Stepping into the spotlight – speech by Afua Kyei

Given at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s Talent and Diversity conference
Published on 19 April 2023
Afua Kyei tells her story of how she became one of the first ethnic minority women to rise to one of the top jobs at the Bank of England, as their CFO. Afua is the co-executive sponsor of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at the Bank and she discusses the approaches taken in the financial sector and the lessons learned on talent retention and inclusion that other sectors, such as advertising, can draw on.



Good morning. It is great to be here today to discuss with you a topic that is very close to my heart, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). There is so much that our industries can gain from collaborating with each other on this key issue that transcends society and industry boundaries.

I would like to take a moment to share my personal journey.

Growing up, I wanted to be doctor and then decided to read Chemistry here in the UK at Oxford and specialised as an Organic Chemist. My thesis focussed on using organic synthesis to create anti-tumorous molecules that occur in nature. I wanted to do research in the US and was awarded a Junior research fellowship in the US at Princeton. Then I decided I wanted to do something more fast-paced, so I changed paths and decided to move into the financial sector. I then went on to apply my problem-solving skills through building a career in banking and financial services in the private sector.

Fast forward, I joined the Bank of England as their CFO, four years ago. The reason I was attracted to the Bank, is because it was a wonderful opportunity for me to combine my innate desire to help people, whilst using my skills to do something purposeful in the public sector, helping society as a whole. My diverse set of experiences has helped me to shape my role as CFO and co-executive sponsor of DEI.

At the time I joined the Bank, I was the only executive of colour. I was 36, and was the youngest member of the executive team. I was the first black executive to be appointed in the 329 year history of the Bank. When I was appointed, Sir Bradley Fried was the Chairman, Mark Carney was the Governor. I was inspired by them and about what I had learned about the Bank – this drew me into the organisation. At the time, the CFO reported into the COO. Then, two years ago, Governor Andrew Bailey changed this and I now report into him directly.

Striking a balance between my work and personal life is important to me. When I am not at work, I enjoy spending time with my three children, family and friends.

These last few years have brought new challenges and fresh opportunities for all of us. We have all lived through the devastation of the Covid pandemic; and the cost-of-living crisis is the most immediate and severe global risk, that we are all having to face. At the same time, climate-related risks are the biggest future threat facing the world. The reason why I have stayed at the Bank of England for four years is because the work we do is purposeful. It is at the heart of making decisions that shape the UK’s economic environment and affects every household and business in the country. The public has placed enormous trust in us in responding to major crises and in relation to their money. It is our responsibility to make sure it is safe and ensure the public is able to access their money. We do not take this responsibility lightly.

There are commonalities between our industries and we can learn together by pooling our experiences to have a greater impact.

DEI in advertising

I think it’s really powerful when I see how brands are incorporating DEI into their advertising campaigns. There is so much the banking and financial sector can learn from the advertising sector projecting the importance of DEI in an impactful way.

One of my personal advertising favourites is Dove’s ’Real beauty’ campaign, which they have evolved over the last decade. They have been able to successfully celebrate our unique differences rather than ignore them and have highlighted that beauty is not defined by shape, size or colour – it’s about each of us feeling like the best version of ourselves. They have focussed on ‘Standing up for #KidsOnlineSafety, ending body size discrimination, ending Hair discrimination in the workplace and Proud To Be Me: A body positivity tool for LGBTQ+ youth’. I have found this evolution of the campaign incredibly uplifting and empowering.

I get asked the question sometimes of whether I think there are any particular benefits to having women in leadership?

What I would say is that beyond gender diversity, we need to embrace all forms of diversity in leadership positions, visible and invisible. Representation from the top sends out a signal, both to the organisation and about the organisation. Different people from different walks of life – all have relevant experience to bring to the table. The more diverse we are, the better we complement each other to achieve the best outcomes.

In my view, a good leader needs to have a mixture of leadership qualities and there should be a balance between qualities that have been stereotypically considered male and female. It is not an either-or. Leaders need to be assertive, results driven, resilient, empathetic, collaborative, kind and compassionate. These attributes are complementary.

I would say the traits that have been historically associated with women are becoming more and more important in this new era post Covid. As a society, we have a greater appreciation of the importance of mental health and the need for self-care. We are in a more digitised world, and we will be increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence, so attributes like empathy, compassion and kindness will be at a premium. As leaders, we need to be accessible, and to understand and connect with people - within our organisations and beyond.

As we continue to live through various crises, the ability to show one’s human side, vulnerability, communicate clearly and collaborate are key. More recently, we have seen a number of high profile female leaders like Jacinda Ardern and Sheryl Sandberg show real vulnerability in their leadership approach as they have made the bold decisions to step away from their roles.

As leaders, we need to think carefully through the human impact of the decisions we are making on the world around us.

I believe that there are lessons learned and positive messages that other sectors, such as advertising, can learn from the banking and financial sectors with regard to talent retention and inclusion.

In the banking and financial sector, we need to have a diverse workforce that represents the whole of society. This way, we can best make decisions to help the public and our customers. For example, when I worked in retail banking, I used to spend time working in the front line at bank branches to understand the customer’s experience. It was really important that the Bank customers found the staff relatable and felt comfortable to share their queries or concerns. Sometimes it was as simple as having staff who spoke different languages, so that they could speak with the international customers.

Another lesson we have learned, is that it is not enough to build a diverse workforce. We need to take active steps to include everyone, so we retain them.

For this reason, at the Bank of England, we have made DEI a strategic priority. Instead of relying on volunteers to juggle DEI alongside busy day jobs, we have dedicated funding and resources to this, although we still benefit from the fantastic voluntary work from our 14 employee networks across the Bank. We have created a division to lead on driving cultural changes to support this strategic priority and embed change across the organisation. We have a consistent set of behaviours, to embed clear expectations across the employee lifecycle, which includes recruitment, performance management and development.

Across the banking and financial sector, there are common themes:

  • It is important for colleagues to have a strong sense of purpose in the work they are doing. In the banking sector, this is really evident in how we pull together across our organisations and make use of a wide range of skillsets and experiences. At the Bank of England, we are trying to remove barriers so that the people who do the work and write presentations, present their work at senior committees. We do not want corporate titles to determine who gets heard.
  • Across the public and commercial banking sector, there is a real drive to make the workplace inclusive so that people can be themselves. Nobody should feel they have to change who they are in order to fit in. We want everyone to feel that they belong and we should celebrate each other’s differences. This way we can harness the full creative and innovative capabilities of our workforce.
  • Representation matters. Role models matter. Seeing is believing. If you don’t see role models who you can identify with you at the top, it suggests a glass ceiling and can affect morale and willingness to buy into the leadership vision. I’m pleased that at the Bank, fifty percent of executive directors are female. At the same time, we know that we have so much more to do for all forms of diversity to be well represented.
  • Progress matters – we need to actively make sure we are giving people an equal opportunity and equal support to progress. I hold open and honest discussions across the organisation to ensure we think hard about who we are allocating the exciting learning and development opportunities to, so that it is equitable. As an organisation, when we review pay and promotions, we look at the different factors that influence performance and progression and we specifically we look at the diversity statistics and trends in the data. This way, there is challenge and discussion amongst the decision-makers to help reach more fair outcomes.
  • As mentioned, at the Bank, we have 14 fantastic employee networks, which staff may choose to join. These networks can create a sense of belonging and community for our staff, and drive changes to our policies. For example through engaging with the parents’ network, last year, we decided to harmonise standard parental leave terms of 6 months paid leave for birth and adoption of a child, regardless of gender, and every permanent member of staff is eligible for this, regardless of how long they have been with us.
  • What gets measured gets done! So, we have learned to look at both qualitative and quantitative DEI data and metrics to track progress. What we have found is that achieving good positive diversity statistics is a first step. To make a real difference, we need to actually understand the lived experiences of colleagues while they are at work. And to take the time to understand things affecting their overall wellbeing. This means there needs to be a culture where colleagues feel they can open up. To help with this, we have created safe spaces where staff can meet in small coffee groups with the most senior members of the organisation and share their concerns. This way leaders are directly in touch with the live issues and can effect change with actions not words. We promote a speak-up culture where colleagues are encouraged to speak up about things or experiences of behaviours that are
    non-inclusive, without fear of consequences and with trust that something will change.
  • Ultimately, colleagues must feel they can trust the leadership.

I know we have some of the most influential brands and agencies in the country in this room today. I want to share why I believe DEI should be a top priority for you.

Our people are at the heart of our ability to connect with our customer bases and our target audiences. If we don’t get DEI right, the risk is that our thinking becomes out of touch very quickly. Building strong relationships with our talented colleagues and creating a culture that allows our people to shine will help us to retain our staff and keep morale high.

The more diverse and inclusive our organisations are, the better an understanding we will have of what matters to the people that we want to influence. It will help us to understand the consumer groups that we are either currently not able to penetrate or alternatively may have overlooked entirely.

  • DEI helps our businesses to become more resilient to external shocks.
  • DEI helps avoid ‘groupthink’ and provide fresh solutions to problems that others haven’t yet identified.
  • DEI creates opportunities, innovation and drives sustainable and measurable growth.
  • Ultimately DEI creates more choices and can help achieve better outcomes for the whole of society.

What’s not to like about that?

To close, I would like to thank all those who have helped with the speech, Mohini Gurung, Stephen White, Sarah Guerra, Lizzie Levett, Peter Fashesin-Souza, Laura Wallis, Jane Cathrall and Menaha Yogendra.