We need to talk about race

The Black executive is still a relatively rare sight. Cole Agbede MBA2021 and Eliot Sherman discuss how to address the imbalance


In a frank conversation, Eliot Sherman, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS) and LBS student Cole Agbede MBA2021 explore the magnitude of implicit bias in business and society and the importance of having honest conversations about the challenges as well as the potential measures that can help to ameliorate the situation.

Cole Agbede is clear that the first step in addressing the stark racial imbalance in business is to acknowledge the existence of the problem and to have constructive, if difficult, conversations about what can be done about it. Dr Sherman says it’s not good enough for white liberals to simply buy the next bestselling anti-racist book to “signal their virtue”.

Eliot Sherman (ES): There’s a tendency for white liberals to define racism and privilege and white supremacy in precisely narrow enough terms to exclude themselves.

You can buy anti-racist books to signal your virtue, but unless you confront the systemic differences in your own back yard, literally and figuratively, nothing will change. That’s the bit I think a lot of white people struggle with. They want to believe that they are good people, but they don't necessarily want to do the heavy lifting that is needed to really make a difference. What we need are proactive measures to integrate neighbourhoods and schools, for example, and that is something that otherwise progressive white people have historically resisted.

Cole Agbede (CA): My perspective is that Americans accept that the US has a problem with racism whereas here in the UK, most people don’t want to believe that it’s a big issue. I know from having been a black kid growing up here that a lot of people don’t want to confront the biases that they have. If you move to a different tube carriage to avoid a Black person, what are you going to do when you have someone’s CV in front of you?

ES: Do you think part of that — and this is just speculation — has to do with the UK being demographically a little less diverse than the US? Maybe there’s an issue with the threshold, especially once you get out of the cities.

CA: There’s definitely an element of that. I think in London maybe 13% or 15% are black, but in the UK as a whole it’s less than 10%. So, I guess it’s easier to think it’s not a problem we have to think about.

Also, as a community — and I’m talking about the Black community here — we’re typically not as vocal as Americans, and that probably has something to do with the history America has around police brutality and segregation. Also, the culture. British people prefer to — me included, having grown up here — avoid uncomfortable conversations. I think all these things come together as a dangerous cocktail.

So, when George Floyd was murdered, many big American organisations came out with statements and plans and initiatives to try to make change. But I noticed that the majority of British companies were a lot less vocal (or actually silent). That was no coincidence. I think in Britain corporations genuinely didn’t want to acknowledge there is a problem with race bias.

ES: What are your thoughts on quotas in hiring? It’s something I’ve always wanted to study: Specifically, what it’s like for the person who gets into the company or the role two or three years on? Do they feel suspicion that people might be thinking, we lowered our standards for you? Is there friction around that?

CA: It’s a conversation I’ve had with some of the other black students when discussing banks and their gender targets. My view is I’m completely for quotas because with racial discrimination, a lot of it is unconscious bias. I’d much rather get the job because of a quota than where we are now. I see a quota as a rebalancer rather than a handout.

ES: I think that’s right. It speaks to the magnitude of the problem. You’re in meetings for years and you’re the only black face in the room — that’s the magnitude of the problem. That’s what needs to be addressed.

"You’re the only black face in the room — that’s the magnitude of the problem. That’s what needs to be addressed."

One of the socially acceptable outs when discussing this is to say: “Well, I don’t see colour,” which is such a cop-out. Because first of all, it’s a privilege to say that and it reflects the fact that you don’t have to think about it, which means you’re probably white.

Second, it’s so incredibly ignorant, because it obscures and elides hundreds of years of history, and the fact that we know that all these path dependencies were created from slavery in the US and how they continue to endure. One example is what a famous sociologist named W.E.B. DuBois called the “psychological wage.” If you go back to the early 20th century in America, you had all these poor white men who were working in manufacturing and they were at risk of organising like any other labour movement and demanding better conditions.

One of the ways, particularly in the South, in which management prevented that was to basically play up the racial divisions, by saying yes, you’re poor, you’re not making as much money as you could, but to turn that whiteness into a feeling of superiority, explicitly as a wage substitute.

Now that psychological wage in the US is shrinking, which is partly why you’re seeing this phenomenon of men who were union members during the 1980s and voted Democrat all their lives, and are now big Trump fans. It’s the slightest shift in informal social status that’s triggering this incredible backlash.

CA: The real battle must be around creating economic opportunities, not a fight for survival.

CA: You make the point that Americans are uncomfortable talking about race, but it is an issue in the UK as well. In the workplace, if you can’t have the conversation with both parties, it’s difficult to come up with solutions to a problem you’re not addressing.

One of my tips for Black people who want to be successful in business is to get comfortable talking about race. It’s a two-way thing. Before Black Lives Matter, I never felt comfortable broaching the subject of race with my friends, let alone with my boss. Even a conversation like this one, six months ago people just wouldn’t be able to do it, wouldn’t know how to engage in the subject.

You have to be comfortable yourself talking about race to help the other party get comfortable talking about it. It’s a subject that matters, and it’s a subject that’s going to have an effect on your lived experience if you can engage with your boss or even your peers to talk about, so they can understand what your plight is and start to think about ways you can work together for the greater good.

Some studies suggest that if you avoid the conversation as a black professional, you end up feeling more alienated and disengaged. And maybe your white boss does want to talk about it, but they’re rarely going to be the one to bring it up. So, it’s important for you as a black professional to show that you’re comfortable and to power through that nervousness.

"Some studies suggest that if you avoid the conversation as a black professional, you end up feeling more alienated and disengaged."

My question is, are there any tips you can give around how to have such an open conversation with your boss or co-worker?

ES: This is so important, because what it really does is license the other person to stop pretending they don’t see that you’re Black. This imperative to act colourblind is strong but it’s an impediment. When you initiate that conversation, you license me to stop pretending that I don’t notice we’re different races, and that’s an important first step.

I think it’s good to signal that you’re comfortable talking about it, and you also want to signal that you believe it’s important to talk about. But it’s really important to pick the right time and place.

Smaller groups are better, and one-on-one is best: I’m not going to give you a 100% unmitigated natural response if there are other people around, because I’ll be wondering if I’m saying something they’ll disapprove of. Once you have a rapport with someone around that issue you can also talk about it in larger settings.

The flipside is that it’s exhausting. I don't think it is reasonable or justifiable to expect black professionals to be constantly educating their white colleagues on these issues.

CA: Yes, you do get the feeling you’re having the same conversation with thousands of people and they’re expecting you to be the expert. So I guess setting boundaries is quite important.

ES: The other important thing I want to say on this is that developing a common language to talk about these issues can be really helpful. So, the phrase ‘implicit bias’ allows you to very quickly and efficiently call out discrepancies. It’s more difficult if you don’t have that shared language you get from having these conversations initially. Having a shared vocabulary so you can point out instances and cut them off when they are happening, that’s important.

CA: The next tip is what I would typically call finding a mentor, but having taken your [MBA elective] Path to Power course I’ll re-phrase that to the importance of finding a sponsor. I’d like you to explain what the difference is between a mentor and a sponsor, and why it’s so important to find one.

ES: Absolutely. I give full credit here to my colleague Herminia Ibarra, who’s done a lot of great work on this. The distinction between mentor and sponsor is critical for the professional progression of women. I’m sure it’s also pivotal for black employees.

The basic idea is that there are these punctuating moments in your career where people are going to be sitting around a table allocating resources, allocating rewards, and part of that process is a person in that room effectively putting their reputation on the line and vouching for one of their reports — not just that but fighting for them, really trying to make sure that this person’s hard work is recognised and rewarded. And that’s essentially the sponsor’s responsibility.

The mentor makes no such promises. The mentor is happy to talk, happy to give general advice, happy to be friendly and generally supportive, but the job of the sponsor is to be your advocate and you have to earn that sponsorship. It’s not something you can just walk up and get. That’s the key difference.

So, how do you develop that sponsor relationship? Shared interests that you are passionate about can be the foundation of the relationship. You can build on that and it can lead to a sponsor-protégé relationship by demonstrating that you also share your sponsor’s values and are willing to work very hard to earn their trust and respect.

CA: Another tip for Black executives is to reach out to other Black people in the organisation. Clearly the sponsor doesn’t have to be someone of the same race, but there’s value to identifying other people with a similar lived experience to yourself because that way you can learn from their experiences as a Black individual. It can educate you in how to behave in that organisation and help identify people who could be seen as allies in your quest.

It is also really important to build not just up but also down, so identifying people generally who have a similar experience to yourself.

ES: Part of having these informal networks is the shared life experience, and part is having an early-warning system about who’s really racist and whose activities are going to be detrimental to the other black executives in the firm.

CA: The follow-on is to join networks, whether social or professional, outside your current workplace. In the UK, for example, there’s the Black British City Group (BBCG). Building a network of people who are going through the same kind of experience as you is clearly important for some of the reasons you’ve mentioned.

ES: Let me ask you a question about that. Sharing information is relatively frictionless, but what if somebody in one of these networks asks you: “Hey, I need you to help me find a job.” What is the expectation?

CA: That’s a very good point. My experience is that it has really differed depending on the individual. I’ve had times when I’ve reached out to people and you can tell straight away that they kind of feel: “Look mate, I’ve really struggled to get here, and you’ve got to find your own way.”

In my experience, some Black people feel hard done by to have got to where they are and thus feel the next person needs to do the same thing — that it’s not their job to help them. So I’d say right now the expectation is pretty low. We need to turn that on its head and think, ‘I struggled to get where I am, so I need to make it easier for the person coming after me.’

I tend to think about what’s the easiest thing I can ask from this person. My perspective is that we, as a community, need to be more helpful to each other.

ES: You can never guarantee you’re going to get somebody a job, but what you can do is even the distribution of opportunity a little, because access to that sort of conversation is systematically uneven. I wonder if it is a generational thing, whether that mentality will soften a little bit — I hope it does.

CA: The final tip I have is around building personal capabilities and skills that are going to help you understand and influence those around you — a skill that in your lectures you called ‘self-monitoring’. The fact of the matter is that if you’re a black professional in a high-powered industry, the likelihood is most of the people in the room will not look like you or have the same background and experiences that facilitate rapport-building. Are there any tips you have for developing such a capability as a Black professional?

ES: That’s a really good question. One approach is to think about how performers go about it — people like actors, people who do public speaking for a living. But the biggest challenge for being a consistently great self-monitor is first, understanding what a situation demands of you and then two, being able to enact that.

There’s a theoretical tension here between self-monitoring and workplace authenticity. There’s a lot of great research on the benefits that accrue to people when they feel they can be authentic at work. But that almost exists in tension with this, because what I am telling students to do with self-monitoring is not that at all.

But there are ways to do this that are authentic and represent a self-expression that feels like you, it’s just that it’s not your first thought. Your first thought is, who should I be in this situation?

I bring it up because I think it’s a good tip, but it reflects the problem — the fact that I am telling a segment of my students to think harder in a certain situation, and I don’t like that. I still think it’s good advice, but it frustrates me that that’s where I land.

CA: I remember reflecting on this after the class and thinking that you have to accept that you’ll need to have some flexibility in different scenarios to get to where you need to be. But also you need to think beforehand about where your boundaries are, and so long as those boundaries aren’t crossed, you can mould to the situation to influence and to get to where you want to go. And that’s how I think about it going forward.

ES: You have your true North and you know what that is. And as long as you’re not asked to or feel compelled to step outside that, then, yes, that’s a really good way of thinking about it.