Q&A with LGIM’s Onuekwusi: Grassroots initiatives are saturated, focus on progression

#TalkAboutBlack founder says a challenge is firms have 'plucked senior ethnic minority talent from other companies and plunked them on their boards'

ESG Clarity speaks to Justin Onuekwusi, co-founder of #TalkAboutBlack and founder of #TalkAboutBlack’s Encircle programme, about how the conversation of racial equality has changed over the past few years and where barriers remain.

Onuekwusi, who is also head of retail investments, EMEA and head of retail multi-asset funds at Legal & General Investment Management, also discusses the benefits of mentorship programmes and sponsorship, and why the industry needs to focus on talent progression.

How have perspectives on race equality shifted in the investment industry over recent years? Where has the conversation changed?

In 2020 we saw a huge shift post the murder of George Floyd where companies really embraced the conversation and were focused on what they were going to do to change their dynamics to have a  fairer organisations through an ethnicity lens. We saw company statements, we saw black squares and huge demand for spokespeople like myself me, Gavin Lewis [now at head of UK local government pensions at BlackRock], Dawid Konotey-Ahulu [co-founder and director at Redington] and Marisa Hall [head of Thinking Ahead Institute] to speak on panels and have conversations with senior board members at asset managers.

But, as we probably suspected, that momentum and emphasis has moved on to other areas.

What barriers remain?

There are three key challenges that haven’t really been addressed:

Data  

Part of the challenge here is that asset managers are not technology companies so when it comes to getting data on their people, they haven’t really focused on this before and haven’t built the technology to do so. They need to spend the money to start collecting that data – and there aren’t really any excuses anymore. Some companies are showing it can be done. For a number of businesses across the industry there has been a lot of hesitation but these are now really behind the curve. Until that’s addressed, it’s really hard to get an understanding of what is going on in your business, we need companies to start doing this and start disclosing.

Until we understand the trends we won’t be able to move the needle.

‘Whataboutery’

Whataboutery is where you concentrate your resource on one particular area and you get a lot of pushback from other marginalised groups. We are running into a challenge here where rather than having one focus, we spread everything too thinly and do not have good outcomes at all.

It is interesting that people are still uncomfortable talking about ethnicity. There was a point when everyone felt more freely to talk about it after George Floyd but now we are back in a place where it’s a little taboo. For example, we talked about having an alternative to the 30% Club focused on ethnicity – that never happened. [The 30% Club has broadened its focus to look at racial equality].

Boards and executive committees

In line with the Parker Review, we need boards to have diversity in terms of ethnicity but we need to go that step further and have those targets on executive committees too – then you start to create a pipeline.

Tell me more about the pipeline challenges.

The big challenge is organisations have plucked senior ethnic minority talent from other companies and plunked them on to their boards – this is not going to lead to a pipeline in the business.

Also, there is lots and lots of focus on getting people into the business –  we have 10,000 Black Interns, Rare Recruitment, SEO London, and upReach Social Mobility Society. So lots of grassroot organisations and initiatives to get people into businesses. All are doing a great job but that’s quite saturated now. There is a lot at that level but when it comes to progression within businesses it’s limited, the progression of different demographics within our businesses needs to be addressed.

We are seeing turnover at the midlevel, but we are not seeing people progress into true leadership positions such as heads of sales, CIOs, CEOs, etc. We are not seeing ethnic minorities in those areas and, in particular, black people in those areas.

Where do you think this lack of progress stems from?

There are a couple of things. There’s the lack of role models – when I joined as an analyst all those years ago there were no black role models. This leads to a lack of confidence for individuals, they don’t believe they will get there, but also the people around them think they won’t get there either.

I’ve talked about this before but at an event I got myself a coffee and when I turned around people were queuing behind me for me to make the coffee. That’s the perception even though it happens less so now.

There is also the lack of belonging – it has been this way for such a long time you feel like you don’t belong.

Last, there is also the lack of peer group. If you are at a peer group network but there aren’t any CEOs, CIOs, executive committee members – that is where your network is going to be lacking. These are the influential people you need to be speaking to.

This is why people get those positions and others don’t – it’s about networking and having access to people. Every job I have had since I was a grad I have known someone in the business – it’s really important.

We recently talked about sponsorship vs mentorship in a Reboot video with State Street’s Hannah Smith. What’s your take on this?

Sponsorship is very important – mentors are valuable and they can help but, in order to really progress your career, you need somebody at those management tables fighting your corner when you’re not in the room. This is driven by performing well but also building that relationship capital.

One of the things we talk about at Encircle, the #TalkAboutBlack mentorship programme, is building that sponsor. LGIM has built a sponsorship programme rather than a mentorship programme with senior people sponsoring individuals that have been identified as high-performing talent.

What does Encircle involve?

Encircle started about three years ago when people were contacting people like myself, Gavin and Marisa, as they wanted mentors and help navigating the industry, they said “we are struggling”.

Rather than seeing them all one-to-one, we started group mentoring in Vanguard offices in 2018. Over time, we put more regular mentoring sessions in and we now have more than 400 people on the mailing list who dial in every month. We have senior black role models talking to the mentees – we are open to everybody but there is a scarcity of black role models so we wanted to say these people do exist. We have looked at all sorts of areas such as leadership, how to find a sponsorship and negotiating salary. We tend to meet remotely but do in-person meetings now and again too.

It is getting traction and, importantly, when you speak to the mentees they say it actually helps progress their career. We have seen them move into senior roles, get new jobs… they say it’s given them confidence and they want to stay in the industry .

In order to see further progression, do we need to move beyond initiatives? Have they become a tick box exercise?

Diversity panels didn’t exist five years ago. It has really blossomed and it’s been great as it has created a platform to discuss how companies are looking at this challenge across the industry.

But there is this ‘we have ticked this off’, the hygiene factor is done – it’s not focused on the foundations that need to be put place and the outcomes they want to achieve.

The focus a lot of the time with initiatives is ‘this is what we are doing’ rather than ‘this is how our efforts are helping us reach our targeted outcomes’.

If we looked at that across the industry, we’d realise a lot of work still needs to be done and if focused on those foundations and outcomes it could help nudge the needle up. That humility is really important.

How can individuals help improve racial equality in the industry?

One of things I would recommend is emailing info@talkaboutblack.com and saying you want to be involved and want to try and help. There is always stuff for people to do.

I’d ask senior leaders in the industry to demonstrate allyship. One of the things we lack is senior non-black allies really helping and driving us forward. Ultimately, we will only succeed if they are involved as by definition they are the majority.

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Natalie Kenway

Natalie is editor in chief at MA Financial covering ESG Clarity, Portfolio Adviser and International Adviser. She was previously global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist...