Together with Auto Trader and Auto Retail Network, Ennis & Co hosted an inaugural industry event this week: Making Diversity & Inclusion a Business Reality. We gathered together 50 of the leading automotive HR, diversity and strategy leaders for a working session on where we are, what the issues are and how we are tackling the pressing requirement for change.

We will be following up formally with a white paper, including analysis of research conducted specially for this event, in July. But fresh from the event, these are my five takeaways from the discussions:

The automotive industry is behind. Our sector is seen as a leader in some areas, but we know we have been slow to embrace D&I-related changes, as confirmed by participants who had switched to automotive from tech, finance and banking. We discussed the reasons why this might be the case: is it because our organisations were constructed as unionised manufacturing and engineering businesses, with everything else a support function? Or because our companies are stymied by a layer of long-tenure, risk-averse generalist managers who are well served by the traditional ways of working? Or because cars equal men? Or because we are short-termist, not thinking that much beyond than next month’s car sales?

Where lethargy and inaction exists, lack of D&I is a real problem for our leadership and for the automotive industry’s ability to attract talent from competing sectors. D&I is not a term the youth element of our workforces even recognises. It’s normality and an expectation for them. They will join like-minded employers and shop at like-minded brands.

Diversity is a very long journey. In an ideal world, D&I is an open state of mind, about recruiting for skills rather than people, in order to create balanced teams; where employees are allowed to be themselves at work so they give the very best they have to offer. But it’s hard to get there overnight and as our research shows, companies are viewing the potential differently and are at different stages.

We heard case studies of D&I being approached as a multi-step plan. This commonly starts with formal programmes to address imbalances of gender, race and disability. Examples are Ford’s diversity, and company-wide unconscious bias workshops as rolled out at Auto Trader. But it can result in something we might call ‘inclusivity plus’, as demonstrated by culturally-advanced Fujitsu, where D&I means fashion design graduates are hired into IT roles, because of the creativity they bring. It’s impossible to do everything all at once; accept that things need time and your organisation might have to go through some awkward baby steps before D&I becomes a way of life.

Get used to disruption. We are living and working in incredibly disruptive times where factors such as digitalisation and the expectations of millennial employees are throwing huge curve balls at us constantly. This is how we are now. We have to embrace this and accept that the ‘power of different’ is a good thing. As my good friend and Business in the Community Gender Champion, Val Risk presented: there is a premium on being different, whether that is simply a person’s characteristics or life experiences, and it is this value that adds to the bottom line. Studies have proven that groups made up of the same types of people underperform. We could all do with a good shake up, something played out by the Jubilee Sailing Trust, a charity that facilitates sailing expeditions that put people together who would never normally interact. Doesn’t that sound like a good kind of disruption?

Flexibility requires a flexible approach. Where companies are really struggling with D&I is the demand for flexibility and changes in ways of working. Rigid company policies and ACAS guides offer no handy hints for what to do when someone’s boiler has broken or their cat is poorly. Managers hate having to make the call, risking opening the floodgates to more employee requests or being accused of not being fair. Flexibility to one person is quite different to another, and so are jobs. There is also the issue that in many teams, output is better and delivered more effectively, when employees are physically located together. It was felt that the best way to handle this was with localised arrangements, where trust is imperative.

Is the term work-life balance even appropriate anymore? What about work-life blend or work-home balance? The goal for flexibility should be to create the right environment for people to thrive, one that helps companies adapt to their customers better, that are more agile.

D&I should be fun, from the top to the bottom. Finally, and very importantly, D&I doesn’t have to be a burden. Ask: is your organisation in a good place. Is it happy? If this isn’t being felt by and driven from the top, nothing will change. It has to be lived and breathed. If not, customers can smell it.

Thank you to everyone that came to the event. Please look out for what comes next and let’s carry on the conversation.