Diversity and Inclusion: An interview with the leadership coach Katya Veleva
Updated: Sep 19
In this post, we discuss the concepts of diversity and inclusion in the workspace to identify how organisations in the construction industry could benefit from working with a diverse team of people, and providing employees equal access to opportunities and resources.
I invited Katya Veleva, a leadership coach, to share insights about her work with individuals and organisations, in terms of the methods, techniques and the language that could potentially bring people together, in a way that everyone can be their best self at work.
Katya has a background in architecture and digital construction. Within her work for promoting digital adoption and diversity in the construction industry, Katya has shared her experience with numerous audiences in the UK and abroad. Her ability to break down complex concepts and find connections relevant to the listener has proven to truly make an impact. Katya has supported world-renowned organisations, such as Grimshaw Architects (with over 250 awards for their work) and Alisson Brooks Architects (the only British architect to have won all three of the UK’s most prestigious awards for architecture) in their endeavours to adopt digital technologies in their design.
Question: What is the meaning of diversity and inclusion in the workplace?
Answer: Diversity is richness in experience and perspective, it is a valuable resource for divergent thinking, creativity and truly excellent problem-solving. Diversity however on its own can’t really achieve anything. Inclusion is the catalyst to making diversity work. Bringing different people in the workplace within a culture that clearly favours only one time of identity won’t bring much success, as those people will waste a lot of energy to try and be something that they are not before they have even started to contribute professionally. This is why we need not only diverse workplaces, but ones with sensitive and inclusive cultures.
Question: Are there any business benefits associated with workplace diversity for the construction sector organizations?
Answer: There are plenty. There is tons of research on the matter and the results are clear, diverse groups clearly outperform homogenous groups when it comes to quality and accuracy of decision making. My favourite bit of research is by Dr Katherine Philipps from Columbia Business School. She once again confirms that, but she goes further and tests her subjects in their confidence and perceived efficiency, and sees the opposite trend. The reason for that is that working in diverse groups is not that natural to the human brain. We can get defensive, the plethora of perspectives can make us doubtful, and just generally make us feel like we have taken too long to achieve consensus. The results however don’t lie - we make better decisions, so the solution is to foster workplace cultures that celebrate and welcome difference so that we develop the capacity to acknowledge what happens in a diverse group.
Additionally, inclusive work cultures promote retention, and the cost of turnaround is always a very clear indicator of what you should do. According to LinkedIn replacing an under 100k salary, employee costs on average 22k (if the employee is a higher paid one, the cost rapidly increases). That’s 22k to replace one person, from the inevitably many that will leave an un-inclusive workplace, versus less than 10k for a comprehensive multi-session inclusivity training and may be another 5k-ish for a consultant to suggest updating policies and processes to retain many people.
Regarding the construction industry specifically, I think it is not just beneficial, but vital that it diversifies from both social and business perspectives. The rigidity that comes with the traditional culture of the industry is really preventing it to step into a new age of development. This is why we see tech giants stepping in and taking tasty bites of the market - they are more diverse (not as much as they should be) and more flexible and adaptable - parameters of IED.
The most important benefit lies in the social plane and it is very simple. The built environment is for everyone - every single person - we all live in buildings and cities, towns and villages. We should ALL have a say in how they are built so that they can serve ALL of us.
Question: I undrestand that your initial background is in digital construction. Why have you jumped from the construction industry to leadership coaching?
Answer: It was actually a very natural progression for me. One of the main reasons why I was successful in digital adoption for architecture was because I never really tried to tell people what to do. Architects and construction professionals are highly educated brilliant professionals, you can’t just step in and start telling them what to do, even if it is massively beneficial and efficient. I always approached teams with curiosity and open ears. I listened before teaching. I loved that about my job. I never really understood the value of my “people skills” before, and once I started leaning into them and developing them more, turned out I was really good at it all! In one of the companies I consulted for, there was always an extra chair pulled up to my desk, because people kept wanting to come over and chat, they would jokingly call me the “office therapist”, but it never was just chat. Because I listened intently and carefully, I was always able to ask the right questions and connect the right people and as a result of all the chatting, actually move things in the project forward.
Alongside that, I was always involved in diversity initiatives - Women in BIM, Women in Architecture, Architecture LGBT+. This kind of work really made me happy. I have people come up to me to tell me how my speaking up has made them feel more comfortable to be themselves in their own workplace and that was more precious than any construction project I had ever taken part in. So, I took those two things and figured that with Inclusion, Equity and Diversity Leadership Coaching, I can really make a difference.
Question: What are the barriers you encounter with clients and overall team members in your profession?
Answer: Sometimes, really quite often when I do training that look at creating inclusive cultures or challenging bias, what I have to do is destroy people’s simpler reality and bring them on a tour of a much more complex existence. Naturally, this is not easy. Extremities and simple definitions are what we thrive on. The hardest thing for the human brain is nuanced balance. Often it’s hard to get people to think about intersectional aspects of issues and to not be defensive. Sometimes I also may need to ask them to consider two seemingly contradictory or opposing statements to be true at the same time, and that is always a huge challenge.
This is one of the reasons why when you talk about Inclusion, Equity and Diversity, you need to consider professional help. There are many complex emotions and layered histories and intersectional relationships that need to be detangled when you educate people about those issues. You can’t expect from all people who belong to a marginalized group to be able to handle this kind of dialogue and learning process.
Question: What would you advise an organization in the construction sector that is interested in diversity and inclusion?
Answer: My advice will start off very coach-y - What do you want? Figure out what you really want out of this. Look at your organisation, its mission and values, and see how it connects to the pursuit of Inclusion, Equity and Diversity. Be honest about how much you consider your own values in your decision making. Be prepared to be wrong, and be ok with that.
And finally - seek professional help. The staff you already have has a job to do. Don’t give them another whole role to work on that they are not qualified for. By all means, if they want to share their experience and feel that they have the energy to, make space for them, but never make them feel that if they speak up, they will have to do all the educational work after that. It’s kind of like accidentally hitting someone with your car, them saying “Oh, no, my leg is broken”, and you responding “Please teach me how to heal your leg and how to drive better next time”.
#Interview by Panagiotidou Nicoleta, BIM specialist for Breakwithanarchitect
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