Post Obama – leadership thought for the day!


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.


By | 2017-07-30T12:23:22+00:00 December 4th, 2012|Categories: Guest Blogger, Tracey Connage|5 Comments


  1. Anne Dokov 5th December 2012 at 9:50 am - Reply

    Tracey’s blog shines a light on some very concerning issues. As she says the number of BME senior managers in local government is not as high as we might have expected, had the progress made several years ago continued. Indeed a colleague from the NHS also made the point this week that the huge restructures there are resulting in a largely ‘male and pale’ leadership.
    So what has happened and what are we as HR practitioners doing about it?
    In my personal view we have taken our eye off the ball. We started making progress, breathed a sigh of relief and turned our attention to all the other issues HR is charged with. But our organisations are the poorer as a result. I think it is time for a rethink. How have our downsizing and austerity measures impacted on diversity, especially race diversity? What are we doing in times of reduced recruitment and reduced development budgets to encourage all sectors of the community to want to and to be able to progress in their careers in public services? As Tracey shows challenging the status quo is an important facet of the HR leader’s role and we all need to take a hard look at what is happening in our organisations.
    If you have good practice and tangible results to report please join in the discussion so we can share this with colleagues.

  2. P Benet 5th December 2012 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Alas, the plight of ethnic minorities is not restricted to the public sector.

    David Lammy MP has highlighted the plight of black women bearing the brunt of the economic fallout.

    Please see article and link to BBC website. A full parliamentary report is due to be published on this matter.

    Diversity in leadership teams will help but a much wider debate needs to be had about the positive contribution ethnic minority staff bring to organisations during good times and bad , not just when organisations are financially comfortable.

  3. Florence 5th December 2012 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    Very thought provoking! It is for business leaders to look into the mirror and question themselves whether they are serving their organisations better and truthfully without any inherent biases at play. Excellent piece Tracey.

  4. Leatham 5th December 2012 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    Thanks Tracey for a great blog – very thought provoking for us all.

    It brought to mind a favoured Anthony Robbins quote of mine:

    “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

    Shifting away from established habits and routines takes effort and energy and the bad ones are the most difficult to break…therefore I am probably in agreement that some intervention is required to encourage organisations to create new and more effective ways of reflecting diversity into the workforce. As ever this is a fine line to steer as greater resentment can often be an unintended consequence of such well intended action.

    The point made about HR leaders having a voice that challenges and cuts across the cultural grain is well does take courage and confidence – two of the qualities we will be putting to the test of future HR leaders in the forthcoming Rising Stars competition…and in times of dramatic change when conforming is expected, this can sometimes be career limiting but something I believe we have an obligation to do where there is clear evidence that healthy challenge is required….and timing and tactics is all to achieve success however Tracey is one example of where this can be done – success can be achieved – and a successful career still be maintained.

    It would be good to hear some other stories of where challenge has been made – with success or otherwise!

  5. Richard Crouch 10th December 2012 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    An excellent blog Tracey. You asked for views and mine are that this more ‘tolerant’ society unfortunately sometimes seems to be more tolerant of inequality. Whether this be race inequality, disability, gender, etc. I think we in HR need to show more leadership in holding people who discriminate to account. Your reference to Obama reminded me of an issue I had when he was first elected, when one idiot of an employee decided to email around a ‘doctored’ picture of Obama as a black & white minstrel. I dismissed him within one hour of finding out about it and made sure people knew that i had. We didn’t have a similar problem again!

    I also have a very simplistic view on equality and that is firstly, a firm belief that the workforce should mirror the makeup of the local population who we deliver services to and secondly that the equality agenda should be firmly mainstreamed into every manager’s role. That way we know who is accountable and the answer is …..all of us!

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