Fri 18 Feb 2022
Sal Naseem, IOPC's Regional Director for London, speaks with Dods Diversity & Inclusion about breaking glass ceilings ahead of the BAME into Leadership Spring Conference in Birmingham on 24 March
By Murielle Gonzalez
In conversation with Dods Diversity & Inclusion, Sal Naseem, Regional Director for London at the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), reflected on his path to becoming the leader he is today. "My leadership journey has been one with glass ceilings. I couldn't just be as good as everybody else. I had to smash it," he said. Naseem's words are a testament to the barriers that people from Black, Asian, and other ethnic minority backgrounds encounter in their careers. If the statement sounds familiar to you, you must know that you're not alone and that it is possible to break those glass ceilings. "I'm lucky enough to be a Director now, and chairing BAME into Leadership is a brilliant way to give back," he enthused.
Naseem, a first-generation immigrant of South Asian heritage, chaired the BAME into Leadership London event last October, and he will return to take on the role for the Spring Conference in Birmingham on 24 March at the NEC. "I wish I had an event like BAME into Leadership when I was 20 or something," Naseem commented. "For me, it is a nourishing and energising day because you are in a room full of like-minded people in different stages of the same journey."
What did you like about the event last year?
The empowerment. People come to BAME into Leadership to see others like them represented in the speakers who have made the journey before them — and they show what is possible. When everybody takes away one positive thing from the event and can affect some form of change, isn't that great?
There's much discussion around career progression — why is it so important?
Progression is important because it's about getting the ethnic diversity of the country represented at the more senior grades of the civil service. It is important because it is on those higher structures of the organisation where change happens.
At the last BAME into Leadership, I said this: if you don't have a seat at the table, you can't get your voice heard. And for people with Black, Asian, or other ethnic minority groups, it's hard to even find the room where the table is. For me, it was quite a journey.
What challenges did you face?
When I was younger, I didn't see anybody like me in senior positions, nobody! And I faced those glass ceilings within organisations. For example, I was not recognised for my work.
But I did something about it. I had to work harder and be better than everybody else. Finally, I could get away with some of the stuff I experienced in the workplace, and that journey led me to the privileged position I have now, being a Director at the IOPC.
However, I don't want to see anybody having to prove themselves to a higher standard than everybody else to get a promotion because that simply isn't fair.
What did you do to overcome the barriers to your career progression?
I went through the barriers with work ethic, a gift my dad gave me. He told me that I must work harder than everybody else, and that's a lesson I pass on to my kids. Of course, I shouldn't have to, but I do because the reality is that you will have to work harder if you are from an ethnic minority.
People from ethnic minorities must demonstrate our worth to the highest standard. That has been the way for a long time, and I think that needs to change.
Did you encounter systemic bias?
I have worked in a period where racism was more overt. There are so many things now that are not outright racism, but if you take the cumulative effect, it becomes systemic bias, which gets built into the fabric of organisations. For example, interview processes are largely Eurocentric and geared towards a certain normal – they don't account for diversity.
Do you think that some of the challenges that BAME people face come from self-imposed barriers?
Maybe older generations might have had more self-imposed barriers. The current generation is more unwilling to accept some of those glass ceilings and systemic barriers.
For example, I'm a first-generation immigrant. My mum and dad came over from Pakistan with nothing. They established a life for themselves here, trying to do their best for us. I'm a parent now, and I pass on to my children the lessons I had to learn from the struggles I had in the workplace.
That generational learning teaches the younger generation what is possible. And those lessons are about refusing to accept glass ceilings. If you meet those glass ceilings in organisations, they're not for you.
What is your vision of diversity and inclusion within organisations?
All the work that's going on in equality, diversity, and inclusion should be about removing the barriers to progression. And it should be about organisations being self-aware of what true equality, diversity, and inclusion mean. It's not about paying lip service to those principles but about stitching them into the fabric of your organisation.
That work requires intentional leadership. It cannot happen through words — it requires meaningful action. Some organisations are progressive and are getting it. I work for an organisation like that, but I'm lucky. Other organisations are trying to start the journey with good intentions, and some organisations just don't get it.
What is your take on leadership?
Leadership is not a job title such as Director. Leaders can exist at all levels. For me, leadership is about the quality of the values you uphold. You can develop that quality leadership because it doesn't matter the job you do. And developing those leadership qualities is key to helping the progression of your career.
Do people of BAME background make good leaders?
If you are from an ethnic minority, you already have had struggles to learn from, and maybe that lived experience gives you a bit of an advantage regarding leadership qualities. I guarantee you that you would have displayed them — for example, resilience and the ability to stand for your rights — possibly in the workplace for different reasons, but certainly outside of the workplace because of the struggles you sadly had to deal with.
My philosophy is servant leadership. All the best leaders I've seen are generally humble; they put the team first. When things go wrong, they shield you from the blame culture. These kinds of leaders are rare but real.
What is your message to BAME colleagues?
Speak from the heart. If you want to hold anybody else to the standards and values of the leader you want to be, you must demonstrate it in an authentic way.
Join the BAME into Leadership Spring Conference in Birmingham on 24 March for networking and personal coaching like no other. The event will examine how Black, Asian & ethnic minority individuals can continue to overcome barriers, build networks, and become the leaders they aspire to be. Secure your place today!
Some sessions you don't want to miss:
- Keynote address by Grace Ononiwu, Director of Legal Services, Crown Prosecution Service, on challenging traditional leadership paths & behaviours
- Permanent Secretary Address by Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport and Civil Service; Social Mobility Champion, on Compassionate Leadership: creating a culture of inclusivity and inspiring positive change
- Panel Discussion: Being the only one in the room: from imposter to empowered
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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