No Black Executives in the UK’s FTSE 100: Why a Lack of Diversity is a Lack of Innovation

One of the most interesting aspects of my work as a startup consultant is that every business that I come across is distinctly different from the last.

Many areas of work are able to boast that “no two days are the same”, but what makes the work that I’m engaged in so special is the connection between the work that the founder is carrying out and the founder’s own story.

Whether it’s through professional pain points or personal experience, each founder has a story that leads them to make a bet. A bet based on two beliefs:

The first one is that the solution that they are creating is significantly better than the incumbent solution.

The second is that there are many other people who can share in this story, and therefore become users, customers and clients for the solution they are creating.

As these companies grow, part of their path to success is to do at least one of two things: increase their ability to represent their users through creating solutions that solve their problems (either reducing pain or achieving goals) and/or increase types of people that they represent with the above.

Effective companies manage to grow to represent the users they understand, and the values that the company represents should be reflected by its leadership.

Larger companies (who themselves were once small companies) have grown through the effective representation of its users to develop their own internal culture, which affects hiring policies, career advancement opportunities, company ownership, management structure and many other aspects.

Through the culture that acts as a representation of the leadership, who represents the company, who represent the customer’s ability to solve their problems, companies continue to innovate along the lines of those values. I have intentionally overused the word “represent”, as throughout the whole process; from a startup idea through to a company culture encouraging innovation and expansion of its product suite, representation matters.

So what is the representative corporate culture that has led to the number of black CEOs, black chairs and black CFOs falling to zero amongst FTSE100 companies, this week?

Findings from the Green Park Business Leaders 2021 index showed that only 10 of all the leaders in the FTSE100 were from an ethnic minority background with zero of them being black.

Despite the hype on social media and sycophantic virtue signalling surrounding “Black Lives Matter” from many large corporations following the death of George Floyd last year, the number of black people in the most influential positions in the largest companies has fallen to zero for the first time in seven years.

Representation matters from an ethical perspective. Is it statistically possible that there are zero black people well suited to be one of the 297 leaders of these businesses? Unlikely.

What does that suggest about the prospects for black people earlier in their career who would want to work for large corporations? What is the acceptable ceiling for career achievement for black people?

Is there intentional collusion amongst the largest companies to keep black people out of the board room? Also very unlikely.

So, what is wrong with the corporate culture that these companies both exist within and perpetuate?

I believe it comes down to the grassroots representation described at the start of this article. Ideas emanate from diverse experiences and the solution providers will have diverse stories.

Understanding more stories from more people adds greater colour to the discourse around solving problems allowing us to solve problems better for all.

“Flesh-coloured” tights (or pantyhose) means a different thing now than it did 20 years ago because there was a whole population not represented by that solution, and it is only through the representation of their story, through a solution, that a whole new product range was created.

This then evolved into other industries and allowed us to question concepts that we previously took for granted, which in turn broadens our thinking and synergises our solutions to problems across humanity.

Representation is not just a question of ethics. Keeping some types of people out of positions of influence and underrepresenting them, hinders progress for all of us.

Innovation is driven by the need to tell our stories in a way that identifies our problems. That innovation, itself then drives forward our human experience by solving those problems.

We are limited by our experiences and will only innovate what is within our purview. It has become increasingly clear that ideas and ability are evenly distributed amongst humanity.

However, it has also become abundantly clear that access to the right resources, knowledge and connections are not. The ideas that are conceived by those within the right eco-system will be represented, along with those whom the ideas represent and those who lead the execution of them.

I am committed to working with innovators who can offer a contribution to the plurality of ideas and solutions, by developing access to the knowledge, resources and eco-systems that often elude those that aren’t “CEO-shaped”.

Hearing stories that are usually unheard, solving problems that have so far gone unsolved and representing those who are not usually represented — through the voices and actions of those closest to them — is not only a moral obligation, it makes business sense. Most importantly, it broadens our collective mind and improves our collective society.

It is not enough to post a black square on your company Instagram during Black History Month. Nor should we even passively “allow” black people to tell their stories through leadership positions.

We should actively encourage a diversity of voices, to broaden our understanding of ourselves, each other and what the future, that we will all share, will look like.

Alex Weekes is a Digital Product Manager, Associate Lecturer, and Startup Consultant working with some of the world's most innovative startups and technologies.

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