You know how it is. You go to work and like the other days, you are not expecting anything to dramatic to occur. Well, that was the day I was having in February when an email came through and stopped me in my tracks. It was from Aston University in Birmingham who were working with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) on their upcoming annual MacLaren Memorial lecture. The MacLaren Memorial Lecture is an annual event that has been held since 1953 and has attracted major speakers from business and industry. It commemorates the life of James MacLaren, one of the most eminent industrialists in Birmingham’s history. That is not what stopped me in my tracks. It was the fact that the CMI wanted me to be the keynote speaker! How did that happen?
The challenge is to be honest about our biases and commit to listen, to learn, to engage, to evolve, to change and address inequalities in the workplace.
After the initial shock, the excitement set in and of course I accepted. I have never been one to shirk a challenge, especially one of this magnitude. I gained my degree and PhD in Chemistry from Aston University but I am also a born and bred Brummie. Is this why the CMI wanted me?
After accepting the challenge, I checked out the previous speakers. Oh my word! What had I done? The previous speakers were captains of industry from places like Landrover and Domestic & General. Right then I felt like an imposter and felt the walls closing in. The invitation was a mistake. I am a fraud. I will be found out. Anyway after a few conversations with the organisers to check that they had sent the invitation to the right person, for my lecture I settled on the title of Actions that get results: Championing EDI in the workplace.
Putting together the PowerPoint presentation was not an issue as I had so much material because I decided to speak about my personal journey and the lessons I gleaned. The reflections were quite eye-opening for me as I stumbled on learnings that I had not considered in much detail before. I opened my presentation with two quotes;
The first was from Maya Angelou; “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. This quote resonates so much because of the incidences I have experienced of being underestimated, rejected or maligned because of who I am.
The second quote was by Alvin Toffler who said “The illiterate of the future are not those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. Everybody is a product of their background, their experience and their inherent biases. As a leader I recognise this and I also have experienced it throughout my career from leaders who act on or through their biases resulting in being denied opportunities to progress in ones career, being under-used despite one’s capability or achievements being minimised as you are not seen as credible. The challenge is to be honest about our biases and commit to listen, to learn, to engage, to evolve, to change and address inequalities in the workplace.
So what lessons did I share with the appreciative audience? I broke it down into two sections: actions that get result for self and as a leader:
Actions that get results
|Stay focused and keep your eye on the bigger picture, not on the microaggressions||Be approachable because it is hard for marginalised groups to take that first step|
|Invest in yourself so that you keep your skills up to date and are informed on the latest issues||Use your soft power to effect change through leading by example so that observers are attracted to follow|
|Get involved in something outside of work to build your interpersonal skills and network e.g. professional society||Listen to learn, unlearn and relearn in order to make lasting positive change|
|Nurture your soft power to build your credibility, inspire others and show you have earned your position||Be willing to be uncomfortable because you will receive pushback or face ridicule|
Leaders have the power to effect change, to mentor others who come from different backgrounds to themselves and to call out bad behaviour or attitudes. The question is do they have the will and the mindset to start, persist and be uncomfortable because that is the reality of changing culture, behaviours and attitude that continue to embed inequality in the workplace. Lots of people will pay lip service to wanting change but when faced with the reality of the scale of what needs to be done structurally, socially and in some cases, at personal cost, they quietly slip away and leave it to someone else. If only they could understand that when people feel safe, when they know they will be accepted for who they are, they will participate fully and they will thrive thus benefiting the organisation. That is what a sense of belonging feels like and it can be an unstoppable force and lead to incredible results.
Banarama and Fun Boy 3 sang “It’s not what you do but the way that you do it and that’s what gets results”. Well from the result of the feedback I received from the audience and from CMI, my talk went well which is the result I wanted!