reboot.: Bad culture will destroy a business

Livingbridge’s Wol Kolade talks microaggressions, measuring values and #10000BlackInterns

ESG Clarity and sister publication DiversityQ have partnered with the reboot. campaign to spotlight the journeys of successful ethnic minority professionals who have risen to senior positions in the corporate world.

The series aims to support positive dialogue on race in the workplace and engage senior leadership across large organisations to help tackle conscious and unconscious biases, as well as create a truly inclusive workplace, by showcasing the ‘SuperBAMEs’.

Someone shifting their table in a restaurant. A disparaging tone of voice at first-class check-in. Biased words from the other side of the fundraising table. These moments have stuck with Wol Kolade.

It may surprise you to hear the Livingbridge managing partner, who is the son of a Nigerian diplomat, has an English boarding school and 25 years of private equity success behind him, is still hurt by these microaggressions. But they do hurt and they do still happen.

“A white woman and black man [business co-founders] were a rarity in private equity in 1997 but little has changed and it’s still a rarity,” Livingbridge co-founder Shani Zindel said.

Kolade points out that this is an issue of context and culture. “Growing up in 1970s Britain, you’d have these incredibly racist prime-time TV shows on and these informed so-called acceptable behaviours in the workplace. As the years have passed, this more overt, aggressive racism has been buried, but it’s been replaced by microaggressions.”

These are seemingly trivial things – speaking with the waiter or clutching your passport at the start of a business trip – but they consistently reinforce the colour differential.

In aggregate these don’t just hurt, they also actively impede the progression and creation of role models, blocking the pipeline of ethnic minority talent. This self-reinforces the colour differential.

Culture is key

Kolade doesn’t tolerate such actions. He also has strong allies who react on his behalf. But if overt racism has morphed over the years into covert racism, what’s the answer?

“The culture of an organisation is the foundation stone,” Kolade said. “No matter what the rules, regulations or guidelines, if a good, inclusive culture isn’t there, then nothing’s going to change.”

He cites the example of his own firm: “We essentially measure people on two things: delivery and the behaviours, values, culture that enable delivery. In other words, the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.

“Some people assume the worst place to be is low scores in both metrics. But that’s not correct. It’s far worse to score highly on ‘what’ and low on ‘how’. These people don’t care about how they deliver. They’re like a cancer: if you don’t treat it vigorously, it can destroy a business.”

An effective treatment is to look at the pipeline of talent. Kolade is one of the founders of #10000BlackInterns, an initiative that aims to unkink the hosepipe, as one of his colleagues puts it.

The most problematic point in an ethnic minority career path is entry level. People can’t see anyone who looks like them at the top, they have nothing to aim for and, with some people telling them “this isn’t a career for you”, they don’t try.

#10000BlackInterns aims to solve this and even Kolade, exuding imagination and energy, has been taken aback by its success: “We were surprised how quickly people jumped on board. So we’ve broadened it from financial services to business more broadly.”

Getting a good proportion of ethnic minority individuals into senior leadership positions won’t happen overnight. But you have to start somewhere. And with role models like Kolade – and the other ethnic minorities championed by the reboot. movement – there is every chance things can change for the better.

The full interview, conducted by Zindel, is below:

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