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Episode 1 (sz 2): Katherina Swings on Inclusive Leadership, the Pygmalion Effect, and Ubuntu

"But everyone holds sticks. And in the debate, it seems as if it's said that 'there are those without sticks, some people have one stick, others have many sticks...' That's unfortunate. Because then you get such a strange focus and weird measures through 'target group policy' wanting to provide a band-aid, do something for 'the minorities'.. While it's about all of us, and inclusion ultimately benefits all of us."

"It's far easier to make decisions about a faceless crowd. But when you know 'our John is in prison' or 'our Latifa is the lady in question', it creates a totally different connection."

>>> Introduction

Welcome, dear listeners, to the first episode of our dazzling second season of 'Let's Talk About Work'. This episode, a hidden gem from season 1, is the perfect kickoff for a new season brimming with inspiring conversations. Why this episode, you ask? Because our speaker, Katherina Swings, was not only one of the first to reach out for a spot in front of our microphone, but she has also tuned into all our previous episodes! Join us as we dive deep with Katherina, a lecturer at KDG University College and founder of CoWings, into the realms of HR, strategic leadership, and the power of caring communication for an empathetic society. Embark on a journey with Bart and Katherina to the heart of inclusive leadership, uncovering surprising connections between the game of pick-up sticks, campfires, and the African philosophy of Ubuntu.

"At some point, if I understand correctly, you discovered our podcast, listened to a few episodes [all of them!] – indeed, all of them: you're the one who listens to them all! And you thought, 'I'm also actively involved in this field, so I'd like to have a chat in front of the mic, too'?"

"Yes, exactly. I heard somewhere that I could apply for this... Usually, I recommend someone else, but this is also a practice for myself: I should also put myself in the spotlight sometimes."

"And we're delighted that people spontaneously come forward like this! But it's all the more important to clarify who you are and why you're here."

"Well, perhaps it's interesting to introduce myself based on my study choices back then, as I believe they were quite defining. When I graduated from high school, I had the privilege to go to university. I hesitated between history, psychology, and law. And I think that characterizes me: history provides the context, 'where do we come from', 'what makes us who we are today'. Psychology: 'why do humans do what they do', 'where does behavior originate', 'what influences our actions'? And then law, for a bit of structure and regulation... That was also when we had just gained the right to vote at 18 – I wanted to better understand how parliament worked, a bit of the political side... And that's kind of been the red thread in my life. I studied law, with the idea of striving for justice in the world. But I ended up not going to the bar because I realized 'if you go to the bar... all your colleagues are lawyers' – and suddenly I found that very limiting. Also, the social class: lawyers, especially at that time, were from a social class that I didn't really belong to. So I didn't want to do that. And then I quickly got into HR. So, a bit of a connection again with the context and the psychological aspect. At that time, you couldn't really study HR as a specific field. Now you can. But back then, it was mainly psychologists and lawyers who were in HR. And from there, my professional story continued. I worked nearly 20 years in corporate HR, but always in an international context. With many colleagues from all over the world. With bosses from Canada, Brazil, and from various backgrounds and generations. And in 2015, I decided to start my own company. Originally, I did mainly HR interim and change management came along. Because HR over time was basically from one restructuring to another, change, merging companies and new corporate cultures... So that was a logical competency to develop. I sold my time for a while, but you quickly fall into a structure that leans heavily towards employment even though you're self-employed. In 2018, I decided I wanted to sell my expertise rather than my time. And then I delved into myself with the question 'what problem can I solve'? I had been to a Vlerick HR day in 2017, and they presented the priorities of companies in the HR domain. It was about leadership competencies and their development, and about recruitment. The things we still think about now. But what wasn't a priority was diversity and inclusion. And that professor from Vlerick made the connection: 'maybe focusing on diversity and inclusion could actually help achieve these other priorities'. That's where the seed was planted for me. And because I've always worked in an international context, and this was also instilled in me from home (we went camping in a different country every summer, learning the language, customs, and local cuisine... it was always a full experience), it all came together. From that, it became clear to me that diversity and inclusion were what I wanted to focus on. I then formed my vision: we need to shift from headhunting to treasure hunting. 'Headhunting' is actually a military term, about 'taking heads' – when you think about it, that's really horrible. But if we turn it into a 'treasure hunt', you immediately have a different dynamic. Like organizing something for your kids in elementary school where you hide a 'treasure' in the garden and everyone is immediately enthusiastic: everyone works together and searches in places you wouldn't expect... That's the dynamic I want to bring into 'headhunting'. So, I worked with companies for a number of years on that candidate journey and how we can shape it in an inclusive way."

"And was this focus primarily on recruitment?"

"Yes, it was about the recruitment story but also a bit of employer branding. It actually ranged from employer branding to onboarding. I've also trained in employer branding, and now I teach a course on 'employer branding' at KDG College. I've undertaken several projects in this area. But diversity and inclusion kept pulling at me. Initially, I found the terminology quite loaded. It still is to some extent. However, with sustainability gaining more attention through the SDGs, I see a momentum to elevate the whole people aspect (I prefer talking about 'people & culture' rather than HR) to a more strategic level. Under the SDGs, you have people, planet, prosperity – and 'people' is broader than just the employees on the payroll. It gives a wider 'pool' of people in view when you also consider your temporary workers, freelancers, suppliers. This allows us to take a broader approach and bring more inclusion into it. What I'm doing now is helping companies make the shift from the old 'HR' to 'people & culture', where sustainability and inclusion become a no-brainer – or are becoming, as it's a process."

"And do you find that it's working? What impact are you achieving?"

"I think we still have a lot of seeds to plant. It varies from company to company. In companies I've worked closely with, I've noticed that when a CEO comes from abroad, they are often shocked that these issues are not yet on the agenda here, and that there's still a lot of unconscious bias and stereotyping. For instance, French and Swedish CEOs have approached me saying, 'we need to do something about this because it seems not to be alive here' – and they are bothered by it as they come from a different context and wonder how to tackle this in Belgium."

"Does this indicate that other countries are often further ahead in this respect?"

"I haven't done scientific research on this, but that's the impression I get. In some countries, they seem to have a different perspective. And at the level of executive committees, they approach it differently."

"Why might that be? Can we learn something from the fact that they have been tackling it differently abroad for longer than we have here? Or is there something deeply ingrained in our culture?"

"Perhaps my appreciation for history comes into play here... I think several historical themes have shaped the situation here. Like the struggle for the Dutch language and for identity... This is much more prevalent in Flanders than in Wallonia, for example. In Tom Waes' series, you saw this clearly: it was about Flanders and identity, and I read in an article that there's simply no such need in French-speaking Belgium. We live with a trauma from the past, which persists through the centuries. And that identity becomes a straw to cling to. And then you see it re-emerge in debates like Black Pete, the headscarf debate... All these things where we have a certain image and it's said, 'this is our culture and nobody should touch it because we've already struggled so much for it'."

"I've never looked at it that way before. But if that's indeed a factor, then we might expect that in Wallonia, the theme of inclusion is less prevalent. So, does it mean that Wallonia is further ahead and that inclusion there is more natural, at least in the labor market?"

"I wouldn't want to make that statement – I don't have data on that. But if we look at the Flemish migration from Flanders to Wallonia: there was no inclusion there, it was pure assimilation. In the span of one generation, none of those 'children of migrants' (if I may call them that) speak Dutch anymore. There are thousands of examples of people – even politicians – with Flemish surnames, who have no connection with Dutch anymore. Back then, speaking Dutch was really frowned upon. You weren't allowed to speak it on the playground... When our minister recently gave similar instructions about speaking only Dutch on the playground, it reminded me very much of that. So, the assimilation of Flemish people in Wallonia did happen. I wouldn't dare say that Wallonia is further ahead in terms of inclusion than here."

"Yes, and of course, we shouldn't narrow the debate on 'inclusion' to just people with a different culture, nationality, or background. For instance, we recently spoke with William Boeva, and from that conversation, it became starkly clear that people with disabilities are absolutely not equally represented in our labor market. So it's about much more than language and culture. 'Inclusion' has also long been about women – men, gender inclusion."

"The spectrum of diversity is becoming increasingly diverse. It's not just about male and female anymore, but also beyond that: obesity, people with visible tattoos, ex-convicts, people who work part-time or full-time, people who work from home... Some aspects of diversity are identity-bound, but others are a matter of choice. It's a whole spectrum."

"And when you refer to foreign CEOs, who are somewhat critical of how inclusion is handled here, are they primarily talking about diversity in terms of ethnic background?"

"No, actually not. In both specific examples, it was really still about the 'basic' diversity between man and woman. They both have only one woman in their executive committee, which surprised them."

"I would intuitively think that countries like Scandinavia are much further ahead in this respect, but I wouldn't have spontaneously expected that from companies in France."

"It's funny because that CEO – who has had a long career – told me that his eyes were only opened while working with a colleague from Brazil, who was almost an activist about it, and by talking to her, he himself had a shift in perspective. And he wants to pass on this awareness to his team but isn't quite sure how."

"But back to the earlier question. You are supporting companies in this area, you are passionately involved in it. It's important for you to eventually see the results of your work and the impact of what you do."

"Yes, preferably."

"And I'm curious about that: do you see it? Do you notice how and where you make a certain impact in those trajectories?"

"I'd certainly like to see more impact, otherwise, we wouldn't be having this conversation. It wouldn't be necessary for Hanan Challouki to make a social media post asking where interns with a hijab are welcome. There needs to be more impact. The impact I see is relatively limited. It's often about 'aha moments': 'Ah yes!' or 'Oh, now that you mention it...'"

"Which topics trigger these moments?"

"For example, a company had organized a challenge during the Christmas period to 'decorate your desk as Christmassy as possible'. I asked if everyone participated, and they said no, because the Jewish and Islamic colleagues didn't join. They had noticed that. And then the reflex was 'we shouldn't have done that'. But it's not that you can't do it, because it's a fun idea and a great challenge. But if you had just made it 'decorate your desk as beautifully or fun as possible'. So, without the 'Christmas' part. Then probably everyone would have joined. Plus, those colleagues who didn't participate didn't specifically say or note anything about it. They don't start a debate about it. But that's an example of a small 'aha moment'. The impact is small and the question is of course what will remain of that 'aha moment'... What I try to emphasize is that we're all playing a game of pick-up sticks."

"What often bothers me in the whole debate is the division of us-them or majority-minority. My hair stands on end, especially when they talk about 'women' as a so-called 'minority' – globally speaking, that's not true at all.. Our language is also really still searching in this area. We haven't found the right words yet, in my experience. Diversity is about everyone. And what I mean with the pick-up sticks is the following. Everyone has pick-up sticks: age, gender, socio-economic reality, worldview, appearance... A stick is a spectrum. Everyone holds the same sticks, only when we drop them, they will fall differently for me than for you. And those intersections, those crossroads, are different for me than for you. But everyone holds sticks. And in the debate, it seems as if it's said that 'there are those without sticks, some people have one stick, others have many sticks...' That's unfortunate. Because then you get such a strange focus and weird measures through 'target group policy' wanting to provide a band-aid, do something for 'the minorities'.. While it's about all of us, and inclusion ultimately benefits all of us. If we achieve that in a good way – also as William said earlier: all that potential.. and such a limited percentage of highly educated people with physical disabilities who are employed.. That makes no sense."

"So we all hold these pick-up sticks. But apparently, we have structured our society in such a way that some are less aware of it or that..."

"Of course, if you are privileged, you are less affected by it. But that doesn't mean you don't have an age and a gender. And as a man, you can also become a parent of course, too.. And you also have a certain socio-economic status... And that's sometimes forgotten. Too often it's said, 'it's them, and we need to do something for them'. And 'they' need to make an effort, and 'they' need to receive money, and then you immediately create a kind of relationship of someone who pays and another who has to receive. There is also often a very condescending attitude. Not about all groups, but often. For example, as William also said earlier about that committee where not even a single person with a disability is present... But we do this continuously! Continuously we make decisions about people, about the so-called 'anonymous mass'. And I find that a problem. And that's why I think this podcast is great: you engage in dialogue with real people, with people who know things, who experience things, and can testify firsthand. It's much easier to make all sorts of measures about an anonymous mass... But when you know 'our John is in prison' or 'our Latifa is the lady in question'... then it's immediately a whole different connection. We need to seek the connection and give the anonymous mass a face, a voice. Just like you do here. I think that's super important."

"Apparently, it's still difficult for us to connect with the person we perceive as 'different', isn't it?"

"Yes. Because we focus on the differences. Skin color, clothing... Those are, of course, the first things we see. But in the end... – and that's why I brought the book Ubuntu– we are all only because of each other. We are one humanity. We are all people of one race. All those so-called 'races' are just – I shouldn't say 'playthings' – but in the end, they're also just a classification made to meet certain needs. [And scientifically debunked a long time ago.] Exactly. And that's about the exterior of people. But our needs or desires can be summarized in five needs: everyone wants to be healthy, happy – 'meaningful' is perhaps even a better word – everyone wants a good relationship, housing... These are needs that apply to every human of the 'human race'. But we focus too much on things that are 'different', things that scare us. And we can only bridge that when it's no longer about an anonymous mass."

"What should we do differently then? Because everything you say is true, but what's stopping us? What could we do differently in a work context, for example? What advice would you give to an employer?"

"What I find interesting is the idea of Jitske Kramer, the anthropologist who also works on leadership. She creates campfire moments. Unfortunately, we can no longer just make a campfire anywhere, but the advantage of a campfire is that everyone sits equally in the circle. And whoever has the talking stick, gets to speak. I think we need to create more of those moments where people feel safe enough to express themselves. And we need to bring out the wisdom that resides in all those people in companies who have now learned to be silent. For example. Years ago, I had a cleaning lady, and she told me 'you underestimate how much I know about the households where I clean'. And that's not only the case in my home, it's the same in companies! But how many companies talk to their cleaning staff? And they definitely have tips on more efficient energy use, better waste sorting, organizing desks... But these people don't get a voice. And I think it's important that we evolve to a system where regardless of your role, you get the mandate to speak, to express yourself. And a safe setting needs to be created for that – we can do that through an inclusive approach."

"Yes. We can organize such circles even without the campfire."

"Yes, that's true."

"You brought the book 'Everyday Ubuntu'. What do you learn from it? Or why is it so important to you?"

"I haven't known the book for long. I was invited by a friend with African roots to an Ubuntu party. 'Ubuntu' was a term I had heard of but didn't really know, so I gave the book as a gift to myself (and to him as well). I'm reading it in English, the language in which it was written. It's written by Desmond Tutu's granddaughter, which I find important: it's an African writing about something African. So, a bit away from the colonial where non-African people tell how it actually is... She writes about her culture and what she has learned. And 'ubuntu' is apparently not just related to South Africa, it's related to all Bantu languages because the 'tu' in ubuntu and the 'tu' in Bantu is the same word. It's something common across those countries from central to southern Africa. Simply put, ubuntu stands for 'I am only because you are'. So 'I exist only thanks to you, because if you weren't there, I couldn't know I was.' She writes about fourteen lessons, and they are all relevant to inclusion: see yourself in other people (focus on what we have in common); strength lies in unity (we are one); put yourself in the shoes of others; choose to see the wider perspective... It's like an inclusive leadership course that has been lived through the years! And what's so beautiful – because she naturally has access to all that information from her grandfather – she also draws from it. For instance, I find it remarkable that in South Africa, after the abolition of apartheid, they could have conducted Nuremberg-like trials. They could have done that but based on ubuntu they consciously chose not to. One of the principles is also to engage in conversation with your enemy. And she recalls conversations with her mother, wondering 'if I were white, in South Africa under apartheid, would I have done something, or would I find it comfortable with a big house, staff...'. That's incredibly strong, to be able to do that. That's a high level of maturity. And when that's carried by a cultural concept, a societal or philosophical principle [that's been around for probably centuries]..."

"Yes. Then I think... I'm a huge fan of ancient wisdom, and I genuinely wonder why we don't hear more about such things. Why don't we have a school of South Africans teaching us this here, explaining that the whole system with the Nuremberg trials didn't accomplish anything, but that there is another way to tackle such enormous polarizations that benefits everyone!"

"That's why I brought the book."

"Very nice."

"[Wonderful. Because this is really knowledge decolonization.]"

"Yes. Another example. If you look at the engineering students here. Among them, there are no (few) women. Here, as everywhere, the same rhetoric is heard: 'we can't find them.' But if you then look at the worldwide percentages and where the highest number of women among engineering students are, it's in Algeria: 48% of the engineering students there are women. And then I wonder why we can't learn from that! And I have a very good friend who originally comes from Iraq who studied engineering. Back in the days of communism. I worked at AB INBEV for a long time, back when it was still INTER BREW, and they had breweries in Romania, Bulgaria... There was not a single woman in charge of a brewery here, but in the Romanian or Bulgarian brewery world, there were already many more women active! These examples all indicate one thing to me: it's in our heads. It's in the way we communicate. It's in what we expect from each other. And what also plays a big role, I think, is an enlarged Pygmalion effect. There's fascinating research done within the school context. They tell teachers 'these are the smart kids', and then about other students 'these are the less smart kids', and just because that's been said to those teachers, they stimulate one group of students more and the other less. I think that just happens on a large scale, regardless of background and all aspects of diversity: 'your dad's in prison, so I shouldn't expect much from you', or 'your mom is uneducated or illiterate or looks weird...' That just happens on a societal level."

"[Yes, and the sting is that this is unconscious. If it were conscious, it would be a sign of bad intentions, but on the other hand, you could then grab it and actually do something about it!]"

"That's why we need to bring it to the conscious level and think about it with every decision we make. And that might be a concrete tip for companies: every time you make a decision that impacts someone else, like a promotion, hiring someone, firing someone, putting someone on a project... In short: in a thousand and one decisions – always check on what basis you're making this decision. Would this decision be the same if I thought about Jan? Or about someone of another gender, another age... I think that's a good litmus test. Because we rush through this too quickly. The wage gap, for instance. It persists. Why is that? Because men and women are just different in this regard. But is it okay for a company to say 'she only asks for five percent, so yeah...' Should we as a company go along with that? Whether we give Artemis a raise or Bart a raise, it should be the same percentage from the company. And not 'well, she's content with five percent and you insist on ten... yes, we want to keep you happy so...' No. We should dare to look at that more critically."

"Katherina, there are elections coming up in Flanders soon."

"I'm holding my breath."

"Imagine. You're running for a party – say, the 'Ubuntu Party'. And against all odds: you're the next prime minister. What would be some policy decisions you'd want to take quickly?"

"Making policy decisions... I definitely wouldn't decide on my own. I would do a kind of campfire tour – like the campfire concerts in Horst. That setting. It's intimate and with real campfire moments. And I would bring some people together. But really, almost like the speakers you invite for this podcast: a certain diversity. I would bring these people together and then ask them what they think is necessary. So someone from education, someone from childcare... Not avoiding tricky topics. I would really talk to the people in the field. And once we've established all those priorities, then look together at how we're going to eliminate barriers. I don't think that – with all due respect to the ministers, but they have so many different responsibilities, they also live a life that ensures they can't be close to the man on the street... Their life is not on the street: they have to block dossiers, read books, sit in meetings, they even write a book now and then. So that's impossible. It's important to let the voice of the people it's about speak. I would let it bubble up through a social democratic process or a deep democracy way of working."

Beautifully said! So, you're not immediately advocating for this or that measure, but you emphasize that we could make our policy in a different way.

"Yes. That collective wisdom. I believe there is a lot of wisdom in every community, and that everyone can be part of the solution. And I advocate for positive language use. Hence my plea to not talk about 'headhunting' nor use terms like bullet points, targets, war rooms, the war for talent... All those things... That's all scarcity thinking and problem thinking. Let's bring in the positive energy right from the start by simply using different language. Now, I also plead guilty for not having the right words for a number of things. But maybe I would set up a commission on language use: how are we going to name everything in a way that is not stigmatizing. Because who wants to be a 'minority group', or a 'vulnerable group'...?"

"I'm also keeping an eye on the time to make sure we respect our listeners – even though I feel we could easily continue this conversation for another two hours. But I also have the habit of turning to Artemis, who often has that last burning question."

"[I wonder: in the campfire moment where everyone is equal, what is the place of a role model there?]"

"Good question. At the moment of the campfire, because everyone is already equal there, it should no longer play a role. I think it's less relevant there. But because we're not yet at the stage of campfire moments, we still need those role models now to show that it's possible. Again, what William said earlier, but also what the entrepreneurial women you've previously given the floor to told, those insights and those voices are needed to show everyone that it's possible. I think we underestimate the importance of that. I saw a touching post on social media from a black girl who tells her mom, 'mom, I can't become a princess,' so her mom asks what she means, to which the child says, 'no, because I'm not white'. And they're slowly making a few attempts toward representation, right. But you see that people's dreams are being taken away from a very young age. That campfire story is a bit 2.0: when we no longer see the differences, when we know, in the spirit of Ubuntu, that we are one regardless of how we look, and everyone has a voice and everyone has a contribution. And that we don't let that contribution depend on name or title or origin... At the moment everyone is equal, the importance of role models might not be as great."

"I'm afraid we'll still need role models for a considerable number of years."

"Yes, I think so too."

"So: out of our heads (in the sense of: the cognitive is important, but there is much more than just the cognitive), create connection, create safety, and then we're taking steps in the right direction. It was a great pleasure to have you here today, Katherina, thank you! And as said: we could continue talking for a long time, but we're going to wrap it up here."

"Thank you, I'm glad I could be here."


>>>"You listened to an episode of 'Let's Talk About Work', the podcast by the group WEB-Blenders. Our conversations are about work, the path to work, well-being in the workplace, and everything that comes with it. You can find us on your favorite podcast platform and at www.blenders.be/podcast. On social media, you can follow us on LinkedIn – find us under Podcast Let’s Talk About Work; and on Instagram as blenders.podcast.letstalk. You can also stay up to date via the Blenders newsletter. Were you captivated? Does this conversation make you think? Would you like to be one of our next guests? Let us know at info@blenders.be, and who knows, you might be joining us at the table soon."