Diversity: Why It Still Matters
“A challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change”.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was #ChooseToChallenge which challenged us all to actively strive towards a gender equal world. Diversity continues to be at the forefront of conversations and continues to mean more than ever before all over the world.
As the world celebrates women this month, we interviewed Olufunke Akinjiyan- a Nigerian woman who currently lives and works in the UAE as the Learning & Talent Management Director for Jacobs in the Middle east. She has over 10 years of experience in engaging, managing, designing and delivering learning programs across various global multinational corporations.
Olufunke is committed to developing and delivering results, producing learning and talent management strategies and solutions which include; executive coaching, developing talent, and enhancing leadership capabilities across the board.
This interview focuses on her career at Jacobs, the effect that the pandemic had on her role as well as explore the importance of diversity and her vision for African talent.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career thus far and your current role at Jacobs?
Over the years I have seen my career evolve. I started in consulting as an associate consultant for about 3 years. I then went on to do my Masters’ Degree at the University of Manchester. Since then, I have had the pleasure of working with various global multinationals. During this time, I decided that it was important for me to do some self-improvement so, I decided to obtain an MBA prior to beginning my career at Jacobs where I currently work.
I am based in the Middle East and I am responsible for all learning and talent management needs across the region. People development is a major focus for us so ensuring that all our programs are aligned to our overall business growth strategy is important. Within my role, I also deliver programmes which foster a culture of high performance and continuous improvement in our people with the goal of establishing a high level of employee engagement.
As with every role, there are some challenges. One of the challenges I am currently taking on is figuring out how to enhance inclusion and diversity within the region. This is an issue that has been at the center of many conversations but, we need to move away from just saying it and start doing something about it. The focus is primarily to increase our female talent, so we need to ensure the right strategies are in place to achieve this.
How did the pandemic affect Jacobs and what was the implication on your role in particular?
The pandemic sped things up within our organization and within my role. In a post pandemic world, there will always be winners and losers, in my estimation. Therefore, in order to ensure that we came out of the pandemic as winners, we sprang into action very early and started thinking about a post-pandemic world and how we would remain relevant and a strategic partner to our clients. We thought about everything from the future of work, what skills will be required/in demand and how we would get our people to learn, unlearn and relearn which really challenged us to act fast.
How would you say things have changed within your organisation and in your role since last year as a result of Covid-19? i.e. have things gone back to “normal”/sped up/slowed down or stayed the same?
Our world has become much smaller, so global collaboration is much easier now because things like distance and location are no longer barriers. From my perspective looking at the global teams and the skill gaps, we needed to look at what programs to collaboratively develop in order to address and fill the gaps.
What does diversity mean to you and what value does a diverse workforce bring to an organisation?
To me, diversity is understanding that everyone is unique. Wherever we are from, whatever we are bringing to the table- we are all individually unique. Diversity has helped dispel negative stereotypes and personal biases.
Within Jacobs, we have seen that diversity inspires creativity and innovation which in turn has improved our organizational culture. As a global team, we are quite diverse so, having conversations, working on projects and listening to each other’s perspectives gives everyone something to think about and opens us up to seeing that there are many ways to achieve a goal.
You mentioned that Jacobs is really embracing and striving to increase diversity and inclusion within the organisation. Can you share some of the strategies and initiatives that have been put in place to help achieve this?
Living in the UAE, it is a very diverse environment has helped us as an organization to also be very diverse. Our focus is currently on trying to bring more women into the workplace as well as more nationalities. As I mentioned before, diversity results in more creativity and innovation so, this would give us a competitive advantage and position us for success regionally and globally.
In your role as a Learning and Talent Management Director who is based in the UAE, what is your approach to understanding the perspectives of colleagues from different backgrounds?
Living and working in such a multicultural and diverse place like the UAE, one needs to take the time to understand different cultures. As an African, my culture is my identity as is the case with people from different countries which is why it is so important to make an active effort to understand other people’s cultures which also helps to understand their thought processes and perspectives. In turn it fosters a good working relationship, enables us to trust one another and challenges us to be more socially and culturally aware.
As an African working abroad, what advice can you give to young talent looking for opportunities in the overseas?
First and foremost, my advice would be to always strive for excellence. We constantly need to keep abreast of the skills in demand so as to ensure that we have them and therefore have access to opportunities. In my experience, the global job market is constantly changing and becoming more and more competitive so, it is very important for us to continuously develop ourselves. Any African looking for opportunities overseas should take a cue from people in places like India, China, Korea and the UAE in terms of how dedicated they are to their personal development. That is what has made them so desirable and sought after in companies all over the world.
Our governments in Africa also need to reinforce the importance of upskilling and continuous improvement to young professionals. We need them to provide opportunities for up-and-coming talent to get scholarships to attend leading universities, allow them to get a year or two of work experience and then return home to contribute to the development of the continent. Africa has some of the most amazing, intelligent and creative talent in the world so if we can just get our government to support and invest more in our talent, that would be a stepping stone to achieving greatness for our talent and our continent as a whole.
What is your vision for Africa in terms of opportunities for its talent within the continent in the future?
I always get excited when I see Africans doing and achieving great things around the world. My vision for Africa and what I would like to see in the future, is Africans taking charge and creating solutions for the problems within the continent. It would be great to see more African solutions and ideas going global in the same way that Google and Facebook have, for example.
However, this is dependent on good and fair governance, stable political/social/economic environments and true democracy across the continent. For example, the UAE is known as a financial hub- we need to establish what Africa should be known for. I believe that the continent has a very capable generation of talent who are resilient and can do anything that they set their minds to. We need an environment that fosters innovation and productivity which will ultimately lead to the growth and development of Africa.
What advice can you give to African/female talent to stay competitive in a job market that is becoming in an increasingly competitive job market?
Education is very important. Every female needs to be educated and technologically savvy. As women, we always need to seek knowledge, develop ourselves, network and get relevant work experience (even if it is unpaid).
The workplace can also be very political, so it is important to be open to take on new challenges while also facing existing challenges head on with a positive attitude. We should not limit ourselves and our capabilities. There is already unconscious bias towards women which is a challenge on its own, so we need to continue to push ourselves to break barriers.
This month as we celebrate women, it is important to remember that while steps are being taken to improve representation and inclusion of women in the workplace, there is still so much more that can be done.