Jim Armitage: As Tidjane Thiam departs, the City needs more role models to inspire minority children

Outlook

Click to follow
The Independent Online

What an indictment of British big business that, with the departure of one man, the Prudential’s Tidjane Thiam, the 1 per cent of black chief executives in the FTSE 100 has turned into zero. And that in a country where 3 per cent of the population is black and a capital city where it’s 13 per cent.

Sure, there are other high achieving black men and women; Karen Blackett at MediaCom, Google’s Adrian Joseph. But they’re hardly in the Footsie CEO power list.

Credit Suisse role will really be a test of Tidjane Thiam's mettle

Some more facts: 69 per cent of Footsie companies have all-white executive teams – a full 4 per cent more than a year ago. A total of 95 per cent of Footsie board members are white, while there is not one director of Chinese or east Asian origin on any top-100 UK board.

It’s slightly ironic when so much of the FTSE 100 is made up of mining and exploration companies making their money in the African sub-continent, not to mention the financial companies with big operations in Caribbean tax havens. While loud and sustained pressure on boards has led to progress being made on the lack of women in top roles, Westminster and the media have been far quieter on ethnic diversity. 

Clearly, there is no snap-your-fingers  solution. Black British children are disadvantaged from the get-go (let’s not forget, Mr Thiam himself is not the product of the British education system). They tend to live in poorer households, have lower schooling expectations and a lack of strong role models in politics, business and culture. They are under-represented in universities – arguably a situation not helped by tuition fees. When they do graduate, they find it harder than white counterparts to get work.

Fixing the disadvantages for black children requires massive investment in education – not just of the kids themselves, but their parents. It could take generations to bring their average standards of educational achievement up to those of the white middle class. For those who do get through university and climb the career ladder, it doesn’t get much easier in adulthood, as Mr Thiam has testified.

Many years ago, he told headhunters he would no longer go for any new senior jobs unless it was specified at the outset that he was black. He was sick of getting through the interviewing process only to be told at the last minute his face didn’t fit.

The fact is, when the recruitment process gets to the final stages, top level directors have to be seen to be “clubbable”: able to get on with their fellow board members, suppliers and customers. And the club we’re talking about here is made up of mainly white men.

For those involved in the hiring process, it’s far easier to put forward the safe option: the person the rest of the team can instantly relate to. In a way, this is human nature: people in all societies tend to gravitate towards “people like us”.

But it’s a mindset that has to change. With women in the boardroom, it was shock tactics that seemed, eventually, to galvanise change. Political threats of quotas, naming and shaming companies who failed to hire women to the board, and a high profile of the issue in Westminster and the media have forced business leaders to act.

Less headline grabbing have been the networks of successful women executives which have sprung up to advise and support other women, educating them on how to succeed in getting into boards. Mentoring programmes in big companies have also been successful in boosting women’s progress. While there are such efforts being made to help black employees, it’s surely now time to massively ramp them up. With relatively fewer black graduates coming through and developing their careers, those who are achieving well must be given all the help we can to get them to the very top.

Believe me, the media is crying out to feature ethnically diverse bosses, just as it is with women. So when the FTSE 100 finally does get its new, only black chief executive, he or she will be given huge coverage in the mass media.

That will make them the very kind of role model black kids need to see.

Comments