“When you’re in my skin, this is why sponsorship is important”

Cheryl Samuels explains why, as a Black HR professional aiming to develop her career, sponsorship is just as important as mentorship

Over the last few years I have reflected upon my own career journey and that of others, the relationships I have forged, the way others treat me, and the privileges I have been afforded which have supported my career aspirations and development. The theme that runs consistently throughout is the importance of sponsorship. But not any old sponsorship – it's about understanding the various guises this appears and the impact it has when you're in my skin.

When you're in my skin, society has conditioned the people that work in organisations to think, behave and judge people that look like me. Throughout my career I have met some incredible people who see me as human and are able to look beyond my ethnicity and race to see my capabilities, competence, traits, abilities in the here and now and beyond, even when I could not see them myself.

When you're in my skin, you are not always placed in positions and line managed by good leaders who enable you to take on high profile and impactful work that supports building your credibility and reputation in a way that is priceless. This is what happened when I founded and set up the London Deputy Directors of HR Network more than seven years ago.

When you’re in my skin, you rarely have the opportunity to be let into the various clubs that exist, which allow you to build networks, meet influencers, and be at the forefront of up and coming strategic work so you can be a valued contributor having built relationships with key leaders. This is what happened when I was encouraged and supported by my former HR director David Grantham – although shy – to attend the London HR Directors’ Network.

When you’re in my skin, it's rare that leaders, staff or third party organisations endorse your skills in a way that matter to those with the power to make the next step happen for you. This is what happened when I worked in mental health and led a high-profile project to reduce agency expenditure while maintaining safety. A nursing agency that I worked with was willing to publicly endorse my collaboration and partnership in an open way of working despite the challenges along the way.

When you’re in my skin, it is not often in your early career that you are led by a HR director like Ruth Lewis who was abstract, seen as different, thought outside the box, held high levels of integrity and role modelled authenticity in a way that meant I could also be authentic and speak truth to power even when it was not in line with the group think. This is what happened when I was relatively new to the NHS, but this level of sponsorship created a safe space to think differently, to be valued for all that I bring, and to accept different perspectives because there is not always a right answer, but that context is everything.

When you’re in my skin, it is not often that you can expect compassion, empathy and to be listened to in a way that results in action being taken to improve the status quo within my profession. This is what happened to me when I met the development director of the London Healthcare People Management Association (HPMA), when I described the rollercoaster of experiences of some of the HR & OD professionals I had mentored from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. This led me to work closely with Rachael Tyler, who presented a business case to London HR directors, which in turn led to her receiving funding for us to commission independent research to understand the lived experience of ethnic minority HR and OD professionals. This culminated in us publishing the report and launching our first conference. Since then, this has led to the creation of a career hub to reduce workforce inequalities through greater transparency, a number of blogs, HR system leaders sharing the personal journeys and reflections, national speaker events, a 30 per cent increase in the HPMA commissioning of more culturally diverse content delivered by diverse HPMA trainers, and more recently launching an anti-racist leadership programme for HR and OD leaders in the NHS, and launching the ‘Five-step challenge to change’ which focuses on transformation and the social movement for change #InclusiveHR.

None of these experiences happen by accident. Sponsorship is just as important as mentorship and it happens in many ways. Given ethnic minority colleagues have such poor experiences in all walks of life, we can all start to individually take action in the workplace to create the conditions where dreams can become a reality. When those in the majority put their name and reputation on the line for someone in my skin, it can be one of the most powerful cultural tools in the tool box that can change someone’s career, life and their family.

Cheryl Samuels is deputy director of workforce transformation for London at NHS England and NHS Improvement