What it takes to build BAME healthcare leaders

Other leaders must understand the struggles BAME staff face to support their progression

Healthcare staff have always faced a pressurised working environment, with BAME employees having the additional burdens of workplace discrimination and lack of career progression.

Already disadvantaged, BAME healthcare workers had to continue to provide high standards of care while working through the pandemic, which disproportionately affected BAME groups.

As we learn to live with the virus, we can’t forget the long-term issues facing BAME healthcare workers. Instead, we must move ahead with ideas on how to support their progression into leaders and remove unfair barriers through upskilling and allyship – which was covered in a roundtable session last week.

The second session in the exclusive Lunch, Learn, and Leadership Development Roundtable Series saw the 2021 National BAME Health & Care Awards (BAME HCAs) winners, who are all healthcare workers, once again gain professional development advice from healthcare and diversity and inclusion leaders.

After awards founder Wendy Olayiwola made the introductions, the session explored barriers to career progression for BAME groups in healthcare, an issue seen in statistics with senior doctors more likely to be white (56.2%). The same government figures found that among non-medical staff, there are more people from BAME backgrounds in support and middle grades compared with senior grades.

Considering these facts, BAME delegates were keen for progression tips from the session’s two esteemed speakers, Christine Allen, Chief Executive West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust, and Cynthia Davis, Co-founder of diversity career platform Diversifying.

What makes a good leader?

For those ready for the demands of a leadership role in healthcare, there isn’t such a prescriptive formula for candidate background that you see in other sectors, says Allen, who’s seen chief executives come from accounting backgrounds as well as medical.

Allen doesn’t have a medical background and offered winners advice on career progression from her non-traditional standpoint. Despite her 39 years of healthcare experience and current C-suite role, she didn’t initially attend university but later studied for a degree as a parent.

For Allen, good leadership means listening and being open to new ideas and challenges. She gave an example of this when West Hertfordshire Hospitals struggled with COVID-19, resulting in bed shortages.

She explained that through consultations with staff and remote monitoring devices, they created a “virtual hospital” that cared for 4,000 patients during this period.

Here, good leadership meant deferring to the hospital’s clinical teams, including their respiratory and IT consultants as well as the senior nursing teams: “My job and the job of my directors was to make it happen for them. That’s where listening comes into play because why would I know what the best response to COVID-19 for our particular patients was?”

COVID-19 put pressure on NHS hospitals nationwide, but departments were used to being stretched before the pandemic. In this case, Allen said that good leaders “walk around their organisations” and identify busy departments, talk to these teams, and provide support.

She also said that authentic leadership and “meaning what you say” is important too. Authentic leadership gives staff what they really need, which includes providing mental health support during the pandemic and ensuring they have adequate food and water during busy shifts.

Helping BAME staff progress in their careers

Advice on good leadership is useful, but BAME groups who consistently face career barriers and fewer developmental opportunities in healthcare need allyship from leadership to advance their progression.

Allen believes those in authority must better educate themselves about what minority staff need to prosper. In this regard, Connect, her Trust’s BAME network, has been an educational tool to help board members understand the struggles of BAME staff and what they need to progress.

One of the most effective things they’ve done is reverse mentoring. While Allen spoke of her experience of sexism during her early career, she said a delegate, who happens to be her mentor, gave her an insight into the intersectional experiences of discrimination that BAME female healthcare staff face. “They said to imagine all of that and being Black on top of all that. Imagine how hard that is.”

She says the Trust also uses the BAME network “to test things out”, including helping them with their communications and to “pull us up when we get things wrong.”

The next speaker, Cynthia Davis, understands the problem of career barriers firsthand. She has worked in the recruitment field for two decades, and in one company, she was the only woman of colour. Over the years, she has dealt with racism and microaggressions in the workplace.

She also understands what it feels like to be consistently overlooked for promotions and the self-doubt that comes with it. “Sometimes, the only way I could progress was to find it at other organisations, sometimes I didn’t want to leave, but I wanted to move forward.”

For those struggling to find career development options internally, she suggests becoming a board member in external organisations, giving delegates the opportunity to network, learn from others, and build skills such as risk, governance, and auditing to take back into their workplace for promotions.

She also says that BAME healthcare workers can bring their skills to board positions, such as a perspective on diversity and inclusion strategies. She adds that boards aren’t just PLCs but include charities that could be more suitable for healthcare professionals.

To help others, Davis has set up a board clinic, a free service for anyone interested in joining a board, which provides tools and access to board opportunities, such as the potential to work with leading charities.

The BAME HCAs, supported by DiversityQ, are an annual occasion that celebrates the achievements of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) professionals in the NHS and their work serving diverse communities. To find out more about the awards and its 2022 outing, click here.

In this article, you learned that:

  • BAME healthcare workers can bring their own skills to board positions such as diversity and inclusion knowledge
  • Good healthcare leaders identify busy and pressurised teams and provide the support they actually need
  • Deferring to clinical teams when seeking solutions to problems is crucial in good healthcare leadership

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