Subscribe to D&I In Practice

Join business leaders and entrepreneurs who are working to make their businesses more diverse and inclusive.

Q&A Week 41

Diversity Doers: "If we really think inclusion is a key business element...we should not be patient."

Mikala Larsen, Nordic head of HR at Nestlé, talks about her D&I wake-up call, and how change can happen fast when a company is committed.

JL: Mikala, you have experienced something you describe as a wake-up call on your diversity and inclusion journey. Would you tell us more about that?

ML: Yes, the wake-up call for us took place when one of our talented people didn’t want to advance to a more senior role. We had a great middle manager in terms of leadership and communication. And within her expertise area she was performing very well. When her manager moved on, it seemed normal to us that she would progress into her manager’s role.

We presented the opportunity to her, with all the perqs. Three days later, she came back to us and said, "No, thank you. I'm not interested in the job." And that was a true wake-up call for us.

What really hit me was her saying "I don't think I'll be successful there." She thought she would have to adjust her leadership style into a more macho style. And she said "That's not who I am. I want to stay true to the person I am”.

So, if your managers do not want to advance because of cultural elements, that is an issue. It's a huge issue, and that hit us. We realized we needed to do something because otherwise we were only going to have certain types of people wanting to join the leadership team, and that is not good for our business. But it's difficult to change a culture and it takes time and there is not one way of doing it.

"When we think something is good for us, we can do it really fast. If we want to change the culture, we can change the culture."

JL: Where did you start and how did that go?

ML: We started doing all the traditional things. We looked at succession plans and we decided we needed to have at least one woman on each succession plan.

There also was an informal tick list of what kind of trainings you should have done or what kind of roles you should have had before you could move into an executive role. And we started challenging that checklist. We started challenging questions around age. Because women tend to take maternity leaves, and if they have several children that may set them five years back in their career.

First, we were very focused on the diversity element. It gave us a very good foundation. But diversity work is mechanical. It moves things and it may create awareness. But it doesn't necessarily change things on the cultural level. So, four years ago, we started working heavily on the inclusion part. And that's where the unconscious bias comes in, and that pushed us to the next level. It made a huge difference.

JL: You work across five countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. What is the role of cultural and linguistic context when rolling out unconscious bias training?

ML: Rolling this out has been fantastic for us and has created a vocabulary about inclusion, and what inclusion really is about. For language, all the trainings are done in English. And yes, there are some cultural differences that we have to be aware of. But in terms of unconscious bias training, the elements of the training are the same in each context.

We don't tell our employees or our managers what kind of culture we have; instead we use their own reflections about their background and their story. It makes everyone understand that people have different stories.

At Nestlé we talk a lot about the decision of eating. Sitting at the dinner table or at the breakfast table can be very different in different countries. But the situation also depends a lot on your family structure. If you're a single mum with two children your breakfast situation might be different compared to a traditional family with two parents and three children.

We want to have people experiencing different eating situations in our teams. After the unconscious bias training, everyone should have curiosity towards other people's stories and what they can bring to the table. For us, inclusion is really about inviting people to the table, to share their opinions and their experiences. And respect them. I think that if we achieve that then we've come a long way.

JL: I’m curious about how you see the future, what are the next challenges or focus areas in this field?

ML: From a Nestlé Nordic point of view we're doing very well when we talk about gender. The question is whether we are doing well on including people with a disability. Are we doing enough on age? We are doing okay, but could we do more? Could we do more in terms of nationality? So there are a number of elements that we are interested in taking forward. Exactly how, that is what we're working on.

JL: Diversity and inclusion is a long journey, you are clearly going in the right direction. But one has to be patient in this business.

ML: I'm a little bit conflicted on that. I know a lot of people say, "We need to be patient and it's not going to happen overnight." But I think a lot of things do happen overnight and that's because we want them to happen. When we think something is good for us, we can do it really fast.

If we want to change the culture, we can change the culture. I'm not saying overnight, but over two or three years. It is possible. So if we really think inclusion is a key business element then we should be able to do it fast. We should not be patient. We need to push for it.

We want to hear from you!

D&I In Practice wants your feedback so we can deliver the content you need to move the needle forward on diversity and inclusion. Please send comments, questions and ideas for stories you’d love to see to