Championing change: Black business leaders on improving diversity

Greater Black representation in leadership roles makes good business sense but needs the personal commitment of the CEO

In 2021, 16% of FTSE 100 directors were from minority ethnic groups, according to a recent report by EY. While this figure is moving in the right direction – up from 12% the year before – there is a long way to go. 

We canvassed a panel of experts, as part of Black History Month, on what they think would increase the pace of change and their advice for future Black leaders and entrepreneurs.

Who is responsible for creating a more inclusive workplace? 

Every person in an organisation needs to help to create a culture of diversity and inclusion. But ultimately, just one person in a company is accountable for its progress. 

“The CEO must take personal responsibility,” says Dino Myers-Lamptey, founder of creative company The Barber Shop and co-chair of the Alliance of Independent Agencies. “Leaders steer an organisation’s culture. They need to point out bad culture or bias and be accountable for recruitment.” 

He thinks that diversity initiatives can falter if the CEO’s role is limited to making pledges and setting targets and don’t get involved. Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell, CEO of the 10,000 Black Interns Foundation, agrees, saying it is the person at the top of the company who sets the limits of successful D&I initiatives. 

“It’s definitely the CEO’s job. The first question should be, ‘What does diversity mean here?’ Because an organisation in central London may have different levels of access to Black talent and different approaches to inclusion and culture than companies in rural areas.”

Most important of all, perhaps, is to avoid the trap of hiring only Black leaders into senior diversity and inclusion roles, or of leaving it to those teams to bring about positive change.

“I see this responsibility delegated quite often,” confirms Jennifer Thomas, head of communications, data and analytics at the London Stock Exchange Group. “There’s a tendency to just pass it over to the D&I team.” 

How do we improve leadership diversity?

“No one wants to own the hiring process – and that makes it feel complicated,” says Ajulu-Bushell. Blind hiring, she suggests, can be seen as a ’get out of jail free’ card, since hirers are unable to include candidates from specifically under-represented backgrounds. 

“If you’re looking for a Black woman and are hiring for a senior role, then say that. Be the person who hires a Black woman into the senior leadership or on to the board.” This doesn’t exclude other valid candidates, she says, but it does clarify who you are looking for. “You can be as specific as ‘somebody returning from maternity leave’. Own it,” she advises.

Looking within your organisation might reveal potential to improve diversity at the highest levels, suggests Adaora Oramah, founder and CEO of digital mediatech platform Amaka Studio. “I think about how to empower existing members of staff to take on particular leadership roles,” she says.

”A lot of the time people who work hard and have the right metrics are overlooked as possible leaders,” observes Oramah. A clear step on the road to increased diversity in the leadership team, she believes, is to challenge the perception that business leaders must look or think in a certain way. 

“Setting up my own business has allowed me to provide a more inclusive representation of what leadership looks like,” she says. “And as a founder, I’ve learnt to understand and define my leadership style.”

Why true change must start from within

For those leaders who have accepted the responsibility of increasing the diversity of their senior teams, some soul-searching is needed. “Have your ‘look in the mirror’ moment,” suggests Thomas. “Find a safe place, shut the door and take a good look at your organisation and at yourself.” Ask yourself, she says, whether you’re doing enough to promote diversity and if you need to overhaul your hiring practices, so that you can surround yourself with the best talent from different backgrounds. 

“It’s great to have targets, great to have a plan – then test it. Do that self-interrogation within your safe walls. Until you do that, targets and plans are just a list of things.” 

And the push for greater leadership diversity calls for more than looking inward. It requires those in positions of power to also look around them. “Look at your circles,” says Thomas. “If your circle looks the same, then whatever lens you want to look through will only ever hire in the likeness of yourself and what you know and who you feel comfortable with. Broadening your circles helps you to feel comfortable with people who are different from you – and to learn from them.” 

Myers-Lamptey agrees and issues a challenge to leaders who are genuinely committed to promoting diversity and inclusion. He suggests taking the interview question of ‘who would you include as references on your CV?’ and flipping it: “Which Black people would say you have been key to their career progression? Who would put you down as someone who gave them opportunities, championed them?” If you can’t think of anyone, he says, that suggests that there is much, much more to be done. 

Advice from Black founders for Black founders

Research by the British Business Bank in 2020 highlights how much more also still needs to be done to encourage and support Black business owners. Black founders reported a median turnover of £25,000, compared with £35,000 for white business owners and £40,000 for Asian and other ethnic minority owners. Similarly, 39% of Black founders cited “difficulty getting finance” as a reason they stopped working on their business idea, compared with 25% of white British founders. But there are lessons to be learnt from current successful Black founders. 

Myers-Lamptey’s advice for the next generation of Black entrepreneurs is to choose their area of business carefully. For the greatest chance of success, founders should consider not just passion projects but pursuing businesses in sectors where they already have experience and an existing network of contacts, he says.

“There are hard and easy ways to have a successful business,” he continues. “My network and access to people who are willing to open doors and make connections has been incredibly valuable to me.”

Oramah agrees. “The best advice I have for founders is to leverage your network,” she says. “And learn how to ask for help.” 

Diversifying leadership makes better business sense

At this stage, the stick is more effective than the carrot to get the desired result, according to Myers-Lamptey. “Many venture capitalists and big funds look at ESG statistics and how well diversity targets are being hit when making investment decisions,” he says. Consumers, too, he warns, increasingly focus on a company’s reputation and simply take their business elsewhere if they don’t approve of what they see. “Business needs to pay attention to the changing consumer and financial investment worlds,” he says.

Thomas agrees that this may well move the dial. “It’s about people no longer assuming that someone else is dealing with this, so they don’t need to do anything. Lean in and get involved, whoever you are. If we all have that mentality, I am hopeful that our collective power will drive the change.”

The leaders who are willing to identify their blind spots, set themselves targets, take responsibility and lend vital support to the next generation of Black leaders will help to usher it in. 

Those who don’t, though, may find they miss out on a better, more dynamic and more innovative world of business.