ISG interview: ‘Diversity starts at the top’

ISG’s new leadership team of Matt Blowers and Zoe Price tell Neil Gerrard what’s different about their plan to attract top talent.

The guard has changed at ISG. After six years as its CEO, Paul Cossell stepped down at the end of last year to become vice chairman. In his place, Matt Blowers – a 24-year veteran of the business – has taken up the role. Supporting Blowers is Zoe Price, chief operating officer for ISG’s UK operations.

Together, Blowers and Price are making diversity within the company’s workforce one of their top priorities.

A signal of ISG’s intent can be seen in the make-up of its board – three of its seven members are women. But the contractor’s leadership wants to go significantly further, while acknowledging that there are obstacles along the road.

Diversity importance

So why is increasing diversity so important for ISG?

CV: Zoe Price

Chief operating officer, ISG, since 2019
Group director for public sector frameworks, ISG, September 2017 to January 2022
Business development director, UK construction west, ISG, October 2016 to September 2017
Account director, Willmott Dixon, January 2016 to September 2016
Business development director, January 2012 to January 2016
Business development director, Morgan Sindall, June 2002 to January 2012

“It is widely known that a diverse workforce makes us more efficient,” says Blowers. “It gives us better solutions to problems and helps us to think differently. Our industry is at a pivotal point. It is on the brink of changing the way we are and how we are seen.”

Price adds: “All of us want to leave the industry in a better place than when we joined. I think the pandemic put us in a good place for that – we reacted well. We took on board a completely new way of working and it was a catalyst for huge change. Now we must think about how we keep that momentum going. We know that diversity makes us think differently. And if you have people that think differently, then you can achieve more.”

To that end, the company is following a five-year diversity strategy called ‘Reaching for Balance’. The plan aims to accelerate the recruitment and retention of a balanced workforce at all levels.

That’s easier at some levels than others, Blowers explains. “It’s simpler to attract diverse talent at a younger entry level. We also have a very diverse executive team. But it’s the middle section where we really need to focus,” he says.

ISG is working to make its recruitment process fairer and more balanced for women and ethnic minorities. But other initiatives will feed into it too, Blowers says. These include ISG’s flexible working policy, which he hopes will remove barriers to success that some employees may previously have experienced.

Blowers explains: “The hybrid working policy we have got isn’t just restricted to office-based people. It is all about the individual. Everyone’s circumstances are different. It is not restricted by saying: ‘You will be in the office or on site three or four days a week.’

“We are trying to transform the way people perceive our industry… that is the way we are going to attract talent from different industries.”

Matt Blowers

“It is designed around agreeing with your line managers and your team how best you cover your roles collectively as a unit. When you start doing that, then you can start to understand how flexibility can be introduced into all roles, including site roles.”

Price says that feedback from within the business indicates that ISG’s people see role models as important.

“If people see others from a diverse background in a leadership role, then they are more inclined to believe that there isn’t a glass ceiling and that they themselves can achieve that.”

The company has moved on from showcasing building projects on social media to highlighting the people involved in the build and the wider significance of a project. For example, if the company is building a lab, ISG emphasises the fact that its workers are, in their own way, helping to contribute to the fight against diseases like cancer.

Blowers says: “I talk to every person who joins the business at an onboarding forum. We use the example that, in all the sporting facilities we have provided, over 240 world records have been broken. That puts into perspective the benefit we can have to society. When you start to do that, you can really encourage people to think differently about what construction is.”

Influencing perceptions

Reaching potential new recruits at a young age and influencing their perceptions of the industry is important too, Price says. ISG has been working with colleges on T-levels to make them “more exciting and less traditional in their approach”.

The effort extends even into pupils just above primary level, using ISG’s WOWEX (World of Work Experience) programme. This offers a taste of life in the industry, with work on imaginary pitches and visits to live sites.

“Around 170 people took part in our latest WOWEX initiative and out of all of those, 70% of those said they would probably consider a career in construction,” says Blowers.

CV: Matt Blowers

CEO, ISG, since January 2022
Chief operating officer, ISG, January 2019 to January 2022
Managing director for UK Fit Out, UK Construction South and UK Hospitality, 2014 to 2019
Joined ISG in 1998 as an assistant construction manager
Nominated for CIOB Construction Manager of the Year Award for BP’s 20 Canada Square

Meanwhile, ISG’s early careers intake is currently split between 40% female and 60% male. Price is hopeful that this could reach 50/50 by next year. Blowers adds: “Our talent team says that in terms of both gender and ethnicity, the diversity among our intake of 160 early careers entrants is looking positive this year. Hopefully that means some of the tactics we are using to find these people is proving beneficial. But it is the start of the journey. It takes a long time to make a difference to the middle and senior management.”

Workforce reaction

In an industry where white male workers are over-represented, how will the wider workforce respond?

Price says that this was discussed at a recent International Women’s Day event ISG held, attended by over 300 people. The key message is to respect everyone, regardless of their background, she says.

“They are all individuals, they all have a different view, and their voices are equal,” says Price. “If we could all take that away as one piece of learning, how much more diverse would we be?”

She adds: “People find that emotional connection. And I think that was why Covid was important because everybody saw everyone else’s personal lives. They realise that everyone else is trying to juggle 10 different things I think that makes them more appreciative and more emotionally intelligent.”

“If people see others from a diverse background in a leadership role, then they are more inclined to believe that there isn’t a glass ceiling.”

Zoe Price

Blowers advocates simply talking to people to understand their point of view. “If you talk to people and get their feedback, then you can really shape the strategy,” he says.

“We want to be an aspirational place where people want to come and work. Everything we are trying to do is to be different and transform the way people perceive our industry. That is the important thing for us because that is the way we are going to attract more diverse and better talent from different pools and different industries. It is clearly what we need to do given the rate of change we are experiencing as an industry.”

Price concludes: “If people read this and can be inspired about what the future looks like, then that would be great.”

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  1. Excellent ISG – walking the talk!

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