Sitting in the reception, I was due to see John McFarlane, the chairman of Aviva at the time, to negotiate the severance package of one of my coaching clients. Some departures can become difficult and are better handled by third parties.
A PA came down to fetch me. When she arrived at the reception desk, they pointed her in my direction. I was seated next to a courier dressed in figure hugging lycra, with a cycling helmet on his lap.
She stopped and double checked the name on the slip of paper. In a flash, this experienced performer had lost all her poise, and a panic spilt over her face. With a less-than-confident staccato voice, she said to the both of us, “Er … Mr Carayol?” We both said nothing.
I let it hang in the air for a bit, and then said, “I think you’ll find that’s me”. She looked as though she had been struck by lightning and apologised profusely.
As we walked to the lift, I tried hard to remove the irritation and frustration from my mind and thought how could I use her gaffe to my advantage. I asked her how I could get the chairman on my side for the negotiation. She said without hesitation, “Make him laugh”.
Once settled in the chairman’s office, I shared an old gag, and he laughed out loud. The negotiation could not have gone better. There’s a lesson there about greeting guests who look different from what we expected. So much more unites us than divides us but we must open our minds to accepting and valuing difference.
THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING
A recent YouGov poll has found that two thirds of Black Britons have experienced a racial slur and three quarters have been asked where they are “really from”. More than 50% believe that their race has hampered their career development, and about 50% have been racially abused at work, which is nearly the same as those abused on the street.
There is definitely far more sensitivity around race now and in the main, the language is less primitive and hostile. Many businesses have recently made meaningful statements and declarations of intent on race.
This is a great start, especially for those of us who have never heard this level of stated commitment to change before. But now comes the real and challenging part – the actual changes, the demonstrable actions.
The obvious and right place to kick this off is recruitment, promotion, and retention, and as a stamp of weight, in the boardrooms of UK Plc, where there are too few Black non-executive directors and zero chairs. The words are where we all want to be, but the actions prove who we actually are.