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The BBBA: How to find your authentic voice as an ethnic minority leader

26 May 2021

Debbie Tembo, Managing Director, The Black British Business Awards.

Most of us are hyper aware of how we present ourselves in the workplace; we actively manage our behaviour, our emotions and how we come across. We do this for several reasons; some may feel they are not able to openly express emotion amongst their colleagues; others may think their sense of humour is too different and some – largely influenced by the misconceived notion that the best leaders ‘have it all together’ – fear they risk hurting their reputation or credibility if they are emotional or show their real self.

The pursuit of authentic leadership is important for everyone, but it is an altogether unique challenge for ethnic minority leaders who may already feel supressed by the weight of being in the minority. Indeed, comfort in being one’s true self, sharing information of one’s home and personal life and establishing social connection are proven to be easier within one’s own group than they are across a demographic boundary – in the case of this discussion, racial background.

I have met many people of colour who, through no fault of their own, fail to comprehend that the impact they have as a leader and their chance of progression is likely affected by their colleagues’ natural feelings of closeness towards them. We are all familiar with the systemic inequality that exists so deeply for ethnic minorities within the workplace, so on the surface finding one’s true voice may seem insignificant. The evidence, my own lived experience, and the experiences of my colleagues, however, is there to tell us otherwise.

Not only is authenticity fundamental to influential leadership, but study after study has also highlighted the direct link between leaders who can relate to their colleagues and how successful a business is. In fact, one study has also shown that employees’ perception of authentic leadership serves the strongest predictor of job satisfaction and it can have a positive impact on work-related attitudes and happiness.

It is important to note that finding an authentic voice is not about changing who you are as an individual. Rather, it is about gaining an increased understanding of how contexts can constrain expressions of authenticity for you as a minority ethnic professional so you can build the skills to flex personal style and energy to counter this.

Let us remember, what works for the majority does not always apply in the same way to the minority, not because minority leaders lead differently, but because being a minority leader challenges many of the entrenched assumptions of what leadership looks like.

Here I share six actionable steps you can take to find your voice as an ethnic minority leader.

Believe in your worth

The colour of your skin does not determine your worth. No doubt you will have heard this many times before, but it is an important drum to bang. Let’s also acknowledge that when racism forms the backdrop of your everyday life, it can be hard to believe this is not the truth.

Remember, where you come from and the experiences you have had, have helped form every part of who you are. Looking inward and gaining a keen sense of self-awareness is one of the most important traits of a leader. Asking yourself how your experiences have helped form your strengths can help you re-frame negative thoughts

Remain true to yourself

Extra-curricular and social events are important avenues to building trust and connection with other employees. However, studies have shown that racial boundaries can be a real impediment to socialising because some people fear being judged because of having different views and cultural references.

Your power lies in your difference, and you should not shrink or change to fit the mould of the majority. Instead, look to take up space respectfully. Acknowledging what you believe to be your difference and sharing your experiences can help to kindle bonds.

Make your voice heard

Lean into moments of discomfort and get comfortable speaking up, especially if it does not come naturally to you. You may not always have an ally in the room, but if you are asked for your opinion, embrace the opportunity to express yourself with impact.

Taking a leap of faith when things get difficult can inspire and influence. Indeed, it’s likely there are others in a similar position to you who are seeking a role model for guidance and reassurance. You may have come this far without your own, but it’s time to take responsibility and be a guiding light for others. As Ann Cairns, Chair of the 30 Per Cent Club, said at an event I recently attended, “Don’t be a lady in waiting”.

Prioritise personal development

Understand your capabilities, leverage your experience, and say yes to stretch assignments that allow you to grow and develop new skills. This is not a commitment to perfection, but rather an acknowledgement that investing in oneself will ultimately help your team and the business thrive. If stretch assignments are not offered, put your hand up and ask for them. Nobody can advocate for you if you do not advocate for yourself.

Give your intuition a voiceIf the voice you’re using doesn’t feel right for you, it’s probably not. I am naturally an intuitive leader guided by an innate sense of being and I find this to be one of my most powerful lights. It is no one’s place to tell you that this sense is invalid. Successful leadership requires a whole-brained approach, acting on facts will only take you so far.

Attend a targeted race and ethnicity leadership programme

Traditional leadership programmes seldom speak to the lived experience of those in the minority. Content insights, activities and practical recommendations often overlook the role that race plays in shaping perceptions during interpersonal interactions and of leadership. As I previously mentioned, what works for the majority does not always apply in the same way to the minority.

Psychological safety and permission to talk freely and openly about experiences of inequality and discrimination are essential. You may have never had the opportunity to discuss your past experiences in a safe space with like-minded peers. You may find it enriching and reassuring to learn alongside other talented ethnic minority professionals who have similar aspirations and who face similar obstacles to you. Do not underestimate how beneficial this no filter approach could be for your personal growth.

Unpacking your past experiences, identifying your unique strengths, and grappling with the dynamics of leading as a minority in a majority context are all important in the process of finding your authentic voice. Have you found yours yet?

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