Interview: Lesley Wan, corporate counsel, Lloyds Banking Group

A champion of diversity across the City, Wan discusses the nuts and bolts of starting a diversity initiative, and the ongoing issues facing City law firms and departments.

GC: How important have role models been for you in your career?

Lesley Wan (LW): Role models are very important to have in your life to help you progress and develop, both personally and professionally. They provide a baseline from which you can observe their traits and characteristics, and decide which of those traits and characteristics you may want to embed and adapt to suit your needs and personality. It’s like a form of informal mentoring without necessarily being mentored, and you get to pick and choose what you want to take away with you.

Without role models it can be difficult to know what to aim for in your career – the saying ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’ is important here as strong role models provide guidance and inspiration, as well as an indication of what can be possible with hard work and drive.

It’s important to inspire and motivate all colleagues throughout the organisation and encourage them to progress their careers and continue to learn and grow professionally as well as personally – having diverse role models can really help to achieve this.

GC: Why it is imperative for businesses to truly embrace diversity?

LW: We need to reflect society in the UK, which is becoming increasingly diverse, and we need to be flexible to respond to the changing needs of our clients. Business leaders should always offer their clients a first class service and it can really help if they showcase people that clients can feel comfortable with and relate to, and therefore want to do business with. Allowing different values, experiences and perspectives of colleagues to be shared and accepted internally and form part of the fabric of company culture can give businesses the competitive edge over competitors and a happier workforce. To be a successful business leader, you must get the buy-in and the respect of your wider team and, in part, business leaders should ensure that they take an inclusive approach to the make-up of their team. However, any appointments must be based on merit and if diverse colleagues are not making it through the ranks, then business leaders should reflect on why this is happening and provide training to upskill those colleagues so that they can progress on an equal footing.

In the City, large corporate organisations are demonstrating that they do value diversity and inclusion, with many firms now asking recruiters to provide a good mix of diverse candidates for interview each time. We take pride in being an organisation that champions diversity and inclusion and our expectation is that our suppliers will do the same and not just pay lip service to what is a hugely important issue.

GC: Your ‘Through the Looking Glass’ initiative has been very successful in promoting social mobility in the City. How did it come about?

LW: Our chief economist for Lloyds Commercial Bank, Professor Trevor Williams, and I, observed that there was a lack of diversity in the City. We felt that we had a responsibility as senior bankers to take positive action to help address this issue, and it seemed logical to us both that we needed to target talented young people from less privileged backgrounds in the first instance and help them see what they could achieve with their lives if they had the opportunity to experience City professions and City life. We wanted to tackle the issue from the ground up and educate our young people about potential opportunities. The programme has been incredibly successful and is currently held in London, Manchester and Edinburgh, with some fantastic law firms and corporate organisations supporting us. Most of the committee comprises lawyers from all over the City who have previously worked for me on secondment and were inspired to continue to support this initiative on a voluntary basis. We are launching in Leeds later this year.

GC: Can you talk me through the practical steps you undertook in taking Through the Looking Glass from an idea to an actuality?

LW: In a nutshell:

    • Step 1: You must decide if you have the time, drive, energy and commitment to making your concept a reality. You must be agile in your thinking and flexible as to how you structure your project. You need to spend a significant amount of time developing and growing your idea in the first instance and covering off any issues that you are likely to encounter. I spent six months developing my concept.
    • Step 2: Do you have the right sponsorship for your project? Can you secure support internally (including funding if required)? Do you need external support? Make a target list of any potential sponsors. Do you have other contacts in your network that can help you make introductions to other sponsors?
    • Step 3: How are you going to pitch your idea to your sponsors? What are the likely barriers you will face and questions you are likely to be asked when presenting to sponsors and how will you address them before your pitch? Preparation is everything.
    • Step 4: Who is going to help you deliver your project? Can you get a good team together who will be committed to following through with the project and deliver their tasks in good time?
    • Step 5: Once you have all your sponsors in place, you need to invite candidates to participate in your programme. In our case, this involved relentlessly phoning schools to invite them to participate on the programme and selling the programme to those schools. You need to also think about the extra elements required – we needed to be ensure we obtained parent and teacher consent to allow the students to spend a week on our programme, consider health and safety issues, etc.
    • Step 6: On our first programme, we needed to make sure that all the corporate sponsors were organised and aware of what they needed to do, the numbers of students attending their programme and ensure that the sessions were relevant and appropriate.
    • Step 7: We got feedback from the students and shared this with the corporate sponsors. After all, they are keen to learn about how well they performed and how they can improve their programme for the next time.

GC: What were the biggest learning points or challenges you came across in undertaking this?

LW: The biggest challenge was having to learn what you don’t know, and usually this only happens as you go along. It’s not always obvious what you need to look out for, particularly when dealing with minors. The most important thing was to be flexible, keep an open mind and be ready for any surprises – and to be able to deal with any issues quickly and in a pragmatic way.

GC: Do you have any advice for people looking to do more with diversity and inclusion?

LW: It is daunting taking on the task of creating a programme or developing an idea but take it one step at a time, allow yourself breathing space for your idea to embed and develop. You will find that you may keep changing your mind about next steps and retract certain ideas in some cases but that is part of the joy of the learning experience in bringing a project like this to life.

GC: What do you think is the biggest diversity and inclusion challenges that businesses and the legal profession face?

LW: The legal profession still has a long way to go in progressing female lawyers to partnership – statistics are improving but not by very much. Firm culture, working practices and unconscious bias continue to have an impact in this area.

However, I think that women in private practice generally need to take greater ownership for their career progression and be proactive. Women still tend to hesitate before putting themselves forward for promotion and almost talk themselves out of progressing by analysing whether they have the right skillset to undertake the role (if they can’t fulfil 100% of the criteria, many decline to continue with the process); or considering that they may want to get married or start a family soon so don’t think it’s the right time to make any changes. Another issue for female lawyers is having the confidence to be able to negotiate effectively with the boss and talk about that pay rise or bonus that is so richly deserved! Men are better equipped to ‘talk the talk’, as they have been conditioned by social norms. Women’s networks are really important initiatives as they can provide support to female lawyers and encourage them to progress, help with the partnership track, assist with networking and provide role models.

Firm culture and social norms are also a hindrance for male lawyers who are expected to continue to do the long hours while their wives undertake all the childcare – notwithstanding that they may be married to a female lawyer in another law firm. If male lawyers are not encouraged to share the childcare and to take time out of their careers to help bring up their children and enable their wives to return to work, this is another barrier for women progressing in the law.

We do, however, see positive signs from certain law firms making great strides in supporting D&I. Food for thought: how many LGBT, female, ethnic minorities or lawyers with disabilities are actually making it through to law firm partnership or senior leadership positions in business?

We are making progress, which is heartening, but there is still a long way to go.