Why I want the focus to move from climbing the ladder to being the ladder
In this guest article, Trevor Sterling, Senior Partner at Moore Barlow, shares why he wants people to aspire to be the ladder, not climb it.
Anyone who knows me will have heard me say, “Don’t just aspire to climb the ladder, be the ladder.” In fact, it’s even featured on a poster installed by Amazon outside its head offices in Shoreditch.
The poster is part of a project which is a representation of many people who may struggle to break through. It tells them that with fair opportunity and endeavour, they can indeed ‘breakthrough’.
Amazon backed the ‘Underexposed’ initiative and continues to do so. However, too many organisations commoditise diversity or think they do not have an issue – as evidenced by so many stock images on websites seeking to purport a diverse business. Speak to many impacted by the lack of diversity in certain sectors, and they will tell you otherwise.
Take the legal sector, for instance; yes, I was able to make history as the country’s first – and, to date, only – black senior partner with my current firm, Moore Barlow. And it’s great to see that in January next year, Segun Osuntokun will be appointed Senior Partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. But where are the third, fourth, fifth and other black senior partners?
Breaking stereotypes, building success
When talking about diversity, what’s important to focus on is not only race but social mobility too. It’s an undeniable fact that certain groups in our society face more and higher barriers to achievement than others, whether that’s on the basis of societal prejudices or as a result of coming from a less advantaged socio-economic background.
Take me; my parents immigrated to the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation. Both had left school by the time they were 13. I was a working-class kid from Mitcham who left school at 16 with three career options, courtesy of the careers adviser at my underperforming comprehensive school: tennis racket stringer, warehouseman or post clerk. No Russell Group university degree for me, something which some law firms still deem a crucial requirement for entry into the legal profession. And yet, because I showed an interest, worked hard and – crucially – was supported by my employer at the time, I was able to qualify as a lawyer and forge a successful career, not least because my own life experiences stood me in such good stead.
What do I mean? When you have a difficult start in life, dealing with poverty and encountering racism and stereotypes, among other things – you have to learn to problem solve. And if you then you get into my profession, those experiences can really shape you as a lawyer, rather than the other way around. It also helps you to empathise with clients, as you will know what it feels like to face adversity and overcome challenges. This is why the legal profession’s tendency to default to looking at academic achievement as the major predictor of success as a lawyer is way off the mark. I’m living proof of that.
But here’s the crucial thing: if I can do it, anyone can. Having overcome so many obstacles to achieve the position I hold today, what really matters to me is that other solicitors with my background shouldn’t have to face the same hurdles.
From aspiring to inspiring
We lawyers, just like other professions, can get so caught up in climbing the rungs of the traditional law firm career ladder. However, when I look back at my career in law, I realise that what has always driven and motivated me the most is to help as many people as possible.
And this is why I want to move the conversation from climbing the ladder to being the ladder. Because that is ultimately how we are going to bring that much-needed diversity into the upper echelons of the nation’s biggest professions: by those of us who are already here lifting up, mentoring and guiding others to help them be the best we can be, especially if they come from backgrounds where they might otherwise not receive this crucial support.
Whatever profession you’re aspiring to, I strongly encourage you to reach out to other people from a similar background to you who have broken through, asking them for their advice – they will usually be only happy to share their experience and know-how with you, as they want to pay forward the help they themselves received along the way to their own success. Use networking platforms such as LinkedIn to your advantage, forging a network that can help open doors for you. Just make sure you then hold them open for those who follow you.
For myself, I will continue striving to help as many people as I can to realise their dreams of joining and then flourishing in the legal profession. And when they do, I hope they too realise that in order to truly make a difference, they also should and must help others along the way – to be the ladder rather than merely climbing it.
The problem is, of course, that lack of diversity breeds a lack of diversity. I encourage all businesses to look around at who the most senior people are, the level below that and then across the whole business. If it’s not a representation of the wider society you see in your day-to-day life, then you have a starting point – and perhaps you do, in fact, have a problem that needs addressing.