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If not now, when?

This is a question we have been reflecting on recently, sparked predominantly by the movement in the USA of #BlackLivesMatter., This movement has highlighted the stark inequalities faced by the Black community across the globe and has become a a driving force for business leaders to hold a mirror up to their organisation as a catalyst to action change.

In response to this, we created an open letter, which was printed in The Sunday Times on 21 June 2020 to ask UK business to back up their words of solidarity for #BlackLivesMatter with action for change. The letter was signed by 28 leaders in UK business and 42 more have signed since.

As our Founder and CEO, Suki Sandhu OBE pointed out, “the reason we wanted to do this letter was to ensure that CEOs are held accountable and continue to take action as the protests start to subside.”

This was at the forefront of our CEO panel discussion, Actions Not Words; How has business responded to BlackLivesMatter? We spoke to three of the founding signatories, Kanya King CBE, Founder and CEO, MOBO Organisation; Carolyn McCall, CEO, ITV and Penny James, CEO, Direct Line Group. We looked at how businesses have responded to the movement, how to make race a comfortable conversation and championing networks to drive change.

Whilst the panel spoke of wishing that their home office was as sunny as the Caribbean, there is certainly plenty of heat around race and ethnicity in business as discussions continue to strengthen.


On the initial response…

In the current socio-political climate, where there is a moral imperative for change, your initial reactions speak volumes for your intentions moving forward. For business leaders in particular, there is a spotlight on commitment to actioning change. Black Lives Matter is a movement not just a moment and this sentiment was echoed by our panellists,

“In that moment, something extraordinary happened. It was certainly a real wake up call for us, and for the rest of society.”

  • Penny James, CEO, Direct Line Group“In our organisation there was horror, shock, anger, but also a feeling of hope. A feeling that there was perhaps positive change in the air.”
  • Kanya King CBE, Founder and CEO MOBO Organisation“It was a moment in time which possibly was exacerbated by being in lockdown. Everyone was horrified by what they saw, and everyone saw it.”
  • Carolyn McCall, CEO, ITVInterestingly, a business is seen to falter if they are doing nothing at all to action change. Silence is almost worse than trying and getting it wrong. Suki offered reasoning for this, “many businesses didn’t know how to respond and there was a fear of getting it wrong. They needed to hold a mirror up to their organisation as they didn’t recognise that those problems were there before.”Penny also offered a view on those initial steps, noting that trust and transparency are needed in order to make progress, “businesses need to face this honestly, and deal with the difficult listening process – then you can take action. Without taking that first step, you have nothing to build on.” This sentiment was echoed by Kanya, “it was an awakening in terms of other organisations talking about it too, and now wanting to understand more about discrimination. As a result, they were open to educating themselves and listening, too.” In parallel with this, the pace of change needs to be accelerated.


    On getting comfortable talking about race…


    We know that an organisation needs an environment in which each professional has an equal and fair opportunity at success, and this journey begins by being able to talk openly and confidently about race at work. The reason that many employers and business leaders fail to talk about race and ethnicity is because they’re worried they’ll fail and it makes many people feel uncomfortable. Our panel emphasised the importance of ensuring discussions around race were spoken about with as much confidence and interest as the broader spectrum of diversity and inclusion.

    “We need to not just talk about diversity and inclusion because it is more palatable but continue to talk about racism and walk the walk.”

  • Kanya King CBE, Founder and CEO MOBO Organisation“The most relevant thing in organisations today is people’s uncertainty as to how to deal with talking about race. It’s important for our colleagues to be heard, and to be able to share their lived experiences in an open and honest way.”
  • Penny James, CEO, Direct Line GroupHowever, it was interesting to hear about Kanya’s experience from founding the MOBO organisation almost three decades ago. She believes that it is easier to talk about race and racism now than when she started; “Thirty years ago, we were ostracised and marginalised for talking about the inequalities that existed. But I think it has become easier for companies to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in the wake of the BLM movement. Leaders have educated themselves on the racial inequality that exists.”Organisations have to take that initial first leap into the unknown. It is only in taking action that employees across the entire business can become included and conversations around race made more comfortable.

    On bringing words to life and that BLM Diversity dance…

    It is the role of a leader to demonstrate the value of diverse teams to a business and ensure that there is representation across the company. Diverse representation influences the culture of our organisations and helps determine their paths. It is not enough to simply talk about this; action must be taken.

    Carolyn McCall gave a fantastic example of this, responding to the negativity received after Diversity performed their Black Lives Matter dance on an episode of the popular television show, Britain’s Got Talent. She explained: “Our Creative Directors came up with the poster that went out in print and online, and it was unbelievably powerful. Those words, which were actually said by Sir Trevor McDonald – ‘We Are Changed by What We See’ – shows the power of inclusivity and the power of ITV.”

    “We got tremendous number of complaints about it, but it was in every way the right thing to do, backing your talent and making a statement about what ITV’s cause and mission is, which is to reflect, but also to shape society.”

    From training initiatives, collecting data and opening up mentoring schemes to placing ethnic minorities within the business, creating access and opportunities is essential for our Black and ethnic colleagues. Carolyn continues; “Diversity and inclusion is a great acronym, but it doesn’t cover the ground of what we are trying to change.” It’s important to elevate Black voices. Penny emphasised the value of Carolyn’s actions, explaining that; “Every leader is going to have a microcosm of that experience. It’s really important that every leader out there responds in the same way that Carolyn did and doesn’t silence that noise.”


    On measuring representation through setting targets…

    In order to effectively measure representation, leaders need to set targets. Understanding the specific challenges and barriers faced by Black talent in our organisations, tracking ethnicity data and conducting listening sessions to properly appreciate the experiences of our Black and minority colleagues is critical. Our panel raised important points about ensuring this takes place.

    “The fear of messing up should not stop leaders from taking a stab at it. This is better than no conversation at all. Your silence says as much about who you are and your values, as what you say publicly.”

  • Kanya King CBE, Founder and CEO MOBO Organisation“Without the data we can’t measure real progress. Organisations have to work really hard to get people to understand the value of the data.”
  • Carolyn McCall, CEO, ITV“Measuring and reporting builds social pressure for change. Whilst it shouldn’t be necessary, we know (from conversations around gender) that it makes a difference to have those pressure points.”
  • Penny James, CEO, Direct Line GroupWe know that what gets measured matters and setting targets is so important for this very reason. Hand in hand with this is maintaining transparency and encouraging organisations to understand the value of reporting to boosting representation of Black and ethnic minority employees. Suki emphasised, “I heard, ‘It’s about progress not perfection’, and think it’s a good place to start.” We need to have more Black individuals on our management boards and our panel recognise this.“We need to understand the data, but we can’t let the lack of data stop us from progressing. Capturing ethnicity data is important for establishing a baseline and measuring progress and is crucial to supporting organisations in recognising differentials in pay”.
  • Kanya King CBE, Founder and CEO MOBO Organisation“We have tried to get our diversity data built up over two to three years and it is not bad, but nowhere near good enough.”
  • Penny James, CEO, Direct Line Group“It’s important that all action on targets is disclosable. ITV will also measure ourselves against our Diversity Acceleration Plan so all of these actions will be outlined, and we will say how we are doing. Even if we are not doing very well, it’s progress.”
  • Carolyn McCall, CEO, ITVIf nothing is done, Black people will continue to be disadvantaged. It is in setting clear and defined targets that we can push for inclusivity across organisations globally. 

    On zero-tolerance to racism and drawing on inclusive networks…

    There is no place for racism in business, or society at all. We know boards, executive teams, partnerships and the whole talent pipeline through to entry level, simply isn’t representative of the diverse society we live in. A challenge here is in tackling systemic racism that is still a constant undercurrent in the business community. Penny makes it clear that there is just one route to take; “You have got to call it out.” This was echoed by all of the panellists.

    “We need to realise the inequity and bring an end to it; that is the meaning of Black Lives Matter. It’s all about focus and where the focus lies and the under-representation out there.”

  • Kanya King CBE, Founder and CEO MOBO Organisation“The delicate balance we face as we try to evolve is dealing with genuine racism, versus dealing with ignorance as we try and educate ourselves and begin a journey for learning. We need to get to a point where people can call things out or hold people to account when things aren’t right.”
  • Penny James, CEO, Direct Line GroupBringing in inclusive networking groups to drive the agenda for change is particularly impactful too. This allows us to celebrate diversity and as Penny suggests; “We should encourage these groups to feedback to corporates for what we should be thinking about or doing differently. Now they have a much more influential role in explaining what’s going on and what the overriding sentiment is.” Importantly, these groups need to be heard and not ruled by the corporates above them.This is a major opportunity for change for Black inclusion in business. Kanya’s personal experience in the industry highlights this further, explaining, “I am starting to see almost ‘mini boards’ that are shadowing the main boards and they are making such a massive difference. Each board member has their own background and their own lived experiences, creating a powerful force which leads to actions coming from them and across the organisations.”


    On keeping the momentum going…

    We asked our three panellists to share how we can use the momentum already generated to keep us moving forwards.

    “We have our own action plan for change now and are getting more prescriptive around our hiring processes and re-structures. Our leaders are all going through specific trainings to enhance the education they have. We continue to actively celebrate all diversity.”

  • Penny James, CEO, Direct Line Group“We are really thinking about why candidates drop out of the recruitment process at a particular stage, so we are taking steps to look at that. The momentum needs to continue so we can go back to our colleagues, be open and say this is what we have done, and this is what we are going to do next.”
  • Carolyn McCall, CEO, ITV“Leaders need to speak up and keep this issue visible for all colleagues and customers”.
  • Kanya King CBE, Founder and CEO MOBO Organisation

This is about actions, as well as words. It’s time to celebrate and bring to the fore, our fantastic range of talented Black and ethnic professionals.