Hello PPMA members and friends

This week’s post has been written by Tracey Connage who is our Chair for the London Region. In this ‘thought piece’ she shares her views and experiences as a senior BME manager in the public sector.

‘Wow! Obama Wins.

The second electoral victory for the 1st  black American President of  the U.S  has deservedly received much media attention. Once again, I was reminded of the tremendous iconic  impact of  Obama’s first unprecedented victory – he represented a new vision for his nation, a new vision potentially for the world and for many a brilliant new vision of the black man, the  black  family and black community.

The Obama phenomenon is of course irreducible simply to a race perspective. However, my thought today is that the Obama leadership issue is indivisible from race and that there is relevant message here, for UK public services.

When Obama was first elected, I seized the opportunity as the new Head of  HR to propose some new leadership values and to positively challenge, the status quo. To begin the discussion, I wrote the chief executive an ‘Obama  letter’.

In this letter, I recognized the momentous occasion of Obama’s election and the resonance of the change agenda for  leadership within local government at the time. I applauded the unparalleled record of  success of our organisation to date in achieving a locally representative, BME majority workforce. We  took diversity seriously and had much to be proud of already. The purpose of my letter however, was to discuss the white elephant in our corporate  leadership.

White  elephant? Yes, the elephant that says its okay for a highly diverse organisation to be led by unrepresentative management. The elephant which assumes legitimacy of  all white  male-­‐dominated leadership. The elephant that fails to connect diversity with leadership and the led.

Thankfully, the chief executive responded positively and shared his commitment to improve senior leadership gender and  race diversity by fair and lawful means. We had a warm  exchange, and agreed to differ as to whether progressing race diversity was a critical success factor for the senior leadership team.

Nearly four years later, the chief executive has followed through and there have been significant changes in the  top management team. There is now a female majority of directors and a single BME director. However, beneath this much improved top management veneer, there has also been an overall reduction in black senior managers. I am one of the remaining few.

This picture is not unusual across London boroughs or other public services. In recent discussions with some colleagues we found ourselves reminiscing about the days when there were several BME senior managers and council leaders in London. “Remember  xxx  and  xxx? ”

Today, senior BME managers are few and far between. And one might ask why, in the era of austerity anyone should care if ‘you are black or white’?

My view is that leadership simultaneously determines and reflects the dominant culture of organisations. I believe that local authorities and other public services need representative leadership, managerial as well as political to effectively do the job of  serving diverse modern communities. It is interesting that such a fundamental mismatch between leadership and the led goes unchallenged. However, it is not surprising as it is always difficult to effectively challenge oneself.

As a senior HR professional, I have tried(with some success) to promote and facilitate diversity within my own service and sphere of influence. My observation is that many leaders, including  HR, have focused on seemingly fair processes while ignoring results in terms of race diversity. My own view is that there is a critical deficit due to the absence of  BlME leaders in our  increasingly diverse and complex organisations and communities. Surely arguments used to call  for gender diversity at board and senior levels must apply to race?

I know that it is not popular to be seen to wave a race card. However, as a senior black officer with 25 years public service experience, I am genuinely concerned that the future looks bleak from a black (and minority ethnic) perspective.

Breaking the monolithic leadership ‘mould’ requires those with authority to take risks based on the courage of their convictions. Someone must be willing to challenge the prevailing view that black leadership talent is unavailable.

Finally, back to Obama. Commentators agree that the convincing win relates to his greater appeal to a diverse and changing electorate. Perhaps that’s also a message for how we select people to lead and manage today’s public services.

Different leaders will lead differently… ok?

What are your views?

Tracey  Connage

Chair of the PPMA’s London Region.