Five minutes with… Syreeta Brown

Syreeta Brown is head of global recruitment strategy at Citi and a winner of the Black British Business Awards

How does it feel to be awarded a Black British Business Award?

It is such an honour to be recognised and I feel very proud and humbled.  Contrary to popular belief, there are many black professionals who have achieved great things in their respective industries – and to be singled out amongst my peers as a leader in one of those industries is amazing.  I stand with some great people and all the finalists had inspiring journeys that have taken them to where they are today.  I believe the recognition for Citi and my function, HR, was especially important – it reflects the focus the organisation has had in the area of diversity and the role it plays in helping to drive business performance

Tell us about your career – how did you start out, when did you get your big break, what path have you taken?

I began my career on the graduate program at BT.  I joined as part of the HR program.  Although I was not very familiar with the HR function at the time, I quickly realised that it was a critical function within the business and in BT at the time was at the centre of significant business transformation. After 12 years of rapid growth, I left BT at HR Director level after an opportunity came my way to move into the financial services industry in 2010 and join Citi, one of the biggest banks in the world. The industry was still recovering from the 2008 Financial crisis – but I saw this as a great place to do more ‘firsts’- especially in HR. I joined to head up the regional recruitment agenda for EMEA and build the Centre of Excellence for Recruitment across 52 countries. After two years, my big break in Citi came when I was asked to lead the creation of a global recruitment strategy to build an aligned global recruitment infrastructure across all four regions.  It was another first – as we were starting from scratch and – as I was told at the time – it was a ‘blank’ page.  I relished the opportunity to do something so big and with such scale that seemed impossible to do at the time.  Today we have a machine that manages over one million applications a year with clear line of sight from attraction and engagement through to hire.

What are your thoughts on Black History Month? Do you think it’s important/necessary etc? What kind of message do you think it sends to society?

It’s essential – as is an understanding of all parts of our history.  The inclusion of Black History Month to provide an opportunity to highlight its role in the story of world history is to acknowledge that it has, up until this point, been largely left out of that story and so we have had only part of what is a multi-dimensional view of the world and what has happened in the past.  It is empowering and valuable for everyone from all backgrounds to have to an understanding of this missing part of the story so that we can recognise and be aware of what has happened and how it plays into the journey of world history.

Can you share some of your experiences of being a woman of colour in the workplace. Have you come across barriers, prejudice etc and if so, how have you overcome that?

I have had many experiences –  negative and positive – during my career that I can directly attribute to being a woman of colour – and each of one of them played an important part in building my resilience, tenacity and determination to move forward and make it better for those coming up behind me.  Many of the negative experiences were a result of both conscious and unconscious bias but the key for me was to make sure I used them as teaching moments.  I asked myself questions such as: ‘How can I manage this type of situation in future?’ or ‘What needs to be done to avoid this happening again?’ It’s easy to become marginalised and disempowered when negative things happen and I have tried hard to stay focused on the bigger picture and ‘stay in the game’  Giving up has never been an option for me – or not one that I entertained for long at least!  The positive ones centre mainly around the fantastic sponsorship and support I have received from great leaders, advisors and my network.  I always tell people coming up ‘find your person’ – the one who can help guide you through the valleys and equip you for your climb to the top – you do not get there alone.

There is lots of research that suggests people of colour still experience prejudice in the workplace. Do you agree and if so what would you like to see happen to change that? What role does recruitment have to play in that?

I think that you can see this by looking at the senior board make-up of large businesses, SMEs and the critical leadership positions of most companies against the wealth of diverse talent at a junior and mid-management level that we know exists.  The pipeline is just not breaking through in enough numbers or at least navigating around the glass ceiling. I think there are a number of reasons for this that focus around the environmental conditions that need to be in place to support the progression of people of colour in the workplace so that everyone is aware of how to enable and sustain this. Then you need to address the support that individuals need to believe and know that it is possible to progress and the role they play in making this happen – in spite of the challenges. Recruitment is key: from ensuring hiring managers are aware of their own biases in selection to targeting and attracting diverse candidates. Ensuring that there is a diverse panel of people assessing individuals for senior/critical roles in an organisation is an imperative – getting a broad range of diversity in what I call ‘decision-making’ roles is key.

You are a Board Trustee for Access All Areas and that you sit on the Panel of Influential Women run by the Advanced Boardroom Excellence Group. Tell us about those and why are you involved?

Access All Areas (AAA) is a Performing Arts theatre company for Learning Disabled Artists.  It is a cause close to my heart as my daughter, Chloe was diagnosed with Autism at three years old.  She is now 10 and early intervention has been key in helping me to understand the possibilities and potential for her especially seeing how much she has developed with support.  The theatre group is full of amazing people both in the management team and the artists and performers who show what can be achieved with belief and purpose.  As well as creating immersive theatre productions through its performance company, AAA provides artist development to 12 artists, working with organisations such as Battersea Arts Centre, Lyric Hammersmith, Soho Theatre, the Live Art Development Agency and London Theatre Consortium; it has an industry-first partnership with agency Simon & How to represent seven professional actors with learning disabilities and it delivers the Performance Making Diploma at the Central School of Speech and Drama. It also runs a range of exciting and innovative projects for people with a broad range of learning disabilities and trains organisations in best practice skills of working with people with learning disabilities and autism.

Since 2015, the company has won the Guardian  University Award for Student Diversity and Widening participation, nominated for 2018 National Diversity Awards and was a Finalist in the National Learning and Disability Awards in 2017 and the Living Wage Awards in 2018.  In 2017, Access All Areas was awarded National Portfolio organisation by Arts Council England.  I use my professional experience to guide the organisation in its management of people as well as improve the overall business and financial performance.

Advanced Boardroom Excellence is focused on individual and collective director effectiveness.  It specialises in board effectiveness, and supporting Chairmen, CEOs and Directors. It has a significant research practice to ensure they ‘know’ what excellent looks like in the current context.  I am honoured to be a part of the panel of influential women which shines a light on top business women and female leaders in their field.  Through this panel, there are opportunities to provide support and be a source of expertise in the area of senior leadership effectiveness.

Finally, have you got any words of advice for people of colour who want to forge careers in investments and/or business?

I am inspired to reflect on words that Melanie Eusebe, co-founder of Black British Business Awards, expressed in her opening speech at the recent awards ceremony.  She quoted from Harriet Tubman.  The words were really simple in spite of the complexity of what it takes to make it in the business world.  The message was that ‘on the path to freedom’ you had to ‘keep going.’  That is my advice to people of colour who want to forge careers in business – it is not for the faint-hearted and you have to be resilient and manage the setbacks – as they will happen.  The key is not to see them as blocks or barriers – but to see them as opportunities to be ‘the first’ to remove them and so create a path for others to come through and grow your own career in the process.  Just Keep Going!