BWSM Celebrates Bernadette Thompson OBE (BHM)
Bernadette Thompson is the Deputy Director for Inclusion, Wellbeing & Employee Engagement in the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
She joined the Civil Service in 1998, starting as a Caseworker in the Legal Aid Board, and has held various roles across the Ministry of Justice, Home Office, Treasury and Cabinet Office.
She is a diversity advocate and public speaker, who works with government & public sector leaders to drive a culture of inclusion and increase the pace of Black and Minority Ethnic employee representation at senior grades.
Bernadette has co-chaired the Race to the Top G6/7 network for just under 5 years – a network group of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic G6/7 employees across all Government departments and agencies focusing on increasing the flow of new entrants to the Senior Civil Service.
She is a Different Woman Ambassador – where she campaigns for a more inclusive gender equality agenda, amplifying the voices of women of colour.
In 2019, she won one of the Civil Service Charity’s Community awards, and in 2020 won the Workplace Hero category at the Investing in Ethnicity Awards for championing & driving race equality & inclusion across the Civil Service.
Bernadette has been shortlisted within the ‘Champion’ category for the 2021 WeAreTheCity Rising Star Awards.
Can we start by understanding more about your background?
I was born in Lambeth North, a few decades ago. I have an older sister and a younger brother. My Mum came to the UK in the fifties to become a nurse, but once she began the training she realised this wasn’t something she enjoyed and so she ended up becoming a fine art portrait artist – she was really good.
In the late seventies my Mum convinced my Dad that we should all return to Nigeria for Festac 77, so I ended up completing the rest of my primary education, my secondary and university qualifications in Nigeria.
My first degree was in Zoology, and then I studied a Master’s in Environmental Biology – my thesis was a study into the resistance of Bemisia Tabaci (White Fly) to genetically modified crops. Some of the crop viruses were a real challenge for African farmers.
I started my long distance running in secondary school by accident and I realised I was really good at it, by the time I got to University I became one of their elite athletes – I actually was pretty good, and I represented both my university and my region in various competitions. Long distance running built my resilience over the years, sharpened my focus and it taught me patience and discipline – also a bit about long-suffering!
On the back of my athletic endeavours, I even spent a year working as a sports journalist.
In the late-nineties, I decided to return to the UK but most of the jobs that involved pursuing my degree subjects were based in the countryside outside London. So I decided I would change career direction in order to stay in the city.
So, I used my transferrable skills as a graduate to secure a role in Debt Management in Local Government.
I joined the Civil Service in 1998, starting as a Caseworker in the Legal Aid Board, progressing through the ranks in various Debt Operations roles, then I began to realise that what was really important to me was people and their experiences in the workplace. This led me to a career change to HR and I have not looked back since.
In September 2019, I became the Deputy Director for Inclusion, Wellbeing and Employee Engagement in MHCLG.
What skills do you wish you had learned earlier in life?
The importance of working to discover your true calling in life. When I was younger, I didn’t spend enough time in self-reflection, I also didn’t seek out a coach or even a career adviser. I think if I had done this, I probably would have ended up becoming a lawyer and spent my life fighting for better access to justice.
I always advise my mentees not to find themselves so busy ‘doing’, that they don’t find space for self-analysis and figuring out what they are really good at and what they really enjoy.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Seize every opportunity that is presented to you, as you never know where these might lead you.
Also, if you can’t find any opportunities – make your own. Don’t wait.
One quote I love is from Shirley Chisolm – the first black woman elected to the United States Congress – she said,“if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” I’ve had many a folding chair in my career!
Be your authentic self, discover your purpose and what is important to you, and bring your true personality and passion to everything you do.
What life lessons have you learned?
Stand up for yourself and refuse unfair treatment.
During my career, I’ve always prided myself on speaking truth to power. I have never been afraid to confront situations where I have been treated unfairly.
Surround yourself with good people, people who will lift you up when things get rough, people who will push you to fulfil your destiny, and also people who will pull you down when you are getting a bit to big headed.
How important have mentors and role models been to you in your journey?
Throughout most of my Civil Service career there weren’t many senior leaders who looked like me. This was always a great source of disappointment and motivates my efforts nowadays to actively support underrepresented groups by helping to increase their preparedness for leadership at the next level in the senior civil service.
Some people that have been incredibly important to me include: Melanie Johnson – in my early days she was the only black woman who held a senior position in the Legal Aid Board – having her as a role model was very important for me.
Sandra Kerr was another role model for me – I remember hearing her speak and walking away thinking ‘oh my goodness, there are people who look like me that are Directors – I can actually make it’.
I also remember listening to Rob Neil who was the former chair of the Ministry of Justice’s Proud Network – he was charismatic, inspirations and really gave me hope.
We have made some progress since the early 2000s and now I have more role models that I can look up to, such as Cheryl Avery, Diane Caddle, Cathy Francis and Grace Ononiwu who have all inspired me over the past 5 years.
Another lady who has supported my recent career progression is Dame Melanie Dawes CEO of Ofcom – she believed in me and gave me an opportunity.
I also believe strongly in having ‘Accountability Partners’ – I’ll mention a couple of women who keep me accountable and as peers they push me to be the best that I can be – Jas Roopra, Tola Ayoola, Rose Odudu and Anita Bhalla – such important people to me that have really helped to transform my career in the past few years.
All these mentors, sponsors, champions, allies and accountability partners have really helped me and have shaped my career.
I have just started working with an Executive Coach, and she is already challenging and stretching me.
Everyone needs a combination of support in their careers.
When you think about challenges, what strategies have you developed to overcome these?
I think some of my attitude to facing challenges goes back to the time I spent as a long-distance runner – literally nothing phases me now, I’m super-resilient. But I’ve got a few tips that help me get through challenging times.
First, I always have my headphones close by – I am a woman of faith and so there is no challenge that a good blast of gospel music can’t solve!
Second, I’m a fanatical planner – I have a spreadsheet for everything! I like to have a back-up plan for everything.
I also accept that things are likely to go wrong, and I won’t have the answer – but I believe being open, honest and having an effective team, that things will always work out.
The past 12 months has really taught me the importance of mental health and wellbeing, the absolute importance of focusing on self-care, self-love and self-health.
I don’t underestimate the impact that physical exercise has on helping my ability to think clearly and solve problems. So, finding time to prioritise having a ‘wellbeing walk’.
I have recent focused on the “my analytics” page part of Office 365 and I have really started to advocate for people to “take control” of their days based on the datasets by changing their work habits.
Don’t have a diary full day of back-to-back meetings without booking in lunch breaks and just taking times to pause.
Leaders have a big part to play in creating a wellbeing culture, especially as we begin to emerge from lockdown, making mental health a priority, and normalising meaningful wellbeing conversations.
Simply asking somebody ‘how are you doing?’ is a good starting point, but it’s also likely to prompt a generic ‘I’m fine thanks’ response.
We need to start asking more precise, meaningful and contextualised questions, that will provoke a longer and deeper conversation.
Leadership shouldn’t be a ‘one size fits all’, we should really think about the people we are speaking to and put time into considering the personal factors they are probably facing.
We need leaders to be more emotionally intelligent, more culturally intelligent and really just display compassionate and kind leadership.
What does success mean to you now?
Success for me now is all about making a difference and leaving a legacy. I hate the idea that at some point in the future my headstone would read ‘she lived, she worked and then she died’!
I really want my life to have impacted many others, and I believe that I am on the “making a difference trajectory” as I begin to enter the final few laps of my career.
I am passionate about empowering others, effecting change and more broadly making workplaces better for all. It is a marathon and not a sprint.