Wes Hall shares diversity lessons to help other companies

One key is to recognize it's lonely and limiting being a token Black hire, so don't cheat your company by having only one on board

Wes Hall shares diversity lessons to help other companies

Everyone may be talking about improving diversity these days. But, how do you do it to get the benefits that are supposed to accrue from it?

Wes Hall, founder and Executive Chairman of Kingsdale Advisors of Toronto, the Black North Initiative, and the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism, is trying to help businesses move the needle. When he sat down to talk to Wealth Professional, he shared four pieces of advice from his experience and the groups that he’s spearheading to help the industry become more inclusive.

First, he said, “I want to let people know that there’s nothing to be afraid of when you put diversity to something. We’ve seen it historically.”

There didn’t used to be women in corporate Canada’s boardrooms or C-suites because, he said, “men were afraid that it’s going to disrupt the collegial relationship they had in the room, and they couldn’t talk about the same things that they were talking about before.” While they’d say they couldn’t find capable women, it wasn’t true because they’d gone to university with them. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it was clearly a gender problem.

When that changed, Hall said, people realized “it’s okay to include women in the C-suite because they have valuable things to contribute to the conversation and they’re making our companies better. Now, let’s extend that to people of colour. Let’s bring in some people of colour, some Black people, some Indigenous people, and, guess what? Those people start to contribute, and you realize there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Second, once businesses start to realize these people are assets, and not liabilities, and start to hire them, they have to recognize that “somebody has to be the guinea pig. Somebody has to let them know it’s okay. Unfortunately, that person will go through a trauma in the process of proving it’s okay,” he said. “People are going to expect them to perform in different ways beyond what other people are performing. As a result, they will have to go through things their colleagues aren’t going through, because they’re the first. And they’re the only in some cases.”

Hall, who has often been the only, doesn’t fear walking where others haven’t yet. But, he said, “it’s a lonely place to be the only. It’s a lonely place to be the Wonder Woman on a board. It’s a lonely place to be the only Black person on a board. It’s lonely when you travel and you go to a hotel, and you look around, and there’s nobody who looks like you. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be. But, to let everybody know that it’s okay to have people like you represented you have to be that only. It’s not fun to be the only, but unfortunately, to represent your culture, you have to be prepared to be the only.”

For those making hiring decisions, he advised: “Don’t allow this person to be the only for too long. Don’t stop at one. One is tokenism, so don’t stop there. Because once you know it’s better to add others, then you’re going to realize that you’re now going to get the true contribution of that person.”

“When you’re the only person in a situation, for example, sometimes you don’t speak as freely as you would like. And, as a result, you’re holding back and your talent is not fully exposed,” he said. “So, when you have other people that look like you, you don’t feel that you’re going to be judged, but you do feel that you can contribute and be yourself. You tend to be a little bit more open.

“So, encourage corporate people, ‘when you hire your first Black board member, don’t leave it there. Continue because you’re going to get the full potential of that person that you just brought on as a result of them not being the only.’”

Third, businesses that say it’s hard to attract Black talent should look at their culture because capable people who don’t see others like them on the board or senior management team know how hard it is to be the only, and may decide not to take on that challenge because they’ve fought that battle too many times and are tired. They’ll go to a board with others like them, he said, “because I can be my true self. I can give that company what they’re looking for. I can provide true value to that company.”

If companies are struggling to find “qualified people”, he said they should start looking in the right places, but also start demonstrating that their organization is truly inclusive and the kind of place qualified Black people would want to work, and not just as the token. 

Finally, Hall recommended companies hire on potential, not just experience, which is what he attributes some of his success to, as it brings out the best.

“It takes a certain insight to hire people based on potential because it’s not on paper, right?” he said. “So, for me, all the things that I’ve done in my life are based on somebody seeing the potential in me, and then it was up to me as to whether or not I was going to prove they’re right.”

That may also mean encouraging those with the potential to embrace their opportunities. Hall quoted Richard Branson as saying ‘if someone gives you an amazing opportunity, and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes, and figure out how to do it later’.

“That’s how I’ve lived my life even before he said those words,” said Hall, noting that’s what guided him in launching his business, as well as initiatives like Black North, and even accepting the Dragon’s Den opportunity – all of which took him out of his comfort zone.

“Everything that I’ve done in terms of being Black, somebody has to be the first to do it, and if it’s not me, I don’t know who else is going to do it because somebody has to be the first,” he said, noting he didn’t have any T.V. experience before doing Dragon’s Den. “At the end of the day, I had an opportunity to say yes to it and, as a result of saying, yes, I’m guaranteed that it’s going to open the doors for other like me in the future.”