charlesnathanielthompson

blogging on diversity and leadership

Black History Month UK: Past, Present & Future

Black History Month UK

October is Black History Month in the UK. It will be a time when we come together to recognise and celebrate the contribution made by the BAME community to the world today, both in the past and also in the present day. This year I’m particularly looking forward to the celebrations. I say this because I’ve spent a great deal of time working to deliver a number of activities and events, scheduled to take place at different sites within my organisation throughout the month. There will be a business-led panel event, a historical discussion on black servicemen in the First World War and a change to our menus to include African-Caribbean inspired food selections. There will also be educational information published on our internal social networking sites and cascaded to our leadership teams through targeted emails.

Inspiration

I’m also looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm for this time of year with my children, now that they’ve reached a point in their lives where they are mature enough to begin to understand why it’s so important. My expectation however, is that they will struggle to really appreciate why it means so much to me. It’s my belief that most people in the UK today and the young in particular, struggle to find relevance in Black History Month. Perhaps it’s because we’re still in a place where there is not enough of our history taught in schools and homes around the UK. Or perhaps it’s because we still have too few role models in society and the impact of the few is lost amongst the noise of the many. Or could it be that the power of Black History Month is diluted over the course of an entire month when most of us choose to live our lives in the moment. Whatever the case I am still personally convinced there is inspiration to be found in both our past and our present.

The Past

Our past is clearly dominated by the cruelty and injustice brought about as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. However there is inspiration to be found even here in amongst the darkest of our times. It’s worth remembering that the slaves themselves played a significant part in gaining their freedom through active revolt against their owners. Some slave leaders such as Bussa in Barbados and Samuel Sharpe in Jamaica are revered and still spoken of with affection in and around the Caribbean today. In his classic book The Black Jacobians, C.L.R James tells the story of the formidable Haitian slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the only revolt that is ever known to have succeeded. James goes on to make the case that these revolts collectively demonstrated to slave owners in the UK that slavery was no longer economically viable, acting as a catalyst for the eventual abolition of the slave trade through legislation. These slaves then should be our heroes. Their stories resonate with the struggles of the civil rights movement in America and the ongoing struggles we still face today against adversity of any kind.

black-jacobin

Toussaint L’Ouverture

The Present

Our present too certainly has a lot to offer in terms of inspirational role models, many of whom are showcased on the Black History Month website. In our more recent history for example we have the highly revered Nelson Mandela to call upon when looking for someone who epitomises dignity and compassion in a human being. Then of course there are the usual sporting heroes and role models in the world of music and entertainment whose achievements we should certainly celebrate and so often do. We’re fortunate too that October happens to be a significant month in the awards season for emerging BAME talent. The Race for Opportunity Awards 2015 will take place on Tuesday 6th October, with winners announced from among 23 finalists who have excelled in their efforts to promote of race equality and inclusion in the workplace. Two weeks later the Black British Business Awards will honour leaders and rising stars in categories ranging from Financial Services and Consumer and Retail to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. I wish all of the winners the very best of luck for the future.

Awards

The Future

It’s clear then that there will be a lot to discuss with my children throughout October and my hope is that some of it will spark a fire within them that will grow. I do think Black History Month UK has missed a trick though by not coordinating efforts with the US and Canada where the event is celebrated in February each year. I often wonder what a global event would look like, but perhaps that’s something for the next generation to address in the future.

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Four Roles Played By My Ideal Mentor

Earlier this year I was invited to meet with the HSBC BAME Network at their headquarters in Canary Wharf, London to share my perspective on mentoring and how it had shaped my career to date. The presentation I gave was inspired by some good friends of ours who came over to lunch with our family and mentioned during the meal that they’d bought an amazing gadget called a Nutri Bullet

Blending

For those of you who don’t know what a Nutri Bullet is, perhaps you can imagine an ingenious re-working of a food processor, with removable blades sitting on top of the jug instead of fixed to the motor on the base of the unit. The gadget itself is specifically designed to blend fruit and vegetables into a wholesome, nutritious drink and the jug can be used as a cup for drinking the juice immediately after blending. I can tell you that it wasn’t too long after their visit ended that we had purchased our very own device which now takes pride of place in our kitchen at home. However I mention the Nutri Bullet in the context of mentoring because it’s my belief that we each have in mind a wholesome blend of roles we look for in our mentors, ideally available within a single person but most often found individually within one or more mentors. The roles I look for in my mentors are counsellor, coach, advocate and role model.  

  

Mentoring Roles

A mentor who is a skilled counsellor will be good at listening. The counsellors in my life have been particularly good at active listening, reflecting back what they’ve heard using their own words and reinforcing what I’ve said using my own words. Sometimes simply listening to my concerns was all I needed from my mentor to get me through the day.

A mentor who is a skilled coach will be good at motivating to achieve a desired outcome. The most impactful coaching I’ve received has focussed on improving the relationships I’ve held with individuals in the workplace. Mentors who’ve challenged my thinking when I’ve believed a relationship could not be improved and presented alternative ways of making things better, have shown me that it’s possible to make dramatic changes in the way I relate to colleagues if I’m willing to be bold and make the first move.

A mentor who is an advocate will be a vocal source of encouragement and support. The advocates in my life have been good at speaking up for me and focussing on the positives when I can’t see them. They’ve often picked me up after periods of disappointment in my career, when I’ve fallen short of my own expectations at work or when I’ve failed to secure a job I’d really set my heart on. 

A mentor who is a role model will simply offer themselves as an inspiration to others, often without even realising they’re doing it. The role models in my life have inspired me to be a better person through the positions they’ve held in life, the obstacles they’ve overcome to get where they are or the way they’ve managed certain situations on their journey. My first role models were my parents and their example has had a profound impact on my life. In fact the impact was so great that I chose not to seek out a mentor for a significant part of my career, a decision that I would eventually come to regret.

Working Hard

In my view the first half of my career could be characterised by the expression working hard but aimlessly. My parents who were immigrants to the UK from Jamaica arrived in this country with a very strong work ethic, often speaking of the need to do twice as much as their white counterparts in order to succeed. They were my role models and I loved them, so it was no surprise that I took their words to heart and studied hard at school. Then again at university where I achieved a Bachelors with Honours in Mathematics with Physics. Then I went even further to study for a Masters and then a PhD in the mathematical sciences before continuing to work long, hard hours in some of the most demanding front-office trading environments the Banking & Finance sector could throw at me. It was only at this point, fairly late into my career that I paused to reflect on what working hard had achieved for me. 

Working Smart

So began the second half of my career when I was working hard but also working smart. I was employed by a company where I was working a minimum of 12 hours a day during the week whilst also making myself available at home during the weekends. The company was providing me with little reward in recognition of my efforts and yet I was seeing others being promoted and given more responsibility ahead of me. It had become clear that simply demonstrating a strong work ethic in my job wasn’t enough to sustain my career progression over the long term. My parents had given me some valuable advice early on my life which had seen me safely through my childhood and academic life, but now I needed someone, a mentor who could share their experience of life in the modern-day corporate environment to guide me further. 

Find A Mentor Soon

Finding a mentor has certainly proved to be a smart decision in my case. My career and outlook on life are light years away from where they were all those years ago. I’ve encouraged everyone I speak to about mentoring to find one for themselves as early as possible into their careers. They may not find all the qualities they’re looking for in a single person but there are many who are skilled in one or more roles that could play an important part in their lives. 

ETHNICITY THE SUBJECT OF A POSITIVE ELECTION NEWS REPORT

Although the UK election campaign has been described by some as lifeless and lacklustre, I would argue that exactly the opposite is true from a diversity and inclusion perspective. Issues around ethnicity, gender, age, and minorities of one kind or another, have brought this campaign alive for me and spared us from what would otherwise have been a dull and predictable series of debates. These are important issues that deserve to be brought out into the open so that we can be better informed as an electorate. In what follows I would like to focus on one particular news item that caught my attention recently because ethnicity was once more in the spotlight, but this time in a surprisingly positive way.

A few weeks ago the Prime Minister, David Cameron brought his campaign for re-election to a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in the South East of England, during the Indian festival of Vaisakhi. Vaisakhi is one of the most important dates in the Sikh calendar because it’s the annual celebration of the Sikh New Year and also serves as a commemoration of 1699, the year in which Sikhism was born as a collective faith.

Praise For Britain’s Sikhs

The news item worked really well on television, bringing out the vivid contrast between the grey formality of the election campaign and this most colourful and vibrant of celebrations. The Prime Minister and what appeared to be his personal security detail were dressed in their usual sober election suits, but they were also wearing bright orange head coverings, presumably as a mark of respect for the occasion. There appeared to be a lot of noise and chaos all around them as they were swept along by a tide of worshippers, surging towards the temple for prayer. Then the footage cut to a more composed scene of the Prime Minister making a speech in the temple, appealing to the Sikh voting public for support. This was clearly the main purpose of his visit. However he also spoke of his pride in taking part in the celebration and praised the contribution of Britain’s Sikhs to the British way of life.

The Prime Minister, his wife and his security detail circled in red among a crowd of worshippers.

The Prime Minister, his wife and security detail (circled) among worshippers.

A Remarkable Speech

This for me was a remarkable speech in terms of its timing and impact. It was one of only a few occasions in the election campaign that I can remember, when someone of prominence had expressed their firm and open support for a minority presence in the UK. Delivering a campaign speech during Vaisakhi, knowing for sure that it would be broadcast widely in the British media was a positive step too, serving to educate us further about this important cultural festival. This is exactly the kind of speech I would have liked the Prime Minister to make about the contribution of black people to the British way of life. I say this because I’m currently in the middle of planning for Black History Month in my organisation.

Common Themes

Black History Month takes place in October each year in the UK (February each year in the US) and is a month long celebration that recognises the inspirational events and individuals that have shaped our black generations in the past and those that contribute to our society today. There are some common themes here that are shared with Vaisakhi. So it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the Prime Minister has in fact published a consistent message in line with his recent comments expressing his “enormous gratitude to the African-Caribbean community for their immense contribution to Britain”, on the Black History Month 2015 website. There are further common themes that I hope to build on as we plan for this event in my organisation.

Our plan is to bring out the same contrast we’ve seen in Vaisakhi, this time between the formality of corporate life and the colour and vibrancy of black cultural celebration. We will attempt to highlight the contribution of our black employees to the company’s success, whilst also educating our organisation just a little bit more about culture. There are plans for a panel event featuring senior business leaders who will take part in a discussion aimed at raising the profile of our operations in North Africa. There are plans too for a series of interactive events that highlight our culture through food, music, historical talks and short films by black directors.

Another Important Year

There is some concern among my colleagues that Black History Month is no longer relevant, in particular from those who do not describe themselves as simply black. I recognise these concerns, however the way I see it is that Black History Month is a valuable focal point in the calendar year when we strive for the cohesion that is still lacking within our community. This has been another year of important events that continue to shape us in ways we probably don’t yet understand and Black History Month will give us an opportunity to reflect on these and move on with confidence. Encouraged by what I’ve seen of Vaisakhi this year, I for one will make every effort to ensure this year’s Black History Month celebrations are a real success.Those Other Issues

Before closing I’d like to at least acknowledge those other issues around diversity and inclusion that have become an integral part of the UK election campaign, without debating further at this point.

  • Immigration, whether there should be tighter controls on the number of people entering the UK and accessing benefits from our welfare system.
  • Minority agendas, whether MPs from Scotland, Wales and the smaller political parties should have a disproportionate influence on politics affecting the whole of the UK.
  • Gender balance, the continued lack of female MPs (Members of Parliament) in what remains a male dominated political system.
  • Voter apathy, the reluctance of the young and significant sections of the electorate in particular black people, to register, to vote or to engage with the political system at any point in the process.

AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP AND THE PURSUIT OF INCLUSION

A few weeks ago I found myself saying with a very heavy heart that “I have to be a totally different person at work in order to get on”. I was delivering a presentation on Values & Behaviours at the time to a talented group of students from the Greenwich School of Management. Most of them were from a BAME (black and asian minority ethnic) background and studying for a degree in Oil & Gas Management. At that point in the presentation I asked the students to pause for a moment and imagine if they could, what it would be like for them to turn up to work, day after day, feeling this way. The students of course responded with a great deal of empathy towards what I had said.

Featured image

Being Someone Else

However you should know that these were not in fact my own words. These were the words of a colleague speaking in 2006, at a workshop designed to gather data on the experiences and perceptions of ethnic minority employees, working at the time in my company. These words in particular belonged to someone who had experienced a negative reaction from colleagues to their ethnicity; to the way they walked, to the way they talked and even to the way they laughed. This person could see no BAME role models within the company and ultimately decided that if they wanted to reach the top, they would need to be someone else entirely.

Being Yourself

I found this truly saddening at the time and even more so today among all the talk of authentic leadership, what it means and why it’s important. In my view authenticity is all about believing in a consistent set of values that define who you are. It’s about building a framework of behaviours in support of those values and about being true to your self and genuine with others. In her book 7 Traits of Highly Successful Women on Boards, Dr Yvonne Thompson touches on the importance of authenticity in a series of interviews with a number of female executives who sit on corporate boards in the UK. There is a clear and consistent message coming from the most senior of female leaders who say that people need to see you for who you are. One of these leaders was coached by a partner in her firm not to change at all, because she was already exactly what they wanted. Another goes on to say with absolute conviction that if you pretend to be something you’re not, you will fail.

Being Open & Honest

I’ve heard some argue further that authenticity means sharing your whole self with your colleagues, being open and honest about everything and anything. However I don’t buy this, there are some obvious risks in behaving this way especially if you don’t work in a culture where there is complete trust among your colleagues. In fact what I would say is that the working environment needs to be an inclusive one in the first place before someone can fully express their authenticity.

In my company today, the environment for BAME employees has certainly improved since 2006. The evidence is there on our corporate social networking site Yammer (an internal version of Facebook) where the group in support of our ethnic minority community has registered more than 700 members. It seems that we’ve reached a point where ethnic minorities like me can openly celebrate our cultural differences in a more inclusive environment than before. The situation is the same for women, but unfortunately not so for our LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, whose group has fewer than 70 openly supportive members. There are still clearly a significant number of LGBT employees who dare not bring their whole selves to work, in the same way my colleague who was a BAME employee, decided to be someone else entirely in 2006. However I do think there is a subtle difference in approach between the two when it comes to authenticity.

Colored bulbs in a row on a white background, 3D render

Being Creative

Dr Nina Burrowes, author of The Little Book on Authenticity reminds us that the Latin root of the word “authentic” is “author”, which suggests there may be an element of invention and creativity in defining who you are. This is something I’m comfortable with because it doesn’t suggest adopting an entirely separate identity for work, but rather adapting and evolving as you grow with experience. I believe and hope that what we see in my company is that the LGBT community is in a place where they can be truly authentic with those colleagues who work most closely with them, whilst being more cautious with others in the wider working environment as a form of protection.

This would be a step forward but not ideal and as such the pursuit of a fully inclusive working environment is even more urgent than before. Especially if we want to develop the authentic leaders of the future drawing from as wide a pool of talent as possible, that includes our LGBT community alongside women, ethnic minorities and others.

Reflections on the Role of a Champion

Last year it was my absolute honour to be presented with the RfO Champion Award for demonstrating significant leadership within the workplace, in order to progress the diversity and inclusion agenda. So now that the RfO Awards for 2015 are open for nominations, it seems like an appropriate time to pause and reflect on what has happened since.

Reflections


Re-telling My Story

What has been most surprising to me is just how many times I’ve found myself telling my story over and over again through casual conversations, formal meetings and presentations and in articles written for the media. I’ve said yes to almost every request made of me and at the same time I’ve reached out to leadership at senior levels within my company to evangelise about the cause.

I’ve also taken on a more formal, advisory role within the employee-led network that I founded, PEN (the Positively Ethnic Network) and renewed my commitment to seeing lasting cultural change within my company. As an advisor I’ve taken an active role in setting the long-term strategy for the network and helped where I can to see some of the in-year activities through to completion.

It’s no wonder that I’ve felt slightly overwhelmed at times, trying to balance my passion for diversity and inclusion with the continuing demands of work and a busy life at home.

The Work of a Champion

Now that things are beginning to settle down a little I find myself wondering exactly what a champion is supposed to do. In my case I’ve spent so much of my time continuing with what I’ve done before and building on the good work I’ve started, that I question whether this is enough. After all, the network I inspired is already established and the leadership is more than capable of delivering on the strategy. Furthermore the justification for receiving the RfO award is based on the fact that I had a vision and worked diligently over a number of years, breaking through numerous barriers to see it through to a conclusion. At this moment I could justifiably argue that there are fewer barriers to break through and that I’m working well within my comfort zone.

So it seems to me that in order to continue being a champion I would also need to work for change outside of my company. Thankfully some of the work I’ve recently done with PEN creates a welcome bridge between the company and the outside world.

A Bridge to the Outside World

In past few months I’ve been working closely on improving the diversity of graduates coming into the company through an initiative we call the WPP (Work Placement Programme). The WPP is a week-long event which takes place in June and is run entirely by PEN volunteers. It provides 1st and 2nd year students from a disadvantaged background who are studying STEM subjects at university, with exposure to the company internship and graduate recruitment programmes.

garden-bridge-londonIt delivers shadowing experience and workshops on CV-writing and presentation skills as well as site visits and a great overview of the company and its operations. At the end of this year the WPP will have been running for over 5 years and will have provided more than 100 students with the skills to apply for work in any company. This is clearly not just an initiative that looks inward but one that also faces outward and sees significant benefit in providing students with valuable skills they can take elsewhere.

The challenge I see before me now is to continue looking outward as well as inward, seeking new ways to grow as a champion for diversity and inclusion. I recognise there are still barriers to progression within the workplace and I will always look for ways to play a part in breaking them down. However I believe the real prize is to find a way across that bridge and start a new journey into the outside world.

Applications to the WPP

You can apply to the WPP by clicking on this link. Note that the closing date for applications this year is 27th February 2015.

Project management and the importance of diversity and inclusion

LinkedInCNT

Great news! I’ve been shortlisted for an award by Race for Opportunity in their Champions category, for promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

The Positively Ethnic Network (PEN for short), an employee-driven, business resource group I helped to establish within my company, has also been shortlisted for an award in a separate category.

I must confess though when I first heard the news I didn’t immediately see this as a cause for celebration and instead spent much of my time reflecting on the question:

Should a project management professional like me be concerned with diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

For me the short answer to this question is “yes, of course”. However it took me some time to realise that despite making a conscious decision to focus on my career in project management, rather than taking an active involvement with PEN, my commitment to diversity and inclusion has always been there and still remains a part of everything I do today in my professional career.

I would go even further to suggest that diversity and inclusion should be at the core of what we all do in our project management careers and in this article I’d like to explain why that’s the case and how I’ve applied that principle in three specific areas of project management activity.

Let me first share with you the objectives of PEN in order to make my case.

The purpose of PEN is to improve the company’s competitiveness by promoting the representation, advancement and inclusion of its ethnic minority employees. In other words, recruit capable people into the workforce, then support the ongoing development of their skills whilst at the same time tackling those barriers within the company that may otherwise exclude them from meaningful career progression.

PEN achieves these aims by focussing on three core strategic areas which also happen to be central themes related to project management activity:

  1. Recruitment.
  2. Professional Development.
  3. Cultural Awareness.

I would argue that we in the project management profession all need to be conscious of the importance of carrying out these activities with diversity and inclusion at the forefront of our minds.

1. Recruitment

In project management we may find ourselves recruiting for our own project teams or perhaps for others on behalf of the wider organisation. When creating job descriptions, reviewing applications and interviewing candidates, we should be aware of the ways in which we can either include or exclude exceptional talent from the recruitment pipeline. Asking for experienced candidates for example, may be denying your team the benefit of more youthful but equally capable individuals. Making the assumption from a CV that a candidate with a non-English sounding surname does not speak English fluently may prove to be entirely untrue.

In an interview I conducted many years ago within the financial sector, I was presented with a candidate whose devotion to the Islamic faith meant he could not work on trading systems designed to generate profit. However he was by far the most capable candidate I had interviewed and so I hired him and was pleased to find it was more than possible to get the best out of him, whilst meeting both his needs and the needs of the role.

2. Professional Development

Developing the skills of others is a vital part of team leadership in project management. When formulating training plans, we should by all means consider training for technical skills that support project delivery, but we should also be mindful of those skills that promote diversity within the team. Providing for soft skills such as influencing others, behaving assertively or building confidence for example, will foster creativity within your team and may prove to be of great value at times when you need to overcome unforeseen roadblocks.

On one occasion at the end of a meeting, I asked each person within my team to simply listen without speaking as everyone else around the table took turns in saying only positive things that we genuinely appreciated about them. It was a one-off exercise and certainly out of our comfort zone, but the feedback was that it worked. The team left the meeting feeling more confident, full of energy and highly motivated to succeed.

3. Cultural Awareness

Understanding the culture of the team and the wider organisation in which they operate is an important part of project management when deciding how and when to get things done. When for example directing team members to complete a task we have planned for, we will need to understand whether they will be required to work within a culture of lengthy and arcane procedures before deciding if that task can be completed urgently. Retaining the culture of the team and its individuals because of the benefit it brings to the project means that we may need to influence for change outside of the team instead adapting it to the external environment.

On occasions when I’ve worked with offshore vendors from India I’ve ensured others are fully aware of significant cultural and religious periods of the year, such as Diwali, Vaisakhi and Ramadan that may affect their availability. In this way I was able to set reasonable expectations among others at these important times of the year and as a result, create a more welcoming and inclusive working environment for my team.

Comments

I’d be interested in receiving all comments about this article and hearing your own experiences of diversity and inclusion whether they are within the project management profession or elsewhere.

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