Ollie Thorn, Senior Manager, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Client Solutions, Michael Page
Posted: 11 July 2022
Ollie Thorn, Box Hill Alumni 2007, creates environments where diverse voices are encouraged, embraced, and valued. Through his personal experience of disability and in-depth knowledge of laws and regulations, Ollie works hard to reach out to individuals who have been historically excluded from the workplace. He is challenging traditional recruitment paradigms and using his position in a large influential recruitment company to bring about change in the way individuals are viewed in business. Ollie believes that although it is difficult to embrace difference – “it is easy when everyone in the room has the same idea” – alternate viewpoints bring richness, depth, and authenticity to conversations.
“When everyone in the room has the same ideas, it reinforces how great they are. To be challenged is difficult. It is difficult to manage as a boss, and it is difficult being in a room being challenged. But you are going to get the best ideas, you are going to get the best results.”
For Ollie, embracing challenge is second nature. He believes it is a mindset that was encouraged during his time at school and has continued throughout his life. Box Hill provided a framework that encouraged him to seek success in a variety of ways. Because of his dyslexia, he was challenged by the academics, especially exams. However, at Box Hill, the overwhelming message he received was that success was more than just a grade. Other people he has met over the years have not been as fortunate in the messages they have received, and Ollie sees this in his work. “In society, people are all taught to fit into this model of hitting grades, which puts the fire out in people who can’t get the grade.”
Box Hill is a school that creates opportunities for character development. These challenging experiences extend beyond the classroom and provide abundant chances for achievement. Ollie believes that growth of resilience and grit through challenge is vital for success in life and he reflects on how he developed these attributes through the Spirit of Adventure at school.
“I always go back to adventure because it is important to me. That resilience and grit that comes from it are the two most important traits of people who are successful in life. You need to have resilience and grit to be successful in life. Whether it is in your family life, or as a captain of industry. You need resilience and grit and that comes from challenge.”
After university, Ollie joined the military. A choice that he believes he made due to his love of adventure. He once again found himself in an environment that pushed him to discover more. However, not long into his training, he was involved in a life-changing motorbike accident that was to test his resilience and grit in ways he had never imagined. It would also challenge his preconceptions and transform his opinions on disability. The accident damaged Ollie’s spinal cord. He was paralysed from the chest down.
“You never know what is going to happen to you. The only thing you can control in life is how you are going to respond. That’s the only thing you have in your toolbox.”
It was as he was lying in his hospital bed that Ollie reflected on his preconceptions about disability and the life people with disabilities lead. Experiencing disability and yet not seeing many individuals with disabilities integrated into everyday life felt as though he was in “quite an isolating space”. It was as if all his role models had been removed in one instant.
“I think that it is a preconception that is reinforced by media and what you see every day. 10 years ago, you either became a Paralympian or you were an extra on a TV show. You didn’t see anyone just living their normal life. Going to work or having a family. There were no real role models to give you an idea of who to be next or who to aspire to be.”
Ollie is thankful that he was in the military when he had his accident. The army continued to offer challenges and he felt “incredibly supported” and “lucky” to be in a community that encouraged him to push his limits and create a new life as a professional athlete. Ollie competed as a downhill skier for the Army and for Great Britain; and today he continues to be involved in sporting challenges to fundraise for charities.
In school and in the military, he had been immersed in environments that valued diversity and alternate paths to success. But confronted by such a transformative physical change, he realised how embedded his own preconceptions had been about physical difference. Faced with his new reality, he could see how disempowering peoples’ attitudes and approaches were towards disabilities and difference. He could see how systemic structures and false perceptions damage diversity and exclude individuals.
“We have this “normal” mould, and we think that everyone should fit into this “normal” mould. But it’s probably only right for 10% of people.”
Ollie wants to change the narrative. “We can make really small changes. Small changes, necessary for some, beneficial for all.” He wants to encourage change, not only in the schools where grades are often the only success indicators, but also in the workplace. Ollie believes that diversity in the workplace should mirror diversity in society, and with that diversity comes success.
Ollie thinks that when we create inclusive workspaces where difference is “normal”, we ensure a sustainable platform for diverse role models. And with diverse role models, we encourage more individuals with challenges to come into the room and enrich the conversation.
For Ollie, his opinions on diversity, equity and inclusion connect to the Spirit of Democracy. It is how diversity is encouraged, how individuals come together to better everyone’s experience. Through his work in recruitment, Ollie actively promotes this concept.
“We open up conversations and say, “you know you have always asked for people from this one university, or people that look the same, but let’s look at differences. Let’s look at it differently.” We can open the eyes of business and show them the real value that comes from diversity of thought.”
When asked what message he would share with teenagers today based on the knowledge and experiences he has acquired over the past few years, Ollie was quick to respond.
“Say yes to everything. Say yes to the trips and the opportunities. Take every opportunity, even if you are not too sure if you are going to like it. Remember, you are making a decision based on a preconception, not an experience. If you fill your life with experiences, then you will be more able to make accurate decisions in the future and you are probably going to have a lot of fun on the way!”
The adventure trips that Ollie said “yes” to at Box Hill gave him the opportunity to develop his character. They also gave him experiences that he was able to carry forward to help others. After his injury, he ran international projects for the Red Cross where he created opportunities for others to push their limits.
“It was very much getting out there and enjoying the service element. Those memories at school, and the amazing trips to South Africa, stayed with me. The positive memories I had from those trips pushed me a little bit to have the right conversations with the right people and run a couple of trips to India to support other people.”
And for a final message from Ollie to students who are at school, “Get out there, have fun, and enjoy yourselves. Life is for living.”