An Interview with John Amaechi OBE

Matt Palmer 19 November 2018

At the October 2018 Knowledge Guild, we spoke to psychologist John Amaechi OBE about how we can create diverse workforces with an inclusive culture.

Hi John, could you please introduce yourself?

Hi, my name’s John Amaechi. I’m a psychologist. That’s the important stuff.

In a former life you enjoyed a successful career in professional basketball, but while playing you also studied for a PhD in psychology. How difficult did you find it pursuing two different paths at the same time?

I studied for my masters and my doctorate while I was still playing professional basketball. I love that because it sounds incredibly challenging, but the truth is that life in professional sports has a great deal of time and effort spent practising and playing but there’s also huge amounts of time spent flying or resting. And in those times when you’re resting your body, you can still do stuff with your brain. So, it’s not actually as hard as it sounds.

I think we’ll have to take your word for that one, John!

So, how has your personal journey, competing as a top-level sportsman and then through your current career, impacted the lessons you share?

I think the problems and challenges that face organisations and individuals nowadays have an answer in science. That’s where the answer comes from – the psychology. But, psychology and science can be a bit impenetrable, so what’s useful about my background and experience is that I can help explain relatively complex scientific theories and means of changing through stories. Through stories of sports that a lot of people are into, through stories of my background and life which is a bit varied and interesting. That way really complex ideas can be translated in a way that everybody can grab hold of and take them.

You talk about the importance of cognitive diversity within organisations, but why should businesses take note?

People are talking a lot about diversity, cognitive and otherwise, right now. And it’s mostly because we’ve realised that it’s a route to performance. It’s not just the presence of diverse people, but that diverse people can bring themselves to work without fear that they will somehow be undermined by who they are. If you can create that environment where you can challenge people to the greatest extent whilst supporting them, they will understand that this is an environment where they are allowed to bring all of their expertise and all that they have to offer to help your organisation win. Inclusion is just about winning – it’s not about ‘kumbaya moments’ or ‘being nice’. This is about how we win in an environment where in the next six months we have no idea what’s going to happen.

"People make choices, choices make culture."

How can businesses create an inclusive culture?

How you make an inclusive culture – how you make any culture – is a lot simpler than people imagine. A couple of ways we get it wrong is that we think inclusive culture is about policy, procedure and regulation. And while those are important, they’re like the skeleton in a body. The shape of the body, the flesh on the body is about decisions of individual people within your organisation and how vigilant they are - how careful we are with each other. If you want to make an inclusive environment, it’s about the individual choices. People make choices, choices make culture. If you make inclusive choices every day, your culture will be inclusive. It’s really that simple. Yes, it’s important that leaders are on the right narrative but it’s also important that every person within the organisation knows how they should treat each other as colleagues to create that inclusive bond that you want.

And finally, what’s next for you?

I have lots of big aspirations. I’m loving the direction my organisation is going, APS is growing. Somehow, we’re managing to find weird, wonderful and different people who want to come and work with us - and I love the intellectual challenge of that. The ability of this odd collection of people to solve other people’s problems is amazing. I want to keep doing that for as long as possible until my team won’t have me anymore!

Amazing, thanks so much for speaking with us John.

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