Viewpoint: The universal rewards of diversity

19 April 2021

True diversity in the workplace means heightened standards for all, writes Adriènne Kelbie in her final external article before stepping down as Chief Executive of the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).

Adriènne Kelbie, Chief Executive of the Office for Nuclear Regulation (Image: ONR)

"I am an unusual head of a regulatory organisation. After over five years at the helm of ONR, steering it through change, challenge and COVID, I am writing this piece as my last public record of something critical to this sector. And I hope it will move you enough to engage your teams.

ONR is a team of over 600 highly dedicated people, helping protect the public from nuclear hazards. Our regulation is all about keeping the public safe. It drives every one of us, in every role, every single day.

We regulate safety, security, and now safeguards. ONR keeps the lights on safely for workers and citizens. And though few realise, we also enable transport of essential materials to places like hospitals, to aid cancer treatment.

Diversify or fail

In January 2016, when I joined ONR, I spoke first to all staff in small groups, and then to stakeholders. We were generally viewed as a world-class regulator.

So why did I perceive weaknesses that led me to change a winning formula?

The simple answer is that I came from a non-nuclear and non-engineering background. Many saw this as a disadvantage. How could I possibly lead a complex organisation where I had no experience with the core work?

By bringing experience from other sectors, and by seeing our challenges differently, I was able to see root causes more clearly, and offer wider solutions. Above all, my mindset was open to all of the rich data that was  on offer to me, rather than discounting it as our brains often do when we think we already know an answer.

With this perspective, I could clearly see that our regulatory operations were in good shape, but our organisational development was not. And if we failed to grasp the thorny issue of culture, we would eventually risk our regulatory prowess. A culture that was not inclusive risked losing out on the kind of psychological safety that’s critical to encourage people to speak up about issues internally and externally. And that was simply unacceptable.

Together, the people at ONR changed our culture by changing their mindsets. We sought to diversify our people, to celebrate our difference, and to focus on a culture that helped everyone belong equally, no matter their education, role or characteristics.

As a result, we have low staff turnover, high morale, and a very solid foundation on which to meet the demands of an ever changing and evolving nuclear landscape. And there is no doubt that people feel far more secure, and so able to address difficult issues.

Inclusion is a mindset

We know that diverse teams make better decisions, which in turn leads to positive outcomes.  And in the nuclear sector, where stakes are high, the best possible decisions - at every level - are critical to safety, morale and the bottom line.

So why is the nuclear sector not concerned enough by lack of diversity to truly address the issue?

I fear it’s because an engineering-based sector perceives the problem as a ‘task’ to be mastered, completed and moved on from. It’s not.

Inclusion isn’t a task - it’s a mindset. And that must start from the very top - with Boards and senior leadership teams who are themselves diverse and lead by example in this area, just as they would do for physical safety.  Psychological safety absolutely depends on an inclusive culture - never as a bolt on, always as a secure base right at the heart of an organisation.

Visible role-modelling

Research proves time and again that having visible role models is the number one thing any company can do to improve diversity. People cannot be a change they don’t see.

As Chief Executive, I have a particular responsibility to set the tone: to model inclusion, use accessible language, and bring more emotional intelligence to our rational, logical business.

When I first joined ONR five years ago, I was the first female executive in ONR’s history. The organisation needed a lot of work to become younger and more modern, to blend old hands with new talent, and to think and communicate differently.

By being more accessible, clearer about the skills and experience we really needed, and offering more flexible working, we’ve seen more women join ONR and be promoted at senior levels, including our Board and Senior Leadership Team. We’ve taken the number of women in a senior role from 19% to 23% since 2016, and the number of women taking up technical specialist roles has increased by 70%. And we’ve also reduced our average age by around seven years.

This is not because we’ve lowered standards for some, but because we’ve heightened them for all. We’re fairer, more open minded, more supportive, and recognise that diversity starts with recruitment. And the benefits are for everyone: dads appreciate the flexibility as much as mums.

A human brand

Externally, our key stakeholder audiences also lacked diversity. ONR also needed to do more to engage with and reflect the public we serve. That meant meeting with sceptical communities, speaking in clear and accessible language, and doing so through an increasingly diverse team.

We now use social media freely, with our staff fronting information for the public, and job campaigns targeted to a more diverse pool than ever before. Even people who’d never worked in nuclear, who wanted to work flexibly, or were just starting out on their careers. By sharing a more balanced story of ONR behaviours, skills and experience – and showcasing our diversity in real life stories - we attracted many more high quality job applicants for every role.

And upon joining, people felt ‘they belonged’ and were more able to contribute honestly, openly and confidently - I know that because I personally speak to every new starter to find out.

We all stretched our perspective, reduced our blind spots, and recognised the value of difference.  And yet, it takes constant work to ensure that all voices can be heard, and that perceived low-level threats - such as hierarchical power, a desire to maintain positive relationships, and worry about what ‘others will think’ - become barriers.

In five years, the ONR brand has evolved to be as authoritative as ever, but far more compelling. Our tone of voice is more human and less officious. We understand the value of empathy and emotional intelligence, and embrace our accountability for making ourselves understood to non-technical audiences. Our stakeholder satisfaction rates are consistently high - 80%-90% positive. And yes, they include anti-nuclear lobby groups. That could not have been achieved without taking a far more inclusive approach.

Effective leadership

In just two years, this inclusive approach led to an about turn in staff satisfaction too.

Leadership survey indicators soared, with visibility up from 21% to 76% and trust in our messages up from 29% to 69%. Those figures are a quarter higher than the UK public sector benchmark - and they have risen since.

I am positive that, without these changes, we would have struggled to maintain safe operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, we were already more open about mental health, and begin to view the differences between us as strengths, not weaknesses. If ever there was a doubt that emotionally intelligent, inclusive leadership was in order - it’s firmly quashed now.

As I prepare to leave ONR, the most frequent question I am asked is “will our culture go back to what it was before?” That, of course, will not be in my hands. But I very much expect that our leaders and staff, at all levels, in all roles, and in all their uniqueness, will continue to ensure that ONR develops inclusively. And I have confidence that they can, because they feel safe to do so.

I can only hope that the nuclear sector, globally, will do so too. I ask you to imagine a world where inclusion is a feature at every Board table, every management table and every canteen table in your industry. Even if it feels uncomfortable."

Adriènne Kelbie will be stepping down from her role as Chief Executive when Mark Foy steps into the new combined role of Chief Nuclear Inspector/Chief Executive on 1 June.