‘If you don’t invite everybody in, you're self-harming’

Steven Bartlett shares with Sophie Neary the leadership lessons he has learnt by embracing active listening

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


“For me being a young black kid, and in business I had complex emotions. I was aware I’m Black, aware I’m poor but unwilling to let that become a barrier,” shares Steven Bartlett, Founder, Investor, Best-Selling Author and Podcast Host of 'The Diary of A CEO. In a society where statistically, the odds were stacked against him, Bartlett is all too aware of the damaging impact that negative stereotypes can have on a person and their performance.

Bartlett spoke candidly with Sophie Neary, Managing Director, Retail and Consumer Goods at Google, about the journey he has been on. Demonstrating honesty and vulnerability are key to inclusive leadership.

Born in Botswana, Bartlett moved to the UK as a young boy to a predominantly white area in Devon. He saw racism and its impact on his mother and has memories of relaxing his hair aged 12, listening to The Arctic Monkeys or The Kooks to try and fit in. He admits that for him, conversations around diversity and inclusion are ‘complex’. This is because while he is no stranger to the barriers young Black men face, his strong business acumen means he is passionate about taking the wheel of his own destiny.

The day you start believing you’re immune from bias you’re doomed.

Steven Bartlett, Founder, Investor and Podcaster at ‘Diary of a CEO’

“The delta between expectation and reality is impact.” Says Bartlett, “If I surprise you, you’re going to want to work with me.” Such has been the case for over 40 companies he has invested in and his countless number of podcast guests on The Diary of A CEO.

Resetting expectations

It’s not unusual for a founder story to begin with the protagonist boldly dropping out of university to enter an abyss where they must fend for themselves to find success. Yet Bartlett tells Neary that for him, the decision to drop out didn’t feel brave. He explained: “The courageous thing is staying in a situation that isn’t serving you.”.

Quipping that he knows not to ‘overstay his welcome’, Bartlett attributes bravery instead to staying in situations where you’re not sure of the outcome. In a world where happiness is the ultimate goal, he stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Where some might thrive in education there are other pathways that can lead to success.

“There’s an unsaid message around grades that if you don’t get grades your life will be that grade, you get an F you will end up an F,” says Bartlett. Broadening the pathways to success and accepting that success means different things to different people will empower individuals to make the choices that serve them rather than societies’ bureaucratic structures.

There’s an unsaid message around grades that if you don’t get grades your life will be that grade, you get an F you will end up an F.

Steven Bartlett, Founder, Investor and Podcaster at ‘Diary of a CEO’

Focusing on the need to search for happiness, Bartlett shares that podcast guest Mo Gawdat, former Chief Business Officer for Google X told him that: “Happiness is when our expectations of how life is supposed to be are met.” Bringing this idea to life by comparing the excitement he felt the first time he stepped on a plane with the way it has become routine now he knows what to expect, Bartlett reminded the audience to recognise the joy that surrounds us. “A lot of you are living a life that was once your dream,” he says.

The power of shared knowledge

Although it is clear that everyone is on their own unique journey, Bartlett shares that after spending time interviewing hundreds of people from all different walks of life for his podcast, ultimately, he finds more similarities than differences.

“It gives you the most empathy” says Bartlett. He explained: “We are all fundamentally the same. Our struggles aren’t evidence of inadequacy but part of being a human being.”

In leadership and in his interview style, Bartlett is passionate about people. He knows the value they add and is always open to learning from others. Yet, to put people at ease to give them the courage to share, being open and vulnerable is crucial. While vulnerability is a trait many fear, mistaken often for weakness, Neary agrees it is invaluable. “People need to feel physiological safety to participate,” she explains.

Pointing to the example of his podcast with Davina McCall on the topic of menopause, Bartlett shares that he must be open about the things he doesn’t know. Being unafraid to ask questions and willing to listen, these kinds of conversations help him create a more inclusive environment for his own team.

Bartlett’s time on Dragons Den brings to life the need for diversity in teams. “Deborah is the only one who understands the environmental impact of products while Sarah is only mother,” says Bartlett. Each Dragon offers invaluable unique insight because of the personal life experience they have, meaning that their contributions allow them all to make better decisions.

“If you don’t invite everybody in you’re self-harming. If you’re trying to capture the world you have to represent the world,” he adds.

Bringing people in

In a world where diversity and inclusion has become a political issue, Bartlett says that the biggest challenge lies in bringing people in. He explains: “This subject is being weaponized, it’s become deeply political. When its’ a political talking point it’s going to turn some people off instantly.”

Bartlett shares that ‘coercion is the least effective way to motivate change’. He believes that finding ways to bring people in with kindness by showcasing the benefits to society and to business is a far more effective method to driving change.

“The day you start believing you’re immune from bias you’re doomed.” says Bartlett. “We spend a lot of time calling men out, we need to start calling them in. There’s a group of young men that also need to be invited in.”

“This is everyone’s problem to solve.” adds Neary, “Equal rights for others doesn’t mean less rights for someone else.” Underlining that the most productive conversations are had when everyone feels represented in the room.

Drawing on conversations and learnings from guests he has had on his podcast, Bartlett brings to life the power of active listening. By not only giving a voice to others but learning from their experiences and letting their knowledge help to guide him, Bartlett shows inclusive leadership in action.