The key to achieving lasting change

bame change entrepreneurship gender equality intersectionality leadership research women in academia Mar 06, 2020

Interview with Srabani Sen OBE by Clare Hewitt

Tell us about yourself and what inspired you to set up Full Colour. 

Over 30 years of my career has been in the not for profit. My professional background is campaigning and strategic communication. Through that route I rose up through the ranks and became successively the CEO of three organizations. Firstly Alcohol Concern (now Alcohol Change) which campaigned around the impact of alcohol misuse and alcohol harm. Second was an organization which is now called Contact. When I was there, it was called Contact a Family. We worked to improve the lives of families with disabled children. It was a mixture of campaigning but also providing information, support and advice services to families with disabled children. I went on to be the chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. 

During the course of the last 27/ 28 years, I have also served on different boards of a range of different organizations. I currently chair two organizations - a campaigning organization called 38 Degrees and a community based children and young people's organization called The Winch

I left the world of being a full time CEO about four or five years ago, and have been doing a lot of consultancy around strategy, leadership development and culture. I set up Full Colour when I was reflecting on my own leadership career. I realized that the higher up the ranks I got there were fewer people who looked like me. While I was rarely the only woman in the room, I was almost always the only person of color. 

I reflected on how I had broken through those barriers, and why others were finding it hard. I wanted to do something to address the lack of racial diversity in leadership and support the next generation of emerging leaders, particularly people from a BAME background and  women. I also realized that I had gained a lot of expertise around how to run organizations. I felt there was a gap in bringing diversity and inclusion together with addressing the challenges that leaders face in running organisations. Getting better at diversity and inclusion holds the key to so many issues organisations face.   

What approach do you take to enable organisations to get better at diversity and inclusion?

I take a very practical, competency based approach. I help leaders and organisations develop the practical skills, knowledge, competencies and expertise to lead in an inclusive way, and to understand how diversity can make their  organization more successful. Too often diversity and inclusion is thought of as something else to add to the to do list, rather than being central to an organisation’s success.  

My approach is to work with the leadership of organizations, whether that's senior executive leadership or boards. I focus on what your organization is trying to achieve. What are your goals? What are the challenges your organization faces? And then consider how having greater  diversity and a culture which allows that difference to flourish will help organisations achieve those goals. The key is to make diversity and inclusion specific to your organization, and part of your success criteria. 

A lot of organizations push diversity and inclusion down the hierarchy to individuals or groups of individuals who have no decision making power, no budget, no influencing power, and who may not have the expertise to drive progress. So progress is slow. 

Another issue is diversity and inclusion work can centre around one-off initiatives in isolation from anything else going on in the organization, and usually with short term project horizons. Unsurprisingly, the impact of such initiatives tends to be either small or short lived. Also, a lot of the initiatives are based at the entry level point of recruitment. The assumption is that if we can get people in an entry level, in a few years, they will rise up the ranks and then naturally, diversity will improve at the leadership level. Well, I've been working for more than 30 years in paid employment. When I was starting work in my early 20’s this was the approach that people were taking. And 30 years later I don't notice that trickle up effect having worked. So if it hasn't worked in 30 years, why keep trying to do the things that don’t work? That's why I concentrate my efforts on working with leadership teams to create a strategic approach to driving inclusion and diversity within an organization. 

How do you bring about lasting change in your opinion? 

One of the things I truly, in my soul believe is the vast majority of people are good people. Wagging a finger at people and tell them everything they're doing wrong is not how you get lasting change. We need to inspire people around the value of that change. It's also about creating an atmosphere where everybody can feel safe.  Everyone in an organization needs to feel part of the journey and champion change, not just people who are in groups with “protected characteristics”. That’s the only way to achieve lasting change. 

And thinking about your career did you aim to reach these leadership positions? How did you find yourself on that pathway? 

I've always been quite ambitious and particularly around the change that I might contribute towards making. It's no accident that I've always worked in the not for profit sector. I'm not motivated by making loads of money. I'm motivated by impact. And I think because of that, my focus in my career has not been about me. It's been about how can I contribute to some change that's going out there and on issues I care about. Obviously, the higher up the hierarchy you go, the more scope you've got to positively impact the lives of the people affected by the cause that you're working on. A lot of my board contributions have been around children, children's poverty issues and empowering people in society who feel disenfranchised.. Those are things I care about. So for me, that rise up the career ladder was linked with how can I make a bigger difference to those issues I care about. 

So in a sense, I didn't have any mental barriers about what was possible in terms of my career.I think the result of that was I took a lot of pressure off myself . I was very fortunate in that my parents always brought me up to believe that if I dreamed big enough and worked hard enough, anything is possible. Their expectations of me were always a lot higher than my expectations of myself. They gave me a  sense that what’s possible is only limited by your own ambitions and expectations of yourself. I’ll always be very grateful for that. 

Did you find there were any challenges in terms of finding a work/life balance. Particularly in terms of the additional domestic workload that women often find themselves taking on. 

One of the things I inherited from my mother is a heck of a lot of stamina. If I want to do something, I'll find a way of doing it. My question is always, how do I make this happen, rather than what's going to stop me doing it. The kind of networks and structures you've got around you matter in terms of how supportive they are. It's about making active choices about how you spend your time and energy. So there's still time for family, friends and looking after your health and wellbeing. It’s about making judgements daily, weekly, and being super organized. I don't have a magic formula. Other than being very well organized and having great support networks. And not worrying too much if I have a messy house! 

Many feel that progress on addressing race and gender inequality is not fast enough. What are your views? What do you feel will make the biggest difference to speed up the move towards equality? 

I agree that progress on addressing gender and race inequality is glacially slow. For me though, getting angry about it and blaming people for the lack of progress, whilst emotionally satisfying, is not a solution. We have to excite people about the joy and wonder of true inclusion and diversity, about how much more successful our organisations would be and how much more fun we would have at work if we were truly inclusive. We also have to make people feel safe. Too many people I meet are paralysed into inaction because they are frightened of getting it wrong. We have to clearly link diversity and inclusion to our organisations’ strategy and goals so we understand why we need to harness diversity. And we need to be specific about this. Too much of how we think and talk about diversity and inclusion is fuzzy and so top level as to be meaningless. Finally, we need to be practical. Not just in defining practical steps to move us forward, but in our overall  approach.. If you only have £2.50 to spend on diversity and inclusion, don’t create goals that require £millions to achieve. 

What labels have been applied to you in your career? What have been the effects of these? 

You are usually the last person to know what labels people apply to you.  

I have had to deal with assumptions about what I am supposed to be like as a woman leader. We are supposed to be “soft”, “empathetic”, “nurturing”. But as with any leader, you sometimes have to deal with situations or steer organisations through issues that need you to be “tough”, “decisive” and “courageous”.  People can judge you negatively for that. The question for me is never how can I be a good woman leader? It is how can I be a good leader, the leader my organization needs me to be? 

Have you ever felt treated as “the Other” in your role, current or previous? Can you tell us more about this situation? 

There are so many situations where I have been treated as “other”, I wouldn’t know where to start. For me the issue is not how others treat you, it is how you respond. While there are different specific responses depending on the specific situation, for me the key is about not letting anyone else’s treatment of you stop you from being the best version of yourself you can be. Sometimes this is hard. It can be very upsetting when someone or a group of people “other” you, but the more you can practice being calm, confident and authentic in these situations the easier it becomes over time. 

What advice would you give to other women who would like to set up a social enterprise or charity? 

Do it! Get some people around you who will cheer you on and buoy you up during the tough times. Be ambitious for the change you are trying to make in the world. And always hold on to why you set up your enterprise. If you are setting up a social enterprise or a charity you’ll be doing so because you want to change lives and make a corner of the world better. That’s the biggest motivation I know to keep plugging away, no matter what. 

 Srabani Sen OBE Linked In