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Extra episode: Laila Ekchouchou on Switching Talent

"The teachers who really encourage you, yes those are teachers you never forget. I had an accounting teacher like that. But the other teachers you don't forget either: they become those quiet little voices that are in your head later on 'you can't do that'...."

"Switching Talent is a project funded by Europe WSE. It is a 2-year project, it runs until the end of this year. Companies and organisations get the chance to let their employees participate in an apprenticeship exchange. So an employee can say 'I'd like to brush up on a particular skill' - for example, a particular topic on HR, and then we will look for a learning place based on the learning needs, where that person can spend two days of learning. There is someone on site there as well to accommodate that person..."

[general intro]

>>> You are listening to Let's Talk, a podcast where the talking points consist out of impactful initiatives, strong support offerings, and participation as a catalyst for innovation. Your host is Bart Wuyts, CEO of the group Blenders and WEB, the incubator of inclusive workplaces and innovative strategies concerning entrepreneurship, sustainability and job placement, among others.

[intro speaker]

>>> Welcome to this episode on Switching Talent. This time I do the intro: a job switcher myself visiting Blenders. Here, I learn how to make a podcast hands-on. By the time you hear this, I've already partially succeeded. My job coach Kathleen Van den dries once recommended a book by Tara Mohr, which could encourage me to make big plans small and just start working on them. I didn't read the book, but did take the advice to heart. Hence my job switch where Artemis Kubala takes me into her world of 'just do with what you have'. And now I would like to introduce the guest: we have with us here Laila Ekchouchou, she, as manager at Time4 Society, organises social teambuildings for companies: for one working day, a company commits to giving time to a non-profit organisation that could use help. Laila also puts her weight behind the Switching Talent project with Time4Society - an interesting way to look over the wall and experience first-hand what it's like in another organisation.

[the conversation picks up with an excursion into Laila's background and path to employment]

"... there were a lot of recruitment stops back then. So I was often told 'no that's not possible now, we'll look at that later'.... And then I took an interim job based on the idea that I had to do something anyway - I don't like sitting at home doing nothing, so to speak. So I took an interim job, which was then through SecreatryPlus - which has now become BrightPlus. They focus mainly on communication staff, administrative staff and the like. And I ended up there for a one-month job at N-Allo in Mechelen, known as Electrabel's call centre or communications centre at the time. I mainly did reporting there. I always found Excel and figures interesting because I was always pretty good at them. I stayed there for a very long time. It is a great company with great staff but also a management that was very open-minded. And after my reporting job - which became very technical - I applied internally for the position of training coordinator: that call centre had several sites, and each site operated in its own language - which is language-related, of course: Dutch, French and German. And those sites - we're talking about 1,300 customer advisers, they all had to be trained. There was a lot of training there, and you can't take everyone off the line for that. They needed someone who did nothing but to plan and coordinate all those trainings across three departments in terms of operations and planning. I really enjoyed doing that and it really boosted my planning skills. Then, unfortunately, there was a reorganisation. And after 13 years - I was married and had children in the meantime - I had seen enough, especially as it was clear that I wouldn't be able to continue in the same job after the reorganisation.

So you took another step after 13 years in the call centre and all that surrounds it? What did you start doing then?

I then took advantage of the outplacement option - there were 13 of us in the department and we had to downsize to six. And we could voluntarily sign for resignation and that included outplacement. I thought that was interesting because I didn't know it all that well yet: I had built up some skills in the area of planning, and I wanted to continue in that area. You then get a career coach who asks you to put down on paper what you would like to do. Those are the kind of things we never learned at school: writing that down in terms of targets and objectives,... So that was quite an exercise for me back then to answer that question of 'what do I want now'. And from that it gradually emerged that the non-profit sector might be a sector that would appeal to me. But in a position where I would still be able to plan and coordinate. And after that process of almost six months - and you also complete that process with people who have actually been made redundant, so I then sat there together with quite a few profiles who had been told not to come in from Monday on - it was clear to me that I would look for a job in the non-profit sector. And then I saw the vacancy at Time4Society and I immediately thought that that would be something for me: organising social teambuildings while still having a link to companies. That was important to me then, and still is now: not just the non-profit but to be active with the two [profit and non-profit].

What exactly does Time4Society do? Tell us in a nutshell?

We are a non-profit organisation located in Mechelen but we are active throughout Belgium. First and foremost, we help companies coordinate and facilitate their CSR [corporate social responsibility] policy - and now that has increasingly become sustainability. And then we really work with them to develop a volunteering programme, for individual employees but also for teams that request it (for example, a team of 10 people).

Because that's kind of the focus then of the CSR policy that you guys emphasise: making sure that employees in the company can make time for society? Hence 'Time4Society' - and then you support in realizing that in all kinds of programmes?

Yes, that is our intention. That sometimes involves a lot, of course. You also have to think along with the company. Some have a strategy for this, others don't - then you really help to guide them. And those who already clearly know about their strategy, they build it up based on the various SDG themes: nature, poverty, etc. If necessary, we will really work that out with them. And then, depending on where they are located, we will really make the link with the community, with the stakeholders, because non-profit organisations are of course part of the region in which they operate.

Fascinating! In our podcast series we now try to make the link to thresholds to employment that we experience here and there, inclusive entrepreneurship that is becoming more and more important,.... In what way are you working on this within Time4Society? Or you yourself?

I personally think it is very important. We have various partners and just because we are approached by a company does not mean that we immediately respond to that question. Inclusive entrepreneurship has become more and more important in recent years, because business leaders do indeed realise that they are not reaching certain groups in our society. And sometimes it is also thanks to certain projects - such as Switching Talent - in which we from Time4Society in close cooperation with VBJK, Blenders, Acerta,... try to indeed give employees, sometimes also HR employees, a taste of a new workplace. And at Time4Society, for example, we notice that the theme of inclusive entrepreneurship is gaining enormous importance. At companies where we present Switching Talent, we also notice that it is seen as a very good exercise for an HR employee to take a look, to literally peek over the wall and see how a non-profit organisation does it, how it works elsewhere with non-Dutch speakers or people with a disability. And sometimes that is a barrier, companies say they would love to do it but they can't find the candidates. We at Time4Society really have to explain that there are a lot of possibilities and that an apprenticeship exchange or a social activity can be a first step in making inclusive entrepreneurship work!

And please explain again Laila - not so much for me but for the listener: what is Switching Talent you are talking about? Because it's a project that we are also involved in, that we set up together....

Switching Talent is a project funded by Europe WSE. It's a 2-year project, it runs until the end of this year. Companies and organisations get the chance to let their employees participate in an apprenticeship exchange. So an employee can say 'I'd like to brush up on a particular skill' - for example, a particular topic on HR, and then we will look for a learning place based on the learning needs, where that person can spend two days learning. There is someone on site there as well to host that person. And companies or organisations can of course participate for different reasons. At Time4Society, the focus is on the sustainability aspect, but at VBJK (an apprenticeship exchange for child carers) the focus is on exchange from one nursery to another in order to learn things. Within the learning network, we believe very strongly in this other way of learning: it is a switch not only to a different workplace, but sometimes also to a different living environment. And that ensures that the employee returns to his company and automatically takes those other insights with him. They start questioning things - which does not always have to be negative! This can provide inspiration. And at Time4Society, we also think it is very important that employees get the chance to experience different insights and then take them on board in their jobs.

Of course, that is precisely what makes Switching Talent unique: if people need new skills or expertise, you can send them to training courses, or you can perhaps train them on the shop floor in your own company - but Switching Talent focuses on allowing people to spend a couple of days in a different environment and gain new skills and insights from that experience.


And we both know by now that people who have done it are also enthusiastic about it. It really does work.

Yes. And we also notice that the learning demand remains the same: 'I want to learn something about Excel', or.... It can be about soft skills or hard skills... But it is mainly the exchange between two companies from different sectors, non-profit and profit, but also just different sectors (for example, a company in the wood sector and a service company), where you really do get different insights in two days.

And of course, there are a lot of organisations and companies that already do organise training, and they have to meet certain targets in that, and this can be another way of learning.


I think it's a method that will be continued. We are now doing this together in a project that is temporary in nature, but we really need to think about how to continue this because it just turns out that it is effective. That it works. In fact, I happened to agree this morning with a director of another social enterprise that I myself will be switching two days soon. I'm really looking forward to it.

Yes me too, I also have a switch with Acerta soon - because of course, as partners, we also believe that if you preach something to others, you should at least try it out yourself. So I am also curious about my own switching journey.

I return for a moment to our theme: employment and, more specifically, employment opportunities. We note, unfortunately, that - even in a tight labour market - we still leave a lot of talent untapped in Belgium and in Flanders. Or, if you turn it the other way around: that there are apparently still a lot of obstacles for many people to really participate fully in that labour market. If you now look at this from your experience and perspective: what do you spontaneously see as a number of important thresholds?

I mainly see. When I just started working I was like... as a young person I was always very active in this field... at that time we mainly focused very hard on language and studies. But gradually you get a group that is well-educated and speaks the language (or several languages) well. And we now notice that they also have difficulties in the labour market. At a certain point, I was like 'I guess it is on the employers' side that something must be wrong: there is no match, it won't work out...'. And gradually, by working at Time4Society and having a lot of contact with a lot of companies, I experienced that this intention [to be more inclusive] does exist - with the management, for instance. Although there is always work to be done. In any case, I see enormously motivated CEOs and motivated HR people. I think the main work to be done is in the area of vacancies. For example, I recently heard from a large company that young people do come to them but that they still don't apply because of mindset: 'I won't be able to work in such a big company...'. You also see this in my generation: the competences are there, in itself there is nothing wrong with the candidate - but it's the person himself who thinks 'I can't do that', or 'I'm not going to apply anyway' - and I think that this really does play a role for the group that does have the competences but doesn't dare to take the step. [Self-limiting beliefs as we say] Yes that mindset... but it doesn't just come out of nowhere.

I mean, I am part of that myself and that mindset doesn't just grow without any context.

Yes, can you explain that?

That comes from an early age, from school. I have a 12-year-old son myself and at school they often emphasise what pupils can't do. That almost automatically makes you more of a perfectionist, so you are more likely to say 'I don't have those and those competences yet, so I'm not going to apply for a job'.There is still work to be done there. The mindset has also been there for years - I have also studied neuropsychology in recent years - if as a child you often hear 'you can't do that' or 'the language you speak at home is not right' or 'the religion you practice is not ok', yes, that's in your head somewhere and it doesn't just go away. It is a work in progress and it is starting to gain more and more attention now.

What would we need to do much more of in order to facilitate this?

I think mainly networking and role models: so someone who has really had to fight for their position, to stand where they are, that they speak out publicly [be more visible?] yes that they can inspire others.

Role models - very important.


I also hear you making the link to education, right?

I have a lot of ambitions but education is a very difficult thing. The teachers who really encourage you, yes those are teachers you never forget. I had an accounting teacher like that. But the other teachers you don't forget either: they become those quiet little voices that are in your head later on 'you can't do that'.... I remember, in the last year of primary school, our mum sat next to me, 'Mrs Ekchouchou, yes your daughter,.... let her do something with her hands because...' and I was sitting there. And afterwards I thought, yes that are the kind of moments that install those belittling silent voices in you. Now I am less and less bothered by them, but in the beginning when I worked for Time4Society and I walked into a company, I was always like 'oops...'.

You have grown out of that by now, but maybe you are an exception and many people have carried that around for years? Also subconsciously. I think we are far too little aware - in education par excellence but also in other settings - of how all that kind of small discouragement actually becomes a big trauma in the long run. Which at best you can heal from, which you can get over, but in a lot of cases probably not. So there's still some work to be done there?

Yes. And when I think about it like that: the last 20 years... I have also followed along as a student the discourse of that we should encourage our young people more to study and speak the language. But I have also always said and also with - literally - getting older 'yes but wait, we have already done that', through associations, through politics, and we now are really a second, third generation further on and we are still always talking about that language - that solution (focus on language) is not important to me. When my son was in the third kindergarten class, I was given a note saying 'please speak Dutch with your child'. I then took the note to the teacher and asked what their language policy was, because in the child's file you can see whether the parents' language of address is Dutch or not, right? I don't want to find such a note in my child's school bag. Focused communication please. And I do understand it: I also have teachers in my circle of friends. But actually I really don’t appreciate this assumptions on my language skills. There are other issues. Each target group needs a different approach. And there are indeed people who do benefit from language lessons, from support towards the labour market so that they can participate fully in society - that is hugely important, but....

We were just talking about those thresholds, which is how we ended up on this note. Self-limiting belief came up very clearly and then we started digging a bit about where that comes from. There are a number of causes you can cite: the way vacancies are posted and written, you referred to that. That that may still be hidden barriers for certain people. Are there other things you wanted to highlight? Barriers to be removed to ensure that as many people as possible can take steps towards participating in the labour market?

Companies could make their employees more proud to work for them. Employer branding does work. Even linked to the war on talent because you want to keep your employees with you. And one notices that if those employees can then warm up a friend or someone in their family, and if they radiate that pride, more people are automatically interested in working for that company. One also notices this with companies that communicate on social media. But, importantly: in an authentic way please! Diversity and inclusion are almost buzzwords at the moment but if that is not authentic then people will absolutely see through it. You have to make sure that everything you communicate, your employees can back it up. And that helps: "I would like to work for that company because I can be myself there".

So how to get this from words into practice?

The customers are becoming more diverse, the consumers are becoming more diverse, they have different holidays,... That you indeed sometimes say 'Happy Eid Festival', 'Happy end of Ramadan'. Things like that get picked up. So tomorrow is a big opportunity - yes indeed: tomorrow is the Feast of Eid [reference to the day the episode was shot].

The companies I work with and who are our clients, they always get a 'Happy Holidays' wish from me at Christmas. Yes and then I also like it when they say to me once in a while 'so Laila, good celebrations tomorrow huh' or something like that. And also in an official way. And these are things that gen Z really follows up on: via Instagram, via videos,... Nowadays they also make their own videos like 'look how cool they did that at our place, they organised a party for the end of Ramadan' for example. And that is then a party at which all colleagues are present. Yes things like that get noticed. And that also lowers the threshold for those young people or jobseekers, to attract them. It really doesn't always have to be expensive media campaigns.

That's true - preferably not.

You mentioned a few times that there is some healthy activism in your body. Thinking on that for a moment: suppose we are 5 or 10 years down the road. What would make you a wonderfully happy lady, looking back at what you have realised? What do you dream of?

What I dream of is putting these things on the agenda: look, we are not succeeding, we would like to do something about it. Eight years ago, the focus was more on the sustainability theme for me, but there are different themes that are important to me. I am always happy when I have someone in front of me who indeed says that they want to work out a volunteer programme, and that when they indicate that they have some questions, that I can give them some tips. Or that they will at least look into it a bit. Because it's more than just setting up a nice campaign quickly. Internally, it is not always easy to work with change management. You can't always assume that all your employees are open to it. It has an impact on your work and on your productivity. Before you start doing that, you have to take that into account.

And how can you help them do that? Are those things you offer yourself or do you refer them on?

Yes, especially through the projects, on the topic of sustainable HR, we do try to implement some things. Now recently we had a We Are Able project, with support from Erasmus+, in which we developed a game. It was developed by an educationalist who really developed a talent game for HR managers or team leaders to test with their colleagues. There are a number of cards in there, such as a positive colleague and a negative colleague. Indeed, this is something that we do outside of social activities, because we engage with companies and organisations, after which we try to work something out. We also try to bring people together, for example sustainability professionals. The sustainability manager usually feels very alone within a company and especially if they have to put a number of issues on the agenda. Then we try to bring those professionals together. Thursday, Friday and Monday we had a master class where we put the French-speaking and Dutch-speaking sustainability managers together, and then they exchange how they approach certain matters: 'how do you do that' - 'how do we do that'. Because that is something I believe in very strongly: that if you bring people together, they learn from each other. We do that through Switching Talent and through our master classes now. So that people take away insights - not copying because every company is different. But it is possible that at certain moments you think 'hm, that company succeeds in doing inclusive business and we don't - what can we do...'. But it is important that everyone is on board. It's not like 'look, we're just going to do it here because everyone else wants to do it'. The consideration will be more like 'look, our company is situated in a certain city and today it can't be that in Mechelen or in Brussels or Antwerp you have companies where there is still no representation of diversity'- and reality you really do still come across those kind of companies.

Artemis I also look at you from time to time: what burning question is on your lips?

Laila you mentioned it earlier: the importance of role models. And you briefly referred to an accountancy teacher. Who is your role model? Or who has been your great role model?

Well that's quite a difficult question. My role model.. I actually always, from a young age, wanted to work in the corporate world. As a young child actually. I don't know who inspired me back then.... Because I'll say it: I grew up in a village. Maybe especially that one teacher back then anyway. And it may well be that - I now also teach classes at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences to future event planners - that I might end up somewhere in education, who knows? That one teacher was really that kind of person who did her job with passion and yes always encouraged me like that ('well done Laila') and she knew that maths was more difficult with me and.... Yes, maybe I subconsciously took that on board as a kind of role model for my life.

It is striking how often, when you ask that question, people refer back to one or two or three teachers who made the difference for them.

Yes that is true.

And actually that's quite nice too. Because you can say a lot about education: that it is a tanker, that a lot needs to be done, ... but still: fortunately there are so many powerful teachers walking around who inspire people and manage to make people rise above themselves. It is encouraging to hear that confirmed. So teachers who are listening: thank you very much.


>>> You have been listening to Let's Talk, the podcast where we feed the dialogue around inclusion in the labour market, highlight impactful initiatives and let lesser heard voices have their say. Were you captivated, did this conversation make you think, would you like to be one of our next guests yourself? Let us know, follow us on social media and be sure to subscribe to this podcast series!