Tony Simpson | Covid-19, Race and Gen Z

At a time when much of the world is reflecting on attitudes towards race and equality, Tony Simpson, partner and head of sport at board advisory firm Savannah, puts sport under the microscope and says attitudes and practices must change for human, social and business reasons

Tony Simpson

For many years I have been advising boards in the sports sector and helping them acquire talent that delivers results in an increasingly competitive and fragmented world.

And it remains an undeniable fact that the boardrooms of most of the world’s leading sports institutions are not reflective of their participants or those that follow the sport. In England, the proportion of black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) footballers in the Premier League has more than doubled since the leagues inception in 1992, yet in 2020, we have only one BAME manager and one BAME chief executive.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, across most major sports, there are more young BAME athletes joining the professional ranks, yet this is not translating into the executive boardrooms, which are mainly BAME free. Of those with senior positions, many are honorary, and come without the fiscal benefits enjoyed by white colleagues.

Whilst organised sport has been contested for hundreds of years, ‘the business of sport’ is in its infancy. Changes to how sport is administered, consumed and who consumes it moving at an unprecedented rate, driven by technology, globalisation and the need for instant data. On top of this, we have to deal with the confluence of technology, millennials and diversity, the new breed of sports executive needs a professional tool box that includes empathy aligned with the ability to handle this new reality. Unfortunately, many are out of step, working with advisors and board members who reflect both their own experience and socio-cultural heritage. In 2020, that’s just not good enough.

I have been in the privileged position to discuss race and diversity in all its forms, with many of our sector’s leading chief executives and chairs, and one thing that always struck me was their need for a safe environment where they could not only challenge me but also their own concepts of race, and get a better understanding of privilege in order to make their companies more attractive, better, and ultimately more profitable places to work.

Looking at the blizzard of information being posted and reposted on social media, I suspect many business leaders are confused and overwhelmed, unsure of how to effectively respond to not only a post-Covid-19 working environment, but also, to extract and implement sustainable positives from the Black Lives Matter movement.

I am now asking questions of myself, as a generation of young people of all races and social backgrounds is putting itself on the line, demanding workplace change, demanding equal opportunities, demanding work environments that reflect their moral and social values. However uncomfortable this might be, we need to embrace this change using our positions of influence. It’s not only the right thing to do (your companies will be all the better for it), but it’s business-critical, requiring emotionally-secure leadership and compassion. Don’t hire on colour, hire on merit, but remove the barriers to entry so that all can be judged equally. Using education alone as a benchmark is wrong in some instances, especially where education in itself is a privilege. Clearly, there are exceptions, but we are talking about the spectrum of the executive suite.

I believe the businesses that will thrive post-Covid-19 will be those that encourage a coming together of different ethnicities with different experiences. The food we eat is a blend of various cultures, the music we listen to is a blend of different cultures, the holidays we seek are mix of different cultures, the sports teams we follow are populated by athletes of different cultures. However, executive power remains steadfastly white, and still, in 2020, predominantly male.

If you are seeking corporate role models you don’t need to look much further than the global franchise of the NBA. With its diverse leadership, this federation is doing more than OK. As is CNN, the Global News Network. Interestingly, both are American, but they are not typical of the general sports and media landscapes. The entertainment industry, whose executive boards probably least reflect their content, has arguably the most to gain from cultural amalgamation. I’m pretty sure the commissioning editors at Netflix did not anticipate the success of The Last Dance documentary. Yes, maybe that success was due to Covid-19 – they had a captive audience, but look what happened, an ‘African American’ basketball documentary trended at number one in the UK.

With less business travel predicted in a post-Covid-19 world, companies will need to be globally ready, and the winners will be those with diverse internationally-orientated boards better able to anticipate and act upon trends and client needs. The fastest growing, most innovative, disruptive and prosperous urban centres in the world, New York, Berlin, London and Paris, all have something in common; they are melting pots with a high concentration of immigrants. It’s a fact: there is a direct correlation between high-skilled immigration and economic performance.

Substantial research shows the benefits of hiring diverse talent: increased profitability and creativity, stronger governance and better problem-solving. Employees with diverse backgrounds bring their own perspectives, ideas and experiences, helping to create organisations that are resilient and effective, regularly outperforming organisations that do not actively invest or understand the values of diversity.

The new breed of chief executives will challenge preconceptions with flexibility and versatility, putting people and HR at the centre of their decision-making process. Such leadership traits will be necessary for small companies and large corporations alike. A culturally diverse environment will be the only way to acquire and utilise these qualities. Assumptions need to be challenged, conversations need to be had, and corporate culture needs to be updated so that the modern workplace can accurately reflect and support its staff and client base.

And for those who seek a return to ‘normal’, it’s just not going to happen. In 10 years’ time it’s anticipated that up to 80 per cent of the global workforce will be made up of millennials. Over the coming decades, this group will start to occupy the majority of leadership positions. Their thoughts and ideas will be the prevailing workplace culture. Now take a hard look within your organisation and ask yourself – is your leadership team going to be ready to do business with this new value-focused client base?

This new group will be responsible for making the decisions that affect workplace cultures and people’s lives. It will have a unique and fresh perspective on diversity. No longer seen through the prism of race, demographics, equality and representation, millennials see diversity as a melding of varying experiences, different backgrounds and individual perspectives. They view the workplace as a supportive environment where they can safely challenge differing perspectives on any given product, service or issue.

Recently, the professional services company Deloitte produced a ‘Millennial Survey’ showing that 74 per cent of working millennials believed their organisation was more innovative when it had a culture of diversity and inclusion. More recently, a leading UK law firm repositioned itself, as a ‘professional services firm with ‘social purpose’ at its heart’. This change was arguably driven by the need to retain and recruit the very best millennial talent, which will ultimately provide the fiscal succession to the current partner base.

In 2020, my company, Savannah Group, commissioned a ‘Business of Content Survey’, with the participation of over 100 of the world’s largest Sports, Media and Entertainment companies. Of those taking part, ‘80 per cent were unable or unsure how to develop content monetisation strategies for Gen Z’, an incredible admission demonstrating a clear need for young dynamic Board input. Mark Zuckerberg was a CEO in his early 20s. Can you imagine the commercial possibilities of a brilliant young and diverse team tackling this issue? The fact is that 50 per cent of millennials actively look for diversity and inclusion when sizing up potential employers. And, just to be clear, when calculating your BAME head count, make sure it’s representative throughout the business, not just over-indexing around Executive Assistants, Doormen and Catering staff.

In our post-manufacturing world of financial services, service industries, retail and professional services, it is even more obvious that a company is only as strong as its people. With the unprecedented turmoil on the streets, it would be interesting to know which organisations have used their regular Zoom meetings as an opportunity to hear from their BAME colleagues, to ask about their personal take on what’s happening in North America and nearer to home, to better understand a different perspective. The results might surprise you and will certainly make you a stronger, more honest team.

I have said this many times, and it’s true, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. The majority of professional workplaces mirror the sociocultural environments of the lives of their staff outside of the workplace; in many ways they are subconsciously hiring in their own image. Workplace diversity is an asset for both the businesses and its employees. It incubates innovation, creativity and empathy in ways that homogeneous environments seldom do. It doesn’t happen by chance, it takes careful nurturing and conscious planning, but once successful, nearly always results in an explosion of creativity, performance and productivity.

What is happening on our TV screens and across social media most likely seems like a personal attack on the values and systems you have worked in and benefitted from without realising or really understanding why. Here is a different perspective. I was asked last week by a woman of colour, why a particular ’White Male’ was so angry with the Black Lives Matter movement. I explained the often-used quote that, ‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.’ My own team has seen some of this first-hand in letters I have received from incredulous candidates who didn’t get senior positions they felt entitled to. All lives matter, it is true. but if you truly believe that statement, then you’ll understand why #BlackLivesMatter is so important. You can’t have one without the other, and if you disagree, you are unconsciously part of the problem.

So, let’s look at the elephant in the room. What is white privilege and what does it have to do with you? White privilege is people not being surprised that you’re articulate, never being followed by store detectives in your 40s and 50s, not being pulled out of line at airports on a regular basis, not being told that restaurants/hotels/clubs are full when they’re clearly not, never having to give your children that heartbreaking talk, never having to watch your daughters search for non-Eurocentric standards of beauty.

I could go on but you get the picture. It is because of this unconscious bias that brand and corporate authenticity need to be genuine, sustainable and culturally embedded.

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi’s Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

It is important for corporations to step up and advocate for diversity and tolerance on a public platform, and a great example of this was Nike’s support of American football’s quarterback and civil rights campaigner, Colin Kaepernick. More than a marketing exercise, it showed the world that one of America’s best-known corporations was willing to stand alongside one man in his battle against racial injustice and intolerance. Interestingly enough, as a result, the brand increased sales, received more positive PR than it could ever have paid for, and had a brand equity and affinity with its consumers that it retains to this day. This can only happen when you have diverse executives at the top table who are part of the debate and decision-making process, able to communicate the pros and cons of such a strategy. Sadly this broad thinking and championing of diversity is not reflected in Nikes Boardroom. We also saw Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) ‘We See Equal’ campaign, designed to fight gender bias and work towards equality for all. It depicted boys and girls defying gender stereotypes. The company has a history of promoting this issue, and also records 45 per cent of its managers and a third of its board as women. P&G’s clear dedication to equality within its own workforce meant that the campaign came across as authentic and as a genuine push for change.

To conclude, Generation Z, race and a new post-Covid-19 working environment are all intrinsically linked. Merit-based diversity and inclusion are the only options if your business wishes to harness the power of a new and energised global population group. I am looking forward to working with my clients as we take on these structural challenges together over the coming months.

Tony Simpson has a track record of recruiting diverse talent into sports organisations and has nearly 30 years’ experience in the sector. He has been CEO of an AIM-listed Sports Marketing Agency and worked client side, where he successfully launched a Middle Eastern based global news channel.

He is is a Trustee of the Black Cultural Archives, an advisory Board member for Special Olympics GB, and regular presenter on the benefits of a diverse workforce. He is a former member of the Hertfordshire Police Authority.

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