An Exclusive Interview with Fiona Smith and Katy Murray, Co-Founders of Catalyst Collective

Inclusion and diversity aren’t about lowering the bar. They’re about finding the right bar in the first place.

In this interview, Fiona Smith and Katy Murray, cofounders of Catalyst Collective a consultancy creating resources and community for leaders who want to shift the dial on diversity and inclusion, share their views on what’s wrong with our traditional models for measuring worker success.

Many workplaces have an unspoken, unconscious view of what the ideal worker looks like. It’s typically been defined by the traditional white male model of leadership (which is, by definition, exclusive).

It often defines success by focusing on a particular educational background or certain life experiences that all too often are closely linked to privilege.

When we don’t question or consider the inherent bias in this model, we put undue stress on the few senior minorities who might be on staff. They consequently feel they must fulfill all of the mentoring, coaching, etc. responsibilities to junior minority staff.

If you’re looking to reset your bar, Smith & Murray have three suggestions to start.

  • Use your privilege to get people’s voices heard.
  • Use your privilege to take people places.
  • Make sure people get the credit for the work they do in the spaces where their voices aren’t heard.

In this interview, you’ll discover:

  • The barriers blocking women’s access to work
  • How to change the way organizations view their ideal worker and craft a culture around it
  • How to create an inclusive leadership models
  • The importance of coaching and mentorship
  • The role woman plays to bring about cultural change within an organization

Listen in above (cc available), or read below the transcript of our interview with Smith & Murray. You can also listen on SpotifyiTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

FIONA YOUNG: Our guests today are Fiona Smith and Katy Murray co-founders of Catalyst Collective, a bespoke consultancy creating resources and community for leaders who want to progress their own careers and also shift the dial on diversity and inclusion. Co-founders Katy and Fiona are passionate about creating more inclusive workplaces and equipping leaders to be culture shapers. They do that through face to face and online programs, consultancy coaching and creating and sharing free practical resources. Phy has worked at board level as an HR and organizational development director and has also led large customer facing teams and held various non executive director positions. Before becoming a coaching consultant, she had long 10 years in HR and organizational development roles at NHS Scotland and Standard Life. Katy’s background is in organizational development and learning in development, in international companies and humanitarian agencies where she’s led global teams. She’s worked in 30 countries at all levels, from community groups to senior teams and the board room, and she’s designed award-winning change programs. Welcome Fiona and Katy, thank you so much for joining us today.

KATY MURRAY: Thanks Fiona. Great to be here.

FIONA SMITH: Thank you Fiona.

FIONA YOUNG: So just to start, can you give us a quick overview of what you’re trying to achieve at catalyst Collective and what personal experiences led you to launch the business?

FIONA SMITH: We’d love love to share that. Let’s start with what we’re trying to achieve. So we wanted to create a business where we were doing our own inclusion work as well as healthy clients do theirs and get really curious about what it’s like for women to create a business where they’re collaborating and not competing. Both of us wants to have a greater global impact in the work that we were doing. And importantly for us, we want the freedom to create the life that we wanted to lead. So in order to do resource other people and be creative, we need space and we need head space and bandwidth, no lie. So we specifically wanted to create a business which gave us that. And that came at a time of not having that. And Katy, do you want to share the kind of time just before we met?

KATY MURRAY: Yeah. So we each had a very soul consultancy business and traveling to clients all over the world. And when we met, we were both probably pretty close to some overwhelm and burnout, but still really passionate to serve our clients and to have a bigger impact and get all the good stuff that we’d learned over the years, probably now many decades to move people around the wild. So that was really the drivers when we first met together. And we circled each other for a little bit, we weren’t quite sure how it would work out. We started out saying we might use some blokes together. And then that quickly grew into what is now Catalyst Collective.

FIONA YOUNG: And could you tell us just a little bit about the typical work that you do with clients?

FIONA SMITH: So we do a real mix of work. We work in some really large organizations where we are in helping the senior leaders work out systemically what is going on in that organization around diversity inclusion. And what are the ways that they can make practical nudges to shift the dial on inclusion. So we do work with organizations, we do work with individual men and women where we coach them and we’re also increasingly building a virtual business as well. Because we’re really conscious that things like programs and coaching are available often to men and women in well-funded organizations. But they are not available to many men and women around the world in other organizations or who work for themselves. We’re also building an online business as well because we’ve become very conscious of our work that the great consultancies we do, the great coaching that we do, the great programs that we run are often only available to men and women in very well resourced organizations. And we have a real heart for making that. That profoundly useful development experiences available to a wider range of people at a much lower cost point and making it able to operate right. So we are balancing this lovely kind of traditional coaching consultancy business with a growing and emerging virtual online business.

FIONA YOUNG: Well that really resonates given of course at Hive we’re so into digital learning and that’s our space too. So you’ve put out a fantastic report on the gender pay gap, which for our listeners outside of the UK is the mandated reporting of men and women’s average pay across an organization for all employers in the UK with 250 or more employees. And they started in 2017. And all the data is publicly available. So the transparency, of course, has led to a bit of a scramble for many organizations to try to fix their pay gap. But actually recent data has shown that pay gaps have grown in the last year, not shrunken. And I think because we see so many organizations fail to address the culture change required to reach gender equity. I love that your report includes a really practical 10 step action plan to tackle pay gaps, which we’ll link in the description so listeners can check this out. Of those 10 steps, which do you think is the most powerful change that our listeners can make that will have the most impact on their organizations?

FIONA SMITH: So glad that you like the report and I just thinking of which step, because I think all of the 10 steps are really powerful. And if I had to pick one, I think it’d be this idea that we have an unspoken ideal worker in organizations. So this unconscious model of what the ideal employee looks like and this develops in response to the organization’s culture. And then in turn it reinforces the culture. So for many clients, our ideal worker has a particular education background and that is often degree educated. They have got certain life experiences, for example, they’ve worked internationally, and those life experiences are often wrapped up with having privilege. They are able to be physically present in a particular location. And often that location is major city where accommodation is expensive or where it requires a long commute to get to. And they also have to be available to set hours on often between 9:00 and 5:00 and offer flexibility as response to what the business throws at them. And when you start to deconstruct the idea of what the ideal worker looks like, you can then start to see the privilege that is required to meet that model and who is included and excluded by it. And if you just kind of reflect back on the things that I’ve referenced there, it’s not just women who are excluded, it is men. You want to share their own parenting. That geographic exclusion in there, that is social demographic exclusion in there. And so once you start surfacing that ideal worker model I think it’s a really practical way into looking at what are the barriers that have built up over time in our organization, which are blocking women’s access to work.

FIONA YOUNG: And how do you shift that? Then how do you change the way that organizations kind of view who their ideal worker is and kind of craft that culture and that environment around that ideal worker?

KATY MURRAY: Yeah, great question. And it starts with a conversation, doesn’t it? It starts with let’s discuss, let’s even surface the fact that that exist. And I think so often our clients, even that blind spot that we even have the ideal worker norm. And when we get into what kind of culture does that create, when we hold that. And it’s like a bias perhaps that we’ve all been conditioned into and unless we become more aware of it, we’re not necessarily seeing how it’s driving so much of our decision making and the culture inside our organization. So we think the first stage is to shift it is really to start getting more aware. And that comes through conversation and dialogue and a bit of confronting and a bit of awareness around that.

FIONA YOUNG: And one other piece of guidance you give is around creating inclusive leadership models. Can you tell us about this?

KATY MURRAY: Yeah. And I’m linking to what we’ve just said about the ideal worker norm as that sense of what is it that we believe to be good leadership around here and what does that look like and feel like. And over time, historically that good leadership model, if you like, has been white, has been male and has looked and felt a certain way. And so again, much like your question, how do we shift the ideal worker norm. That’s something about how do we start to investigate and interrogate that leadership model that we have and how do we start making that move inclusive? If good leadership looks like a white male, then what kind of culture does that create? [inaudible 00:09:09]. So how do we start to you to unpack that and open up the possibility for different kinds of leadership to be welcomed and to be valid and to be valued.

FIONA YOUNG: And I imagine as well that bias plays into this, right? It’s sort of is the systemic issue that the things, the images that we see in society outside of the walls of perhaps our own business has lead into this model of what the ideal leader looks like.

KATY MURRAY: Absolutely. And a couple of examples just just from recent work that we’ve been doing. So an organization recently working around the bank holiday. And their senior team, one of their senior team was telling me that the papers for the senior team meetings, so the agenda comes to everybody on the Friday afternoon before the bank holiday. Everyone’s off on the Monday where in an off work. And then the meeting is on the Tuesday morning. The woman in the senior team, the one woman in the senior team asked as, “Well, could we have the papers on the Thursday so that we have an extra day rather than having to crack into our weekends to be ready for that meeting. “And she just shared with us that it was really challenging for everybody else to realize that that actually would be helpful. And that that actually would be useful probably for all of them, but certainly for this woman who is also juggling her family responsibilities. So just that sort of lack of awareness around what that inclusive leadership might look like. Often it’s really small things, isn’t it? That will make a difference for people. Actually having agenda papers a day earlier is seemingly sort of and so small, but it actually makes a big difference for for that individual and of course what that the culture of that senior team and creates around it. So that’s maybe just one example of how there was that bias. We didn’t really see that that would be important until someone challenges and raises that as we could be more inclusive if we did it this way.

FIONA YOUNG: And how courageous though. I think it’s very difficult sometimes to put your hand up and say, “Oh, imagine my issues. Imagine the world I’m living in.” And I imagine that as a coach you probably see a lot of this and encourage a lot of individuals to kind of speak up more. Could you tell us a bit about that?

KATY MURRAY: Yeah, courage is a big piece isn’t that? What support do we need around us to feel able to be the only ones speaking up about our lived experience. And I think sometimes it’s a coach that’s supporting that. Sometimes it’s finding another ally inside the organization, someone who can resonate with our experience and help us support us to to speak up.

FIONA SMITH: And Fiona I think one of the real values of the group programs that we do is we bring women together into a safe space. And so often women feel that they’re the only person to experience something and when they come together into a space with other women and discover, actually I’m not the only person experiencing it, that sense of community often that gives people the courage to start calling stuff out. Because they no longer see it as a personal experience and start seeing it actually as a systemic organizational or societal experience. And that’s something really galvanizing about other people.

FIONA YOUNG: Yeah, absolutely. I think that both the programs and I imagine as well employee resource groups, you know in organizations need to build that sense of community and yeah, that’s brilliant. So speaking of coaching, I know that both of you are passionate about coaching underrepresented talent. What’s the most surprising but common blocker to progression that you see people come up against in the corporate world?

FIONA SMITH: Access to role models and mentors continues to be a significant blocker. Human beings alike and lazy. So we are drawn and spend time with people who are both like us and who are easy to connect with. And this means in organizations you develop patterns of role modeling, of mentoring and network which are unfortunately naturally exclusive. And this has a double whammy effect on reps and talent. the first effect is it’s hard for them to break into those networks. And so they have less access to role models, they have less access to mentors and they have less access to effectively the power that comes from the information flow, the networking, the feedback that come through the network. So that’s first impact. And then the second major blocker for them is what we’re noticing is if you are a majority in, for example, senior team, if you’re a white man in a team of white men, the likelihood is that everybody in that team is doing a relatively equal quantity of sponsoring or mentoring. And what we’re noticing is if you’re in a minority, so for example, you’re the only woman in a team or you’re the only person of color in a team, that you are carrying a disproportion of responsibility, the mentoring and coaching workload that happens. So two really lovely client examples at the moment. We are working with an amazing black woman who is in an all white CSC competitive sales team. The women in the team are looking up to her and the young black talent in the team are looking up to her as both a role model as the former coach. We got her to track her time and she’s spending a day and a half a week in that informal networking and coaching role alongside a really demanding job. Different organization. They have brought in an intervie, ineffective inclusion policy, which means they now got balanced recruitment panels of senior men and senior women, but she’s the only senior woman in the organization. So every time there’s an interview of a certain level, she’s on the panel. And she reckon she’d spend three to four days a month doing recruitment work. So this double whammy blocker that happens, firstly around lack of access and then secondly, the additional workload that you’re carrying when you’re in the minority say in order to lift the people below you in the chains for others.

FIONA YOUNG: Yeah. I never thought about the second one you just mentioned. That’s really interesting actually. And yeah, it’s that kind of, it’s that work that you probably don’t get any credit for as well. Right?

FIONA SMITH: And I think that’s a really interesting point. These women are not being credited for that work, but they’re playing a significant role in cultural change in their organization.

FIONA YOUNG: So what is the most effective way that you see organizations circumventing this blocker? Of course, I mean we’ve all heard of sponsoring and mentoring programs and so forth, but I wonder, have you seen any solutions that are a little bit more informal than that?

FIONA SMITH: Yeah, I mean once to speak to this piece around mentoring and sponsoring, but choosing people who are different from you and really actively doing that. So to borrow on what Fiona said about alike and lazy piece. And we know that women may tend to be over mentored but under sponsored and have less access, you just talked about that, to more senior sponsorship. So if you are in a senior role, particularly if you’re in the majority, we just talked about if you’re in the minority that you may already be having a disproportionate burden here. If you’re in the majority, how can you be part of thing where you counter cultural and sponsoring people who are really different from you. How can you shift the culture and

Look around who’s underrepresented in your organization, in your talent pipeline that might be black women, that might be black man, that might be other particular identities. And so choose to offer to be a sponsor, and to be a mentor into that relationship, build that relationship.

And we’ve seen really significant change there. And it’s powerful because there’s that almost reverse mentoring experience that happens there as well. It’s incredibly powerful if you’re in a senior team to

Listen to the experiences of underrepresented people in your organization and what their experiences are. We’ve seen real changes for people, real kind of heart changes for people as they’ve listened and listened to really humbly and with curiosity and been able to learn from their colleagues.

FIONA YOUNG: So I’m curious to know what tips would you give for people who are listening, who are not actually a formal sponsor or mentor in their business, but maybe some of the little behaviors you can do to help members of underrepresented groups when you’re in a position of power or privilege perhaps.

FIONA SMITH: In fact it is three really quick tips that we give people. The first tip is start paying attention to who’s voice is heard and use your privilege to get different voices heard around the table. And that can simply be creating space in the meeting by inviting somebody in. The first one is using your privilege to get people’s voices heard. The second one for us is using your privilege to take people places. So who are you choosing to take to senior meetings? Who are you choosing to take the off sites? Who are you choosing to take lunch with you? And we find often with a lot of senior men we work with, they see that they are making safe choices about taking people who are alike to them to those settings and those meetings. So beginning to disrupt the patterns of who you are taking to places. And the third tip we give people is who is getting the credit and being really clear around rising people up by helping people understand what they have done. So you personally giving them credit for the work and in spaces where their voice isn’t heard. So for example, senior team meetings, vocally giving them the credit. So three simple steps. Whose voice is heard? Who are you taking into path of spaces? Who are you giving credit to?

FIONA YOUNG: I love those. Thank you. So what is one unpopular opinion you have about what’s working or what’s not working in the diversity and inclusion space?

FIONA SMITH: Gosh, we’ve got lots. Well maybe we’ll both share one. I’ll start with this Fiona. The one that I would like to share is around the parental leave arrangements that currently exist. And I think if you’re listening in the UK, it’s assess parental leave arrangements. If you’re in the US this is an even tougher place to be. And I’d like to start this with sharing… this is literally an example for coaching work last week. Which is a client who is in her late twenties she has just gotten married and her organization have just announced a significant restructure in which there will be redundancies. She wants to position herself for a role in that restructure. She felt compelled to tell her boss that even though she just got married, she wasn’t planning kids for the next few years. Because she held a fear that in that restructure situation, the senior team would be eyeing the results through the lens of actually we may lose her in a few years’ time or we may lose her to maternity leave. So let’s not give her the senior role. She felt compelled to actually go and have that conversation with them. So for me, doing something that disrupts parental leave in the UK, so creating use it or lose it leave for second parents or men. Which means they have the opportunity to take well paid parental leave, which only the father or the second parent can take. Because until we start disrupting the patterns around who is carrying outside work, then employers will consistently be looking at their employees who are in their twenties and thirties and forties and they will be subconsciously processing that women are more likely to take time out of the workplace and subconsciously making choices around what that means for jobs, for promotions and for all opportunities. And so for me, my unpopular thing is legislate around, use it or lose it second parent or father leave.

FIONA YOUNG: I’m totally in favor of that. [crosstalk 00:21:02].

FIONA SMITH: She’s fighting. And I think for me, I think there’s something still about this myth around meritocracy, but again and perhaps more in a UK culture, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s place too in the US and other parts of Europe too, that that belief that if everybody just works hard enough and it’s back to that good leadership model, isn’t it? What does a good worker look like? If everyone just fulfilled that model, then we would have a fair system and the talent would rise to the top. And we see increasingly how damaging that belief in meritocracy is. And so my unpopular opinion would be that we need to really disavow all sorts, in our organizations of that myth. We know that people and for the… when I’ve held that belief that actually that’s created more bias and more discrimination and more non-inclusive practice to myself. And we know the research bears that out. So it’s a really kind of cool belief that when we disavow ourselves over it, we can see what’s really required to enable talent to rise and through which talk to one another to lift and raise one another. What we experience is when we work with groups and start to raise their awareness around this. That’s when we see light bulbs going on. That’s when we see empathy really increase and also humanity really increase. And I think when you have conversations in the DNI space around privilege, particularly around race, around whiteness. That can be some defensiveness. That can be some shame and guilt and all those emotions that that can create a defense rather than an openness to a change in behavior. But we find that we can increase the empathy, that we can start to hear one another stories, then we start to understand that meritocracy is actually completely wrong and damaging. And that’s when things can really start to change.

FIONA YOUNG:  That really reminds me of something that Aubrey Blanch, who’s the head of diversity and inclusion at Atlassian, has said before, and she actually is on this podcast as well. She didn’t say this on the podcast, mind you. But she had this great story about… People always ask me, well, surely if we’re trying to hire for diversity, then we’re lowering the bar. And I can’t get on board with that. And she says, “Well, actually you have it completely wrong because the way that we hire today, the way that we think about meritocracy, as you rightly say, is a myth. Right? And so we’ve already lowered the bar by not equally considering candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. So actually by demanding that we have balanced short lists, we are raising the bar, right? Yeah. And we… That bomb of metaphor is one that we often use with clients because we frequently hear, are we not lowering the bar? And our response to that is, not only is meritocracy creates a false impression around the bar, but also

That very definition of the bar that we’re asking people to jump over has often been defined by white male models of leadership. which are by definition exclusive. So the phrase that we use if we’re not lowering the bar, you’re using the wrong bar.

Yeah. I love that. So I have one final question for you. What is one simple thing that anyone could do this week in their workplace to build inclusion?

KATY MURRAY: Great question. I love that. And I love the work that you’re doing on this podcast to encourage people to do really practical, simple things every day. I think sometimes we think this quite… it is a complex topic, but I think that can sometimes then be a barrier to do anything about it. And so I love this question. My encouragement would be to go and meet someone who’s different from you. And that whether that’s in the workplace, even outside of work. Maybe start there. Hear their story. And something about really listening to the stories, so I encourage you to listen first before trying to explain or defend or jump in with your own experience. Just listen and allow that story to educate you and raise your awareness. Of course we can do more to educate ourselves. We can read the research into how bias plays out and how it impacts more marginalized groups in specific ways. So as a white woman, I can educate myself about how whiteness plays out inside organizational life. And it’s my job actually to do that. It’s not people of course job to help me raise my awareness around that. So I think we can educate ourselves around that. And that sense of how we connect with how we’re part of the system and how a big part of, again, as a white woman, I can get into this debate about, well it needs to be men that are making the changes. Well now its almost subtle[inaudible 00:25:53]is bias that all of us around. So let’s educate ourselves around that. And then the third thing would be how do we be a more active ally to others around us in our organizations, Fiona’s already spoken to this. How do we speak out when we see those microaggressions, when there’s a homophobic joke or when there’s some sexist banter or even system gendered language. And I say just, but we know that language shapes our culture, doesn’t it? Language is really powerful. And so how do we change our own language? And then how do we just invite graciously, kindly our colleagues to make a change if there’s language that could cause someone else to feel excluded. So that’s daily stuff. That sort of small micro moments, isn’t it? Of how we show up each day. Fiona already mentioned checking your airtime in meetings. Who’s got the space, who’s got the voice, mind if I can make our meeting shorter. Let’s just have shorter meetings. Creating more space to hang out and listen to each other’s stories. That’d be good. But we can do a little bit of analysis that she on… Just take a moment and listen in the meetings and see who speaks most. It’s often fascinating just to take, rather than speaking yourself, take minutes and listen to who’s getting the airtime. That can be very insightful.

FIONA YOUNG: We were actually just exploring at Hive learning. Is there a digital tool that can do this? We need this for our meeting rooms, right? Surely there must be someone building this right now. I want to know who, I want to procure that.

FIONA SMITH: How about this, I think how to investigate is a really interesting tracking of it. So there’s a really interesting piece of research around that. Literally recording. It was mobile recording devices. Really interesting research around who got the airtime.

FIONA YOUNG: Well, I think I can probably guess that. I’ll list that up.

FIONA SMITH: And just on these things, the practical things to build inclusion in the workplace is the one I would add is take 10 minutes today to do an audit of what is in your feed in social media. So in your LinkedIn feed, your Instagram feed, your Facebook feed, whatever your platform of choices, do an audit of who you’re following and therefore what you are seeing.

KATY MURRAY: Which is the like and lazy stuff. Right?


FIONA YOUNG: The filter bubble is real.

FIONA SMITH: Because people end up in an echo chamber of people who are like them and therefore they’re not exposed to alternative views. And I’ve had to do real work on my own social media feed over the last 24 months to make sure that I was following a wider range of people, age-wise, gender-wise at this device. And in doing that, I’m exposing myself to a different perspective on the world and things that quite frankly, I’ve had to get curious about. And-

KATY MURRAY: Different stories.

FIONA SMITH: Different stories. 10 minutes audit your social media feeds, who you’re following, whose oxygen are you consuming?

FIONA YOUNG: That’s a great tip and thank you so much for sharing all those lessons with us. I’m sure there’s loads for our listeners to take away from our chat today. If any of our listeners want to connect with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

KATY MURRAY: Yeah, we’d love to connect with you. Do reach out to us on Catalyst Collective Community and that’s the same on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all the places. And then there are a number of free guides that we can make available to your listeners Fiona and you can include the links around our gender bias guide and our gender pay gap report and all the different thought leadership pieces that we’re putting out there. We’d love to share those.

FIONA YOUNG: Thank you. And yeah, I can confirm these are fabulous and really progressive reports. They’re not your typical kind of super dull white papers. So please do go and check those out. Full of practical tips. So thank you again Fiona and Katy.

Be sure to follow Katy as @katycatalyst and Fiona here

Check out our other interviews with inclusion’s change-makers, thinkers, and influencers.

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An Exclusive Interview with Fiona Smith and Katy Murray, Co-Founders of Catalyst Collective

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