Cherron Inko-Tariah: be a chess player, not a chess piece

Cherron Inko-Tariah is the author of The Incredible Power of Staff Networks and founder of The Power of Staff Networks consultancy. A former civil servant, she is an accomplished chair of several staff networks and is passionate about the positive impact they can have on employees and the organisation. Cherron was awarded an MBE in 2011 for services to HM Government and her local community.

In the first of two interviews, she discusses why she left what seemed a promising career in the civil service, the success of her first network and why it’s important to be a chess player and not just a piece on the board.

Why did you leave the Civil Service?

As much as I loved it, the service wasn’t as in love with me because it wasn’t recognising me. I’d worked on some big publicity campaigns, I was also a HR manager, and I’d worked with government ministers. So, I’ve been in some sexy roles. But, when I tried for a promotion, I would get knocked back and told, ‘you need to work on this, you need to work on that competency’ and I’m thinking I’ve kind of done that. But I would just accept it and I would volunteer for things – anything that was going to help me build those skills.

The crunch point came when I wanted to move up into a middle management grade and it just wasn’t happening. And you don’t want to say it’s because you’re black. So, you find other ways to try and compensate and think it’s because I’ve not done this or that but it’s just nonsense. Although I had a relatively smooth progression route, I still had to deal with the banter, the micro-aggressions. People just ignoring you, being mistaken for the cleaner, all of those things that a friend of mine calls, ‘papercuts’.  When you experience these papercuts on a regular basis,  your hand eventually becomes deficient because it’s so sore.

I made the decision to leave but I didn’t know how and that’s when I decided to get more involved in the staff network so that I could help as many people like me as possible.

Did you set up the network?

No, there was one already established, but it wasn’t as effective as it could be. It was neither fish nor fowl and, I couldn’t understand what it was trying to do. But I didn’t just jump in and try to take over; I presented a paper to the Chair and said, ‘this is what we could do, and I will help you for three months and then become a member’. I almost wanted to be a consultant to the network but also really hands on because it’s so easy to give all these ideas but not do anything.

What sort of mistakes was the network making?

What irked me the most and gave me the greatest cause for concern was that the organisation was about to go through some huge changes but the network’s work plan, if you could call it that, did not mention any of it. Instead, it was just events after events after events.

There’s nothing wrong with the events, but I couldn’t see how the outcome of those events was going to prepare staff for what was coming. I said we needed to think about giving people interview skills or helping them fill in their forms or giving them confidence or just getting some messages out of the organisation – just little things that could have a major impact. But that was met with some resistance. Because I wasn’t in the position where I was trying to make a name for myself, I didn’t need the network to prop me up, but I was prepared to use the little influence I had to try and help it see things from that perspective. 

How successful was it?

Very successful.  It won an award from the BITC but, what touched me the most was the development of the members. Their attitude had changed from being apathetic bystanders to being ambassadors who really got it, and had given themselves permission to go and do some stuff that they wouldn’t normally do. We would look at things like the performance management system, look up policy stuff as well as equipping our members with tools that they needed themselves.

Those two things together, looking out for the members but also looking out strategically are a powerful combination. But we realised there was fear.  People just weren’t confident. They had been knocked down so many times that it took us a long time to really give them the encouragement that they needed.

Now there’s a National Day for Staff Networks?

That’s right. We launched in 2017. The back story is that I was at home doing something mundane, like mopping the kitchen floor and I heard on the radio that it was national something day. That led me to think there’s nothing recognising the networks and what thousands of people are doing all the time. I decided I’m just going to just do it and see how it flies. The reaction was “why haven’t we done this before?” 

But I didn’t want this to be just a celebration: but a day for people to be inspired by stories that network members  share about themselves. More importantly for me, it is about  how can we transform what networks are talking about in terms of how to improve. So, the strapline for the day is ‘making work better’ because that’s what networks are doing. The next one is on the 8 May 2019. 

What are you working on now?

As well as the next national day we have a series of summits around the country. These are half-day sessions, bringing networks together, helping them to plug into the power, raise their energy and get back out there. We’ve held summits in London, Yorkshire and the West Midlands. 

I’m also working on R.A.C.E. Confident toolkit. When I talk to organisations about race equality, or race inequalities, I say care is an anagram of race, right? If you want to be race confident, you must care enough about the agenda in its entirety. Care is about challenging the status quo, acknowledging difference, being resilient to distractions and expecting and demanding change for everyone every day. So, if you care, that will help build your race confidence; getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. 

Are you taking this to organisations now?

Yes. It’s been well received so now I’m developing the toolkit to aide discussions on race. 

You’ve been appointed a Non-Executive Director (NED) at Homerton University NHS Trust, what does that involve?

It’s about providing challenge, and ensuring that the best decisions are being made for the Trust. Part of my role is to help ensure that we have the best interests of staff, patients and other stakeholders at the heart. Homerton is a great Trust and has been marked outstanding for areas of work. But like every Trust, there are challenges and I’m keen to help ensure that the workforce has diversity across the grades.

Are you the only woman on the board?

No, there’s a good gender balance. Of the 13 board members, six are female. Of the six women, three are BAME (myself included) but I am the only black person on the board.

You gave a talk to their network; how did they react to your appointment?

By the time it came to the talk it had been announced that I was appointed as a NED and the whole place just erupted. They were all very excited and a couple of women were in tears as they resonated with my story and never thought they’d see a black woman as a NED.

Finally, from your own experience of being overlooked for promotion, how would you advise people to handle similar situations?

You need to see yourself as a chess player rather than a chess piece because many of us think that others can dictate where we go and how we move. Your line manager says you’re now ready for promotion or no you’re not and we accept that. But I say study  the game, have a strategy, make your own rules, own your blackness, own your gender, own your heritage, own everything that is uniquely you…and just step out.

Once you’re comfortable in your own skin nobody can make you feel less worthy. I’m now so comfortable in my own skin that I don’t want to be anywhere else.

>See also: Rising and raising the diversity and inclusion agenda

Rate This: