Tapping into the diversity of talent

By Michael Burton | 27 September 2021

How can senior managers ensure diversity exists throughout their organisations? That was the challenge discussed in a recent online debate organised by the Diversity in Local Government Network.

The subject ostensibly was ‘allyship’, or harnessing the power of allies to promote inclusion. Launching the debate, Dawar Hashmi, chair of the network and partner at executive search firm Green Park asked the participants for their definition of allyship and what it meant personally to them.

Salford City Council chief executive Tom Stannard described it as about ‘empathy and humility which I’ve benefited from on my career journey and sharing that with people from different backgrounds.’ He added: ‘It’s more important to demonstrate this more visibly when you’re in senior roles and senior leaders should demonstrate how relevant their personal stories are to that.’

Buckinghamshire CC’s Rachael Shimmin said allyship was ‘about empowering people in the organisation to succeed. The risk is we only talk about inclusion when it becomes an issue. We forget it’s an underlying issue for many groups all the time.’

To Northumberland CC chief executive, Daljit Lally, allyship was ‘about bringing people together for mutual benefit… it’s about strength in numbers’, while for Stuart Love, chief executive of Westminster City Council, ‘it’s an absolute responsibility,’ not a choice to make.

Rachael said it was important to recognise differences, adding: ‘There’s a tendency for people to promote people like themselves. It’s important to understand different backgrounds, whether socio-economic or of colour.’

Participants discussed their own experiences, too. Daljit felt it was important that she was regarded for her abilities, not for her background, saying: ‘I don’t mind people looking at me as a chief executive but not as a chief executive from a minority ethnic background.’ She felt diversity had improved over the years recalling: ‘I look at the issues my parents who came from India faced in the 1960s, living in the North East, and then look at my two children’s lives which are so much different. I think things are getting better. People may disagree with me. I feel positive but I’m not resting on my laurels.’

Tom agreed: ‘I respect Daljit’s comments that there has been progress and share some of her optimism. Public sector leaders should subscribe to the positive narrative.’

He felt that it was important senior managers talked of their own experiences, saying: ‘People must see empathy and understanding from their senior leaders especially chief executives. I haven’t worn my personal story on my sleeve throughout my career but as I got into a senior position it was more important.

‘I’ve experienced victimisation. My wife is Indian, Hindu, and we have mixed race children and when we first met we both suffered victimisation and discrimination. We have lived with the consequences throughout our lives.’

A major challenge is ensuring that diversity is embedded throughout the organisation, not just at the top or the bottom.

In Westminster, Stuart has implemented positive action through the so-called Rooney Rule stating that interviewees for jobs must include diverse candidates. He added: ‘I had lots of lawyers saying it couldn’t be done but I insisted. It does have pitfalls, like not keeping a close eye on what the data was telling us, such as the nature of appointments which initially were at the lower end of the organisation but we’re seeing a change in middle roles.’

Jo said: ‘Positive action in recruitment processes widens opportunity but doesn’t solve the problem of getting ethnic minorities up through the organisation. Many organisations still have a cultural fit of what makes a leader, they still focus on a mindset. Positive action doesn’t address the career trajectory and needs to be tied to what happens to person’s career.’

The subject of inclusion and anti-racism is often a difficult one to discuss openly and participants were asked how they made staff feel comfortable in addressing difficult issues. Rachael said: ‘I wear a rainbow lanyard all the time and staff have clocked this and have emailed me. I do it because I’m proud to support colleagues and people from an LGBT background. It’s important as well that we create the conditions, where discussing difficult issues can be done as we want people to talk about them, such as through the equalities network we created.’

Stuart added: ‘I have always regarded diversity as a top priority but often white managers asked why I was forcing the issue and felt uncomfortable. I don’t get that so much now and we’ve created networks which are safe spaces for conversations.’

Tom said: ‘People even in positions of influence find it difficult to have these conversations. We’re ready for those uncomfortable conversations, confronting difficult facts about ethnicity, deprivations, lived experiences eg having transgender restrooms. When I attended our LGBT network it was just a handful but now it has 30 members. We didn’t have these conversations before.’

Perhaps the debate was well summed up by one viewer’s comment that ‘talent is everywhere but opportunities aren’t, which is why it’s important to have a diverse team.’

Round Table Participants

Dawar Hashmi, chair of diversity in local government leadership network

Daljit Lally, chief executive, Northumberland CC

Stuart Love, chief executive, Westminster City Council

Tom Stannard, chief executive, Salford City Council

Rachael Shimmin, chief executive, Buckinghamshire Council

Jo Heath, partner and head of practice for diversity and inclusion, culture and ethics, Green Park

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