Article by Debbie Tembo, managing director of the Black British Business Awards
Amongst the extensive catalogue of popular tips for boosting success, “Just be yourself”, is one I have heard repeatedly in business.
I can see the appeal for the recipient of such advice; the reassurance that everyone will like you just as you are, the permission to behave in an uncensored and spontaneous way, the belief that being yourself is all you truly need to be to succeed.
But like many of the clichéd pieces of advice I hear banded around the business world, I find it troubling. Troubling because the statement assumes that we live in a world in which every person is valued for being themselves; troubling because it does not consider those for who, as modern history has taught us, have been treated as second class citizens for being themselves; troubling because, like the common variations of this advice, it idealises privilege and fails to challenge the status quo.
Let us not forget the events of the past year which have starkly reminded us that being oneself can mean putting your life at risk.
Indeed, there are many cultural icons who underpin the “just be yourself” mantra for who these cliches do not apply. They acted as themselves, sure, but with a defiant and relentless work ethic that is far more likely to increase their chance of success.
The truth is, we live in systems that have not been created for ethnic minority individuals, where many turn up to work fearing the consequences of being themselves and covering up their difference, their history, and their unique self in a bid to hide away.
Job ads that preach value in authenticity only to then pay lip service to creating a diverse workforce, are just the start of the journey for minority individuals in the workplace. Too often these flaky diversity and inclusion strategies disregard anyone who does not wish to assimilate the characteristics of a familiar face in the corporate world – white, male, Steve.
Whilst I acknowledge that I need to work harder to achieve and advance in the bias systems and structures that exist in businesses. I too know that as an ethnic minority individual, my difference is a power, a force for good and an invaluable asset.
If you are reading this as a person of colour, there is a high chance you have felt the impact of the systemic racism that exists in our societies. I hear your pain and I empathise with your experiences. With that in mind, I appreciate how challenging it may feel to see opportunity in your difference.
I am not here to tell you that the responsibility of the race agenda sits with you, as an already marginalised employee. That baton is firmly in the hands of the captains of industry.
But I am here to tell you that as an ethnic minority individual, there exists an opportunity to use your difference as a force for good.
Here are five ways you can use your uniqueness to drive both your personal progression and the progression of the ethnic minority agenda in the workplace.
Use your difference for good.
As a person of colour, you have a unique perspective which is completely invaluable to companies. Not only is optimising talent and opportunities for ethnic minority groups – as with all historically disadvantaged groups – the ethical thing to do but study after study shows that placing purpose higher on the chart than profit has a positive impact on returns.
To create a truly inclusive workplace, the systems, structures, and processes need to be broken down and changed to consider the intersectional workforce that exists in the world of work and built around those people. In fact, an equality agenda that ensures everyone gets the same does not address the fundamental issues and challenges that exist in workplaces right now. As an ethnic minority individual, you should be provided with support specific to your requirements.
Get comfortable speaking up about your difference and lean into these moments. This is not a time to shrink or change to fit the mould of the majority. Instead, look to take up space respectfully. Acknowledge what you believe to be your difference and embrace the opportunity to express yourself and what you need, with impact.
Find a role model and be a role model.
Taking a leap of faith when things get difficult can provide positive inspiration and influence. In fact, it is likely there are others in a similar position to you who are seeking a role model for guidance and reassurance. You may have come this far without your own, but it is time to take responsibility and be a guiding light for others.
Expose leaders to the reality of bias.
When leaders learn alongside minority ethnic delegates it helps provide a space for mutual understanding, relationship building and an opportunity to collaborate for change. You may find that learning alongside your manager helps you shine a light on your lived experience as an ethnic minority professional.
Specific minority ethnic programmes designed to help facilitate mutual spaces, where leaders are exposed to the reality of bias, can be hugely beneficial. The Black British Business Awards’ Talent Accelerator programme, for example, provides action-oriented learning, tailored to the experience of minority ethnic professionals, to simultaneously navigate and disrupt barriers to equality and representation. In this type of programme, sessions are designed to support ecosystem stakeholders to better understand their role in making change happen.
The sad reality is that the impact of bias is usually glossed over internally but taking or creating the opportunity to share openly with leaders can be an effective way to address the elephant in the room. First-time conversations around race can help break down barriers and, in turn, help you navigate the personal and organisational obstacles to your success as an ethnic minority professional.
Build a race ally in your line manager.
There is a high chance those in senior positions in the workplace are from the majority group. Instead of focusing on the challenges this brings, look at the potential of leveraging these individuals as race allies.
Look first to build trust and honesty with the person who has the biggest direct influence over your progression, such as your line manager. Knowing you can rely on this ally to take your points forward and create awareness on your behalf is invaluable. Developing a relationship with your direct manager in the first instance will help give you more of an understanding of who, in senior positions, you can access to help drive your agenda.
As with anyone in the workplace, it is important you feel you can have difficult conversations in a safe environment. You may find that being open and honest about your experience as an ethnic minority individual is a superpower in your journey of progression in the workplace.
Harness the power of your network.
Know that there is a strong, connected and in many cases, willing, network around you that can help build your credentials and take you up to the next level. Difference makes you stand out and doing the right things makes you memorable for the right reasons. Be selective and invest in your network as much as you want them to invest in you. Create advocates for your success and embed yourself into spheres of influence.
You have a skillset that is a deficit in the world. The fact of the matter is that companies cannot build a race ally campaign without the input of ethnic minorities. Your input will help ensure it is tailored to the true experience of minority ethnic professionals, to simultaneously navigate and disrupt barriers to equality and representation.
Of course, it is important to respect the role of evidence-based research. But without doubt, your lived experience is critical to building race ally campaigns and workshops that will help accelerate both your progression and the progression of minority individuals around you.
Read this next…
How to find your authentic voice as an ethnic minority leader
Most of us are hyper aware of how we present ourselves in the workplace; we actively manage our behaviour, our emotions and how we come across. We do this for several reasons; some may feel they are not able to openly express emotion amongst their colleagues; others may think their sense of humour is too different and some – largely influenced by the misconceived notion that the best leaders ‘have it all together’ – fear they risk hurting their reputation or credibility if they are emotional or show their real self.
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