Why are there so few black chief executives of NHS trusts and hospitals?

Could we learn from experiences in the USA?

In the USA they elected a black president. Does this reflect a different and better approach to race? Certainly in the USA, top public sector jobs are more often filled by direct elections, resulting in a large number of directly elected black mayors and chiefs of police. In many cities within the USA, the black vote is the decisive factor. As the ethnic balance in cities in this country changes, should we opt for the American-style directly elected public sector posts? If directly elected mayors, why not police chiefs and officers to run hospitals and primary care trusts?

Would what works in the USA work here?

Probably not.

After all, a female prime minister didn’t result in removing the glass ceiling for women. Do we need more black senior managers as a way of changing the public sector? Or is this the wrong aim - another example of uncritically following the American way? Our aim should be that the public sector workforce, at every level, represents the population profile of the community it serves. This involves addressing the over-representation of black staff in the lowest paid public sector jobs as well as ensuring black staff occupy middle and senior management posts in numbers proportionate to their representation in the local population.

This is a more of a fundamental rather than cosmetic change. It requires us to address the culture of an organisation, not just its recruitment strategy or management development programme. It’s not about fast-tracking a few promising black managers, it’s about how we view non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people; it’s about developing equality of opportunity for all within the organisation. 

An organisation that struggles to recruit and retain black staff to management posts also probably struggles to recruit and retain women in senior management posts. An organisation that hasn’t got it right for black staff, one that is insensitive to issues of faith and race, is unlikely to be acknowledging and addressing homophobic bullying, or managers who are reluctant to employ people who have experienced mental health problems, and is unlikely to have a progressive attitude to employing people with learning disabilities.

Change has to start at the top. A macho management style of ‘do as I say’ and ‘information on a need to know basis’ is a management style that results from an over-emphasis on performance and budget, where getting results becomes key. Such organisations do not place much value on the people management skills of managers so tend to end up without many managers who are skilled in managing a diverse workforce.

Yet, managers who are good at people management can also get results. In fact, they get better results if you look beyond performance indicators and targets. They are better at building partnerships and working across agencies, making them more likely to have an actual impact on issues that cut across service and organisational boundaries.

To recruit and retain a representative workforce, managers need to have the skills to manage a diverse staff group. The experience in the USA has shown that having more black managers in senior posts will not in itself change the culture of an organisation.

Rather than aiming to get a small number of black people into a relatively small number of top jobs in the public sector, we should focus on developing the people management skills of all managers. In this way, we will establish a culture of support, ensuring an equality of opportunity for all.