I have just come back from the most amazing All Inclusive holiday of a lifetime, racing two tall ships in the Battle of the Barques in the English Channel.
However, this wasn’t an ‘all-you-can-eat-and-drink’ binge fest that All Inclusive holidays have generally become, because this was a holiday where the ‘All Inclusive’ part related to the others on the trip, not the catering. The tall ships were Lord Nelson and Tenacious, owned and run by the Jubilee Sailing Trust (www.jst.org.uk) and I was a paid-up working member of a crew consisting of both able bodied and disabled people on a sailing holiday that had no ‘passengers’.
Like you, I have frequently read various blogs and articles about the need to develop greater inclusivity and diversity in the workforce. In these days of a reducing younger pool of employees (for a variety of reasons) there is clearly a need to have meaningful roles for older workers who cannot, or do not wish to, retire due to financial reasons, or simply the fact that being intellectually and physically active needs to go beyond the local Bridge or bird-watching societies post -65.
There is an obvious logic too in not writing off certain members of the currently defined ‘working age’ population due to their physical and mental disabilities, simply because there is a small financial outlay required, or a change in flexibility of working conditions, that would help to adapt their work environment to allow them to fully participate and operate efficiently. All too often however, and in spite all of the well-intentioned talk, the subject of ‘Inclusivity and Diversity’ is often consciously or unconsciously pushed further down the ‘To Do’ list by other commercial and operational needs. Focus and urgency are inevitably lost when saying ‘Yes’ seems too difficult.
But having been on my sailing trip, I wonder if this could be addressed quite simply just by having direct contact with a more diverse range of people that are not ‘the usual’ group that we might mix with. It is easy after all to become quite insular in business, and this was what made my experience a real revelation. As one of my fellow crew members said “You people (meaning the able bodied) need to get out and see for yourselves just what we can do. Even if our bodies and minds work a little differently to yours, our knowledge and expertise is just as good.”
In terms of Diversity, the crew could not have exemplified it more. Ranging from an 86 year old lady who actively participated in every rope hauling and helming ‘watch’ required and had come along to get out of the sheltered housing she lives in “with all those oldies”, to a severely disabled 54 year old man with a wicked sense of humour who had been wheelchair bound since birth; from a live-wire platinum haired 22 year old butcher from Coventry who was the life and soul of the trip, to an ambitious high level German academic working in soil ecology at a university in Sweden; from a shepherdess from Northumbria still grieving for her husband who died last year, to a spritely 70 year old who would put many men twenty years his junior to shame with his energy and intellect. I have never encountered such a wide range of backgrounds and experiences in my life in a single situation, and it had a profound impact. Let’s be clear: this had nothing to do with ‘bravery’ in the face of adversity but simply a refusal to accept limitations imposed on them by others.
What was also remarkable was the way that such diversity actually made the team spirit stronger, not through some misguided ‘sympathy’ for those with a disability but through a real respect for everyone’s ability to be involved in the working of the ship. There was a clarity in the leadership of the captain (a fantastic lady about to retire after 43 years sailing) that ensured operating efficiency and a singular understanding of purpose, roles and responsibilities, regardless of age, ability or experience. ‘Happy Hour’ on this ship had nothing to do with cheap booze; it was a group clean of the ship, including decks and toilets, that involved everyone and was actually fun. (Perhaps when you next complain about the quality of the cleaning in your offices you should get rid of the outside team and have your groups clean their own areas for an hour a week. If nothing else it’s certainly a cost-effective team bonding opportunity that you could be missing out on!)
The race against the other ship was very competitive, with 35 knot winds on the first leg, and each member of the crew was totally focused on winning and committed to working hard to do so. The assumed ‘inability due to disability’ was completely absent. The father of an autistic young man on board remarked that this attitude was refreshingly different to what they encountered in daily life, in that his son was just asked to do things like everyone else rather than seeing ‘if he felt able to have a go’. This “pussy-footing approach” had needlessly diminished his confidence, so his full participation in the various Watch duties and the ‘all hands on deck’ sail changes delivered a tangible sense of achievement for him.
We all have a responsibility to enable everyone who wishes to work to do so to the best of their abilities, and not to assume that there are insurmountable limitations. In talking to one of the Watch Leaders who had been on previous trips, she mentioned that sadly the hardest one had been when there was a group of CEOs on a ‘team-building’ exercise who had completely failed to really connect with the group of disabled crew members. This is both a shame and shameful. We need leaders who can demonstrate a real understanding and a desire to overcome the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ thinking that still pervades many discussions relating to diversity and inclusivity.
So perhaps the next time you are considering personal development and team building opportunities for yourself or your team you could look beyond the conventional Away Days, and try something that is enriching, rewarding and enduring in its ability to make everyone see past Difference. I honestly can recommend it.
And in case you were wondering, yes (of course) my ship the Lord Nelson won the race and retained the trophy for another three years, so a great result all round!
Have a great week.
Lead Consultant & Founder – Primaverita
Mobile: 07977 493262