What leaders think
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Demography of Boards

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The demography of many, if not all, of the Boards in the UK is vastly different not only to the profile of those graduating in 2021 but also to the demography of those who have graduated over recent years, if not decades.

There has been much discussion as to why this is and stated desire to change this imbalance, but very little VISIBLE CHANGE SO FAR. This is particularly evident with regards to the race/ethnic diversity around the Board table.

Hoggett Bowers recently hosted an online event with a selected group of Chairs, NEDs and CEOs to discuss and debate this important topic with our keynote speaker David Waboso. David has been perhaps the most senior black director in infrastructure over the last decade or so and kindly agreed to share his experiences, including the changes he has seen and the blockers that remain.

David shared how talks like these are relatively recent and talked about how it was hard to have this type of conversation when he was growing up and in his early career. Interestingly last year Thames Water, where he’s a NED, were keen for him to talk as part of their embracing diversity agenda. Since then, the flood gates have opened to hear his story and it’s clear there’s a greater appetite now for these conversations. If in any doubt about the scale of the challenge, David referenced three reports:

  • The Power of Colour report in 2020 – a damning indictment of what is happening across the top level of institutions in terms of D&I
  • The Green Park report refreshed this year – not a single black Chair, CEO or CFO in the FTSE100.
  • Report on under representation of ethnic minorities in businesses – a black ethnic minority senior executive talked about “keeping my head down and did not want to draw attention to my difference and especially as part of my success is through being able to spot the differences in culture”.

This statement resonates with David as he had repeatedly felt that historically, raising the issue of race could backfire and with a family and bills to pay, so it was best you should “keep your head down otherwise you’ll be seen as having a chip on your shoulder or as a troublemaker”.

David briefly talked about his background, born in 1956 in Guys Hospital where his Nigerian father was studying medicine and had married a middle-class English girl rom Gloucester. He grew up through very interesting times and huge social change in the UK – from the 50’s to the 2020’s. People still ask David, even recently, “where are you really from?” which betrays the sentiment that you cannot be both Black and British. David experienced racism – actions and words – as a youngster growing up in the era he did. David also talked about the bosses and role models who’d made a positive impact on him and reflected that these are the most important relationships for youngsters coming through. In fact, he summarised by saying that ultimately, life (and careers) is all about people and the positive relationships you form.

David then talked through his career. He came into engineering in the late 70’s and achieved a 2:1 from Coventry and then an MSc from Imperial College. His early career on-site exposed him to brutal racism but also strong supporting action from his managers – a lesson relevant today.

David’s surname name is not Anglo-Saxon and believes that in those days, this was a barrier to getting work in his field (“you just couldn’t even get an interview” he recalled), so he went into teaching maths in East London for a few years, which he enjoyed. He was then lucky enough to get a job with Arup building the M25 in Essex, starting a long relationship with East London and Essex, where he still lives.

David spent almost 4 years in Africa working on various water schemes and highways projects. Shortly after his return to the UK in 1990, David met Mike Nichols, the founder of Nichols Group. Mike gave David his big first change, for which he is incredibly grateful. Mike introduced David to the rail sector where he spent his next 30 years. The Docklands Light Railway project had just opened and was being constantly upgraded so David found his niche in infrastructure, system complexity and dealing with multiple stakeholders. He was awarded “Project Manager of the Year” for his work in upgrading the DLR.

In 1995, David was headhunted to lead a project in Europe. David was in a whisker of getting that role, when the client said a mistake had been made as they had not realised David was black and as such could not be put in charge of the European project. David talked about how this hit him hard, but he carried on. He had other blows in his career which he believes were racist, but he also had opportunities which when they came, he grabbed with both hands. This is something he mentions in his talks to youngsters – do whatever role you are given to the best of your ability as more opportunities will then come.

Building on his DLR experience, he then was asked to go across to the Jubilee Line Extension where he led the integration and delivery into service of the complex software system being installed and the line was successfully opened for the millennium.

He joined the Strategic Rail Authority in 2003 as an executive director leading on standards, the interface to Europe, safety and national projects. In 2005 he moved across to TfL, where he led the engineering and project delivery of the tube upgrades – the largest ever rail upgrade on an operational system – and received the CBE in 2014 for his work.

He looks back on his career with huge pride and said ti was a privilege to be asked to lead such nationally important projects and upgrades. By his early 60’s David decided to take semi-retirement and move towards having a plural career, freeing up more time to spend with family, gardening, music, travelling and of course, talks like this!

David then finished with some suggestions on actions that leaders can take:

  • Diversity is a business imperative – in the global race for talent we must embrace all peoples.
  • Blind CVs are a huge step forward allowing people to be seen based on merit.
  • Mentoring is very important, including reverse mentoring.
  • The shadow of the leader is immense. What you do and what you say has a hugely magnified ripple effect in all you do.
  • Language matters – leaders should challenge inappropriate language and behaviours. People need to be educated that certain language with racial overtones, used often in ignorance of the impact it can have, can be very hurtful and demoralising.
  • Remember it’s the little things that matter – like David talked about the importance of senior leaders knowing people’s names at all levels including the security guards and cleaners – and talking to them!
  • Ensure all meetings are chaired inclusively. David has seen people just sitting being asked to do nothing but listen. The result is often frustration where people then fluff their lines when it is their turn to speak.
  • Getting away from the pyramid structure in terms of ethnic representation is key. Challenge why there is a pyramid in terms of targets for ethnic minority representation at senior levels. So, you have cases where employment diversity is 34% but director level targets are only 2% – why not 34%?
  • Understanding why so many young black graduates leave corporates and do not climb the ladder. Exit interviews demonstrate they feel they had not had a chance of getting on and were perhaps running away from an unpleasant environment.
  • Actively support inclusion initiatives such as the black intern programme for graduates to get internships for 6 to 12 weeks. Businesses need to bring these individuals in and help them get on the career ladder – without a pipeline of diverse talent there can be no senior appointments.
  • Be challenging on your recruiters and insist they bring a diverse range of talent to the table (this also came up in the Q&A).
  • Finally, if there are staff from ethnic minorities do reach out to them. It can be a lonely place especially if in a leadership role.

David concluded by saying things are getting better but there is more to do.

Q&A Discussion

Q. What can we do to give more support to make diverse, talented people feel welcome?

A. David’s advice was to recognise there may be a degree of apprehension and reticence. It might be an idea to facilitate access to senior people who can reach out to them and support as necessary. Don’t let people feel isolated.

Q. I have been part of several searches where we’ve told there isn’t the talent pool of diversity, so how do we nurture this talent pool to create future diverse leaders?

A. David said he is asked this question all the time. Initiatives like the interns one mentioned earlier are critical in generating the pipeline. Also, be challenging to recruiters and head-hunters and insist they find a diverse pool of talent – they are out there! Mentoring will also help junior people have the confidence and skills to go for their next senior role. If there are reorganisations in your business, ask the question about if it will hit certain demographics harder than others and then try and mitigate this.

Q. What are your views on society generally? Also, what can we learn from the women agenda so in 20 years’ time will we not need to have this coversation, about any minority group?

A. David said that business will mirror society to an extent and therefore a degree of racism will exist but overall, he was positive about the future, and he felt businesses had really stepped up on diversity in recent years and especially on the gender issue, though there will be more to do. Ultimately it is a business imperative to be inclusive as otherwise there simply will not be the talent to operate the businesses.

Q. Look at French businesses and how much more inclusivity and change for black people to be a part of it. What should we be learning from them?

A. David said there is much to learn from each country. For example, the US was a pioneer in terms of positive action. Europe and France are OK, but this is an issue across the world and not just a British one.

We can learn from good things happening around the world, and the aspiration/goal is that Britain should be the best at being diverse and inclusive. The UK has done quite well on the race agenda, and we should aim to be a world leader in this space.

Q. Nothing will change until culture changes, and this has to start at the Board, and to cascade down the business. Therefore, what is your advice to those Board members to effect culture change in their businesses?

A. David agreed that everything goes back to the culture which is set from the top and the shadow of the leader where little things make such a difference. David referred to the examples he had given earlier about small but important (symbolic) things that leaders can do. This sends a message about no matter what level you are I will know you and you are important too. This can set the tone and have great outcomes.

Q. A lot of the discussion has been around the role of the business but where are the political establishments on this?

A. David said he stayed away from politics but the applause when the footballers took the knee showed how things had changed. David said he thought corporates have done very well – and quickly – in responding to the George Floyd case for example. He reiterated – this needs to be business led. It is an imperative to secure talent and that’s where it needs to be pitched.

David Waboso biography:

David holds a Batchelor and Master’s degree in civil engineering and is a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. In 2014 he was awarded a CBE for services to transport in London and he was also named as Leader of the Year in the Manufacturing and Infrastructure section of the Black British Business Awards. From 2016 to 2019 he was President of the Association for Project Management, the largest professional body of its kind in Europe.

Up to 2019 David held senior executive positions including Technical Director at the Strategic Rail Authority, Capital Programmes Director and Engineering Director at TfL and between 2016 to 2019 he was Managing Director Digital at Network Rail.

David is now semi-retired and works as a non-executive director and strategic adviser to companies in the water, energy and rail sectors. He also actively promotes the mentoring and development of the next generation of leaders, engineers and project managers.