• Since the murder of George Floyd, business leaders around the world have made commitments to fight racism.
  • The BBC's Director of Creative Diversity and author of Diversify, June Sarpong, asks whether progress is being made.
  • She outlines six priorities for inclusive leaders.

The brutal police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020 prompted an unprecedented outpouring of commitments (many with big dollar amounts attached) from business leaders in America and beyond to fight racism, within their firms and in society more broadly. Yet as we enter 2022, there remain huge doubts about whether business leaders can be trusted to deliver on their promises.

The scepticism starts with the money. In the summer of 2021, a year after Floyd’s death, of the $50 billion supposedly pledged to address racial equity, only $250 million had been spent or committed, according to analysis by Creative Investment Research. Yet the bigger cost of failing to address racism and racial disparity is reflected less in the figures spent or unspent than in the ongoing trust deficit that grows from the lack of progress. Even at the height of all the committing and pledging, many of us (especially long-time campaigners for inclusion) looked at the sudden and ostensibly overwhelming support for racial justice and wondered how long it would last.

Those on the receiving end of racial injustice are inclined to maintain a distrustful disposition because their lived experience and history has taught them not to put faith in words alone. When rhetoric is not backed up with action, scepticism is reinforced, and the trust deficit grows. Reduced trust makes it even harder to achieve the engagement needed for even the most sincere and well-designed inclusion and racial justice initiatives to succeed. The danger then is that “inclusion fatigue” will set in and support slip away.

To break this depressing cycle, leaders must commit to taking bold, uncomfortable steps. They need to understand that the spoils of the system need to be shared and, often, that the system itself will need to be changed fundamentally. And they must act quickly on that understanding. For those we want to reach, hearing may be deceiving but seeing is believing, and significant action is how we can repair the trust deficit.

I wrote about these challenges in my book, “Diversify — Six Degrees of Integration.” One thing has definitely changed since it was published in 2017.

Then, I typically found myself having to make the case to corporate leaders that diversity is good for business. I’m heartened to say that in these extraordinary past four years we have now largely moved beyond that “why?” to the “how?” I now also know from personal experience in my role since 2019 of Director of Creative Diversity at the British Broadcasting Corporation that, although “the how” is never easy, progress is possible, in everything from including minority leaders in our highest-level decision- making to rethinking our approach to content creation and finding and championing minority talent.

Even so, if 2022 is to be a year of real progress in delivering inclusion on the scale implied in all those commitments made around the world two summers ago, much will depend on whether leaders can break old habits.

Leaders, of whatever colour, are human, and humans are notoriously creatures of habit. When it comes to improving racial inclusion most leaders, especially in the corporate world, revert to what they normally do: Articulate a goal and set targets. But racial disparity is not just about numerical representation. It lives in whether people who are not the default ethnicity of White feel they are valued at work.

Truly changing hearts and minds requires a leader to have different qualities from those required to successfully meet numerical targets. It requires leaders to be at once both bold and personally vulnerable— indeed, to place their own trust in those they are seeking to include, and by doing so, gain the trust of diverse workers and customers. Trust building is the foundation of inclusive leadership.

In that spirit, I offer six key priorities in the year ahead for would-be inclusive business leaders.

1. Be compassionate. See each other’s reality. We can’t greet the trauma experienced from racist violence and discrimination with silence, because silence, at best, gives the impression of indifference. For someone who is, say, the only Black person in the team, that perceived indifference can increase feelings of isolation. Be prepared to engage and listen to the lived experience of people from different ethnic backgrounds, especially to identify the barriers to entry and progression in your firm.

2. Recognise that non-Whites are not all the same. Historically, racism has applied differently to different ethnic groups across the world, resulting in different challenges and circumstances for various non-White groupings today. Treating all people who are not White as a single grouping, such as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (B.A.M.E) or Person of Colour and adopting a one-size-fitsall approach to them will deliver you even more disparities. If particular demographics are underrepresented in your team or department, publicly acknowledge this, or nothing will change. Seek guidance from the relevant employee network or Diversity and Inclusion team on what processes or procedures need to be changed.

3. Network to access minority talent. Legacy procedures and structures often create institutional barriers to achieving ethnic diversity and establishing cultural inclusion. Collaborate with contacts at other organisations who can help access a more diverse pool of young and early career talent. Support Black and minority colleagues (including by setting yourself a personal target) to gain access to a mentor or sponsor in your network.

4. Knock down structural and procedural barriers. Change structures that constrain innovation and change. Create new entry routes for minorities, such as apprenticeships or work trials. Be receptive to initiatives that could open your team up to colleagues from more diverse teams for the purpose of bringing new skill sets and perspectives into your team. This will help to break down silos and may also create new career opportunities.

5. Become an ally, inside and beyond your firm. Join, or help set up, a Black and minority allies network to support your organisation’s Black and minority employees and their networks. Use your global network to seek additional allies who can help to connect Black and minority affinity groups and allies across different jurisdictions: Racism always was, and still is, a global issue that requires an effective global response.

6. Think long-term. Systemic racism which filters down through all aspects of society has been centuries in the making and will take a sustained effort over time to dismantle. Dedicated staff focusing on this challenge and ongoing programs will be needed to achieve a systemic shift, not just a few limited interventions.

At the BBC, one of the long-term changes we recently introduced that has delivered quick progress, and demonstrated clearly where we are heading, is our diversity advisors programme. Each of the corporation’s key leadership groups now has two internal diverse advisors, at least one of whom has knowledge and understanding of issues around race. This has allowed us to rapidly increase minority representation in our highest decision-making committees. I can’t overstate the importance, when tackling issues of race, of ensuring that individuals with relevant lived experience are engaged in the process of change. Increasing diverse representation in leadership groups is essential to maintaining the buy-in of a diverse workforce, as well as authentically serve a diverse customer base.

We also took steps to reinvigorate our core mission as one of the world’s leading media organisations, by reimagining our historic responsibility to share stories and connect experiences to audiences who may otherwise never come across them. Key to this was our Creative Diversity Commitment, which you will hear much more about in 2022.

This pledge has a goal of commissioning £112 million in diverse content over three years. Minority writers and other content creators have too often been seen as too risky by us and other leading media giants. Now we are proactively seeking to support storytellers from diverse backgrounds to bring un- and under-told stories to life both on screen and on radio.

Though it predated this initiative, one encouraging sign of how this approach can be a game changer is the massive global success of “I May Destroy You,” Michaela Coel’s fictionalised dramatization of a sexual assault against her. A pioneering joint-commission by the BBC and America’s HBO, the mini-series by a British-born writer-actress of Ghanaian decent aired in the summer of 2020, during the first peak of the pandemic and the surge in anger at racial injustice. It was described by the New York Times as “the perfect show for an anxious world.” With the BBC’s new commitment to creative diversity, we are anticipating many more such timely, socially relevant hits written, produced by, and starring minority talent.

My hope for 2022 is that there will be lots of similarly inspiring stories told across many different industries and businesses — including yours.

June Sarpong OBE is the BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity and author of “Diversify – Six Degrees of Integration” and “The Power of Privilege — How White People Can Challenge Racism,” both published by Harper Collins.