This leader made a career of being a diversity and inclusion straight-talker

Tuesday 02 February 2021
Zaheer Ahmad MBE, a member of the CMI Race advisory committee, explains how he made real progress on diversity and inclusion by having the courage to speak up and staying true to himself
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Zaheer Ahmad’s parents were extremely community-minded. He grew up watching them go out of their way to help their neighbours and get involved in community initiatives. “That idea of giving back to the community was instilled in me from a young age,” he says.

That desire to help people drew him to the police service. Zaheer was keen to learn and excited to make a difference – but he was conscious that not many of his fellow trainees or trainers at police college looked like him. “This was two decades ago, but at the time, I was only one of a handful of Black, Asian and minority ethnic trainees.”

Once he was posted to a police station upon completion of his initial training, he hoped to find a senior officer from a diverse ethnic group to learn from.  Again though, he found himself in a predominantly White, male environment. He loved his job, and his colleagues were very supportive, but it was, in his words, a stubborn institution.

“Diversity and inclusion was considered a ‘soft’ subject, and managers couldn’t really see the organisational benefits,” he explains. “I had a lot of conversations that ended in respectful disagreement.”

But the outspoken Zaheer wouldn’t let it go; he knew that more engagement with minority groups would result in better outputs for the team and the communities he served. He went into his line manager and asked him to consider trying some kind of diversity and inclusion initiative – just something small – to demonstrate that it had merit. “Let’s just take a few hours or half a day, and have some uncomfortable conversations about these things. His response was: ‘Fine, go ahead. Do what you want to do.’”

Zaheer focused on two areas: race,ethnicity and HIV, AIDS (there were common misconceptions around the illness at the time). He invited some external speakers such as charity representatives and a senior officer for Metropolitan Police, who talked about the benefits that his team experienced due to diversity. “That, I guess, was the start of a career that I’ve never looked back from,” he tells us.

Ahmad’s conversations about diversity progressed up to division level. He was invited to sit on the London division diversity board and from there, several boards at a national level, from the Stop and Search board to the national equality, diversity and human rights board. Zaheer was often the most junior officer in these groups, and was having challenging conversations with very senior leaders. “You've got to find a lot of courage to sit in front of some of the most senior police officers in the country and tell them respectfully that they’ve got it wrong, or there is a better alternative.”

His frank but respectful discussions started paying off and helped to steer the police service in a more inclusive direction. His polite yet persistent arguments persuaded senior officers to revisit established recruitment procedures for task forces, shifting focus onto the actual skills candidates had, rather than titles held, which increased the number of officers from diverse ethnic groups more than four-fold.

Zaheer lays the credit at the feet of his superiors as much as his own, if not more so: “Nothing would have changed if those senior officers hadn’t listened. They heard what I was saying and changed their habits and their usual ways of thinking. It’s a great example of allyship, and why having allies is such a crucial part of making diversity and inclusion work.”

Zaheer continued to rise as a diversity advocate: he became a member of the Home Office’s ministerial progression group in 2009; in 2010, he joined the race advisory board for the Ministry of Justice and the national Prevent board (counter-terrorism). Again, he was the most junior member of a board that included leaders from within MI5 and security services. He started questioning whether he should be there.

“The imposter syndrome definitely kicked in,” he says. “I wondered if they would kick me out every time I spoke. I questioned whether it was career suicide. I had to try to forget the ranks and focus on each member as any other person. By getting to know them as individuals, I was able to get past it.”

Having spent the majority of his career within the public sector, picking up a good few awards and an MBE in the process, Zaheer moved into the private sector, taking on the head of strategic delivery, diversity and inclusion role at EY. There, he pioneered technology-focused initiatives, such as a virtual reality experience that put managers in the shoes of a young Black man who wanted to work at EY.

“Authenticity was the crucial thing with the video,” he explains. “It was scripted by young Black men from the community. The storyboard was developed by a company led by a Black entrepreneur.”

The project kept balance and realism at its heart, featuring a variety of conversations ranging from negative to indifferent to positive. Great pains were taken to ensure that the dialogue was authentic to the culture and experiences of Black people. “We did an initial trial with a number of key stakeholders, and most of them became emotional at the end of it. It opened their eyes to a completely different perspective.”

The plan is to continue that work with other underrepresented groups, such as LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, women and others. Having set the ball rolling at EY (and having won other awards – Inspirational Leader at the Ethnicity Awards), Zaheer has moved onto a new challenge: global head of inclusion and diversity for consumer healthcare at GSK.

“Working at EY taught me a lot about working in the corporate world, and the importance of brand perception, which is different from the public perception that influences change in the police service. The GSK role gives me a chance to make a difference on a global scale, which is something that I’m very excited about.”

In terms of advice for other managers who want to improve diversity and inclusion in their organisations, Zaheer has some straightforward advice: be authentic, be humble, keep learning, and listen to viewpoints that differ from your own. “I’m also a big advocate for an evidence-based approach. Invest in data and data analytics; something that allows you to interact with that data in a people-friendly way; which puts it into context and keeps diversity and inclusion at the forefront of our minds as leaders.”

Zaheer is involved with CMI Race – have you downloaded our Moving the Dial on Race guide?  We also have a virtual CMI Race event, Good Conversations, on 4 February at 1pm. You can sign up to join the live discussion or you can watch it later here.

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