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Meet & Greet: Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum

In this week’s Meet & Greet interview, LGBTQ+ ally and myGwork member Diane Lightfoot shares the importance of being able to work in an environment where everyone is able to bring their whole selves to work, without having to conceal any aspect of who they are. “So much energy and worry is expended on covering or masking an aspect of ourselves, whether that is identifying as LGBTQ+ or having a disability that is not immediately visible,” she highlights. Diane, who will be speaking at this year's WorkPride on wellbeing, explains why she is keen to explore the intersections of disability and LGBTQ+, as part of her role as CEO of the UK’s Business Disability Forum (BDF). She also shares some insights into her work and social life. 


myGwork: Why did you want to be CEO of this organization?


Diane: I’ve been lucky enough to be CEO of Business Disability Forum for five years and I can still hand on heart say that it’s my dream job. Before I joined, I spent 13 (also amazing) years at another disability charity, United Response, which works with people with learning disabilities. I was director of policy and communications and also had responsibility for supported employment services. I was interested in it, made the mistake of saying so and got given it. We used to talk a lot about independence and empowerment and people with learning disabilities being visible in their communities and it struck me that work – good work – is perhaps the truest form of inclusion that there is. All those things we talked about as fundamental to a “good” life – social life, a circle of support, independence, identity and of course an income – naturally fall into place. I had worked a little with BDF (then called the Employers Forum on Disability) whilst at United Response. so when I saw the advert for the CEO role I thought it was my perfect job. Thankfully the panel agreed!


myGwork: Have you always wanted to lead a company and why?


Diane: I’m not sure! I’ve always been ambitious and probably more so than I liked to admit (even to myself). I have always wanted to get to the next level up so I think it was probably more an incremental leadership aspiration rather than thinking I wanted to be the big boss. But I always worried about the Peter Principle (that I might be seeking to be promoted to the level of my own incompetence). So when I was looking for a CEO role, I kept it to myself in case people thought I was really jumped up with ideas above my station. I still have imposter syndrome too – I think most people and leaders do (certainly the ones that I talk to). But I’d rather have that than be complacent or arrogant.


myGwork: How would you describe your leadership style?


Diane: I like to take people with me so I would say consultative, collaborative and collegiate, but of course I also need to take an executive decision when we just can’t reach consensus. One of my team recently described me as having “gentle authority”, which I rather like. People have also started to refer to my having “gravitas” which makes me feel terribly old, but I am assured it is a compliment!


myGwork: What attributes do you look for when promoting/hiring employees/leaders in your company?


Diane: Firstly, someone who really wants to work for us and has a genuine passion for what we do. It sounds obvious, but as a disability inclusion organisation, our mission and values are at the heart of everything we do and whilst prior knowledge of experience is not necessarily needed (depending on the role), “getting it” is vital. Aptitude and attitude are also more important than qualifications and I am a big fan of testing the skills we need for a given role rather than a blanket approach. We also strive for a diverse workforce. It’s not just the right thing to do but good for business too to have people who bring different perspectives and life experiences.  As a disability inclusion organization we also know that one size doesn’t fit all and, whilst it is difficult in a small organization (we have 39 employees), I am keen we try and create opportunities and progression routes that aren’t just the go up a level=get line management responsibilities but that play to people’s different skills.


myGwork: How do you successfully motivate your employees?


Diane: Being an organization with a social purpose – one of the great things is being able to see, share and demonstrate the impact of what we do. I love it when I see real change – a story or a “lightbulb moment” when someone gets it; and so sharing these and sharing great feedback from our Members and Partners is really powerful. It’s also important to show every person in the team how their role matters and contributes. For example, when we celebrate bringing in a new Member, our membership director is always the first to say that this is a team effort – that it is the quality of our offer, our resources, our knowledge that bring people in – and the quality of the support teams that retain them. Of course, you need individual motivators on top of that and to recognise that individual drivers and motivations can vary depending on people’s personal circumstances – and that’s ok too, as long as they have that values-base at heart.


myGwork: How important is LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace to you?


Diane: It’s vital – because it’s about talent. We know that diverse teams – diverse in every sense – perform better, bring better problem solving, creativity and innovation and of course better represent the communities and customers we serve. So, from a business point of view, it is vital to include and to actively seek out every part of the talent pool. In too many workplaces though, so much energy and worry is expended on covering or masking an aspect of ourselves; whether that is identifying as LGBTQ+ or having a disability that is not immediately visible (or, of course, both). It’s exhausting and that makes me so sad – it’s such a waste of energy and of individuality. Creating an environment and culture where everyone feels able to be their whole selves and not have to conceal any aspect of who they are, what they feel and whom they love, is vital. 


myGwork: How are you personally promoting inclusion in the workplace?


Diane: Inclusion, from a disability point of view, is our day job. From an LGBTQ+ point of view I am proud to be an ally – I try and lead by example in talking about all aspects of Diversity, Equity and inclusion, and I want to listen and learn from those with lived experience. I am aware that leading a disability inclusion charity means that I can inhabit a rarified bubble where we are inclusive, but that is not alas reflective of too much of society. I’m also really keen that in our work we do more to explore the intersections of disability and LGBTQ+, for example around experiences of mental ill health. Too often we approach one aspect of Diversity through one lens, whereas the reality is that we as humans are messy and sit in more than one box!


myGwork: What was the last book you read (fiction/non-fiction)? Any interesting take-aways and would you recommend it to fellow leaders? 


Diane: Can you see me – it’s a semi-fictional story of an eleven-year-old autistic girl starting secondary school. I would recommend it to everyone as a fascinating and often painful insight into how difficult life can be for autistic people – and sometimes, those around them. I don’t always (or even usually) read books related to my work though; the one before that was “The Binding” by Bridget Collins – I won’t spoil it, but it was an entirely different story – one of forbidden love – and I loved it. Highly recommended.


myGwork: What's your all-time favorite movie/show – and how many times have you watched it?


Diane: No contest here: “Some like it hot” starring the late greats Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it – too many to count – but enough that I know pretty much all of the lines! 


myGwork: What's your most favorite holiday destination to date? 


Diane: Pre having our beloved rescue dog Roxy, I loved going to Lanzarote in March. I hadn’t realized it was possible to get Winter sun without flying halfway across the globe (and spending a fortune), so Lanzarote was a revelation! There are lovely beaches, food and its very quiet and unspoilt once you get outside of the main resorts. The volcanoes are pretty impressive too. Post dog – anywhere she is! Scotland, the Lake District, Cornwall… definitely the great outdoors.


myGwork:  What do you do to unwind? Which drink/cocktail/tipple helps you unwind most?


Diane: A couple of things: Roxy likes nothing more than “walkies” so that is great to get me out of the house even if I don’t feel like it; and it always makes me feel better. I have never noticed nature and the changing of the seasons as much as I have since having her, even though I used to live pretty much in the country. I also like to spend evenings on the sofa with my husband binge-watching “easy” television – (I’m currently hooked on Young Sheldon and Rick Stein’s Cornwall) – preferably with a large glass of white wine.

Diane will be speaking on WorkPride's disability panel this year. Click here to find out more or to sign up.  You can find out more about Diane and connect with her here.

Check out some of myGwork's other recent Meet & Greet interviews, including:

  • Swapi CEO Pete Howroyd who talks about workplace equality and LGBTQ+ inclusion, and the importance of ensuring that every voice is heard. 

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