Bridget Lea may be Sainsbury’s managing director for the North now, but when she was coming up through the ranks she never saw a senior retail leader who looked like her.
As Black History Month draws to a close, Lea ruminates on why having more black business leaders and white allies in retail would help keep diversity and equality a “live issue rather than a current hot topic”.
The retail industry plays an important role in promoting social mobility, today as much as it did 25 years ago when I started out.
It offers wonderful career opportunities; with hard work, focus, great leadership and a bit of luck, it’s possible to work your way up to a senior position.
That’s why it’s critical that organisations have honest conversations about social mobility and diversity in the workplace, and how they can balance the playing field at all levels in the business, including the boardroom.
Although it may be an uncomfortable conversation to have, retailers must acknowledge the issue surrounding the lack of diversity regarding retail leaders and take action.
When I was coming up through the ranks, I never saw a senior retail leader who looked like me, and I know from experience the amount of work that it takes to get to the next level as a black colleague in retail.
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Register for free here for our session on Racial equality: Why doing nothing is not okay and access a whole week of thought-provoking virtual events and content.
My story: from low-income single parent to senior leader
As a very young single parent with two kids, living in a council flat in a low-income neighbourhood, I was certainly not set up to succeed.
I knew my kids deserved more and so I found a part-time job at the local Co-op head office, filing two days a week. I was given the responsibility of buddying new graduate trainees, guiding them through their induction and helping them settle into the business.
“I know the amount of work it takes to get to the next level as a black colleague in retail”
After spending some time with the trainees, I soon realised with my skill set and knowledge that I was just as good as them, but they had something I didn’t – a degree.
So, I enrolled at Manchester Metropolitan University. Being passionate about technology, I completed an IT degree and secured a position on an M&S graduate programme – and I haven’t looked back since.
Now, I’m a managing director for Sainsbury’s and I’m proud of all I have achieved.
I love retail and believe it’s a great place for people to start their career. Whether you’re fascinated by digital, finance or people, the industry is rife with opportunity across a range of areas, offering a wide variety of roles to accommodate individual strengths.
I’ve worked across multiple sectors – including fashion, food and technology – learning from each and gaining transferable skills.
I’m passionate about delivering exceptional experiences for customers and retail enables me to do this while using skills across digital, transformation and commercial.
It’s been a privilege to lead and motivate more than 41,000 colleagues at Sainsbury’s and create a culture that enables people to be at their best and reach their full potential.
Setting up more black colleagues for retail success
A big part of my role is to create a trusted environment where my leadership team can succeed and thrive, so we can show up in the best way for our customers.
I’m lucky to have a superb diverse team who rise to the challenge every day and help to make Sainsbury’s become the UK’s most trusted and inclusive retailer, where people love to work and shop.
It’s important for me to be part of an organisation that is committed to positive change. The events that have taken place this year, including issues surrounding Black Lives Matter, have really been an eye-opener for everyone.
“It’s important to show my teams that it’s possible to progress as a black colleague”
We used this year’s Black History Month as an opportunity to educate all our colleagues on how black people have contributed to British history, to take the time to listen to our black colleagues and to really celebrate with them.
I keep myself grounded and informed by mentoring ethnically diverse colleagues and holding black and ethnic minority listening groups regularly.
I feel that it’s very important to be a role model and show my teams that it’s possible to progress as a black colleague.
I’ve felt a responsibility to encourage discussions around race at all levels and to help educate the board, who have been very receptive, about the need to improve diversity at Sainsbury’s.
Retail must make black representation more than a ‘hot topic’
Education is critical for the retail sector, followed by meaningful actions within retailers’ strategies that will ensure we create a fair and level playing field for everyone and that any unconscious or conscious biases within the business are corrected.
“We need white allies – this isn’t a problem the black community can solve alone as we don’t have the platform or the power”
This means reviewing the data to understand where and why there isn’t the appropriate black representation at all levels.
Internal processes may need to change, additional support and development may be needed, and ultimately progression must be seen by black colleagues if we are to address this.
If we have more black board members and business leaders we will have a far better chance of addressing the issue of discrimination – keeping this as a live issue, rather than a ‘current hot topic’, and creating live plans to change cultures from the top down.
Allies are also absolutely critical in making real change in retail and must actively work to move this discussion forwards.
Having worked in the industry for 25 years, I’m very aware that this isn’t a problem the black community can solve alone as, sadly, we don’t have the platform or the power.
If our white allies begin to drive this agenda forwards, we have a real chance of creating lasting change.
“If we have more black board members and business leaders we will have a far better chance of addressing the issue of discrimination”
The retail sector still has a long way to go, especially at a board and senior management level. However, I believe this year has made organisations reflect and take notice.
As a sector, we have a responsibility to ensure we’re finding talent, irrespective of background, and bringing them into our businesses.
I’m confident that, although this has been a challenging year for black colleagues, the future will bring about positive change.
Bridget Lea is Sainsbury’s managing director for the North
Lea is a retail specialist with a wealth of experience in fashion retail and, more recently, tech businesses.
Lea also sits on the board for The University of Manchester and is a non executive director for Marston’s PLC.