Rita Trehan is an award-winning HR expert, former Fortune 200 Chief Human Resources Officer and founder of Dare Worldwide. Last year her book, Too Proud to Lead, was published by Bloomsbury and featured in the Financial Times’ top business books. Rita is particularly interested in how companies define their purpose and practice leadership. Last year, surveying purpose and inclusivity in 1,000 US companies. Rita challenges boardrooms to redesign work and is a regular media commentator for BBC World News, Sky News and LBC.
I started my career in human resources at Honeywell in 1989 and climbed through the ranks to European and then Global directorial roles. From here, I was fortunate enough to work between the UK and the US for AES, developing the company’s first global sustainability reports and tinkering with organisational modelling. In the early 2010s, I took what I had learned and started helping Fortune 200 corporations with their HR strategies and stakeholder management. Overwhelmingly, I saw that companies often did not understand the core values and anxieties of their staff, and I set up DARE Worldwide in 2018 to help businesses create inclusive, sustainable environments to attract and retain talent.
The last few years have thrown up huge challenges as businesses evolve around changing supply chains, lockdowns and priorities. DARE has launched a number of products to help manage these dynamics, like the COVID-19 ChangeShaper, LeaderShape and The Inclusivity Index. We have also been at the forefront of reporting on the changing world of work, commissioning research with global companies to locate staff pain points and prescribe effective remedies through HR teams.
Yes and no. HR is about adapting to change as much as it is about making proactive decisions. Some things you can plan for. Others, like Covid, demand you evolve and bring in new information to improve the way you think. I have always been interested in helping teams and this has guided my career, but the solutions we offer have grown as I have learnt more about the needs of employees and the people they work for.
I have enjoyed working with companies but ultimately I think I always wanted to consult and be resolving these cultural issues from a more strategic level. I climbed from regional to national to continental to global positions in directing teams, and the next inevitable move was to step outside and help change the overall culture of work.
These big changes take time. In my research, I have found that most people are receptive to the importance of ED&I. They want their businesses to work and to be attractive to talent regardless of background. The main challenge is helping well-meaning people to see the unintended consequences of short-terminism and unconscious bias that might be holding them back. Especially as the challenges facing employees become more varied and complex (made worse by Covid and new caring/financial/health responsibilities), the biggest challenge in my line of work is helping people with very different lives to see eye-to-eye.
Launching DARE in 2018 was the high point of my career so far, of course. It took a long time to gain the skills and knowledge to be able to start helping people and businesses around the world from scratch. As the business has grown, we’ve been able to work on great partnerships and research. I’m also very excited about DARE’s podcast, Daring to, where I’ve been able to talk to leaders from around the world about what they’ve learnt from their careers.
I recently co-authored and published my third book with Ben Laker and David Cobb, Too Proud to Lead, and have been delighted with the reception, too.
I think in the beginning, the most important thing is to learn and take up any experience you are offered. For the same reason, it is maybe best not to plan your career out in too much detail. Between my early experiences, I was fortunate to work with a lot of different people and companies, learning things about working with people (and myself) that I couldn’t have expected.
Remaining resilient and adapting to change is something I try to impart to everybody I work with. Everybody has something to teach and everybody has something to learn. That’s the best lesson I think I can hope to leave people with.
For a long time, the 70:20:10 model has put emphasis on learning through practical experience; the expectation is that employees learn 70% of their skills on the job, 20% from colleagues and 10% from professional training. But times are changing. The role of peer mentorship is essential for adapting to the challenges of the post-pandemic world of work. For one, junior staff recognised through the lockdowns the importance of direct communication with more experienced colleagues, and arranged mentorship is key to passing down skills and building those relationships. Going the other way, the sudden adoption of technology during the move online now requires more input from younger ‘digital nomads’, ‘reverse mentoring’ older staff.
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to learn hard and soft skills from people of all levels. I try to share those lessons through my work as a consultant today – but there is always more to learn.
There is not one reason why women are, on average, paid less for the same work or why paid paternity leave is still widely restricted for men. To make progress, leaders need to understand the different experiences and intersections of identity that obscure equality. Not all women have the same class backgrounds, privileges or educational advantages coming to work – and any meaningful solution has to start from that premise.
Employers would hugely benefit from setting aside time to get to know their staff, learning the challenges in their lives both inside and outside of work, and coming up with bespoke solutions to help them. The goal is equity: different people need different things to have the same experience of work, but leaders won’t know what until they have that conversation.
The lessons worth knowing are learnt through experience. The only way to grow and refine yourself is to keep doing things. Often this means putting your pride or your shame aside and accepting that you’re going to get things wrong – and that’s okay. Changing jobs, managing larger teams, publishing books and public speaking – all these things make you vulnerable to criticism, and mostly you are your own worst critic. But the earlier you start, the more room you give yourself to blossom into a better, wiser leader.
I am working with Monica Motivates to help them launch in London and bring supplier diversity to the UK. Monica and I have a long-standing relationship, helping global businesses unleash capacity and create more inclusive workforces.
Off the back of a successful project with YouGov in the US, I am now working on launching my Inclusivity Index in the UK, surveying businesses to understand changing business cultures and offer solutions to employers struggling to meet the needs of their staff. The Inclusivity Index diagnostic tool, released late last year, is helping measure the state of leadership, culture and purpose across global institutions with the aim of providing insight and best practice into restoring trust between employees and their employers.