Business Disability Forum (BDF) is a world-leading membership body bringing together business and the public sector to build disability-smart organisations.
We caught up with their incoming CEO, Diane Lightfoot, about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the sector, and what she hopes to achieve in her role.
Diane Lightfoot begins her role as BDF's CEO at the end of February 2017
Tell us more about Business Disability Forum and what it does
As a not-for-profit membership organisation, BDF aims to make it easier and more rewarding to do business with, and retain, disabled people. BDF’s members employ almost 20% of the UK workforce and together seek to remove the barriers between public and private organisations and disabled people. It offers support, advice, guidance, training and consultancy, and facilitates networks for peer-to-peer support.
What made you want to join BDF as CEO?
I think one of BDF’s greatest achievements is its contribution to establishing meaningful disability legislation within business and embedding disability-smart approaches. For the last 13 years, I have worked for United Response, a leading charity working with disabled people. My role has focused on policy campaigns and communications, as well as the strategic and operational development of supported employment services. I’ve met many disabled people who have got a job for the first time in their life and it’s transformed them in a positive way. This is a cause I’m highly passionate about, which is why the CEO position at BDF is right up my street.
What are your first impressions of the role and organisation?
I think it’s a very exciting and varied role. I’ll be building on a very strong track record with a massive opportunity to grow the impact of BDF and diversify its offering to different sectors. I will be joining a team where everyone is passionate about what they do and all are committed to the organisation’s vision. The fact that a high proportion of BDF’s employees have a disability is testament to it being an organisation that leads by example. Everyone has been really welcoming and I’m very much looking forward to starting next month.
What does your role involve and what are your top priorities?
The CEO role is a broad one and I will be leading on all of BDF’s work. As a solid team is already in place with two very strong executive directors, my role will primarily be externally-facing and will see me engaging closely with partners, members and policy-makers. I will be seeking to understand what members and partners value from our partnership and ensuring their experiences are fed back to government to shape policy.
Diversification is another key long term priority for me to implement at BDF. It’s not a large organisation but has an enviable membership base amongst the corporate sector and is also starting to work more with the public sector, especially the civil service. I want to expand it further to more public and voluntary organisations, as well as SMEs, who all have a leading role to play in employing disabled people and working with disabled customers.
I will also be involved in helping to shape disability employment policies, such as the government’s Work, health and disability green paper: improving lives - ensuring our members’ wealth of experience feeds into these policies and that links are maintained with the department for work and pensions.
A big part of my role will be to ensure there is a direct link between what disabled people are telling us works well for them and what businesses do. Ultimately I will be ensuring disabled people are at the heart of all our initiatives.
Business Disability Forum works with over 400 organisations to promote accessibility and better outcomes for disabled people.
What kind of people does it take to make an organisation like BDF a success?
As with any successful organisation, you need a range of skills and talent to make it work. Everyone needs to have a common purpose. It is vital that anyone who works for BDF truly believes in what they’re doing and can communicate this passion to others. By believing in the cause, we inspire and encourage others to do our best.
What opportunities for training and development are there?
Employees are BDF’s most important resource, so ongoing training and development is vital in increasing their skills and knowledge. Each team member’s training and development needs are identified both when a new employee joins the organisation and thereafter through BDF’s six-monthly performance and development review process, any training needs analysis and through individual requests. We encourage our staff to take responsibility for their own learning and development, supported by their line manager and the organisation as a whole.
What do you think are the some of the biggest challenges facing third sector careers and recruitment?
Competition for talent is still an issue, especially as voluntary sector organisations are often not able to offer as high salaries as many private sector companies are. That said, many people with transferable skills who have moved over from the private sector have found it rewarding to work as part of a committed team, towards a cause they believe in. They also tend to be attracted towards third sector organisations that are flexible, family friendly and offer good career development opportunities. Sometimes it can be difficult to progress up the career ladder in a small charity but often there will be better opportunities to take more responsibility and build your skills and experience.
What are some of the biggest opportunities that lie ahead for your sector?
It will be interesting to see the effect that Brexit has on our sector. Many roles are reliant on migrant workers so I anticipate that all businesses will have to be more creative with their recruitment and look at the rich talent pool of disabled people a lot more.
The government’s goal to halve the disability employment gap is important but ambitious. I’m glad it’s on their radar but it will only happen if government, employers and organisations like BDF can work together. Something different has to happen in order to make a dent in the numbers and I’m excited to be part of an organisation that is dedicated to helping to achieve that. We have to encourage and nurture these initiatives and shout about our success stories.
I will be directing BDF on how to prioritise the diversification of our membership, how to define it and where to go for shaping the offer. I will be ensuring it’s as compelling and attractive an offer as possible so it leaves people thinking ‘why wouldn’t I join?’
What will drive you to succeed in your role?
Employment can transform people's’ lives in a way that no other service can. But there is a huge disability employment gap and I want to help close that. When we meet someone socially, one of the first questions we get is ‘what do you do?’ Many disabled people don’t get to say ‘I work in…’ I’ve been privileged to witness how disabled people can become more independent and build their self-esteem through getting a job.
I want to encourage everyone involved in business to learn from peers and get insight from best practice in order to create disability-smart organisations. BDF currently offers several networking opportunities to do just that, for example: Managing disability through organisational change on 7 Feb 2017 and Impairment specific recruitment campaigns - do they work? on 17 March 2017.