Why social mobility should be a board-level priority

When organisations embrace socially mobile talent, they frequently find that these individuals outperform their more affluent peers, says Joe Seddon of Zero Gravity

In the corridors of power within many a boardroom, discussions traditionally orbit around growth, culture, and risk management. Yet, strikingly absent from these conversations is the topic of social mobility — a glaring oversight, given its profound potential to revolutionise these very pillars of business performance.

Currently, a mere 5 per cent of organisations proactively seek out early-years talent from low-opportunity areas, relegating social mobility to little more than a tick-box exercise under corporate social responsibility (CSR). This narrow view fails to not only recognise social mobility as a critical driver of talent acquisition – unearthing the hidden gems that other organisations miss – but also an essential part of any business’ strategy for fostering innovation and growth.

Unlocking high performance with social mobility

When organisations embrace socially mobile talent, they frequently find that these individuals outperform their more affluent peers. This is because they bring unique perspectives and resilience developed through overcoming barriers.

In making a conscious decision to hire and support socially mobile talent, businesses are likely to find hidden gems in the workforce. That’s because talent is spread evenly, but opportunity is not. Studies clearly show that contextualised performance at school is a much better indicator of long term success than grades alone. For example, a student achieving a set of Bs at an underperforming state school, while not having time for homework or knowing if dinner will be on the table, is likely to have more raw talent than a straight A student who is middle of the class in an elite public school and has had access to private tutors at every turn.

Social mobility journeys are also de facto training courses for resilience in the workplace. That’s because those from socially mobile backgrounds have built up huge amounts of experience overcoming adversity by navigating life’s numerous challenges. Whilst growing up on free school meals, living in tough areas, and attending underperforming state schools can limit opportunity, it can create near limitless resilience in students who defy the odds.

Individuals who excel in resilience have a more positive attitude towards their work and a better ability to handle the inevitable stress which comes with having a high-performance job. But while 97 per cent of business executives believe resilience is important, only 47 per cent believe their organisation is resilient. This is the negative side effect of over-hiring talent from backgrounds where adversity is a rarity rather than part of the day-to-day.

Social mobility drives innovation and risk management

Hiring socially mobile talent is a prerequisite for building a culture of innovation. Different backgrounds contribute varied solutions, sparking creativity and leading to breakthroughs that homogenous groups might miss. That’s because social mobility is multidimensional, encompassing second generation immigrants raised in inner city tower blocks, alongside those whose families have lived for generations in rural isolation. This rich array of perspectives encourages businesses to embrace the diverse thinking that fundamentally underpins any innovation strategy.

Having a range of life experiences and viewpoints on tap also helps eradicate blind spots when it comes to risk management. Homogeneity within teams often leads to echo chambers. By contrast, having a socially mobile workforce breaks down these silos as individuals apply their varying and unique experiences to effectively identify and manage risk. This creates an in-built risk control measure at the activity level across the entire organisation. For example, knowing how a creative campaign would go down in a certain community, or how suppliers communicate in a particular region, makes it possible to identify problems before they occur and manage risks effectively.

Mission-driven value enhancement

If driving growth and managing risks wasn’t enough, hiring socially mobile also proves to shareholders and consumers/clients that your business is a value-add for society. Modern consumers and investors are increasingly drawn to companies that not only focus on financials but also make a positive impact on the world. Businesses that actively promote social mobility can tap into this premium. At Zero Gravity, we connect over 20,000 students from low-opportunity backgrounds with mentors and employers to help supercharge their journeys into university and careers, and allow them to thrive. The value of this mission is recognised by our investors and employer partners. 

Emphasising social mobility also helps companies meet environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria, which are critical to contemporary business strategies. Beyond checking the ‘social’ box, it also strengthens governance by fostering a more inclusive culture. When socially mobile employees are supported, they can perform at their best and, in turn, become advocates and mentors for others in similar situations. This creates a positive feedback loop within an organisation that helps to alleviate feelings of imposter syndrome among employees. This phenomenon can be seen in the success of employee resource groups in boosting retention, with ERGs contributing up to a 14 per cent increase in employee retention rates.

Make sure social mobility is on the agenda for your next board meeting

It’s about time businesses viewed social mobility as an integral part of their talent strategies, not just an optional HR add-on. Socially mobile workforces drive business growth, innovation and demonstrate a clear commitment to social good. Those companies who embrace social mobility will create a competitive advantage that serves their organisation for years to come. So it’s time to ensure social mobility is a key agenda item at your next board meeting to unlock these transformative advantages.

Joe Seddon is the founder and CEO of Zero Gravity, a start-up that powers talented students from low-opportunity backgrounds into top universities and careers.

More on social mobility

Social mobility could unlock £39bn for GDP despite public pessimismBoosting social mobility to Western European average could raise GDP by £39 billion, or £590 per person. Yet new research reveals growing public pessimism on social mobility

Joe Seddon

Joe Seddon

Joe Seddon is the founder and CEO of Zero Gravity.

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