“Delroy, you’re one of the good guys,” said a senior leader after a Board meeting a few years ago. He then added, “You’re not one of those blacks with a chip on their shoulder.”
In the moment, I responded calmly. Afterwards, I reported the incident to the Chair and the CEO. The individual was soon relieved of their duties. I did wonder, how others might have dealt with that situation, or as ever, quietly smiled it away!
The best way to silence our most fierce critics – or indeed, bigots - is to keep delivering outstanding performance and great results. It pains them more than a sharp response to a throwaway remark ever could. Just keep on delivering, and excelling - even when, or perhaps even especially when, you’re faced with challenges – racial and discriminatory.
Society may wrongly assume that because I’m a senior leader, I don’t face discrimination. It’s not the case – so I’ve made it my purpose to support others and in doing so, make it easier for the next generation of BAME people to rise and thrive.
Gatekeepers need to lead on racial diversity at work
Recruitment teams, headhunters and Boards are key gatekeepers within organisations; it is they who determine the people that they consider fit to join their organisations. The way to get more Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff into senior positions is to increase the number of BAME gatekeepers, including actively being involved in senior recruitment panels – something that I have continually strived to do. My advice is often sought on how to attract BAME leaders, and I always advise against shortlisting candidates who are all male, all female, or from a single ethnic group. How else do we move the dial!
Currently, I am supporting organisations that are looking at long-term succession planning of senior team members. When the applications come through, I aim to be there shortlisting alongside the executives. Discarding a potentially good candidate who appears to be from a BAME background, creates discussions as to why, and through diplomacy encourage them to look at the decision from a completely different perspective. Ultimately, it’s about making sure you’re around the table with the decision makers and gatekeepers, because they’re the ones who determine who gets through.
Lessons in leadership from the NHS
Since joining the NHS in April, at the height of COVID-19 pandemic, as MD of York NHS Facilities Management Partnership, I’ve been struck by the constant, collective desire to always do the right thing for the patient – even when colleagues are themselves in fear of facing something like COVID-19, as a group, there was an ethos of getting the job done, and a determination to work really hard to cover each other’s backs. It was, and continues to be as the pandemic continues, an outstanding demonstration of what we can be when we come together as one, when we’re undivided and focused on the same common purpose. York Teaching Hospital Foundation Trust have successfully achieved so much during a pandemic – so what can we learn from the York NHS approach? What if we all make it okay to talk about race, and our feelings about difference? Maybe, we can move the dial further.
Let’s be honest about prejudice
We need to create communities inside and outside the workplace where it’s okay to speak honestly and openly about how you feel. It needs to be okay to say, “When I see a black person walking towards me, I cross the road because I’m afraid.”
We can create a million psychological safe spaces for people of colour, but the real challenge is to create a safe place for these important conversations. Somewhere where people can share their childhood or adult experiences, whether it was being tackled on a rugby field, or feeling that the black guys were always better at 100 metres, and not feeling comfortable about it.
You don't just wake up one day and say, “Hey, I'm going to have a go at the black guy today” – there’s usually some insecurity that triggers that inner feeling. Once we address that together, we can start to fix the root of the problem.
Racism does not start and finish in the workplace. It begins outside and percolates inwards. If you live and work in an area where you don’t see many people of colour, then it may seem unusual and odd when someone like me turns up. It’s not what you expect, and it’s not what you’re used to. It’s only when we all acknowledge this that we’re really going to move the dial.
Extend the career ladder - don’t pull it up
I’m fortunate and, to a degree, blessed. I’m inspired by all those who have come and gone before me. Their sacrifices have been far greater than mine.
But for me, putting my own neck on the line and recognising my generational responsibilities to make it easier for the next person to breakthrough through has become my life’s purpose. And it’s a purpose that is far more important than my position.
You can watch Delroy live in conversation with our CEO, Ann Francke OBE and John Board Dean of Henley Business School this Friday.
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