Portrait of Daniele Fandaca on a purple duotone with the logo Project Inclusion

disrupt, inspire & rewire | interview with Daniele Fiandaca

co-founder & change-maker, Utopia

Key Takeaways

  • The change-makers are those that go out of their way to help others; they have to be truly resilient, very task and action-orientated, and extremely kind – they are also a small part of the population. They go out of their way to help others.
  • The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but it will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.
  • The Utopia methodology has three stages: disrupt, inspire, and rewire.
  • The best way to create change is to inspire everyone in the organization to become change-makers, hackers, and to make a lot of small changes in their behaviors and their teams.
  • Kindness leads to empathy, and a must to have proper conversations/ Change-makers have to be truly resilient, very task-orientated and action-orientated, and extremely kind.

You started way back at PWC, and then you were in the digital ad world. What brought you to the subject of culture change, and everything else you’re doing right now?

Firstly, we ran a Culture for Change business. It’s probably worth saying that in life, things happen to you that are fortuitous, lucky. After I left my agency Profero, I took four months off to do something that was interesting, and it happened that the volcano in Iceland exploded. I got stuck in the US, and because I had been speaking with Hyper Island about supporting one of their programs, they ended up asking me if I could run a workshop in San Francisco, where I was stuck at the moment. They also asked me to do a workshop in Los Angeles.

That’s how my life started changing, I started working with Hyper Island about the methodologies we used. In that particular time, we were looking at the change the digital world was making on businesses. For me, it was extremely fascinating, and I was very passionate about. But I carried on with my career.

The second change happened when I was in Creative Social. As you know, we were quite white-male dominated. We had the diversity issue, and in that, we were representative of the industry. If anything, we were ahead of the industry – 25% of our members, who were all creative directors, were women. That’s way ahead of the industry itself, which is at 13%. But I knew we could do more, so I organized a dinner with Laura Jordan Baumbach, one of our Socials, and co-founder. We organize a dinner to try and recruit more women, and it wasn’t a surprise that I was the only man –I knew I was, I organized it, but I didn’t really think about it. At the time I was Head of Innovation at an agency called Cheill. Creative Social was my passion project, and Cheill was my work by day.

The minute I walked into this dinner, something happened to me that had never happened in my career before – I lost my confidence. That was simply because, for the first time in my career, I found myself in the outgroup. So, some of the things I’d heard from women about how the experience sitting in management teams – being spoken over, lack of confidence — happened to me, and it horrified me. I started to think about how my own behaviors may have been contributing to that, unknowingly.

A very good example is that I was part of a senior leadership team that happened to have 10 men and two women on it, and those two women weren’t interested in football. On Tuesday morning, every time there was a management meeting, I would see Pete and we would go straight to talk football. So, without realizing it, every time I walked into that room, I was pushing that outgroup even further out. It horrified me because I suddenly saw the kind of contribution I was making. What that did was getting me to think about gender equality and my own education.

Soon after, related to Hyper Island, at the end of this intimate breakfast I hosted in Sweden, someone asked me “What are you doing about your gender diversity issue?” and I fended it off. I’m sure it wasn’t an attack, but I felt it that way, and when that happens you get defensive. You defend your picture, and you don’t talk about all the positives. We started giving arguments on why we were in the place we were at. That made me realize it was very hard for men at that time, seven years ago, to get inside a gender equality discussion.

Coming back to the dinner — what I experienced there was that the minute gender equality came up, I said one thing, and then I realized I needed to stop talking. Because I was going to say something wrong, and because I would be judged more harshly for being in the outgroup. This made me start to think if there could be another way of doing this. No minority in history has ever affected change without the support of the majority and everything I was seeing happening wasn’t engaging men. I had this chat with a brilliant lady called Emma Perkins – Creative Director at Cheil during the time I was there — and we decided to do something about it. So, along with Penny and Georgia who we brought in to help, we launched Token Man.

Token Man was focused around engaging men, getting them into the conversation and giving them space to talk about how they were feeling, so they could learn… I covered the best piece of advice in a book that we did eight years ago. I think is so important if you think about learning moments – I’ve learned more from saying the wrong thing than I ever have from saying something that was right.   If you create an environment where no one can say anything wrong, you’re never going to learn. That led to Token Man, and Token Man then led to The Great British Diversity Experiment – simply because Nadya Powell was doing some stuff in that space. Obviously, I want to mention Laura, Jonathan who was the head of the Ideas Foundation, and Alex who was at Liberty doing a lot of work for young people. Then Nadya proposed we did something together to create change.

From my experience on Token Man, I was very frustrated with the number of people who could have accelerated what we were trying to do, but were more interested in working in “their own thing”. It was more important to them that their own project created change than the change itself. So we created a little group – all these things start really small, initially, the idea of the group was just to try and get us in SXSW. We wanted to do a panel at South by Southwest, and this seemed like a really interesting topic. But when we started to discuss it, we didn’t want to simply do a panel – we wanted to do something meaningful. Next thing we know, partly because of the tenacity of Nadya, we had delivered one of the most comprehensive experiments around why diversity works.

We had 180 different people being part of this experiment, it was a live brief on Tesco Supermarkets. The experiment was very well done, we had people monitoring it, looking at it, and it showed some of the very key reasons why diversity leads to better ideas, along with offering some tips on how people can make sure diversity works. It was called The Great British Diversity Experiment. The report is available for download, and everything in it is still valuable today. That was the second time I worked with Nadya – we had co-founded Innovation Social, which came after Creative Social. It si happened that Tina, my wife, started to call Nadya my work wife because of the amount of work we did together, and the kind of relationship we had.

What happened with Token Man was that it killed my business. I left Cheill, I was doing my own consultancy within the advertising space, and Token Man was taking so much of my time I got to a point where I realized I wasn’t going to receive any income the next month. I had to make a choice: it was either closing Token Man or changing my career so that Token Man could become much more relevant.

It just so happened that Nadya had left her agency, so I said: “let’s make it official, let’s work together”. We sat down, and actually the driver was more, funnily enough, the first driver I think in life, having people that you can really trust and work with. And the fact that we worked so well together, for me was a starting point. We then sat down and asked ourselves “What can we do?” Change was at the heart of what we wanted to do, and inclusion and diversity were also subjects we had a heritage in, were passionate about. That’s how we created Utopia.

Utopia covers inclusion, diversity; creating more entrepreneurial workplaces and creating more purposeful workplaces.


How do you define inclusion and diversity?

We hardly ever talk about gender now, to be honest. That´s actually part of the problem. The narrative of Token Man, five or six years ago, was to engage men and helping them become allies, but we realized that structure didn’t work anymore. Asking people to come in and take time to help others, unfortunately, doesn’t work very well – the human race just isn’t built like that. The change-makers, the people that go out of their way just to help others, are a small proportion of the population. We realized we had to engage men by getting them to understand how masculinity was hurting them; how, by being more vulnerable and empathetic, they can become better inclusive leaders, not to mention it would improve their mental health and would allow them to spend more time with their kids – 81% of fathers want to spend more time with their children.

If we can get all those things done that would help everyone in the workplace. Ultimately, we are looking to help everyone. When you work in corporate we are talking about men that look like me, predominantly, that have the same background as me, and, let’s be clear, are what appears when you search in Google the word “privileged”. I understand my privilege, I’m understanding it more every day, and I know I have to use that privilege to help others. An important part of helping others is helping myself by understanding how I need to change, to be better within that framework.

So, gender will come up in terms of who we are, but the more and more you talk about diversity… we will never talk about diversity and inclusion the way we used to talk about diversity and inclusion. It seems really trite, but that small change has had a very big impact on our times.

Research shows that if you say two words, people will always remember the first and not the second one – so if I say “diversity and inclusion”, all they hear is “diversity”. And if it’s someone who looks like me, they immediately switch off, because they think “diversity isn’t for me, I don’t have those diverse characteristics for now”. However, as we get older things change.

If we start with inclusion, we keep that group’s attention because they recognize it’s also for them. As a a results of that, we can educate, but also about where we will spend our time. Especially in big workforces, maybe factory environments we talk about, we introduce some of the diversity characteristics, we talk about mental health. Because if we look in the workplace, a lot of those people will have experienced mental health issues. We all have mental health, so when we put this issue on the table, on this framework, they see clearly why this is relevant to them.


I’m interested in the concept of changing cultures because that’s not an easy task. Have you identified what makes an individual a change-maker, what qualities does a change-maker have? And how do you go about such a big task like changing a culture?

To be honest, the structure doesn’t work to make everyone a change-maker. Actually, it is to make everyone hackers, so I slightly contradict myself. When you call someone a change-maker if feels very big, it feels like a big commitment. The change-makers I know – who start initiatives, who put in a lot of their time, resources and focus, are usually people that — something has usually happened in their lives that has had an impact on them. It’s something they really need to change, because otherwise, it will have a negative impact on their mental health, for example.

They’re people that have had a major incident, for example when I look back at the Token Man Dinner, the change happened in me when my brother died, eight years ago, it had a much more significant impact on me than I ever thought it would have. Then my wife wrote me something before we got married, two and a half years ago, that caused me to re-focus what we were doing with Token Man: she said that when my brother passed away it was the first time she’d ever seen me being vulnerable, having been together for ten years. That shocked me — and it made me start to think about how masculinity can affect us.

Change-makers have to be truly resilient, very task-orientated and action-orientated, and extremely kind. There’s a number of things that constitute change-makers. We would like to make everyone change-makers in their organizations, but instead of making big changes, it’s actually about making lots of small ones. Really, it’s about hacking the mentality.

There are a few things we do to help really accelerate change.

The first one is: if we look at the world we live in and it isn’t fully inclusive – for example, as we’ve seen it in the Oscars, in the movies, etc., there is systemic racism in our system. The more we understand that, the more we can create changes as a result. The world isn’t fit for purpose for what we need now, and the same is true for businesses. Many of the businesses we work with were launched in an era when 90% of the workforce were men, and so they tend to have masculine cultures — which are obviously better for people who exhibit masculine traits. So, on that basis, firstly, within that world moving so quickly — Alvin Toffler, who we quote a lot in the book, said that “the illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but it will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.

Our methodology, at Utopia, the first thing we do is disrupt. There are three stages in everything we do: disrupt, inspire and rewire. We disrupt people’s thinking by saying “you thought the world looked like this, but it looks very different”; then we inspire by showing what other people have done that’s created change and the positive impact that’s had, and tools they can then use themselves. One of those tools is “hacking”, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

The third step is to rewire: given that world, and those tools, what do you need to do? What is the strategy to make this business far more entrepreneurial, inclusive or diverse, for example? When we disrupt and inspire we are trying to create a mindset shift. If we specifically look at inclusion and diversity, the logic is there. The McKinsey studies attest clearly that if you are the leader in a non-diverse team, you’re just not doing a great job. Because you’re missing out on the fact that diversity would lead to better business results. The logic is there, is very clear in the McKinsey report. You have to be able to connect to people’s hearts. I work with Tolu Farinto who was part of our team but also my mentor, and he would regularly tell me stories of the things that he experiences on a daily basis, and it’s horrifying, the resilience of people of color.

There’s a brilliant video that Starbucks did, where we see a woman of color talking about everything she experienced before she left the front door — the anxiety she felt about what could happen to her, even on her way to work. Then it cuts to someone who looks like me saying “I just walk out the door, and that’s it”. Understanding those differences, are fundamental and when you get it right, you start to connect with people’s hearts. Get them to really feel it. Start feeling what other people might be experiencing, start feeling how their behavior might be impacting that.

Once we do that, we can start introducing the hacking tools. John Wilkshire’s definition of hacking is my favorite, he says that “a hacker is someone that always assumes that one part is broken”. By assuming one part is broken, you’re going to find out what it is. Once you find it, you can fix it, and that becomes a continuous loop. In Japanese culture, there’s the word “Kaizen” which means “simple and continuous improvement”. Hacking can be something like that.

I was running in a workshop in India talking about hacking, and every single person was looking at me blankly like they didn’t understand. It was really weird. I asked what was going on, and they said “you are talking about Jugal, which is at the heart of Indian culture, it’s how we run our economy” and which is really finding the problems, recognizing we live in complex networks, and there are a lot of barriers to creating inclusive and diverse workplaces. The best way to create change is to inspire everyone in the organization to become change-makers, hackers, and to make a lot of small changes in their own behaviors and their own teams. That’s the way to create an organization that is more inclusive and diverse.

The best way to create change is to inspire everyone in the organization to become change-makers, hackers, and to make a lot of small changes in their own behaviors and their own teams.

If everyone in an organization did that, it would generate an enormous culture change. Partly, creating that ownership across the whole business and in every single human being, understanding what they need to do to create change. That’s married with a really strong strategy. Probably our most famous, our most utilized product, the one clients love the most, is our 24 Accelerate Program we take the senior leadership team through those three stages – disrupt, inspire and rewire — and we take them from being quite ignorant about the challenges their organization faces, all the way to actually writing a strategy for that business.

Creating that strategy results in a senior board that really understands it, understands why it exists; a senior board that is behind it, that recognizes the changes they need to make, alongside  having that ability to inspire everyone, to start taking responsibility for their own historical exclusive behavior, which leads to a lot of changes. Those two things together really accelerate change.


You start with the leadership team, so they can become agents of change, and then you reinforce that by involving different levels of the organization.

A good example of that would be Coca Cola European Partners – we started with their UK leadership team, we built a strategy but alongside they had four pillars, we helped support the fourth pillar. We got them to disband their women’s group, and they turned it into an inclusion network. So we have now around 120 ambassadors across Coca Cola European Partners, just 4,000 people, but they are inclusion change-makers, fundamentally — their job is to understand, to drive change, educate. We give them tools to provide their own training locally; they also do activations, events around pride, around different things. They activate diversity and bring it to life.


How do you help them incorporate those things in their workday, so it’s not just related to certain events or workshops, but they can use them to change the way they do things?

Funnily enough, we won Consultancy of the Year at the Inclusive Companies Consulting of the Year in November, and yet we had never delivered unconscious bias training. We have to look at unconscious bias training from the view of the mindset, and understanding how your body feels and it reacts.

There’s a lovely story, again at Coca Cola European Partners – someone arrived at the reception to interview for a merchandising role, and they were in a wheelchair. The person who had to interview him could feel their body reacting because they had never interviewed someone who was in a wheelchair before. Because they were one of our ambassadors – this is the story they tell –, in their head, they asked: “Why can’t he do it?” As they were going along with the interview she ended up being a kind of cheerleader, because she really wanted him to do well. What that enabled her to do was actually combat her unconscious biases, and she really listened to what he had to say.

What he had to say made him stand out among the other candidates. She decided to hire him, but there were also physical barriers that she needed to hack. There was a physical aspect to the job that he was going to find it hard to fulfil. She was going to ask the supermarkets to help him, and of course they all said yes. Six months later, Mo was in a room with me, he had joined the ambassadors’ network, he wanted to be a champion. He’s very proud of the job he’s got. Now he’s happy to be a champion and an ambassador. He knows he can inspire more people like him to join the business.

Six months later I saw him again, and he had just won Merchandise of the Month. This is someone that is really thriving doing a fantastic job, who wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise, if the hadn’t gone in there, and recognized not just their unconscious biases, but also the challenges that Moe has had, unfortunately, most of his life because of his disability.


What is so special about Utopia, that it got you the Inclusive Business Award last fall?

We are still new to the space. We are living in a world where ideas and stories make you stand out from the competition, and we understand that because of our heritage of creativity and storytelling that makes us able to create impact in short periods of time. Also because of our heritage, we’re extremely collaborative – we have seven people in the team, it is a diverse team, but we also recognize that it would be hard for us to cover all the diversities, so quite early on we decided to create a network of “utopians”, so we have about 20 to 30 utopians brought in regularly to work with us. They’re specialists in different areas that go from inclusion-diversity to entrepreneurial or purposeful businesses. Bringing them in, and recognizing that we always need someone that represents and understands that group. I think that having that kind of view is really interesting, and the most successful cases are the ones where one of us understands the topic from a life perspective: the perspective of an ally, or of a person that didn’t understand the issues.

If I meet a senior leader who doesn’t get it — and we meet people like that all the time — I’m never going to judge him because I’ve been that leader. And I understand why that has happened. I’ve spent my whole career being told I’m not empathetic enough, and no one has ever stopped to think about why that happens. I tend to get dismissed immediately – “You men just don’t understand”. Where’s the empathy in that? Why aren’t people trying to help me figure out why I don’t understand, and what are the constructs about masculinity that make that difficult?

A pretty good example is the film with the nail in the head it’s called “It’s not about the nail”. That video tends to be the standard people I get shown to teach me what empathy is. I developed that with the brilliant lady Naomi Jane, who’s extremely empathetic and knows all the theory. We ended up developing it together because I was able to at least have a better insight into why someone like me might not have that empathy. Therefore, to understand what took me on the journey that taught me to provide better support to others.

It’s a combination of creativity, collaboration, strategy. My business partner is fabulous in terms of her brain, and strategic and just putting something that everyone understands. We talk a lot about our communities, and we’re lucky because we have always built networks. And those networks started changing after TGBDE. When we did the first TGBDE, we made a commitment to start having a 50% of women within two years in every single event. Now most of our events have at least 33% people of color.


Are there any trends, anything positive you see out there in terms of people shifting towards a more inclusive, innovative and progressive way of doing things at work?

I got to talk about a guy I met in International Men’s Day. A year before he was a photographer, so he had worked with us on a few projects. So Emma Mainoo, who had just joined us as head of our Mental Health Practice, when I asked for people to speak in international men’s day – specifically men who had been helping other men change and providing a support structure — she suggested Francis Augusto. I know Francis, he’s worked with us, and he created a group called The Mandem, a WhatsApp group of young men who are there to support each other, who are just trying to be better men and live in this world in a way that’s progressive, positive and supportive. It’s a group like I’ve never experienced, and it’s not just the WhatsApp group — Francis hosts film forums every two weeks where they watch movies that tend to have either a story of masculinity or a lead male character from whom something can be learned. Afterwards, they talk about the film, about masculinity, and they ask a very simple question going around the table: “How are you feeling?”

I hosted one of those forums three weeks ago, and it was amazing to experience it and be a part of it. And just to understand this group is  doing this, and Francis is a change-maker, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. They are now doing yoga together, which is something that for many people might not seem masculine. They are suddenly completely switching that, and they get to talk and be in touch with themselves; to have conversations that are meaningful, that make a difference. They recommend each other therapists, for example. I can’t imagine having that kind of conversation with any of my friends at that age, not even now. That’s the really heartwarming side of it.

Coming back to your question about why we were awarded Consultancy of the Year, I think it’s because we truly are making an impact. Human beings are, on the whole very good; and if you can feel that ignorance gap in people’s minds, people really do want to change. On the 17th it will be National Kindness Day, and if you want change, the most powerful thing we can do every day is to be kinder to each other. We do a lot of work with neuro-diversity, and a couple of years ago I had sent a survey to eight people who I knew were neuro-divergent — they all had ADHD or autism — and I asked: “What can someone like me do to help you?” The answer they all gave was “be kind”.

With that kindness, you stop making assumptions. When a person, for example, gets into a train pushing people out of the way, we can ask what is happening there that we may not understand, or that may be different to us. Because ultimately, a neuro-diverse brain operates completely differently, and therefore our behaviors towards what might be influencing us can vary a lot from one person to another. If you can sit and ask “what’s wrong, what’s happening?”, then… That was something I found in the ambassador group just to give you the encouraging side, is that when we got back together six months after the first session, we started naming changes, things that had happened to each person; and one person said “This guy came in, he looked like me, he was really angry, and I wondered what had happened to him, what’s happening in his life. That’s a lovely thing to do, just to ask that, to know what made them be who they are. Let’s give kindness, and then we can actually sit there and have a proper conversation.

about daniele

Daniele is co-founder of Utopia, a culture change business that creates more purposeful, inclusive and entrepreneurial cultures for clients. Utopia’s top-to-bottom, boardroom to factory floor approach has clinched household names including Coca-Cola European Partners, Google, Schneider Electric, Spotify and Universal Music.

He also co-founded The Great British Diversity Experiment in 2015 and Token Man a year prior; the latter is an initiative that gives men a better understanding of gender inequality in the workplace and inspires them to become change-makers. He was named one of Management Today’s Top 30 Male Agents of Change, and in 2019 was on the Advisory Board for Inclusion Matters.  Prior to Utopia, he held positions as head of innovation and managing partner at Cheil Worldwide, and was CEO at Profero, where he helped increase annual revenue from £.0.5m to £16m over the course of a decade.

He continues to nurture a number of communities he co-founded, including Brand Social and Culture Social, which focus on accelerating culture change and creative thinking. He has also co-authored a number of books including Creative Superpowers: Equip Yourself for the Age of Creativity and is a podcast host on Soho Radio..

In his spare time, Daniele loves travelling the world (he’s racing his friend to hit 100 countries visited) and indulging his passion for watching cinema. His favourite film is Cinema Paradiso, in case you were wondering.

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