Friday, 4 April 2008

The Big Quiz: I have a dream

Forty years ago today Martin Luther King was assassinated for his dream. And what a dream it was. But forty years on, how are we doing in the journey towards realising this dream? For example, to bring it down to something that I personally have experience of, what has it been like being a black executive and entrepreneur in London over the past couple of decades? Well, it's been interesting, let me tell you.

Almost all of it has been so positive I can scarcely believe it. I started out working at one point in a McDonalds in Tooting (lasted two days before being got rid of for continuously saying "have a nice day, y'all" and "would Sir care to go large" in a bitterly sardonic voice) and have got as far as BBC News at One (today), trips to Silicon Valley, Davos and Number 10, whilst having a lot of fun, hopefully doing some good and making a little bit of money along the way.

But one of the interesting aspects of building a career as a black person in the UK is that from time to time you find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly facing tricky choices where the decision you make on the spot will have a fundamental impact on the rest of your career. Try these five real-life situations from my career and see how you would have reacted.

Question 1: The nearest tree

It's 1986. You are early 20's and have just started work at a major City of London institution. You are so proud to have got this job, going up to London in your suit and tie with your rolled up umbrella. It's the end of your very first week and you go out with your manager and team to a nearby City pub. It's a lively Friday evening, lots of City types laughing and chatting. One of the senior managers calls you over.

"Tom, come over here" says John

"Yes, John?" says a slightly timid 22 year old Tom politely in his first grown up job up in the big City of London.

"Tom" says John quietly below the noise "I don't think this of course, but I have to tell you if some of my friends were here, they'd have you swinging from the nearest tree. Anyway, have a good evening". He smiles softly and turns away, leaving you staring at his back.

So, first question. Do you

a) punch John on the nose and storm out of the pub and out of your City career?
b) raise the issue immediately with your manager and take John to a 1986 industrial tribunal, where John, the respected City gent of 30 years standing, will smile softly and deny he said anything to this ambitious young chap who is clearly playing "the race card"?
c) just walk away and do nothing, shamefully, whilst Martin Luther King looks down on you in disgust?

Question 2: Japanese Diplomacy

You are halfway through your MBA. All you eager beavers have started applying for jobs with investment banks. Amongst your 100 or so applications, you apply via a recruitment agency for a job with a Japanese investment bank. After a few days and to your surprise you get a phone call from the lady at the agency, almost in tears.

She tells you that when she spoke to her client about your CV, he was furious with her and told her hadn't she been told that they "don't employ black people".

She was phoning you to say she was appalled by this, had made notes of the conversation and had told her Director that she wanted to take this to the Commission for Racial Equality. She had done this and the CRE had told her that they wanted to take it on as a high profile case to send a messge to the City, but could only do so if you are willing to formally make the complaint.

Your friends on the MBA tell you that if you do it, you will be all over the media and you might win but you can kiss goodbye to a City career. As an MBA student, you have no job and a large MBA loan to pay.

So, question 2. Do you

a) Take it head on, pick a fight with one of the largest banks in the world and damn the consequences?
b) put it down to experience, keep your head down at this critical stage in your career and plot future revenge?

Question 3: The Little Drummer Boy

You are a professional management consultant working for a "Big 6" consulting firm at a client site. You get on really well with your client/boss. He's a laugh. A real salt of the earth geezer. Think straight-talking DCI Gene Hunt of Life on Mars in a suit and tie in the City.

One day you are talking to a team on one side of a large, open plan office with about 40 people in it. Your chap is calling you across the room but you don't hear. He tries a couple of times. Finally he says "this should get him" and starts banging out a loud beat with his hands on a desk.

The whole room goes quiet as your client/boss shouts with David Brent style laughter "the old jungle drums never fail, eh Tom". Everyone looks at you and back at him. Everyone waits to see what the next move is.

Question 3. Do you

a) launch a flying karate kick across the room whilst screaming at the top of your voice
b) say clearly but calmly "I'm sorry but I really feel that that was completely inappropriate"
c) walk out of the room, but pretend to yourself that you are going to pick it up with him later.

Question 4: The Monkey Puzzle

You are working on a big project and you are a key, senior project manager. Well respected by your peers and with a reputation for getting stuff done if perhaps a bit hard and direct at times.

One evening, after most people have gone you are walking around the building and you pop in to a meeting room. You are shocked to see a big drawing of a monkey left for all to see on a flip chat with your name written at the bottom. You wonder how the meeting went that produced that and how the lads must have sniggered as they filed out of the room. You take the flipchat, unsure what to do, and happen to mention it to a couple of people.

The next day to your surprise you are called in to see the Big Boss. The Big Boss has heard about the incident, as have most of the 200 people on the project by now. Big Boss is very angry. He says he wants to hire a heavyweight corporate security firm. He will stop the entire project for a few days and the security firm will interview every single person one by one until they find the culprit who will then be fired. But he will only do it if that's what you want.

So, Question 4. Do you

a) Press the button, bring the world grinding to a halt and get men with bright lights and sharp, pointy instruments in to do their job, knowing that you will be the centre of gossip and attention for months to come
b) let it slide, after all, its only the lads having a bit of fun. Let's not go over the top for goodness sake. You'll do more harm than good.

Question 5: Who's in the woodpile?

You are a grown up, senior executive. You have it all. Hundreds of staff. Secretary. Big office. Bigger budgets. You are a serious decision maker now.

You are in a regular executive meeting. A fast and heated conversation is going on and you are listening, ready to jump in and make your point. Suddenly one of your colleagues, in describing what the underlying problem is in part of the business say "ah yes, but you see the real nigger in the woodpile is this...." and keeps on talking at rapid fire pace.

You are momentarily stunned. Half the eyes in the room flicker in your direction but quickly turn away when you catch their gaze. The other half don't even notice. The HR Director is sitting opposite you, looking straight at you, waiting to see what you do.

Question 5. Do you

a) call the meeting to a halt and say "hold on a moment, I'm sorry but I really can't accept language like that. I demand an immediate apology", knowing that some of your executive colleagues will roll their eyes and mutter something about "political correctness gone mad"
b) keep you mouth shut. After all it's just a phrase. He's a man of his time. He didn't mean anything by it, probably doesn't even know he said it.

So there you go. A quick test for you. I've picked a few incidents that I found interesting and challenging but I had to leave out a lot. The High Street bank executive who told the consulting partner "make sure you don't bring any blacks along to the pitch" prompting my principled consulting partner to deliberately put me and a colleague of indian origin (who is now a very senior executive in the technology field) forward as the sole consulting team (whilst telling us in advance what the client we were pitching to had said). The more brazen recruitment executive who said on the phone merrily "Tom, can you tell me what colour you are. I can't tell from your name". And so they go on. Ah happy days!

However, the great news is that since I've become an entrepreneur building Garlik and my previous company, I have not had a single incident to compare to any of these. Perhaps it's because as an entrepreur the only thing that counts is whether you can build the business. No one cares if you play golf, if you fit in to the club, if you look the part. Can you raise the money? Can you create the ideas? Can you hire the team? Can you sell? If you can, great. Go for it. You could be green with pink hair for all they care and they'll still back you.

Have a go at the questions and let me know what you would have done. In a future post, I'll tell you honestly what I did in each case - right or wrong, for good or ill.

So, what do I think of The Dream? Well I do have a dream and most of the time the dream is just amazing. The distance we have come in my lifetime, since Martin Luther King was assassinated for daring to dream defies belief. But just once in a while something unexpected happens in the midst of the dream and I jolt upright, eyes wide open and remember the other thing MLK said "We've got some difficult days ahead".


Hazel said...

I don't know, I can't imagine, I guess from my secure middle-class white British background I don't want to know or imagine.
Good programme from Brighton, by the way.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what to make of (1). It's almost refreshingly frank if it wasn't so utterly insane. I'm glad you restrained yourself even if he didn't deserve it.

For item (2) though I think I'd have to stand on the principle of thing. An inappropriate comment is horrible but you can be a part of the process that changes that culture without having to be heavy handed - but if they won't even hire you then there's no opportunity for that and they need an urgent (and hopefully financially painful) re-education. I can totally understand why you didn't want to be a martyr though, the City is too small for the law to shield you from retribution.

I'd have to say I'd let (3) and (5) go because I can imagine letting similar stuff slide in other (admittedly less sensitive) areas. I'd wince, but I wince whenever Jon Stewart deliberately mis-pronounces the name of the President of Iran. There's no malice there, and to punish someone when they acted without malice is cruel. The people in (3) and (5) would hopefully be mortified if they realised they'd been offensive, and that's enough.

That leaves (4). Monkey jokes. I'd associated those with football hooligans. Who knew someone smart enough to operate a flip chart could still think that was funny. Doing it behind your back is particularly cowardly, and mean that they knew perfectly well it was unacceptable. I guess I'd be worried that not investigating would send the wrong message, and that the same person or persons might be making some junior employee's life miserable, so I'd want to get a handle on the situation even if that slowed the project down. But maybe this is part of why you're a successful manager, you make the gut call.

june forbes said...

My thoughts on this "Choose your battles" . I think it is difficult for some one who is not of an ethnic background to understand what it is like to constantly be halted in your tracks by an off- hand and sometimes deliberately hurtful act or comment.

Furthermore, it can be draining and debilitating to take up the challenge every time the gauntlet has been thrown down.

Personally I am eternally grateful to the many who have sacrificed their careers and even their lives so that as black people we now have the opportunity to reach what back in Martin Luther Kings time may have seemed like dizzying and unreachable heights to many.

That said the road ahead is still a rocky one and the battles will continue.

I strongly believe that we have to be prepared to take control of our economic and social future; we need more businesses and more entrepreneurs! To use another cliché "There's more than one way to skin a cat"!

Keep up the good work..

Anonymous said...

What is it they say about sticks and stones may hurt your bones... Interestingly, I had the woodpile one happen to me and let it slide. I never forget though. It is rocket fuel for the brave.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, this sort of thing becomes an intellectual exercise when dealing with questions of this nature; What we do almost never matches up with what we thought we'd do or even what we know to be right.

For instance, back in the days of my younger, macho, less tolerant self I was asked a hypothetical question - What would you do if a gay guy came onto you? I of course offered up some elaborate anti-gay scenario, at which we all laughed. That day came and guess what? I just wanted to run for the hills whilst stammering like a Hugh Grant character....

So, looking at the situations here I will attempt to give answers that match my current frame of mind, but please do not hold me to them!!

1. (C) would most probably be the one. Though I'd like to think I'd whip out a quick retort to the tune of '... then you better not meet some of MY friends!'

2. This would be (b). But I wouldn't look at a Japanese business man the same way again...

3. Trying to be honest here, it would be a variation of (b). But it would not be calm. Or clean.

4. Oooohh... Got to admit that this would have me entertaining fantasies of rounding up the people who had booked the room last and going 'medieval on their asses'. But in the real world it would have to be (b)

5. Nope. You cannot drop the 'N' bomb. No matter who or what you are, or how you'd like to think its some quaint 'ye olde' english term. According to the almighty 'Wikipedia' this is the phrases origin - "Both the 'fence' and 'woodpile' variants developed about the same time in the period of 1840-50 when the Underground Railroad was flourishing successfully, and although the evidence is slight it is presumed that they derived from actual instances of the concealment of fugitive slaves in their flight north under piles of firewood or within hiding places in stone fences." -
Thats enough reason for me to challenge that!


OLU said...

i really wonder if you will see this as your posst is old!First i never knew you had such wit! Your Post underlines the importance of the recent election of Barack Obama as US President. The significance and importance that Black executives need to take time to examine its ramifications in the emergence of the Black Man as a Force to be reckoned with! Hope i am making sense? Sure would like to see you talk on Internet Fraud & what is known as Yahoo!Yahoo! in Nigeria.

Anonymous said...

Those who know me know how extremely passive I am , yet I cant help but think that , that is an historical weakness of the Black nation that even after all we have been through that we still have the ability to study and debate responses to obviously totally unacceptable behaviour aimed towards us, be it verbal or phisical,....or is that weakness in fact strength?