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Is Black Representation in Leadership Really Achievable?

Updated: May 16, 2023

a young black man wearing glasses and a dark jacket with his hands clasped
Will We Achieve Black Representation?

There continues to be an obvious reticence within the leadership of the UK's top organisations to develop inclusion at board level.

FTSE 100 firms continue to lack representation of Black employees across leadership. This lack of diversity has led to accusations that they are dragging their feet, when it comes to opening up to inclusion.

The call from the Parker Review for businesses to turn their attentions to improving diversity at the Executive Committee and Senior Management level is a welcome development. Targets launched for December 2027, state that:

"Each FTSE 350 company will be asked to set a percentage target for senior management positions that will be occupied by ethnic minority executives in December 2027"

"50 of the UK’s largest private companies have been set the target of having at least one ethnic minority director on the main board by December 2027. Each company will also be asked to set a target for the percentage of ethnic minority executives within its senior management team"

Whilst this is a welcome review and targets will certainly play their part to increase momentum across a frustrating lack of diversity at the top, here we ask the question ' Is Black leadership really achievable?'

Slow Progress at Removing Barriers

Slow progress on diversifying leadership has led to calls from a wide section of society, including regulators, government ministers and lobby groups, to address the situation as a matter of urgency.

yet the lack of Black representation still remains a keen topical debate.

Diversity and inclusion forms part of reporting to the accounting regulatory body The Financial Reporting Council (FRC)

The FRC’s chief executive, Sir Jon Thompson, said:

“It is unacceptable that talented people are being excluded from succession and leadership simply because companies are failing to put in place appropriate policies on boardroom ethnicity, are not setting targets, or are not monitoring their progress against policies.”

a chess board game
What are the challenges to achieving Black representation?

For years, legislation, governments and social advocates have called for higher levels of diversity and inclusion within the leadership of companies, yet, as the reports tell us. not enough has been done to develop equity.

The failure of these companies to implement the necessary strategies to increase Black and Minority representation, leads many to cast doubt on whether it is an achievable goal.

Realistically it is possible.

Later, we will analyse some of the reasons why it has failed to succeed thus far.

Why is Achieving Black Representation so slow in Leadership Level?

There are multiple reasons why leadership has not yet fully embraced diversity and inclusion as a key people and business development tool.

The pace of change, or lack thereof, is defined by leadership ability, accountability and, above all, willingness to take the agenda forward.

There are external pressures to change the make-up of leadership, which co-exist alongside internal calls to embed diversity and inclusion.

Added to this, and perhaps more importantly, for the purposes of this post, is the fact that the fear of becoming inclusive, impacts the confidence of leadership, to make it happen.

six yellow post it notes on a grey wall
The Pace of Change to develop Black Representation has been slow

For years legislation, governments and social advocates have called for higher levels of diversity and inclusion within the leadership of companies. Yet, as the reports tell us. not enough has been done to develop equity.

I’d hazard a guess that most leaders have a basic understanding of the importance of inclusion. Many are aware of business cases and cognizant of the ways in which inclusion adds value to both people and business outcomes.

So why do they find it so hard to achieve?

What challenges does Black representation present for leaders, and how can they overcome them?

Below a list of some of the common problems that leadership find difficult to negotiate:

1 Lack of Knowledge

We don't know what we don't know. This is a fact.

Yet, rather than see diversity and inclusion as a business priority, many organisations still seek to measure progress in terms of the numbers of Black, and other employees, from protected characteristics.

a smiling and seated black man in a blue jumper speaking with two white  colleagues
Developing Knowledge around Black issues

Representation matters, and whilst some may revel in counting the number increases within the workforce, it does little to add value to representation.

The numbers reveal that in the grand scheme of things, the roles that Black employees undertake, are most often not those in which key decisions are made.

2 Bias

Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, is one of the biggest reasons for the inability to become inclusive.

It exists as one of the main reasons that leadership remains intent on maintaining the status quo. Boardrooms are seemingly unable to attract and retain a diverse range of people within the C-Suite level of business structure.

It remains one of the biggest obstacles, to adding value through diversity and inclusion and securing the business benefits of planning for an inclusive organisation.

a red stamp saying the word bias
Bias is a Primary Concern when it Come To Representation

Whilst leadership may face legitimate fears of failing in the diversity and inclusion agenda, this does not negate its' responsibility for making it happen.

3 Resistance to Change

If it ain't broke... why fix it?

Let's face it, if you are from a group that benefits from its dominance at leadership level, it may be a little perplexing that people are calling for change!

Wider representation, develops broader range of viewpoints and opinions that will impact decision making.

five wooden dice spelling out the word change
Many in Leadership positions are Resistant to Change

There is an obvious resistance to change at leadership level, within many organisations.

Whilst Black employees and stakeholders embrace idea of change and an increase in Black representation, often leadership does not.

Joquain Phoenix recently captured this reality in his acceptance speech for a BAFTA award:

"I think that we send a very clear message to people of colour that you're not welcome here. I think that's the message that we're sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from.
"I don't think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment - although that's what we give ourselves every year. People just want to be acknowledged, appreciated and respected for their work.
"This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I'm ashamed to say that I'm part of the problem. I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I was on are inclusive.
"But I think it's more than just having sets that are multi-cultural. We have to do really the hard work to truly understand systemic racism.
"I think it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that's on us."

Joquain, through his acceptance speech, made pertinent points around the unwillingness of leadership to make the necessary changes.

It is imperative that leadership understands that the best way to bring about a diverse and equitable organisation, is to start making changes at the top. Excuses that the right level of talent cannot be found are unfounded.

BAME talent exists in most industries and can be sought at all levels, if that is what the organisation wants. Where it is found to be lacking, it is the responsibility of leadership to put interventions in place to level the playing field, through inclusion.

Aligning Business Priorities with Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion is a legitimate and focused business activity. Its prioritisation, will develop an alignment around business and people effectiveness and effective branding.

Inclusive leadership is a ‘business critical’ activity and failure to understand and employ it as such, means missing out on opportunities for inclusion.

Missed opportunities lead to missed investments, which in turn, lead to increased risk within competitive markets.

Developing Leadership Traits that Promote Inclusion

Inclusive leaders embody traits that encourage employees who are currently overlooked. They also add valuable input within recruitment, promotion and increasing access to learning and development.

Leaders who harness traits that support inclusive behaviours, are quick to recognise those who have been traditionally excluded. They are able to analyse the limitations within organisational culture and biased, leadership decisions.

The most inclusive leaders, support inclusion across projects and are quick to align D&I across and within projects of work, and other business objectives.

They clearly recognises the need for D&I and encourage all team members to have a voice and contribute to decision making processes.

Key Skills of an Inclusive Leader

Key skills that Inclusive leadership is important for developing the inclusion agenda. It is also paramount to developing an overall diversity and inclusion strategy. 

It helps to improve results, through creativity and a wider scope of engagement with Black and minority ethnic needs and concerns.

a black professional female with short greying hair shaking hands with a younger colleague
Developing Key Sills for Inclusive Leadership is Important

Building diversity and an inclusive leadership, is also crucial for growing your business. It supports people development, increased engagement with stakeholders and promotes a proactive workplace environment.

Diversity and Inclusion should not be a leadership fad.  It is a comprehensive leadership and business development tool.

A list of some of the key characteristics of inclusive leaders are detailed below:

1 Humility

Humility, is a useful quality which skilled leaders employ to take a modest view of their own self importance.

Humility is required to enable others to have a greater voice, in the area of diversity and inclusion. A leader who places humility, at the heart of his/her leadership style, will be better placed to avoid bias in decisions and take on board the experience and knowledge of others to shape and inform the agenda.

Humble leaders recognise that the more they know, the more they have to learn. They challenge their own assumptions about what will work, and engage others in the decision making process.

This develops good practice, that will attract, retain and support Black candidates into leadership positions and develop fresh ideas, moving away from a group think mentality.

2 Emotional Intelligence

Leaders who possess the ability to understand, use and manage their own emotions are more likely to embed diversity and inclusion, and make unbiased decisions.

They have an increased ability to gain new insights, whilst communicating effectively, overcoming challenges and conflicts.

Effective leaders are self aware. They are able to understand how their behaviour impacts those around them. The best leaders, are aware of the vulnerabilities of those whose input has traditionally been excluded from the decision making process.

An emotionally intelligent leader will be attuned to areas of potential bias, that can allow discriminatory practice.

3 Curiosity

Leaders who manage people and processes, must have a natural curiosity. Curiosity is an innate leadership skill, which helps to lead others more effectively, increase engagement and develop collaboration between groups.

Curiosity enables an individual to intentionally learn, understand and communicate, in order to influence others, and increase performance around diversity and inclusion.

The leadership skills above, enable inclusion and helps to foster a collaborative relationship that promotes Black representation as an essential component of organisational growth and business development.

Where There is a Will There is a Way

Black representation across leadership IS achievable, but it starts within leadership itself. Where leadership has the will, they will find the way.

By developing a comprehensive strategy to develop inclusive leadership, organisations can harness the benefits of inclusion.

A gold fountain pen on a notepad with the word notes written on a page with a pair of black glasses in the background
Making the way for Black Representation

Equitable workplaces, are born of equitable leadership. It is incumbent on all leaders to harness the benefits of inclusion within its realms. Black representation is imperative within business boardrooms.

It adds currency to the decision making process, detail to the development of products and services and supports a well-developed organisation mindset.

With courage and tenacity, Black representation can increase..... but it requires the buy-in and accountability from those who hold power in boardrooms.

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