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How to break the diverse leadership paradox

Many businesses have made progress on improving gender equality, but ethnic minority representation still lags behind.

A Business in the Community (BITC) report in 2020, Race at the Top: Revisited, found just 1.4% of managers directors and senior officials in the UK are black.

Meanwhile the number of women in senior management positions in UK businesses is at a record high, in line with the global average, which currently stands at 32%.

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Sometimes there’s a chicken and egg situation, particularly in industries lacking representation, where HR teams and leaders can get stuck in a paradox: they want people with experience in leadership roles, but the industry lacks people who have experience and are diverse.

It’s true that many organisations are focused on building a diverse talent pipeline but that mustn’t be seen as a reason for not taking action while that pipeline is being developed.

Breaking the chicken and egg cycle

For some leadership roles, HR teams should consider if they are stuck in a chicken and egg cycle and if there’s an opportunity to break it. For example, are there roles where some of the criteria is ‘nice to have’ rather than essential?

Conversations across the organisation need to question where industry experience is critical and which roles could benefit from transferable skills from outside the sector. Industry diversity is a form of diversity, and businesses can benefit hugely from looking beyond their own workforce.

Organisational or functional leadership roles like my role of chief diversity officer could come from other sectors, which in turn could bring new ideas.

Recruiting from outside the sector might spark additional requirements such as providing more onboarding support or ensuring there are opportunities to immerse new joiners in parts of the business unique to one sector during their first few months in the role. However, this should not be a barrier to hiring a high-potential diverse candidate who has a wealth of experience.

Another way to overcome the challenge of having diverse talent immediately available for leadership responsibilities is to look at the support that could be put in place to help those who are on the trajectory to being ready.

Executive coaching has previously been a stigmatised concept, and sometimes seen as a step taken to get an individual back on track. Now it’s increasingly viewed as a resource for high performers which can help them find their footing. This opportunity should be open to all.


If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it

The approach to attracting diverse hires and advocating for diverse promotions is key to breaking down some of the barriers slowing down diversity at senior levels.

There needs to be intentional action and a willingness to train individuals combined with a regular measurement and scrutiny of diversity data.

Are targets and data analysis too broad? Do they challenge the business enough? Business structures can be very complex and it’s important targets are met within pockets or units within the organisation, as well as the company as a whole. This accountability will drive action that will get to the root of personal experiences in specific populations. 


Three key actions

Business leaders need to re-focus priorities to ensure there is tangible action to achieve black and ethnic minority representation.

In addition to strengthening talent pipelines to reinforce diverse teams in the long term, there are clear steps that must be taken in the short and medium terms: re-calibrating targets and goals, putting in place robust support frameworks for diverse talent taking on leadership roles, and considering transferable skills from other industries.


Natalie Edwards is chief diversity officer at National Grid

This article is one of a series of articles HR magazine will be publishing throughout October in celebration of Black History Month in the UK. Check out all the articles, when published here.