The Room Where It Happens: Diversity Demands Good Governance

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'I’m past patiently waitin’.
I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation. 
Every action’s an act of creation! 
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow. 
For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow.'

‘My Shot’, Lin-Manuel Miranda 

Some time ago I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, ‘Hamilton’.

It tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers and the man on the 10 dollar bill. He was ‘a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman’ who left the Caribbean to become George Washington’s right-hand man and the first Secretary of the Treasury.

‘Hamilton’ delivers a joyous, articulate mix of old school rap, hip hop and R&B. There’s strong characterisation, razor-sharp choreography, lusty singing, propulsive beats and a rotating stage. 

'I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.'

I was particularly struck by the way that rap’s brisk tempo and fluid construction lend themselves so well to a complex narrative. I can’t imagine a more traditional musical format so comfortably conveying, for example, the secret deal in which Washington DC is accepted as the nation’s capital in exchange for federal control over the debts accrued by the separate states.

Miranda has described ‘Hamilton’ as 'the story of America then told by America now.' The London audience when I attended enjoyed the subversion of the independence narrative being related by an ethnically diverse cast. We cheered the villainous King George III as one of our own. And we applauded when Hamilton triumphantly declared: ‘Immigrants! We get the job done!’

One of the key songs in ‘Hamilton’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, reflects on the fact that so many of the critical debates and decisions in history take place behind closed doors.

'We want our leaders to save the day,
But we don't get a say in what they trade away.
We dream of a brand new start,
But we dream in the dark for the most part,
Dark as a tomb where it happens.
I've got to be in
The room where it happens,
I've got to be in the room where it happens.’

'The Room Where It Happens’, Lin-Manuel Miranda 

We may be familiar with this sentiment in the world of business. So often strategies, policies and practice are worked out in camera, in secret, in private; in corridors, over a beer, behind glass walls.

This seems particularly true of smaller and privately owned companies that have grown organically – where founders and leaders have informal, instinctive networks, ways of working and getting things done.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren has observed that non-participation in decision-making presents risks for the excluded.

'If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu.’

Although you’ll hear Agencies talk a good deal nowadays about the imperative of diversity, you’ll not hear them talk too often about good governance. And yet fair and transparent governance is the means by which you can ensure that a diverse workforce creates diverse decision-making. It’s your insurance against group-think and double-talk. It’s the means by which you earn true colleague engagement. There’s no vocation without representation.

A mature business gives proper thought to the composition of its committees and corporate bodies; to participation on boards, excos, platforms and working groups; to the processes by which decisions are made. This is not just about fairness. It’s about effectiveness.

If you do nothing about this, you may find that people will take matters into their own hands.

Shirley Chisholm - photo Irving Penn,  Vogue,  1969

Shirley Chisholm - photo Irving Penn, Vogue, 1969

In 1968 Brooklyn-born Shirley Chisholm was elected the first black woman in Congress. In 1972, campaigning under the slogan ‘Unbought and Unbossed’, she became the first woman and the first African American to run for the Presidential nomination of a major party. Surrounded throughout her career by colleagues who were overwhelmingly white and male, she passed on the following advice:

‘If you wait for a man to give you a seat, you’ll never have one. If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.’ 

No. 224