Dear CEO, it's Black History Month

Pardon the Interruption

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It’s Black History Month in the UK. This is when people of Black heritage focus on stuff that affects them living, studying and working, as they do, in a mainly White society. It’s when they tell their stories and put it out there. It’s all calm and controlled without any shouting or drama, a conversation between grown-ups. The burgeoning hope is that as these issues get aired and discussed, there’s an enlightenment that drives progress and change so that, shortly, the workplace, boardroom, and society itself are more truly representative of a richly diverse population than now.

Anyway, every year around this time, I get asked to speak at various BHM events usually held by large firms in the asset management industry, sometimes in the legal or accounting profession and occasionally at a university. Here’s the interesting thing. Every year, the folk who organise these talks invite their senior management teams and bosses and C-suite to attend. "We’re holding this talk as part of Black History Month; it would be wonderful if you could please come and show your support and maybe say a few words about how the firm is taking this issue seriously."

Now, I am invariably informed by the organisers that the bosses are going to be there in force and have even promised to set out the firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. I am also invariably taken aback at how few actually make good on that promise. It’s extraordinary how many client meetings suddenly drop into the diary at exactly the same time, leaving the head honchos sadly unable to join. Of course, one or two sometimes show up but as a general observation it’s a pretty poor effort. No doubt, if they thought some important dignitary was going to be there they’d all turn up. No ifs or buts. But it’s about priorities, and all too often this one is low on the list.

Cast your mind back to when your son or daughter asked you eagerly if you were coming to the school play or to watch them turn out for a football match. It clearly means a lot, so you promise to come and then on the day, there’s some super-important prospect wanting to see you, so you bail on the play and explain to your child that you’re really sorry and cross your heart you’ll be there next time. You don’t give the incident another thought, but 40 years later that adult child still remembers whether you showed up at what for them was the most important event of the year. Whether you were true to your word.
This is like that. When you get asked to attend a BHM event, it’s a big deal. Bigger than you realise. If you show up, all your Black employees know that you care. They understand you’re a Master of the Universe and your time is precious, and they are immensely grateful you found a way to squeeze them into your schedule. And vice versa. Black History Month events may not mean anything to you; they may be utterly irrelevant as far as you’re concerned, on a par with National Road Trip Day. Sure, it’s nice that some minority staff are organising an event, but in the overall scheme of things, on balance, it’s fine not to be there. They probably won’t even notice.

That’s a mistake. Your participation and comments at a BHM event constitute your answer to a massive 30-mark question on the all-important D&I exam paper within the ESG module. Not coming to the event is the same as not bothering to sit the test - you get an automatic fail. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to young Black people tell me how upset they are that

no-one in senior management showed up. Like, no one. We invited them three months ago. No wonder this firm is going nowhere on the D&I front. I feel so let down.

Or, very occasionally,

I couldn’t believe it, but the CEO himself/herself came along and said a few words to all of us. Sat on the front row and even had a chat with me afterwards and asked me to have coffee next week. I’m so impressed.

So, this is an appeal to everyone who is invited to BHM events being held over the next 30 days. Please find a way to be there and show your support. You have no idea how much it will mean to your people. Especially if for the rest of the year you follow through on your ambitious pledge to address the shocking under-representation in your firm. This, after all, is the ‘S’ in ESG and as CEO you own it, not the HR department.

To sum up, you can say what you like about your commitment to Diversity and Inclusion, but if you don’t turn up for the match, everyone will remember. And, if you do, well, they will love you for it.