Already an established member of RSM’s Executive Education’s visiting faculty team, we are thrilled to have Barbara bring her two decades experience working with organisations to develop their leaders to the ECWO community. We’re especially happy that it comes at a time when Barbara has just published a new book - The Model Black: How Black British Leaders Succeed in Organisations and Why It Matters. Selected in June as one of the FT’s business book must-reads, The Model Black is for anyone who wants to understand what being more inclusive at work means, especially as it relates to black leaders. It is, says its author, intended for those people who are saying “I don’t know where to start,” “I don’t know what to do” and “I don’t know what to say” when understanding and talking about race at work.
We spoke to Barbara about her own journey as a black British woman of Jamaican heritage, a mother of three, a visiting professor at several business schools and a dedicated believer in lifelong learning (she is the holder of five degrees, including an MA in Organisational Change, an MSc in Training and Performance Management, an MBA, and a BA in German and Russian as well as a D.Phil from the University of Oxford that explored the importance of connecting management education to the workplace).
It’s been just over two decades since you founded Barbara Banda Consulting. Can you recall the original impulse for taking the step into establishing your own consultancy?
I was on the faculty of a business school, but I also had an entrepreneurial streak and wanted to challenge myself to forge new relationships and develop new business independently. Fortunately I was working in an organisation that allowed me to do that. At that time I was working mainly in marketing and strategy, with a little bit of leadership but I wanted some space to experiment with my own ideas that I was developing outside of the parameters of the business school and be more creative in the way that I designed and delivered programmes. It is gratifying to now be recognised as an expert through a combination of breadth in the range of areas I work in but also depth through having worked in business and organisations and having undertaken research.
What have been the most significant changes in your work during that time?
My working life began in sales and marketing within corporate organisations and I was soon offering to help with strategy. Later I began growing into the area of leadership, which is something that I talk about in my book from an honest perspective. I tell the story about how my boss came into my office and said they needed some diversity on a programme that was being developed at the time. My initial thought was “oh dear” but I leaned in and so began my journey into the area of leadership and organisational change. More recently, in my kind of coming out as black – something I talk about in the book - I have morphed a little bit more to extend my work into inclusive leadership in the D&I world which I see as an extension of my leadership work.
You work in the areas of strategy, leadership and change, with a focus on executive development. Why are these of interest to you – and of importance in the broader business environment?
I remember working in an organisation where there was one kind of strategic initiative after another and we would just nod but not necessarily go along with or implement them. Part of it was that some of us didn’t have the skills to influence our peers or to influence without authority. We also didn’t understand other people’s perspectives of the world as we often hadn’t had any training or development in this area. It became increasingly clear to me that initiatives were failing because people didn’t have the necessary leadership skills or the skills to work with change - and that the lines between these are not firm and fixed. I began looking at change as a complex responsive process, grounded in the work of Ralph Stacey, but also what each individual brings to the change relationship. I am now able to carry through the important areas from strategy, leadership and change and bring those altogether, regardless of what area I am working in. When I am working in leadership, I can bring in my understanding of change. When I work in change, I bring all my experience and understanding of experience and strategy with me.
Part of your work is as a visiting professor at several European business schools including RSM. What do you like about this aspect of your working life – and teaching at RSM in particular?
I’ve always seen myself as a global person. I worked in international marketing before I joined the faculty of Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School and my first degree is in German and Russian. I lived in Vienna and travelled to Russia in the early 80s so from that perspective I have long had a European and global mindset and it feels natural to work in several different environments. What I like about RSM in particular is that there is something about the forthrightness and candor of the Dutch that makes it easier to for me to navigate as a black person, compared to the subtleties that you come across in British culture. I really like the fact that my Dutch colleagues and participants in the room are interested in me as an individual, not just as faculty. That level of concern about people at the individual level is brought through in the way we teach and work in the classroom. It is powerful.
You hold five degrees, including a PhD from the University of Oxford. Can you share some insight into why you have such a personal commitment to education – and why continuing education is important?
A lot of it comes from my father who is without qualifications himself, having come over to the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation. When we were being brought up he was very clear that, as a minority group, education was the only way to succeed as an immigrant so it has been at the forefront of my thinking. As a black person and a woman you need to be over-qualified to be taken seriously. I also have a genuine thirst for knowledge, for personal improvement. I hadn’t realised how much it ran through me until, during lockdown, I gained an additional qualification by training to be an ICF Associate Certified Coach (PCC).
You have just published a book, The Model Black: How Black British Leaders Succeed in Organisations and Why It Matters. You’ve described the book as being for “anyone who wants to understand what being more inclusive at work means, especially as it relates to black leaders”. Can you share a little of the journey to writing the book?
I had the kernel of the idea about 20 years ago, when I was doing a Masters in Training and Performance Management. For my dissertation I interviewed a number of black leaders as I was exploring objectivity in performance reviews and in performance management. I was intrigued by their stories of what it was like to be black in their organisation. I remember at the time my sister said I really should write a book about what I was finding out about black leaders as there was nothing available that reflected a black British leader’s experience. But at that time I had two young children – and was about to have a third – and was committed to doing a doctorate part-time. There came a point, during the past two decades working in executive development, when I realised that I had met very few black people in senior leadership positions and, when I had, they often wanted to have a conversation about what it is really like to be black in their organisation. I realised that there are stories that are not being told and that whether it’s North American blacks, South African blacks or British blacks there are commonalities across organisations, sectors, and geographies. I was intrigued to try and understand what is required by black people to succeed in an organisation and whether this was different from the majority population. I wanted to write a serious, well researched book - one that is, as my mother would say, about explaining not complaining. I also knew I couldn’t write the book as 5 Steps or 10 Rules as business publishers were suggesting when I approached them. It needed to be a book that black people in business could refer their white colleagues to when they asked for help in understanding race. During the writing, the #BlackLivesMatter movement gained momentum and that energised me. But I was also very anxious: as the title of the book suggests, I myself had adopted a persona for most of my working life – that of someone who had chosen not to foreground my race. What are people going to think? Have I been accepted in my professional life because I have not spoken about being black? These were the questions that ran through my head.
You use the first-hand stories of 30 successful black leaders to drive the book. How did you select the range of stories to share and was there one common thread that emerged from all your interviewees?
What I didn’t want the book to be about was exceptional blacks so I used my network and platforms like LinkedIn to reach out to middle and senior leaders in organisations. The ratio was about 60 percent men to 40 percent women and, in the end, the one common thread was the title of the book – that there is a model black, or a certain kind of black person with certain kinds of behaviours who is successful in being accepted by the white majority in Britain. The book contains chapters that centre around the three different ways that this happens: squaring, or being as much like the majority culture as possible (I draw from the work others have done in this field), self-silencing, or not talking about being black or the challenge of being black, and softening, which can be about changing the tone of your voice as a black man, or not getting angry as a black woman.
Why is it vital to have positive conversations about race in the workplace – now and into the future?
The themes that emerged when I began synthesizing the results of the interviews are in fact applicable everywhere there is a dominant culture that creates organisations where there is exclusion and a feeling of not belonging. When I was talking to people about the themes in the book, they resonated with many others - with women, with my Jewish friends, with the LGBTQi+ community. My example might be black leaders but the themes and concepts have wider use that are vital for creating truly inclusive organisations.
How would you like the book to be used?
The book has been written for non-black readers and it is my hope that, in the first instance, people read it and reflect on it. At the end of each chapter I offer questions that enable readers to reflect on their own experiences of interacting with people who are different from themselves. The second use is around practical, mostly behavioural suggestions. I bring in research to show what works in recruitment, retention and promotion - and other parts of organisations and business.
If you were to give ECWO’s community, who are mainly based in the Netherlands, a single way of starting a positive conversation about race, what would that be?
Listen and be curious. You can say “tell me about your experience as a black person in this organisation”. But do not centre yourself in the conversation. The worst thing is if you are asked what it is like being black and the person doing the asking immediately draw parallels to their experience of, say, being from a part of the country that is looked down on by other areas of the country. We are not negating those experiences but we want you to listen to our experience. The power dynamics should also be considered and any conversation about race is best had when you are already in a relationship with that person. You should also give the person you are talking to time to consider their responses and also understand why they might not even want to have the conversation. It requires real vulnerability from the person who is being asked and an organisation that has a culture of openness and true curiosity.
ECWO works in the area of gender balance. How do you bring gender into your work and teaching?
The work I do in the area of inclusive leadership brings a lot of discussion about gender and race. Women will express their lived experience in those rooms – often to men and often with the intention of helping the majority culture understand their experience as a woman. So a lot of work goes into having conversations and also elevating the voices of women – especially black women – so that they are heard.
Would you give us some personal insight into your own childhood – especially what set you on the path to where you are now?
My parents came from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation. They dealt with a lot of very overt racism and I remember, over Sunday dinners of rice, kidney beans, chicken and coleslaw, my dad would emphasise how we needed to have ambition and how, no matter what we did, we should be the best at it, even if we were a cleaner. There’s a saying in Jamaica: show me your company (i.e your friends) and I will tell you who you are. My dad believed in this. He’d say he didn’t want us mixing with white people who didn’t have ambition as they knew they would get a job anyway. And he didn’t just say it – he acted on his beliefs. When I didn’t get into the secondary school that I really should have been admitted to, my dad spent all day and every day talking to the council to make sure I was eventually admitted. He really was an example of advocating for someone. My dad wasn’t educated and worked in a rubber factory but he lived his values and it shows in his children. Part of the last chapter of my book is an interview with my brother, the academic theologian Professor Robert Beckford, and it elucidates the difference between myself as a model black and my brother as a militant black. Family is so important. It was one of my daughters who said to me, when I was writing the book, that it should be complex and multi-faceted and I hope that I have lived up to that.
Finally, how do you feel about joining ECWO’s Women in Leadership programme as faculty?
In my experience, a lot of female potential is not being realised, so I am very excited to have the opportunity to contribute to a programme that focusses on women’s advancement and gender equality more broadly. I am looking forward to working alongside the female leaders as they explore their leadership style and increase their confidence. I also feel extremely privileged at be part of the team that will continue Dianne Beverlander’s legacy.