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John Lawlor and Thanda Mhlanga


In conversation with John Lawlor and Thanda Mhlanga on diversity and inclusion

Today is Black Leaders Awareness Day. John Lawlor, our new Trust Chair, and Thanda Mhlanga, our Associate Director for EDI, had a discussion on the importance of diverse and inclusive leadership, and our plans to tackle racism and discrimination at the Trust.

John Lawlor and Thanda Mhlanga

The Trust is currently seeking to appoint a new CEO and particularly welcomes applications from groups under-represented in leadership roles, including those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Thanda and John share their message for any Black applicants thinking about applying for the CEO role.

Why is diversity important at a senior leadership level?

John: It is important people see themselves reflected in leadership. I’m a great believer in ensuring there are people around the Board table who have an understanding and appreciation of different backgrounds and different people’s experiences. We provide mental health and wellbeing services, as well as education and training, we cover a diverse population; it’s important that our services are genuinely tailored to the needs of the people we serve.

We have, as a Trust, looked critically at ourselves and accepted uncomfortable truths about the lived experiences of our staff, patients, and students over the last two years. We are committed to challenging ourselves to step outside our individual and institutional privileges and denounce and dismantle all forms of racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism. We want to be known for both the excellent services we deliver and how staff support and value each other as equals and are committed to tackling discrimination and embracing diversity across our organisation. We accept that, from the Board on down, we are not diverse enough. As the incoming Chair, and a person of privilege, I am acutely aware of this. The Board and I take this very seriously. We have not yet shifted the dial, but we will do all in our power through new structures and new members, to drive and secure real, tangible change.

Thanda: Sometimes I have a bit of emotional disquiet about the use of the word ‘diversity’ which I don’t feel is always a useful word. We begin to count people, rather than it being people that count. You may be diverse but not necessarily inclusive. I want to focus more on inclusion than diversity as the former ensures that everyone has a sense of belonging irrespective of their background. Inclusion celebrates diversity.

Having said that, the importance of diversity in leadership is understanding that if we don’t have inclusive or diverse groups, groupthink is real. Without diversity we risk creating echo-chambers with blind-spots and this has significant consequences at policy level. There are certain things that people won’t see simply because they are too close to them. For instance, in the NHS, the board room is still very much a white space. Often, there is a gap between policies that we design to shape the realities of multicultural or diverse societies from monocultural decision-making tables, and the actual experiences of the people, particularly groups that are underrepresented and misunderstood. I think it is really important to get that right and to tackle this gap wherever we can.

John: I focused on diversity in my response, but obviously Thanda has a point; diversity is necessary but not sufficient.

Thanda: In my previous life I used to be an academic and delivered leadership and management training. I’d always say to people who are leaders: reflect on the four key pillars around you. Who are the four key pillars that you go to for advice, or are the springboards for your ideas? If they look like you, sound like you, then there is an issue – you might be part of the problem but not aware of it. I think that should influence our understanding of diversity and inclusion as leaders. We need to reflect on who the key people around us are.

We know that more needs to be done to promote racial equality at the Tavistock and Portman, and across the NHS more broadly. How will our anti-racism pledge and race action plan address these systemic issues?

Thanda: I think there are two sides to this question. I think it’s one thing to pledge to be an anti-racist organisation and another to actively journey towards becoming anti-racist. So, whilst this is a noble ambition, we need to be careful that there is no gap between pronouncements and the realities on the ground. It is important that we engage with the realities as honestly as possible. How did we get here? I think that is key. It’s not about being trapped in negativity and history, but we need to understand that where we are as a Trust, is built on 74 years of NHS history and in the case of the Tavistock, a legacy going back over 100 years. We need to understand that and not shy away from it. Context is important, we need to engage with it and then launch ourselves forward from there.

Everything that we come up with is underpinned by that historical understanding. There are sections in the community that have been disadvantaged for hundreds of years. We now need to decolonise our policies, processes, and systems. What’s going on is not individual acts of meanness. Often, we want to pretend that we’ve got mean individuals in our midst, but it’s not that. It’s systems that are inherently racist. Let’s acknowledge that, and then focus on how we repair our system, how do we move forward? This is what our current action plan tries to achieve.

We acknowledge what’s going on and then come up with strategies. For instance, how do we de-bias our recruitment processes? How do we ensure that people who come for interviews feel comfortable, and that there will be people who look like them on the panel? Not just sitting on the panel in a tokenistic way, but people who will question, challenge and influence outcomes.

People need to see themselves in senior roles. We need to get to a point where it feels normal to have an executive or senior manager who looks like them. That is key and that is what we are trying to achieve. We are saying, ‘We haven’t always got it right, but we want to get it right and let’s work together’.

John: It is important that we help white people understand the history and where we’ve come from. How it’s become the case that people from particular backgrounds, or with particular appearances, have gained privilege. You’ve got to do that in quite a careful way, so you don’t cause people to become overly defensive.

In my previous Trust we put a lot of effort into trying to understand at all stages in the work cycle how people’s experiences differed, what was going on, but still ended up with a poorer result in terms of numbers of people being appointed from Black and minority backgrounds. So it’s really important we go beyond actions in an action plan, and on to a continuous improvement approach constantly evaluating whether policies are having the desired impact. This continuous assessment must include people who understand what it’s like to be one of those people who’s been looked over and might be able to help identify what’s flawed with your approach.

There’s got to be a willingness to review what you’ve done, go into it with humility and not be afraid to say “we’ve made it worse and we don’t know why” and get the right support to make things better.

Thanda: John touched on something important, the notion of white privilege. I think there are two sides to this. It’s important that we understand issues around white fragility; sometimes when you talk about white privilege people become defensive, and I think we need to engage in a constructive way. I challenge colleagues, in a constructive way, whether they’re white or they come from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds.

When we tell the truth, it’s important that we don’t make it too salty. The space of inclusion thrives on people’s good will. You can never ram equality and diversity down people’s throats. You’ve got to pull it in gently, you’ve got to make them buy into it. You tell the truth but with a bit of love, grace and civility so that people are on the same page. I think that is key and strategic to achieving what we are aiming to achieve.

It’s not about making anyone feel guilty. It’s not all about white privilege, there are so many sources of privilege: class, religion, sexuality, gender and so forth. As a man, I know I’ve got some privileges that some of my female colleagues don’t have. I need to acknowledge that. There are certain things we take for granted, for instance what do we do when we realise that some of our colleagues negotiate challenges that we are cushioned or protected against? It’s about engaging with all forms of privilege and making people reflect and engage with their privileges and then use them to support those that lack them. We’re not saying privileged people haven’t struggled in their lives, what we’re saying is who they are doesn’t close doors for them, it actually opens them – that is privilege or an unearned advantage if you like.

Tell us about a Black leader that you admire

Thanda: For many different reasons, my role model has always been Nelson Mandela. After 27 years in incarceration, he said let’s forgive one another, but let’s go through truth and reconciliation. Sometimes as an organisation you go through many challenges and pretend they never happened. I think it’s important as a leader to manage that space where there is reconciliation to allow people to heal and move on, but that is daunting. If you look at Nelson Mandela, he had that resolve, that resilience, that determination, that integrity, that commitment to the cause – a commitment to a long-term struggle. Think about it, after everything that he went through, he still embraced fairness and inclusion. It takes maturity to compromise. For me, that is leadership and Mandela’s life captures it beautifully.

But when I reflect on my own career, I ask myself is it really about being a black leader in the context of colour, and in the context of race, or a black leader in the context of epistemological blackness? I had an amazing white manager from the north-east who I always call epistemologically black because she understood blackness. She opened so many doors for me, I genuinely wouldn’t be the person I am today without her support. I got my first promotion when I was on probation because she saw my potential. She challenged me to enrol on a master’s programme in leadership and management and that eventually led to a doctorate in the same field. That was a white manager who saw my potential. I challenge every leader to look at life through inclusive lenses.

Being epistemologically black is a mindset, it means having a black consciousness. This means understanding that blackness isn’t a weakness, it is beauty, resilience, power and a lot more…. It’s about understanding that this particular race faces considerable challenges in education, in the workplace, in healthcare and in society in general to this day. Why is it that when we say ‘Black Lives Matter’, some people may respond angrily, ‘But white lives matter too’ or ‘All lives matter’. They’re missing the point, they don’t understand what Black Lives Matter means. Is there not enough evidence that some lives are more at risk than others? Risk in terms of being manhandled or shot at by the police who are meant to be protecting you and so on. People are not asking for preferential treatment but appealing for support as their lives are in danger. If you are epistemologically black you get that, and you are not defensive, you engage with that reality and use it in a positive way to address inequality and become an advocate or ally.

If you look at George Floyd, it wasn’t just the black community that that were appalled and fought to bring him justice. If you look at who was angry worldwide, who was marching, it was the white allies as well – we saw them passionately taking part in that fight.

John: Reflecting on a number of possible people as being influential for me, I’ve gone all the way back to my very first job as a schoolteacher in a mining village during the miners’ strike in 1984. Virtually 100% white community, white workforce in the school, white children, with one black teacher. I observed how she responded to the near daily abuse in the playground, being called words you can imagine.

I had a young lad in my class, a troubled youngster, and he was in a bad place after events at home and he just took it out on this teacher by spewing bile at her. The way that she continued, she put herself in his shoes, “why is he behaving like that?” was incredible. I spoke to the young lad about what happened with this teacher and what caused him to act like that and he talked to me with incredible lucidity about what she’d said, and the impact she had had on him. That is leadership.

What message would you give to Black applicants who are thinking about applying for the CEO role?

John: The first thing I would say is please get in touch, pick up the phone or drop me an email. We are genuinely interested in your application. Talk to me about what you would bring to the organisation. I am particularly interested in what you would want to do to make the organisation more inclusive and more diverse. That conversation has happened with the other people that have been in touch so far. It is hard to feel that an organisation like ours, that looks like we look, is genuinely both diverse and inclusive, so I think that would be the job. We have a degree of diversity around the board table now, but we don’t have any black Board members.

We’re genuinely interested in applicants of all backgrounds and particularly interested in what they would do both to make the workforce feel more engaged, more included, and also how to ensure that our clinical and educational services are genuinely tailored to the needs of the people we serve.

Thanda: From my experience and research, you find many roles where a white candidate isn’t ready, but they are perceived as having potential. They are given support, coaching, mentoring, their edges are smoothed, but that doesn’t happen often for people from other ethnicities. It’s social capital, the privileges that a section of the population have. I trust that if we saw this potential, we would act on it.

What I’d say to the candidate is: there is no denying the lack of representation in board rooms across the NHS. It won’t be easy, your voice may shake at times, but while you may feel pressure to fit in, you will be supported. And you would be a role model for others, giving hope to the younger generation. With this role you would be changing the narrative and be an agent of change. Just go for it.

I believe in what the Tavistock and Portman represents: something beautiful, that calling in the society and community to give everyone a chance and, in certain situations, a second chance to blossom and live a fulfilling life irrespective of their background. When we get it right it’s amazing. Let’s get it right for everybody, our patients, staff and students – not just a section of them.