I had the honour of being invited to the Forward 2023 conference at Birmingham City University recently. I joined a cohort of other business leaders to speak and network with under and postgraduates, and discuss themes of equality, diversity and inclusivity. Heading back to work after a morning of inspirational talks, having being asked questions on everything from authentic corporate social responsibility to supporting the next generation, I felt incredibly inspired at how progressive, interested and aspirational everyone I came into contact with was. If you’re ever worried about the future of your organisation, honestly go and spend a few hours with students learning in your field. Not only will you absorb a lot, but you’ll also be very reassured about the world of work in the years to come - the talent waiting to explode onto the creative and technology scene is genuinely outstanding.
Here’s a brief recap of my four hours of fun on campus…
Professor Jonathan Wilson ran at us hard straight out of the gate. In a world where we’re battling our unconscious bias but also trying desperately to be inclusive in tandem, he asked us a simple question, “How many of you tell people you have black friends?” He then asked us to consider if we tell people that we have tall friends, or short friends. His point being that perhaps we’re trying too hard to defend our personal approach to diversity, and losing perspective. We need acceptance and we need to be friendly with each other, full stop and with no agenda. By embracing true diversity at scale, we can overcome our societal adversity without fail.
He also spoke on the challenges of employment facing ethnic minorities. Do you go for the job that you really want, but you’ll be underrepresented, or accept a job you’re less keen on, but you’ll feel more comfortable because there are more people who represent you? These are huge dilemmas facing graduates in the current climate. And his simple advice? Go for the role you really want and move the needle forward for yourself, and everyone else.
A panel of business leaders were put to the test with a range of questions on their biggest lessons learned, the skills you need to open doors, but most importantly what they and the university can do for the next generation moving into the industry now. This was a relatively academic answer, and I discussed in depth with the panel guests during networking after the event. The fact is that business leaders have a moral obligation to provide the platform for the next wave of talent coming through. It’s a flywheel that needs to spin at maximum speed all the time. The single biggest gift that business leaders can give emerging talent is their time and attention, opening doors and providing the opportunity for them to grow. We need to constantly look behind us so that we can look forward with confidence - there simply won’t be a future for our businesses if we stall in this area. Our role is to ‘pay it forward,’ with every step we take on our career journey. And encourage those following in our footsteps to do the same.
The dynamic duo of Ollie Olanipekun and Rohani Coombes from Futurimpose had one of those bona fide mic drop moments as they closed the show. Taking no prisoners, they reaffirmed what today’s audiences expect from brands. It’s not enough to be seen making money and making people want things, you need to be in the business of making things people want - with your products, and the impact you have on society. Unless your brand can answer how it’s taking today’s environment forward positively, you’re simply never going to scale. Your audience won’t accept it. And on that note, Ollie and Rohani left us with a lingering message - that power and influence now ascends up, and not down from the top. What a galvanising message for every student in the room to hear!
It was a perfect way to end the Forward 2023 conference. I left with a spring in my step, hugely excited about the messages I heard and discussed, and extremely confident that the technology and creative sector is in very safe hands with the next generation.
I watched Jim Hemmerling’s perspective on 5 ways to lead in an era of constant change a few weeks ago and it was a timely reminder of what it truly means to lead an organisation. When you’re a leader in business, the lines between managing and leading frequently get blurred. It's easy to forget the the difference, and that the big step up into leadership comes with a wild responsibility. You can consider that responsibility a gift, because operating in service of your people, and inspiring your organisation to leap into the future is an honour. Get it right and your business can fly. Carry on with a command and control approach and stagnancy will weigh you down.