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Navigating a diverse landscape

Hayley Bowling of WPP’s AKQA sets out her lessons learned from leading a global diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative from APAC

With an estimated 1.3bn people worldwide living with disabilities – encompassing both visible and invisible conditions – we must ask: are we actively creating inclusive and diverse workplaces where creativity can flourish or do we still have a long way to go?

Join me on my journey to launching AYbl, a global Employee Resource Group dedicated to disability and neurodiversity. Through this experience, I've navigated the process of uniting diverse perspectives and experiences towards a common purpose and vision.

As a leader, I've come to understand that adaptability and continuous learning are the true keystones of success. Over eight months, I embarked on a leadership journey. I saw a challenge: fighting ableism, addressing biases, prioritising accessibility, nurturing teamwork and creating a safe space for diverse perspectives.

Confident in the goal and our community's need for this space to exist, I recognised the potential for fostering creativity, inclusive functionality, and empowerment. So, I embraced my dyslexic thinking and led a talented group with lived experience to create something accessible and beautiful.

Inspired by this journey, I'm compelled to share some invaluable lessons.

Lesson 1: abandon your bias, and listen to understand

Committed to creating a meaningful community, I embraced curiosity and actively listened to people's lived experiences. I learnt quickly to discard biases and false assumptions, and to recognise my limited knowledge.

Utilising my dyslexic strength for empathy, I collected diverse stories and feedback, which was enlightening. I came to realise my familiarity with these spaces was minimal, despite my experience within this community.

Food for thought: learn to listen and seek to understand.

Lesson 2: acknowledge the impact of ableism

Ableism is everywhere. I saw it pop up in sneaky ways throughout. It is estimated that it will take 200 years for unconscious bias against disabled people to reach zero and I now believe it.

I also learned that our community has a huge spectrum of opinions. Some wanted to fit into neurotypical settings without any problems. In contrast, others wanted recognition, validation, and a chance to proudly embrace their differences. It got me thinking about how we were going to create a safe space when the community was so diverse.

Food for thought: value diverse experiences and acknowledge people’s differences.

Lesson 3: make accessibility a priority from the start

We understood right away that accessibility was a must, but we also found out it can be tough to get right. It’s tricky but very important.

We agreed early on that there needed to be checks and balances that reviewed our branding from the beginning. I made a conscious effort to connect with people who were passionate about accessibility and they took a lot of care and time reviewing the work. Even though this took more time than we planned, the outcome made the team very proud.

Food for thought: prioritise accessibility – it matters to those who need it.

Lesson 4: lean into your strengths

Our field abounds with neurodiverse individuals, skilled in creative thinking, intense focus, idea generation, problem-solving and meticulous attention to detail. I believe these abilities are impressive and merit wholehearted support.

Leading AYbl, I observed so much creativity and innovation. What truly made my heart sing was witnessing people thrive in the areas they are passionate about.

Food for thought: empower teams – embrace strengths and remove barriers.

Lesson 5: leveraging expertise and collaboration

I relied on my team's expertise very early on to foster collaboration and mutual support during the build. I acknowledge that I am not an expert in all areas, and it will take a team effort to make a space that we are all proud to be a part of.

Food for thought: shared vision = shared tasks and stronger trust.

Lesson 6: the foundation of DEI

I learnt very early on in my career that DEI initiatives are not tick-box exercises. It's important to remember that all initiatives need to mean more than policies and procedures; they need to provoke emotion, vulnerability, advocacy and commitment from the community. I believe that the more I leant into these spaces, the more meaningful work I got from the team.

Food for thought: if you're not all in on DEI Initiatives, then reconsider.

Takeaways and perspectives

The AYbl initiative has been a journey of discovery, I uncovered the complexities of DEI initiatives while leading a diverse team. This journey highlighted challenges and the importance of such efforts.

I believe that by being open, understanding ableism, promoting accessibility and encouraging teamwork, we created a space where each person's unique perspectives and differences were valued. However, it's vital to approach this journey with care as creating unity among a diverse group can be challenging.

I believe that as a leader, I must adapt and respond to changing community needs. I recognise that adaptability and continuous learning are vital. I also understand that curiosity and empathy hold significant importance, as they allow me to respect and value the diverse range of human experiences. By mastering these skills, I can drive innovation and creativity, and foster impactful change. I urge you all to do the same.

Hayley Bowling


published on

30 November 2023


Communications Experience

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