Inclusion on the board agenda

It is no longer hot-off-the-press news that the Football Association (FA) Chairman Greg Clarke stepped down from his role after using the term “coloured” to describe BAME footballers in his appearance at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

My first reaction to the news was as a somewhat younger human being, and it was one of kindness and despair for the many especially older persons, who struggle to cope with the changes in language over time and for whom this is a disaster waiting to happen.

My second reaction was as a board director myself and that was somewhat less kind.

It was on 27 October, less than 2 weeks before this incident, that the FA launched a leadership diversity code, which has been developed alongside Kick It Out and purports to ensure that the support structures off the football pitch reflect the diversity on the pitch. A quick glance at the Premier League teams shows us how empty the whole game would be but for the BAME players in it – shining both on and off the field (Marcus Rashford, we are looking at you!). Almost forty clubs have reportedly signed up.

So how does the Chairman of the FA get it so wrong?

The answer is painfully simple: true inclusion is really not on the board’s agenda in a meaningful way.

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What would true inclusion really look like?

It would be vocal. This does not mean that the board spends random cash on PR preening in the press column inches to look like a benevolent force for minorities.

This does mean that in their capacity as board directors, they ask senior leadership teams tough questions on issues as wide ranging as the makeup of the executive teams and the ranks below them, talent pipelines, gender and ethnicity pay gaps, whistleblowing incidents and such issues.

It would invest in training its board and its senior leadership team. At London Met University, where I serve as a governor, our mission is to enhance access to higher education. Those who know the sector even a bit know that this is not a simple mission. Everything is in the mix — from how ambitions are quashed in schools, how minority applications are scrutinised more, how lack of support can lead to higher minority drop-outs, all the way to “attainment gap“. We use the term “degree awarding gap” to reframe the issue from an institutional lens.

We cannot do a good job of overseeing and questioning all of this if we as board directors do not understand the issues at hand. Many of us are minorities but even we have our own brand of privilege (speaking for myself here of course!). Our institutional commitment means we have on our senior leadership team a Pro Vice Chancellor who leads on equity and inclusion, and we as the board are investing in our own education on the issues.

A forward-thinking board would bring metacognition to its own gaps in awareness and invest in its own development on issues they do not fully understand. There is no shame in it.

It would commit to driving and then drive cultural change. In conversations with friends who serve on other boards, it is fascinating for me to note the tone in which they speak about their chairs and board colleagues. A culture of reverence and deference is not really conducive to driving change. It cements the status quo instead.

One of the challenges of driving such cultural change is to get over the discomfort of crucial and challenging conversations about race in the organisation.

First and foremost that needs trust. To make a related smaller example — a tradesperson, whom I have often engaged to do work over the last decade and half, and who is around 55 years old, talks to me freely about the challenges he faces in keeping up. He works with very wealthy clients as well as regular folk like me, public sector clients as well as businesses. He said to me recently that while he has learnt the use of the word “coloured” is not kosher any more, he struggles with understanding why BAME is in use, because as far as he can see, I, as a person of Indian origin, have little in common with some of his Black clients. It is a fair question. So we had a chat about it. He feels safe bringing it up with me because we know where we stand with each other.

As a business leader though, this is a challenge too. How do you create a culture of safety where people can ask these questions? How do you have the talk? That needs some practical skill and commitment from the leadership. If you are struggling here are some great tips to drive that conversation.

Roadblocks that can stifle our ability to talk about our differences include fear, resistance, emotional fatigue, lack of knowledge, or a perceived inability to make a difference. We found three major barriers to these conversations:
“There isn’t a problem” (the myth of meritocracy)
“There’s no benefit to talking”
“There will be negative consequences to my actions”

A model that can help organisations have an impact and create a more inclusive environment is:
Talk to me
Trust me
Stand by me
Equip me ..

It would show up in actions aka “revealed preference”. In my view it is a real pity that in 2020, we still need a campaign from CBI to Change The Race Ratio. The top 100 or even 350 UK firms have scant representation of ethnic minorities on their boards.

That, in case boards and their chairs miss the message, is the “revealed preference” never mind the verbal or PR messaging around inclusion put out by the very same firms.

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The Greg Clarke incident however shows how it is also an opportunity for boards to realise a few things.

First that language has power. Speaking for me I object as much to the casual use of the N-word by people trying to “get down” with their Black friends (yeah, no, don’t do it!) as I do to the term “chav” which is a class pejorative reserved for white people. We cannot selectively outrage over words that cement denigration. Language has power. (See also the use of the term “degree awarding gap” above.)

Second that boards have a chance to reflect just how close they themselves are to having such a disaster. “There but for the grace of God” is not a good plan. Especially in the age of always-on social media where it takes seconds for an incident to get known widely, for outrage sometimes justifiable to set in, and for well-preserved careers to come undone.

That fear should not be the driver, I hasten to add.

But if you are giving lip service to inclusion, it is wiser to stop and translate some of it into meaningful action. PDQ I would say.

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University, where I serve as a non-exec director.)