25 February 2016 | By Ruby McGregor-Smith Community

It's time to tackle obstacles to BME progression

Baroness McGregor-Smith, chief executive of Mitie, is leading the government’s review into the progression of black and minority ethnic workers. Business Voice asked her why it matters

Q. How would you summarise why the government’s BME review is needed?
A. There is genuine concern that we don’t understand the issues faced by BMEs at every level in business, because we don’t appear to have diversity at the top. We need to understand what the obstacles are and we need to take action to address them. This falls in line with the prime minister’s commitment on his 2020 vision for the government’s BME agenda.

Q. It’s obviously early days to discuss the review itself in detail, but what does diversity mean to you?
A. If you run any business, large or small, in the UK, your senior leaders should represent the diversity of thinking from all the people that work in the company.

But the talent pool is already limited by the time people leave school and we know there are many obstacles along the way. You just have to look at the FTSE 350, the government and civil service, and everyone at the top of their field, to see there isn’t broad representation. Yet companies don’t really assess their data and ask the questions yet.

We can talk about women, but we appear to really struggle with race. Nobody really wants to talk about disability either. It’s down to business and to individuals to make a difference. And for me, it comes back to the economic argument: if you have the best talent delivering its potential, you will improve the economic benefit of business to the UK.

I’m the only FTSE chief exec who’s Asian and female. I don’t know the ethnic mix of the women who have been put on boards in the last four years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not particularly ethnic. And that’s not telling young people they can be anything they want to be – they need mentors and role models.

Q. How important do you think leadership is in making the difference?
A. If your leadership team don’t believe in it and don’t talk about it, people don’t believe in it and don’t believe it’s important.

When David Cameron said earlier this year he wanted to eliminate race discrimination within a generation, it was the first time I’ve heard a prime minister stand up and do that in the UK. It really struck a chord with me.

And that’s my point – individuals look to senior leaders to help and to discuss these issues. But too many people are really quiet on the subject. Why doesn’t the top of business look like the communities of the UK? 

Q. Your company, Mitie, has got a Diversity Steering Group guided by external benchmarking, how important do you think that kind of analysis is?  
A. I think we’ve got to have it because we’ve got to understand where we are and where we need to get to. We’ve set ourselves aspirational targets, and even if we don’t get there, we’ll challenge ourselves to think about why we couldn’t be better.

Young businesses do this quite differently. Outsourcing was a new, very small industry when I joined and I genuinely believe the only way I could have got to the top of the company was in a young industry that was growing so fast. I met many diverse people who wouldn’t traditionally be seen at the top of business elsewhere. Young entrepreneurs are also much more representative of the makeup of the UK.

Q. I know Mitie has also appointed diversity champions. What sort of initiatives are they involved in?
A. We’re on a journey with this. This isn’t a quick fix; it’s a big change for any business. But the diversity champions are there to help support and encourage the culture. So whether it’s, for example, working with Stonewall, or working with disadvantaged communities of a certain ethnic mix or with disability, they are the kind of initiatives that a lot of our employees can get into, because they change their perception of what diversity is about.

We launched our BME network a few months ago, and one of my senior managing directors – he’s English – launched it. That says to his people that he’s serious about it, which is much more powerful than me saying it.

Q. Going back to the review, how can other businesses get involved?
A. We’ll be looking for data analysis and examples of best practice that are currently out there, so there will be a general call for evidence. There will be a big pool of evidence, so we’ll review it with the aim of getting it done and making recommendations this year. It really is time to actually see where we are.