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Delivering diversity by example

A conversation with Simon Bolton, former CEO of NHS Digital
February 2023

As part of Spencer Stuart's focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), we invited Simon Bolton, who at the time was CEO for NHS Digital, the national information and technology partner to the UK’s health and social care system, to talk to our team in London. He shared reflections about his career and explained why DE&I is so important to him and his role as a leader.

Simon Bolton: I was on a business trip in the late 1980s with a colleague who was black. We were headed to France but flew in to Geneva.

We went through several border controls and my colleague was stopped at every single one, including the road border between Switzerland and France, while I was just waved through. The same thing happened on the way back. I asked him if this is a regular occurrence and he said yes. This experience, some 25 years ago, has always stayed with me and it really has fuelled my thinking about DE&I.


To be honest, as a white man in my 50s, I feel totally underqualified to talk about it. Let’s face it, there are an awful lot of people in business, particularly at senior level, who look an awful lot like me. But DE&I is a topic that I do care passionately about.

Simon Bolton: My first job was at Hewlett Packard and it could be described as quite forward thinking in many ways. It had a really strong corporate culture and it proved a great foundation for me as an individual and for my future career. DE&I, though, was something we didn’t really think about that much.

As I continued my journey at work, I realised that one of the things that was really important to me is corporate culture. I’ve got some leadership principles myself which I wrote down a number of years ago — things like people first; goal oriented; ambitious; empowering; high integrity; and lead by example.

These are great, but what I found over time is that it comes down to creating a culture that enables you to live those values. It’s partly about making sure everyone in the workplace is able to perform at their very best. In essence, it’s the role of leadership to create an environment where people can come to work to do a great job.

Simon Bolton: I can only create a culture that reflects those values if I do everything I can to be inclusive and get everyone engaged in the DE&I agenda. While we’re all different, we’re all typically here for a common purpose so how do we work together as a team?

One of the things that was interesting at NHS Digital is that in some ways it is an incredibly diverse organisation. There are probably more women there than men — even at senior levels there was pretty good gender diversity — but if you’re black or Asian, for example, then we really struggled in that space, particularly at senior level.

This is really important — particularly about my value of leading by example. And so, when I was at NHS Digital, we worked really hard to think about how we can increase diversity across the organisation, particularly amongst senior leaders.

One of the things we found challenging was attracting a diverse set of employees working in technology. We were far from alone — statistics from Tech Nation show that just 22% of tech directors are women and 19% of tech workers are women — so we spent a lot of time working with different networks and different communities to try and create opportunities for people who have transferrable skills.

Simon Bolton: We did our first staff survey last year — the first in five years. Broadly the results were pretty positive but when we got into some of the details there was a small cohort — about 15 people in total — who gave examples of things like bullying and harassment.

We then started doing sessions we called “Coffee in confidence” which gave the opportunity to anyone in the organisation to have time with senior leaders to talk about their experiences. For me, it was an opportunity for reverse mentoring in a way. As a white man in my 50s, I’m acutely aware that I don’t have the lived experience of many people in my organisation and so these sessions were enormously valuable.

I fundamentally believe that if you can talk about who you are and you could be yourself you’ll perform better and you will create stronger bonds with your colleagues — it’s about people and it’s about relationships, how we work together and how we communicate.

And that’s why DE&I will always be a core priority for me — now and in the future.

Create a culture of safety. When someone wants to talk about their own experiences with me, I can’t pitch up as some kind of authoritarian leader; that would make these conversations really difficult. This is why organisational culture is so key — it’s my role, as a leader, to create a working environment and culture where everyone can come to work and do a great job

Control the controllables. I can’t make someone else feel a different way or make someone else act in a different way. All I can do is everything I can to influence and lead by example.

Maintain focus on DE&I. There’s so much going on out there. But whenever I talk to any team, I’ll always talk about my values and always talk about DE&I because the words I use and the actions I take can have an influence across the organisation.

Don’t forget data. Data is incredibly important as it helps us shine a light on inequalities. We want to make sure our online presence is as accessible as possible but we use data massively to help our understanding of how our products are performing — what gets measured gets done.

Have a North Star. We should almost aspire for DE&I not to be an issue. I don’t think we’ll ever get there as there is so much inequality in the world but, as a leader, the most important thing I have done is take the time to sit down and write out my principles. When I talk to our teams about why diversity is so important to me, I can link it all back to my values and this has been really powerful.


Want to know more. about how Spencer Stuart prioritises Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? Click here to learn more.