Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) currently occupy a prominent position on the business agenda, with social movements like Black Lives Matter, as well as macro events like the Covid-19 pandemic, shining a light on the inequalities that persist in both the workplace and wider society. To learn more about how the EDI drive is affecting the world of finance and accountancy, Rachel Graham, EDI Search Lead at Michael Page, recently sat down with Nimesh Shah and Vanesha Kistoo, CEO and Director of Tax respectively, at accounting and business advisory firm Blick Rothenberg. 
EDI is a big issue in finance and in audit. Having worked with you at Blick Rothenberg in recent years, I noticed your ethos seems to be ahead of a lot of other companies. I want to talk to you about these successes and the strategies that have enabled them. But to start with, what originally attracted you to Blick Rothenberg? 

Nimesh Shah: “I had gained some Big Four experience working with Deloitte in Manchester, which really grounded me in the sector. But I really wanted to become a partner at a firm that shared my values with respect to clients. At Blick Rothenberg, the ethos is that if we look after our people, they will look after our clients. As CEO, I am obsessive about making sure we maintain these values in the firm, whether it is a PA or a partner; I treat people in the way that I want to be treated, regardless of ethnicity, or gender, or any other factors. In fact, we want to hire a variety of people, because we recognise that our client base is diverse too. We have 600 employees and we respect the fact that everyone is different and has different interests. It is also important to play to different people’s strengths, because this is a long-term sustainable business.” 

When did Blick Rothenberg’s EDI strategy and journey begin?

Nimesh: “We have an EDI group which was created by a group of our senior staff, Vanesha being one. We recognised that we needed a steering group made up of passionate people, to elevate EDI on the agenda. It has been around for about 18 months and has made huge progress in that time. They vocalise the changes that we need to make, and nine times out of 10, I say yes, because the ideas have been well thought through by engaged individuals who have more time than me to understand the issues at hand.”

Vanesha, how much change have you enacted? And which changes were most important?

Vanesha Kistoo: “A lot has happened over the past 18 months. It is amazing how much we have managed to do, because we all have full-time jobs. For us, the very first objective was to raise awareness about the complexities of diversity and inclusion. Part of that was unconscious bias training, which we wanted to focus on and which our leadership team has now completed. Our HR team is now working on rolling out unconscious bias training for others in the company. 

“The other area we wanted to focus on was women, who are not very well represented in Blick Rothenberg’s senior leadership, or in some other pockets of the business. Personally, I have had a lot of support from my leadership and colleagues to help me progress, so for me, this was a great way to spread those benefits to other women in the business. In a survey we conducted in 2020, out of 445 of our participating colleagues, around 50% were female, roughly 45% were male, and just under one percent identified as a non-binary. For me, the most concerning part was that just under 3% preferred not to say how they identified. Part of our strategy going forward will be to help those who are currently uncomfortable identifying themselves to feel able to do so. Moving on to ethnicity, about 14% identified as Asian, and just under 3% identified as black British or black other. We are working hard to promote ourselves as a diverse employer.”

I know from my experience that it can be hard to find diverse candidates for roles within accountancy. How have you found this? 

Nimesh: “We are a part of Access Accountancy, a program which aims to ensure that everyone has an equal chance of succeeding in accountancy regardless of background. I was talking to our Head of HR two weeks ago about this year’s program, which will be virtual. Traditionally, we would get 10 individuals and also students from disadvantaged backgrounds to come in and shadow some of our managers and colleagues for a week. But we’re now updating the program. We will run a week-long set of workshops with different parts of the business contributing. It is an education process for individuals that wouldn't normally get an insight into the accountancy profession.”

What role models do you have now? And what do you do to create diversity at all levels? 

Vanesha: “There are various women across the firm who are great sponsors and mentors. Heather Self, for example, is very active in the ensuring that women are able to succeed and thrive. We also have Sonya Rees, who was herself recently promoted to partner, meaning that she will be able to represent women in the company, especially those who are parents and need flexible working options.”

What exactly are the role models doing to ensure that the diversity in the firm is as representative as possible? 

Vanesha: “Last year, we had a Black History Month celebration, which was the first time Blick Rothenberg created a calendar of activities for that occasion. It was led by a colleague in the team who is very passionate about raising awareness and promoting black history. She worked with a number of people across the firm to put together an agenda that proved to be very successful. Even though she is not yet even a manager, she is a great role model for others.” 

Nimesh: “I was very proud of what she managed to do on her own: it was Blick Rothenberg’s most interacted-with internal campaign all last year. We are trying to get more employee engagement on our intranet and what this lady did was bring the subject of internal employee engagement to the boardroom, with a clear topic and proposition. 

“I learned a huge amount from some of the articles that were submitted. And again, another young, bright, and very passionate colleague in Vanesha’s team wrote some fantastic pieces way beyond his years about black history and the Black Lives Matter movement. I think it can be quite daunting for a young group of people in a professional services organisation to put their head above the parapet, but with the backing of people like Vanesha, and some of the role models that she was talking about, they can do this.” 

What else is Blick Rothenberg doing to build a culture of belonging and make everyone feel comfortable and empowered and heard? 

Vanesha: “For me, it is less about ticking boxes and more about making real differences to people’s careers in a way that works for everyone. Not everyone wants to get promoted, for instance. So, our EDI program needs to help people be comfortable expressing their authentic selves, and to give them the best experience at work. For some people, that might be as simple as feeling able to speak freely about what they like, what they do not like, and what they want to change.” 

How do you promote your culture internally?

Vanesha: “Our Marketing team have put in place an events calendar which represents important dates and events for various people from various cultural backgrounds. The aim is to raise awareness, but also to share knowledge between communities.”

Nimesh: “Promoting that calendar is also about promoting our people. They are the centre of this, and we've got a very diverse group; we are using our infrastructure and our platform to promote our people and to celebrate their cultures. I am a great believer in the digital message.” 

One final thing before we wrap up: what are your greatest challenges at the moment?

Vanesha Kistoo: “There are a lot of challenges. We are at the very start of our journey and I think we've done really well so far, but now it's about results. How do we make differences to people’s lives? How do you design a strategy to target problems that you may not yet be aware of? But we are determined.”  

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