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Facing uncomfortable truths

This morning, Tuesday 19 September I spoke at the Global Women 1 Day for Change summit. This is the speech I shared with the attendees.


Over the last couple of years at Spark, we’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink at diversity. 


We’ve hired lots of new people with different skills – in a world experiencing exponential digital change, new skills and new ways of thinking are needed. We’ve invested heavily in leadership development of a much more diverse group of rising talent. We’ve supported and protected Spark Ventures with a mandate to hire different, think different, behave different and be different.


We’ve celebrated our differences. There are more than 60 nationalities across Spark’s workforce and we celebrate events that embrace diversity including:


  • Diwali
  • Chinese New Year
  • ANZAC Day
  • Matariki and Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori
  • Eid al-Fitr
  • NZ Sign Language Week
  • Chinese Language Week
  • Samoan Language Week
  • Cook Island Language Week
  • White Ribbon Appeal


We’ve signed up to the Champions for Change initiative, celebrated International Women’s Day by inviting inspirational New Zealand women to speak at our workplaces, and encouraged visibility of women in leadership through initiatives like EmpoweRED, a platform to unleash the potential of aspirational women at Spark. 


We’ve also committed to First Foundation and Tupu Toa; encouraged mentoring and support groups; set lots of targets to change our diversity metrics at every layer of the leadership and management structure.


As a result, I’m proud to be able to say we’ve been able to:


  • Lower the average age of our workforce from by 3 years
  • Become the first telco to receive the ‘Rainbow Tick’ accreditation
  • Increase women in senior leadership roles from 25% to over 33% a year ago – albeit we have slipped back lately, more on this in a minute
  • Get 3 exceptionally capable women into all the Chairing roles on our Board – including Sparks first ever female Chair Justine Smyth
  • Get 3 outstanding women onto my leadership team

We’ve still got a long way to go for the rest of our leadership ranks – but we’re working on it and I’m confident the investment we are making now will pay off in future years. This has all contributed significantly to our Company’s turnaround from decline to growth and our ability to adopt a faster-moving and more innovative organisational culture, which in turn has helped us confront the exponential changes in our markets.


It took a lot of intervention to achieve this, but that was easy to justify on the grounds of ‘serving a diverse market needs diverse leaders and employees’ – we run a mass-market business in a fast-changing world and we need to stay connected to it. While we don’t see ourselves as shining examples, the right boxes are being ticked and we can feel pleased with our progress.


So why do I feel, at times, like a midfield battler rather than a real Champion for Change?


Until now, our approach has been very logical, very process-oriented, very ‘designed’, very ‘best-practice’. But, as I’m learning, D&I is never just about ticking boxes, it’s about real people. 


Spark has recently lost several of our senior women leaders, people we had been trying to keep and were investing a lot in to help accelerate their careers. While they had all left Spark for differing and perfectly valid reasons, there was something nagging away at me about whether there was more to it, and I wanted to dig deeper. So, I asked someone to come in and speak, independently and candidly, to many of my senior female leaders, and to those who had recently left Spark. I didn’t want any sugar-coating, I wanted to hear the uncomfortable truth. 


And I did. Despite all our investment and good intentions and commitment and progress with improving diversity and inclusion, the feedback was crystal clear that we are not as inclusive as I hoped we were. Many feel our D&I efforts are just lip-service, that we are still excluding women and minority groups through the ways we speak, the ways we interact and the ways we behave, often unconsciously.


It was a salutary reminder that we need to be inclusive if we are to be truly diverse. 


As the saying goes, diversity is about being invited to the party and inclusion is about being asked to dance. And we have clearly not been asking enough people to dance.


Hearing these uncomfortable truths from very senior women leaders about the gaps between Spark’s good intentions around D&I and the way that shows up for some in the company I lead has hit me hard and has made me think deeply about my own leadership of D&I.


I started by re-evaluating my own perspective, I am the husband of a kind, creative and inspiring woman who I love. I am the son of a woman who modelled the values of hard work and always encouraged us to believe in ourselves. I am the father of a young woman making her way in the world and aspiring to make a difference on her own terms, and I’ve worked for and alongside powerhouse women who have fundamentally shaped my thinking about business and leadership.


So, I know where I stand: In the workplace men and women are equals and accordingly deserve equal opportunity, attainment and pay.


But the gap between my personal perspective and the reality at Spark is making me fundamentally rethink our approach to D&I. I’ve realised that making real and long-lasting progress with D&I is a hearts and minds issue. 


Our previous systemic, interventionist and target-driven approach, validated by the “we need to be representative of our customers” plays well to the “minds”. From here onward, I’m going to put more “heart” into my leadership of D&I, starting with restating the “Why”. 


I believe Spark needs to create a diverse and inclusive workplace because it’s just the right thing to do.


Everyone should be able to bring their real self to work and expect to be welcomed, respected and included. The fact that this will help us be more in tune with our customers and more innovative and successful as a company, is just the icing on the cake.


Adopting a heart-led rather than mind-led approach has now focused my attention towards interventions on values and behaviours as opposed to interventions on systems and processes. To that end, my leadership team and I have already committed to:


  • Call out non-inclusive behaviours – the way we act matters
  • Eliminate foul and disrespectful language – the words we use matter
  • Cut the macho themes and analogies 
  • Be fully conscious how we behave and role model to others
  • Ask all our leaders to consider and make similar commitments
  • Ensure there are negative consequences for those who don’t get on board
  • Talk openly, honestly and publicly about our values-based commitment to D&I

So, if the advice of this Midfield Battler for Change is useful to you, here are my three tips to take back to your organisation


  1. Lead with your heart – be open about your beliefs, weaknesses and fears
  2. Intervene. Change won’t happen by itself. But intervene on values and behaviours with equal weight to intervening in systems like recruitment practices, leadership programmes, pay equity and culture programmes. The little things matter. 
  3. Seek and listen carefully to feedback from your people. Expect it to hurt (if it doesn’t you probably aren’t hearing the real story) but deal with it and respond. Look deliberately for the uncomfortable truths, wherever they are.

No-one told me becoming truly D&I at Spark was going to be easy. But, stupidly, I thought it would be. And I’d be willing to bet that many other organisations in this room are yet to face some uncomfortable truths around D&I.


Creating a truly diverse & inclusive workplace from one that isn’t today could well be the biggest leadership challenge you’ll ever face. It’s incredibly hard – I know that now. I’m choosing to walk towards that challenge.


Simon Moutter

Managing Director

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