I spent yesterday at a really inspirational conference – ‘Investing in Ethnicity’. It was great to see so much enthusiasm around the one area of the diversity jigsaw that, while becoming higher in profile, actually generates least action: ethnic diversity in the workforce and why people with BAME backgrounds don’t flourish as they should.

There were so many takeouts from the event, and those will probably come through in future posts. But if I think about the issues that organisations bring to us at TMP, one is definitely the lack of upward movement of people with BAME backgrounds. The answer tends to be to try to hire people in at the senior level. The more sustainable answer is, of course, to grow the diversity that already exists lower down in the organisation – the talent and ambition is there, it just needs to be nurtured.

This often then leads to a discussion about role models. And this was one of my key take outs from the conference, courtesy of the icon that is Karen Blackett OBE. Role models are important, but there are other sources of advice and input that black people can call upon and that employers can facilitate access to. They are cheerleaders and sponsors – and Karen was really insightful in explaining how all three differ and the value they bring:

  • Role models can provide support around the skills required to be successful. They don’t have to be ‘people who look like me’, but people who can support other charges to progress to the next level from a technical perspective.
  • Cheerleaders are people who have been on a similar personal journey and are the people who their charges can identify with on a personal level. They don’t have to be people working at the next level up, or even in the same organisation. They’re important in keeping spirits up; and keeping things real – putting things into perspective if and when needed.
  • Sponsors are people who can see a person’s potential and speak highly of them at points when it matters e.g. when there are key development opportunities or at promotion rounds. They tend to be people with influence and/or who are senior in an organisation – and once again, they don’t have to look like those they sponsor.

It struck me that the distinction is important, because employers often believe that role models have to fulfil all of these roles and feel paralysed when they don’t have people who can. Knowing that this isn’t the case, I think opens up practical options for organisations to work with what they have today to make a tangible difference to the employment experience for their BAME talent. They can do this while working towards long-term change. 

And if the organisational commitment is truly there, this long-term change will be facilitated by the BAME talent that progresses up into senior decision-making roles, with all of the diversity of perspective (for staff and customers) they will surely bring with them.