Raising the profile of black and minority ethnic staff

by Sonya Welch-Moring, Copyright Sonya Welch-Moring. Originally written for Diversity Directory newsletter, July 2004.

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A pioneering new coaching programme for black and ethnic minority workers in the public sector is helping to shatter perceptions about the 'glass ceiling' and to transform the way that BME (Black and minority ethnic) staff think about opportunities for career progression. Sonya Welch-Moring, professional development coach, talks here about what inspired her to develop a six-month programme which has just completed its third cycle.

I have worked as an external consultant with Westminster Council for some years, so when an innovative coaching programme for BME staff was suggested I jumped at the chance to develop it. The suggestion came from Phillip Berechree, the head of the Social and Community Services, training and development unit at Westminster Council. He is an equality champion within the social services department, responsible for highlighting equalities training and moving it up the training agenda. Westminster has a good record of recruiting and retaining black staff so he was aware that there were several challenges for the department in relation to this particular group. These were, in particular, to:

  • ensure the talents and potential of all its employees are fully used;

    • ensure that BME staffs are better represented;
    • improve the image of the organisation as perceived by potential new employees and existing staff to one that better represents the diversity of the local community;
    • employ a local workforce.

    My experience as a professional development coach over the last five years has convinced me that coaching deserves to move away from its reputation as an expensive tool for senior executives and be made accessible to staff just starting out in management. Traditionally, this group has had less access to professional development and training, yet is in most need of it. The public sector has done much to lower the glass ceiling and promote an equalities agenda over the past 15 years. Yet barriers persist, in the perceptions of staff and the general public, and in reality. There are also personal barriers that many BME staff have to overcome, for example low self-esteem or confidence when applying for positions which should be within reach.

    As we developed the programme reasons for some of the barriers we had identified became clearer:

    • Limited networking opportunities and/or lack of positive role models were restricting the potential of BME employees to act on opportunities for development and progression.
    • Overt or subtle stereotyping were possibly barriers to employing BME managers at senior levels
    • BME employees' perception of a glass ceiling created a negative self-assessment of their own skills and capabilities.

    The programme aimed to address all these concerns and support and build on the organisation's equal opportunities policy and equalities action plan.

    Why just for BME staff?

    Why then a professional development programme specifically for black and minority ethnic staff? Unlike in the USA, where there is a tradition of black professional networks that support African American professionals as they move up the corporate ladder, few such schemes exist here. There are a variety of business networks but surprisingly few are aimed at BME professionals in the public sector. It was important then to target some professional development at this specific group. There was also an acknowledgement that there were very few BME staff in senior management positions within the social and community services department and that this issue needed to be addressed in some way.

    Once we had identified that a career development plan was needed, we had to identify who to target it at. We were agreed that the programme would focus on both personal and professional development, so that the work-life balance could be addressed. Initially the programme targeted staff who were about to move into management or had the potential to progress quickly into senior positions.

    Coaching in action

    We made a very clear distinction between coaching and mentoring. Coaches serve their clients by helping them to get clarity on what they want from their career and what is important to them in setting and achieving their goals. This role is different from that of mentors, who sponsor their clients and offer professional experience and expertise. In this definition, in the coaching process the client is in charge and is the expert in determining their path; in mentoring the mentor is the expert and takes a leading role. In practice of course there is a joint relationship and the success of either model is dependent on the expertise of the coach or mentor.

    As a British-born woman of Caribbean descent, there was something else that I brought to the coaching relationship: an understanding of the opportunities and constraints, both external and internal, that limit career progression for BME staff. By changing internal perspectives there is a greater chance of dealing effectively with outside forces. This concept was central to the coaching relationship and became the most challenging part of the programme for many delegates.

    'The six months changed my thinking within the context of my spiritual beliefs and culture; it helped me to understand my position as a black woman in a white bureaucratic organisation. The outcome is that I can adapt with my integrity intact, I have become more accepting of situations and now tend to place fewer expectations on those I work with.' (AH, programme delegate.)

    The programme was divided into two areas. A series of individual face-to-face coaching sessions formed the core part of the programme and was supplemented by facilitated group sessions before, during and after the coaching sessions. Individual coaching sessions were held every month with a couple of shorter telephone coaching sessions as back-up.

    Impartiality in a coaching role is important, so the recruitment process was carried out by the training department. Phillip Berechree explains,

    'We felt that this was the best approach. It allowed us to interview and recruit the people we thought were best for the programme and gave Sonya a clearly defined coaching presence so that she could build a coaching relationship without being influenced in any way.'

    It was also important to bring the managers of the delegates on board, so they were asked to identify and nominate candidates they thought would benefit from the programme. Potential applicants were asked to write a supporting brief statement with their applications; they then attended an interview where their suitability for the programme was assessed.

    The coaching relationship

    The most important part of the coaching process was developing trust and rapport with the delegates. Coaching is a fairly new discipline and many people are unclear about what it is and what it can offer, so we worked hard to make sure that delegates had a clear understanding of what to expect. The process was described as one that supports and facilitates the client in reaching their potential and achieving their goals. The emphasis was on the client coming to coaching fully prepared and with a degree of clarity about what they wanted to take away from each session.

    Confidentiality was another key issue: one-to-one coaching requires the coach to hold confidential all that passes between themselves and the client. However, when the coaching is being delivered on behalf of an organisation, there is an accountability issue to overcome. The solution was to hold two progress meetings between the coach and a stakeholder of the organisation, so that candidates' progress could be assessed. One was held half-way through the programme and the second after the programme had finished. Confidential personal information was not divulged and the delegates were informed about the boundaries of confidentiality.

    Facilitation and networking aspects of the programme were also important. The group had opportunities to meet, to learn and hear from each other, and from this gained a sense of being part of something greater than just the individual coaching sessions. Feedback from delegates highlighted that this was one of the most valuable aspects of the programme.

    Issues highlighted from coaching sessions

    Delegates had different perceptions of the programme and entered with various degrees of clarity about what they wanted.

    'When I began the programme I felt coaching was something that I wanted but was not sure how it was going to help me.' (MK, programme delegate.)

    Not unexpectedly some delegates got more from the programme than others.

    'What you get out of the programme is linked to what you put into it. I think you need to be ready to reflect on yourself and your situation, whatever that may be, and go in with open eyes. The benefits are that you can use the programme as a catalyst for change and for moving on in what ever you choose to do.' (CL, social worker.)

    There were a number of issues that arose consistently over the three programmes:

    • Many of the delegates valued the programme and said previous to this they had had no opportunity to receive personalised professional development.
    • Many delegates acknowledged that the move into management was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they wanted to achieve as much as they could, the other they were concerned about how they could maintain their cultural identity while moving up the career ladder. They questioned what the cost might be to themselves.
    • Delegates remarked on the power of coaching as a developmental approach and the challenge inherent in this.

    'What was demanding was the degree of challenge that Sonya faced me with. I think that this made me more assertive in striving towards my goals.' (CL. Social worker)

    Success stories

    The training department recently entered the programme for a national training award, an acknowledgement of its success.

    As a result of internal departmental recognition that the skills acquired on such a programme are beneficial to any staff trying to overcome barriers to promotion and career progression, the programme's selection criteria has been changed to include candidates from outside a BME group.

    'The programme has had a more far-reaching impact than was originally envisaged. Following the initial pilot, it became one of the department's most sought-after courses. The success of the programme has taught senior managers that it is possible to safely invest in this area in a positive and effective way.' (Phillip Berechree.)

    Of the 35 candidates who joined the programme over the three cohorts, 31 successfully completed it. Of those who did not complete, one decided to drop out and one moved to another workplace, having been offered a senior management position during the programme. It is too early to draw firm conclusions, but based on evidence so far around 40-50% of delegates have gone on to find new posts or have been promoted during the course of the programme.

    Case study

    (NB: initials have been changed for confidentiality purposes).

    DN was a social worker who came to coaching with a question mark over whether she would be able reconcile her Caribbean and working class background within a predominantly corporate middle class English culture. We spent several sessions exploring personal values and identifying skills and competencies. The coach also challenged some deep rooted fears and assumptions that DN was holding onto about her colleagues, which was getting in the way of her acknowledging her potential. By the end of the programme DN had been co-opted onto a professional committee where she found that her personal experiences and cultural awareness of different groups in the community were being valued as an important knowledge base for others within the committee and wider social work department.

    Learning for organisations

    A programme such as this will not make all the changes that are necessary for BME staff to be better represented at middle and senior management levels within an organisation. It does however show the organisation's commitment to taking action to develop its staff and value and harness the potential of its diverse employee group. The success of this programme clearly shows the great benefit to those who took part in the programme. BME staff do not have many opportunities to talk about their concerns and fears in a safe environment, nor to be challenged powerfully and deeply, often about personal and cultural issues that would be inappropriate in other contexts.

    Professional development coaching is not an easy option for delegates. Those who benefit the most are those who are self-motivated, open to challenge from the coach and themselves, and who are able to develop a personal and professional strategy that will help them to achieve their goals. However, as organisations search for new ways to motivate their staff and retain staff with potential, this is one model that has shown itself to be effective. It is to be hoped that forward-thinking managers see the benefits of this type of programme and adopt a similar approach toward developing employees within their own organisations.

    Sonya Welch-Moring is director of Peopletalk Services, a professional development and coaching company. She is available for individual and group coaching and workshops, contact her on 0207 482 8828 or e-mail For more information visit her web-site at