Interview: how British Water is working for a more diverse and inclusive future 

Lila Thompson has over 20 years’ experience driving business growth, policy development and stakeholder engagement across a variety of sectors. Today, Lila is Chief Executive of British Water, responsible for its strategic direction, raising the profile of the supply chain – together with the wider stakeholders for the UK’s water and wastewater sector – and helping address the sector’s challenges for the benefit of customers and the environment.

Here, Lila shares her insights and experiences in relation to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I).

Lila Thompson, CEO, British Water

Lila Thompson  Chief Executive of British Water

You have had a long career with British Water. What attracted you to the industry and what has kept you there?

Before British Water, I worked for the Assocation of British HealthTech Industries – ABHI – where I helped companies find business partners in overseas markets, particularly the Middle East.  

The opportunity to work for British Water as an international director then emerged, giving me the chance to use my international business skills – facilitating introductions and enhancing stakeholder engagement. 

At the time, I was unaware of how diverse, technical, and fascinating the water sector is, but this is certainly why I have stayed with British Water for almost 20 years – because you never get to the end of your learning. When you think you have grasped one topic, there is always something new to learn because it is such a varied industry.  

What makes you excited to start work each day? 

Having the privilege of being the CEO of a fantastic organisation, and getting to work with a great team and great members. We have a great bunch of companies and stakeholders. 

I also enjoy being given the opportunity to bring about transformation and change, and I am always encouraged when companies make a contact that helps build their business all because of one of our events. 

That is what gets me up in the morning – the ability to make a positive impact. 

How have you experienced inclusivity in the workplace? 

When I worked in the medical device industry, it was very male dominated, and having been posted at the British High Commission in Pakistan when working for the Department for Trade and Business, I became accustomed to working in male-dominated spaces. 

By the time I entered the water industry, I was used to this. I did not see many female role models, but when we did find each other, we would encourage and support each other. 

Today, of course, many CEOs of water companies are women. But when you look at the space between management and C-level, there is still a significant gap in terms of the number of women in senior roles, along with people of colour and other underrepresented groups. That is where the main challenge now lies.  

I attend a lot of events and see graduates from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and other underrepresented groups present. But when I go to events at a more senior level, there are still too few.  

This makes me think that there is something preventing people from getting through, or going beyond, managerial level to senior management level. But I am a firm believer in positive action, where well thought-out, well planned and well monitored action enables those from underrepresented groups to break through whatever barriers exist. 

And what challenges have you faced as a female leader, and how have you overcome them? 

I’ve faced many in my career. I think the challenges have come from people who have, for some reason or other, tried to undermine me. I remember working with someone who would always make unpleasant, undermining remarks. Thankfully at the time I had a great boss who informed me that this is what this person is like. “They do it all the time, so ignore them”. 

This is why it is important to have a network of people you can talk to. It helps put things into perspective. When something like that happens, you can internalise it and start believing that you are the problem, and that will hit your confidence in your own ability. 

Other challenges I have experienced have been centered around racism, where I have been treated differently, definitely because of the colour of my skin. I recall a time when I was leading a delegation abroad at an early stage of my career for a different company.

Whilst the other delegates were given accommodation that you would expect for guests, I was given a filthy room in the basement that was clearly not used for guests. I raised the issue with my UK office who then spoke to the hotel management who profusely apologised and showed me a beautiful room in the same area as the other delegates.

What does inclusivity in major programmes look like to you?

I believe it is the willingness to be creative, innovative, open to ideas and diverse in our way of thinking. There needs to be a diverse group of people in the room from underrepresented groups, and they need to have a voice and be able to carry that throughout the programme. If you can ensure that, you can deliver a dynamic programme on time, within cost and in such a way that it delivers what it is meant to.

It is also worth bringing people from outside your sector or department into the mix to feed in their ideas. This helps avoid making mistakes others have made and weaves external learnings into your work. 

How can inclusivity help transform performance in major programmes?

To transform a programme, you have to have a process of assessing and reassessing in place so you can keep checking if the project is on track. If it is not, why not? Where can we seek further advice? Where can we find more insight? 

It is all about creating that space for open dialogue and making decisions that are well thought through. 

What other industries do you think the water industry can learn from?  

I would link this to role models. Looking back at my career, there were not many people that were role models. My advice is to not look for role models, though, because if you look for them, you could be deterred from continuing on your own path if you do not see many. 

I think the water industry actually has an opportunity to be a real game changer, to be the role model and the sector people look to in order to learn best practice from and show examples of inclusivity

For further information contact:

Charlene Singh
Global Business Generation Lead, Infrastructure

t: +44 7939 981267