Black Lives and the Board


6 min read
In Conversation with Sir Ken Olisa, Rob Whiteman, Kura Dione-Warren, and Chinwe Odimba-Chapman

This article was updated on 28 October 2022 by Ruby Tomlinson, to reflect the latest Parker Review findings.

In 2017 the Parker Review set the target for all FTSE 100 companies to have one director from an ethnic minority background by 2021 and for FTSE 250 organisations to do the same by 2024. By December 2021, eighty-nine FTSE 100 companies had ethnic diversity on their boards. By March 2022, another five FTSE 100 companies announced the appointment of a director from an ethnic minority group, with a further three FTSE 100 companies at the advanced stages in the recruitment process.

FTSE 250 companies are also making good progress towards the 2024 deadline to appoint at least one ethnic minority director. However, despite this progress, the overwhelming majority of these board positions are non-executive directors, with only six CEOs across FTSE 100, and sixteen across FTSE 250, coming from an ethnic minority background.

While we need to acknowledge meaningful change takes time, boards cannot ignore their commitment to being more inclusive and representative of the workforces and communities whom they serve. 

“The UK has made wonderful progress and the direction of travel is the right one but the speed is insufficient. The Black Lives Matter movement is asking us to put the pedal to the floor.”

~ Sir Ken Olisa

The role of the board in progressing the issue of racial equality is a crucial one and goes beyond addressing its own ethnic make-up. So, what can boards do to accelerate progress? We invited leaders and champions of equality with a track record of running successful initiatives that have enabled crucial conversations around race, ethnicity, and equal opportunity within their organisations to get their insight. Here are the key takeaways:

About the Speakers

Sir Ken Olisa is the first British-born black director of an FTSE 100 company and Greater London’s first black Lord-Lieutenant. He sits on the committee of the Parker Review which aims to have a non-white director sitting at the board of every FTSE 100 organisation by 2021.

Rob Whiteman is the CEO of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy. He previously held the same position at the UK Border Agency and two London boroughs where he has seen up-close the racial tensions that exist across the UK.

Kura Dione-Warren leads strategic development at Rare, a specialist diversity recruiter which has just launched the Race Fairness Commitment to give everyone an equal chance to succeed. Kura’s also the youngest person to be promoted to Rare’s board of directors at the age of 25.

Chinwe Odimba-Chapman is a partner at the international law firm Clifford Chance where she specialises in employment law. Chinwe is the first black woman to join Clifford Chance’s global partnership of over 600 partners and has helped establish initiatives promoting race equality including Clifford Chance’s REACH network.

Be colour-brave, not colour-blind

In the first part of her career, Chinwe was led by the desire to successfully blend in with the firm’s notably homogeneous workforce. Motherhood was a pivotal moment in her career, when seeing the world through her daughter’s eyes she noticed the negative side of colour blindness and the lack of open and productive discourse around race that often came with it. This was the moment Chinwe realised she needed to change her approach. Both she and her firm needed to be colour-brave, rather than colour-blind. From that moment she committed to promoting and celebrating the diversity of the people who make up the firm.

Organisations can enable those conversations by creating a safe environment in which they can take place, and encourage them by clearly communicating their commitment to resolving the issues. This inspired Chinwe to launch a series of focus groups held by an external HR specialist to give ethnic minorities a forum to share their experiences.

“Talk about race. There’s a real discomfort in talking about race and it’s noted by people from ethnic minorities that there isn’t enough discussion around it.”

~ Kura Dione-Warren

Embrace the power of storytelling

Openly speaking about our personal experiences of race and identity can often be the first step in starting a robust dialogue.

“We needed to give ethnic minorities a forum to tell their stories.”

~ Chinwe Odimba-Chapman

Our speakers all learned the transformative power of storytelling in building an understanding of the different experiences of people from various ethnic backgrounds, and they view their own stories as a powerful tool for promoting this understanding in their communities and organisations.

“The purpose of storytelling is that people don’t get lumped together and individual stories can be heard so that people don’t make generalising assumptions.”

~ Chinwe Odimba-Chapman

Walk in someone else’s shoes

To elevate the understanding of ethnic minorities’ lived experiences to senior leadership, Clifford Chance decided to flip the mentoring relationship on its head with their reverse mentoring scheme. The scheme assigns every senior individual, who is not from an ethnic minority, a more junior mentor from an ethnic minority background.

This unique dynamic means ethnic minority individuals are educating senior leadership about their experiences and this single initiative has improved the fluency and sensitivity around issues that people weren’t comfortable to talk about before.

The close relationship with a mentor allows asking questions that cannot be asked elsewhere, which is a powerful opportunity to build understanding. It also helps build bridges of understanding between those that may feel they have little in common.

“It’s human nature to build relationships on commonalities and if you’re nervous that those commonalities don’t exist, then relationships aren’t built.”

~ Kura Dione-Warren

Social justice is only part of the story

A key starting point in addressing the issue of race and equality in the boardroom is framing the conversation in the right way. The board needs to understand and measure the positive impact diversity and equal opportunity have on an organisation both socially and economically.

“Addressing the issue of diversity and equality within an organisation isn’t a matter of social justice, important as it is, it’s a matter of competitive advantage.”

~ Sir Ken Olisa

Once organisations break away from being driven solely by social justice, which can get lost on a busy board agenda, especially in a crisis, and start to view the issue of racial diversity as a way to drive competitive advantage the conversation becomes a lot more straightforward and the sense of urgency far greater.

“What an organisation needs is the talent that will help it get a competitive edge.”

~ Sir Ken Olisa

Balance the odds

“People in position of privilege in our society are lucky enough to have the roles of sponsor and mentor conflated in a person close to them. If you come down the social hierarchy, we don’t have that in our parents and siblings, which is why we need to recreate those relationships in our organisations.”

~ Sir Ken Olisa

It’s still largely true that many of those in a position of privilege have come from a background where they’ve benefited from unconscious mentoring — perhaps from family and friends. Many of those from a minority background have not had this benefit — and the odds need to be adjusted to account for that.

Those odds should be adjusted in both sponsorship and mentoring terms. There is an important distinction between a mentor who provides guidance and a sponsor who actively identifies opportunities for progression. Organisations need to foster both of those relationships.

“Having a mentor was pivotal for my development as an employee, a manager, and as a leader.”

~ Kura Dione-Warren

Build a legacy

Boards can often be focused on immediate actions, especially as they scramble for a response to transformative social movements like Black Lives Matter, but it’s critical not to lose sight of the long-term — where the board can have more impact.

As Rob pointed out, boards should recognise that positive change takes time to take hold. Changing the composition of the workforce is an opportunity to leave a meaningful legacy and thinking about what can be done today to plant the seeds for long-term progress is an important shift in mindset.

The payback of investing in an inclusive workforce may not materialise for 10 years as talent rises through the ranks but building this legacy also requires sustained focus across the period it takes to build this legacy — 5–10 years at least.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

~ Chinese proverb

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