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Damian Thompson: Don’t just think about a black person pushing through barriers, break through your own

by: Damian Thompson, retail mortgages director at Aldermore,
  • 31/10/2019
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Damian Thompson: Don’t just think about a black person pushing through barriers, break through your own
In the first part of his piece marking Black History Month Damian Thompson, retail mortgages director at Aldermore, revealed how difficult it was to get a job in finance in the 1990s being black.


In the second part of his story to conclude the month, Thompson describes how despite severe prejudice he built his career, and his hopes and dreams for the future.


I worked for three years as a cashier and not only was I the first black person to work in the branch, but I was the only black person in the business north of the M25 and south of Leeds.

That was the point when I decided I would never lose my West Indian accent, not only because wherever I was I had to be myself, but many customers really responded positively to it.

There was a fair share of negative experiences too.

Some customers would not let me serve them and would wait for the next cashier, but I never wavered and never responded to it. It was hard when there were 10 people in the queue and no one wanted to be served by me.

There were some customers who would come to me and over time I was able to build very good relationships with them and get to understand their needs. I never gave up and built resilience.


Career advice

In my role, for a long time, I was not put on the accelerated training programmes. Other people would be brought in and they would get promoted quicker than me.

But what I rapidly recognised was that a lot of them who went up quickly came down just as fast.

Watching them, I decided I would not try to go vertically in the bank, but I would instead layer my career by doing every job I could do in the business.

I knew it would take me longer to get to a senior position, but it meant that when I got there I’d have a degree of competence and skill and knowledge that meant I was a recognised partner in the senior team.

One lesson I’d share for people who want to grow in the financial industry is to be very careful of looking up.

Instead, get a broad base of experience – even if you can’t see how it could move your career on – get depth of knowledge first, then you will be able to deal with a number of situations with greater confidence and experience.


The BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Mantra

If you’re from any minority ethnic community in the UK you have been brought up with this mantra: “You have to work twice as hard as everybody else.”

You can either be resentful of that, or you can recognise the power in it.

I’ve always had a natural curiosity to learn and I’m grounded in learning.

In life this is not always true, but it’s about playing the long game and working much smarter.

But what does Black History Month mean to me?

In every organisation that you work in you create history. Aldermore is the most diverse executive committee I have ever worked in across my 27 years in finance and it will have huge benefits for the bank as the diversity of skills is amazing.

My first trip to the continent of Africa was to attend the First Rand National conference and I was amazed at the diversity in the leadership population, it was so refreshing to see and be a part of.

Black history is a chance to reflect on how much you know about what’s going on around you and how you challenge long-held beliefs through fact-based conversations.

As I reflect on my own family who are of dual heritage, I’m committed to talking to them about the history of both sides of their heritage and to provide them with positive role models like Lewis Hamilton, Barack Obama and Yasuke, the first black samurai.


Make companies more diverse

For those who want to start educating themselves about black history, the internet has great diversity of information so I would suggest starting there. The BBC also has an excellent section on the topic.

Watch Ray, the movie about Ray Charles. It is not just the story of a black man who was blind, but the first to own his own music rights, paving the way for all performers, not just for black artists.

Hidden Figures is one of my favourites too. It looks at the role played by female mathematicians at NASA.

A very powerful film being used to support and develop female participation in roles that have long been male dominated.

These films will help contextualise and allow people to reflect on the barriers people before us have pushed through.

But don’t just think about a black person pushing through barriers, it’s about the barriers that we all have in front of us. Think about the things that you need to do to break through your own barriers.

If there is one thing that I could do, it would be to open closed minds and give people the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes.

In addition, I’d like to find a way to make companies much more diverse in everything that they do.

Diversity is about all areas of diversity, be it race, gender or disability, and learning more about those challenges makes for better understanding and support.


You can read the first part of Damian’s story here.


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