a blog to address the situation directly — but this attracted even more attention and more angry comments. Looking back, it probably stoked rather than dampened the fire.

My first instinct was that this was unfair; I am passionate about creating an inclusive culture, and I always try to do my best. But then I realised that I simply wasn’t doing enough. I’d always thought that because it was a lovely place to work, and no complaints of discrimination were raised, everything was ok. That was wrong, and this was a wake-up call.

What was your strategy for addressing this challenge?

“It was clear that there would be no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Listen and learn

My first action was to hold 12 open invitation listening sessions. These were really uncomfortable conversations. The mix of opinions and emotions was so diverse that developing a plan felt incredibly tricky. It was clear that there would be no one-size-fits-all solution.

We then carried out a survey to gather quantitative data about the current picture of the organisation, and to capture stories. We worked with an EDI expert to channel what we heard to form a proper strategy with clear objectives, metrics, and measurement criteria.

I also looked to learn from organisations that were further along their EDI journey, including some of our corporate partners. They had a lot of great ideas and experience, in particular around attracting diverse talent.

Embed EDI in organisational strategy — and put it on the board’s agenda

Our strategic goals focus on three areas: impact, income, and partnership. And three enablers underpin our ability to deliver them: digital, innovation, and culture. Our new EDI strategy fitted well into the culture piece, and it’s considered core to achieving our goals. We report to the board on EDI twice a year as a designated agenda item, and we have an EDI lead on the board to keep us accountable.

Strategy is paramount. Everything we do and talk about should fit under one of those six headings, and if it doesn’t, we ask ourselves: why are we doing it?

Prioritise to lead by example

Leaders have to prioritise, and EDI is absolutely one of my priorities. It’s important to lead by example. If I’m not investing time, energy, and effort then it looks like I’m making hollow promises. Does that mean other things have to give? Yes, absolutely, but that’s what life’s about. I have to focus on the things that I believe are going to make the biggest difference and deliver our strategy.

Don’t be complacent about culture

You can never be complacent when it comes to culture.

Hidden within our “lovely” culture was an underlying problem — people were afraid to challenge and weren’t comfortable speaking out. There was such a focus on being “nice” that issues were brushed under the carpet out of fear of being labelled a “trouble-maker”. Organisations — and their leaders — need to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.

What impact has this had so far?

Last August, Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation was 9% across the entire organisation, and we set ourselves the target of reaching 15%. We’re now at 19%. Talking about diversity a lot, both within the organisation and externally, seems to attract candidates from more diverse backgrounds because they know we’re striving to be an inclusive organisation.

EDI has become a mainstream consideration in our planning process. We recently did an Equality Impact Assessment on whether proposed changes to our organisation would disproportionately affect certain demographics within the organisation. Considering EDI implications at every stage, including the planning phase, reframes the way in which we approach our work.

“Organisations — and their leaders — need to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.”

How do you sustain change?

Challenge for action

We still have a long way to go. I’m frustrated that EDI hasn’t remained on the radar to the same extent as it was immediately after George Floyd’s murder. One of the things we are doing to maintain the internal conversation is hosting “Inspiring Change” sessions — we invite external speakers with different lived experiences around race, gender, and sexuality to share their stories and expertise. Recently, a guest challenged us all by saying: “As leaders and as individuals, you all need to ask yourself if you’re doing enough.” These constant reminders are so important.

A past boss once told me, “You need to challenge your unconscious bias, because you err towards hiring people just like you.” At first, I was offended by this, but then realised it was a fair challenge. If you’re not challenging yourself about this, you need someone else brave enough in the room.

Make it measurable

We’re putting EDI objectives into our annual appraisal process, and as part of business planning every team is completing a Local Equality Action Plan (LEAP). Everyone needs to demonstrate that they are working to make improvements across the organisation.

For example, 30% of the hospital’s patients come from BAME backgrounds, but too many of our case studies feature blonde children. So our brand and design team are looking at improving representation of the communities across all of our communications channels.

Another example can be found in our grants team — we haven’t been collecting EDI information on who we award our research grants to. If it is disproportionately going to white, male researchers, is there something we can do to counter that?

Build networks for accountability

I know I have lots to learn. So I am building my networks — over social media, and via professional networks. After attending a Board Intelligence Think Tank roundtable, I had a great conversation with the chair of another charity about gender dynamics within not-for-profits. I’m also a member of a group of charity CEOs at Groundbreakers.

It’s about making time to have the conversations and surrounding yourself with people who will hold you accountable.


This interview was hosted and written by Megan Pantelides and Isabelle Green.

Do you know a person or organisation who are leading the change? Get in touch with us at thinktank@boardintelligence.com.

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