Talking Diversity and Inclusion with Asif Sadiq

Asif Sadiq is an award-winning diversity and inclusion expert, now working as Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Adidas. Committed to creating inclusive corporate environments, Asif has also worked as Head of Diversity and Inclusiveness for EY Financial Services, and as Head of Equality, Diversity and Human Rights Unit for the City of London Police.

Asif works to eradicate discrimination in the workplace and beyond, believing diversity and inclusion is a way of life, not an after-thought. In this exclusive interview with Champions Speakers for Startups Magazine, Asif explains how diversity can give your business a competitive advantage and offers advice on creating a more inclusive culture.

What does inclusivity and diversity mean to you, and why are they important?

“Diversity doesn't mean one thing; it means many things. And everyone is not one thing, they’re many things - everyone is a unique identity. Diversity is the multiple layers of identities that each and every individual has within an organisation, and that includes every single person.

“Inclusion is considering, how do you create an environment where people can be their authentic self and celebrate their own unique identities, but then also contribute towards a common goal within an organisation?

“Inclusion and diversity have legal requirements behind them and there is the moral case, but there's also the business case now. The business case is not a new element, but I think companies and organisations now see the value in how diversity drives better performance, better output, more innovation, and better productivity.

“So that's what the two elements mean to me, but I think they go hand in hand and, you can't do one without the other. But it's really important to look at both in the context of where we are now and the future.”


“In the last couple of months, every organisation has gone through this rapid change and rapid movement within the diversity and inclusivity space - and rightly so. It's really highlighted that it’s now on the agenda for a lot of leaders.

“For me, it's of huge importance to talk to companies, and it has been key during this period of time, we don't only look at what we can do in the short term, but we look at the long term. How do we now embrace this new world and really create sustainable initiatives and work within the diversity and inclusion space, so it becomes part and parcel of what we do?

“It should not be seen as a nice thing or seen as specific actions that we can do, but something that should be embedded into our normal working. It should not be an afterthought but weaved into what we do, day to day.”

What would be your one tip for businesses looking to create a more inclusive culture?

“There are many things companies can do, but the one thing companies should acknowledge is a phrase I recently quoted at an event which was ‘diversity is not a problem that we're trying to solve, it's an opportunity we're trying to embrace’.

“If companies look at diversity and inclusion as a business opportunity, and an opportunity to make staff feel more included, then you can create sustainable long-term impact. But if you see it as an issue and as something you need to fix, then you'll never make change.”

What are the negative effects a lack of diversity can have on a corporate team?

“I think having a lack of diversity within an environment reduces innovation. If you look at what a company's core values are, or what any company or organisation wants to achieve, it is success. Whether that be the private sector or the public sector, everyone's trying to achieve better results, better performance, better output, innovation, ideas and problem-solving.

“When you have a lack of diversity, you have what I would put as group-thinking or a certain perspective of looking at things, and that doesn't help because it doesn't create new ideas. New ideas are not born when we all think the same. So, a lack of diversity can lead to a lack of output, a lack of problem-solving, a lack of engagement with your customers, your consumers, your service users - whatever industry you're in.

“A lack of diversity can really hold an organisation back, and they won’t be a big growth organisation in any way. So, diversity is crucial in that respect, because it creates that momentum. But a lack of it can be quite detrimental in how sustainable a company is for the future.

Why is it important to have diversity in higher leadership roles?

“Decisions are made across the organisation. There are decisions made at the lower levels, but there's also some really great, big decisions around where the direction an organisation is going in, which are made at the top. And having that diversity just helps support better decisions. It just creates a different opinion, a different view, a different perspective.

“When you look at consumers, the world isn't one group - the world is very diverse. When you look at big commercial businesses that are trying to operate in, or trying to engage in new markets, whether that be the Middle East, Africa and so on. If you don't have diversity within your leadership teams or within your organisation, how are you going to engage with those new markets? Or even if you take the U.K. as an example, where businesses are, during this period of time, really competing to survive and actually bring about new business.

“Then you've got the purple pound. So, the purple pound is the buying power of the disabled or differently-abled community. You've got the pink pound, the buying power of the LGBTQ community. Why would you not want to engage with these diverse consumer groups that you traditionally haven't? That's a potential for generating new income. And so, from a commercial perspective it makes sense.

“Your consumers are not only one group of people, they are very diverse. If you don't meet the needs of all your consumers, they will not engage in your services.”

What qualities constitute a good leader?

“I think the biggest quality of any good leader is being an authentic leader and an inclusive leader. That's a phenomenon that wasn't necessarily in place many, many years ago. I still remember being on those leadership courses 10 odd years ago, and a good leader was considered a strong leader, one who doesn't take anything from anyone, and always had a particular mindset.

“I think that's changed. The world around us has changed. A great leader now is one that's humble, one that's authentic, that shows vulnerability, and doesn't have all the answers. That's what people want to see, a human leader, not a leader that they just see on paper who scares them, but a leader who they can really relate to. That is the future in my view, of true authentic leadership and success in leadership.”

Why is it important to have a gender-friendly culture in the workplace? 

“We need to create an environment where everyone feels included. It is a question of, how do we create a space where everyone thrives?

“Now, of course, we are aware that women are not represented in the way they should, in any organisation - and that's a hugely important point. But also, the changing dynamics of the world we live in, we’ve now got men who want to be active within their family life. Active parents and active fathers, who want to work flexibly and want to take longer shared parental leave and all these things.

“The world around us is changing, and we need to create a working environment where we don't assign specific stereotypes to a particular gender. To create true inclusion, we need to make sure we adapt and create an environment where, regardless of your gender, you can succeed, and you have all the opportunities available to you.”

What do you think needs to be done to get more women into higher leadership roles?

“Firstly, we need to ensure that the responsibility for making that change happen doesn't only lie with women. If you look at a number of reports in recent months and years, they show that gender parity has not accelerated as much as we'd like, and I believe that’s because we’ve mostly got just women championing it. We need men to champion gender parity and we need them to champion it, in my view, not as allies, but as people who have just as big of a stake in ensuring gender equality as anyone else.

“I think going back to my previous point, it's also important for men to have that level playing field in the workplace, the same equal opportunities when it comes to things like flexible working. So, we need to create an environment where everyone is part of that conversation. This actually goes beyond just gender as well. Whether you look at race or any other element, we need everyone to feel that part of that D&I conversation.

“There's a perception sometimes that diversity and inclusion work means missing a slice of cake - someone else is going to get a piece of cake. Or, it's a Robin Hood situation where we're going to take from one group and give to another. That's not what D&I is about. It is of course about supporting groups that have been marginalised, but it doesn't take away from anyone.

“Everyone should be part of that conversation around creating inclusion, because a more diverse and inclusive organisation supports every single individual to perform at their best.”

Consider someone at the start of their entrepreneurial journey, what advice would you offer them?

“I think it's really interesting because the space has changed so much since I first started doing work in this space 15 plus years ago. Having worked in so many different industries as well, I've gone from the public sector to the private sector, then to the media and a sports brand and in between that I’ve worked for numerous other organisations as well. I think the key thing is, you need to ensure that you do work from a position of passion of course, but your passion can't come across as activism.

“You still need to consider solving the business problems and business challenges, within this space. So, I think the big thing is, how do you continue to do that? I mentioned earlier that, right now D&I is a very important topic for a lot of organisations, it’s a hot topic and all the doors are open, but I can remember doing this when you would knock on doors, and people would tell you no, no time for D&I.

“I still got up and said, ‘OK, maybe not today, but I'll come back to you next week and knock on your door again’. So, I think you need persistence and equality in the work you do to ensure you represent every single group and different dynamic or category of diversity in the same way. Be ready to take ‘no’ many times and be ready to get up and challenge it again.”

If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?

“I mean, I could never have predicted 15 odd years ago that everyone would want to talk about D&I the way they're talking about it today.

“But it can get very disheartening at times, and so I think one piece of advice I'd give myself at that stage would be, you can't change the world in one day, but you can change it one step at a time. And I sometimes focus so much on the changing the world in one day, that I forgot I was taking steps forward one day at a time.”