By Natalie Abou-Alwan
Estelle Brown walked into the rehearsal room in Las Vegas. It was a hot July day in 1969. Plenty of expectation hung in the desert air on this first day of rehearsals for a new live show. The audience had been waiting nine years for this epic moment. Elvis Presley appeared in his usual grandeur, walked over to Estelle and her group, The Sweet Inspirations, also made up of Cissy Houston (mother to Whitney Houston) and introduced himself: “Hey ladies, I’m Elvis Presley.” As though they or anyone else on the planet at the time didn’t know!
The Sweet Inspirations performed as Elvis’ backing singers for eight years, up until his untimely death in 1977. Leaving their homes and families for six-week stints, twice a year, with two sell-out shows every night. They were performing with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a musical phenomenon, who blasted through boundaries established by “white folk” to separate them from those whose skin colour was deeper than theirs. This was Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s. Radio listeners identified the voice as belonging to a white man when a local disc jockey revealed the name of his school (only white children were allowed to enrol in Humes High School) and they couldn’t believe their ears.
In 1969, the pressure was on to deliver, not just for Elvis, but also for The Sweet Inspirations and the rest of Elvis’ hand-picked band – and deliver is what they did. Night after night. Estelle and her fellow backing singers could easily have broken free, given up on the pressure and intensity of these performances, these long periods away from their home comforts, but something kept them there and it wasn’t the money. Estelle explained why many years later. Her impulse was always to call the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, “Boss”. After all, he directed them and expected them to perform to their best abilities, yet he also benefitted from their time and talent and ultimately, paid their wages. But Elvis was having none of this. His response to Estelle was simply: “I’m not your boss, I’m your brother.” As Estelle recalled: “He didn’t put himself above. We were on the same level.” Elvis didn’t need to elevate himself, he was the boss, but it was the authentic way in which he led his band members and how he made them feel, that ensured their continued loyalty to him. The Sweet Inspirations respected and trusted their “brother”, a white man reciprocating their respect and trust, who quite literally catapulted them onto the big stage with him. That is why they continued to perform alongside the King.
I feel this concept of a trusted individual in a position of authority, who provides someone with a stage or platform without using that position of authority to overwhelm or denigrate that person, is truly inspiring and unequivocally authentic. It is these individuals who lead by example, either consciously or unconsciously writing a new rule book that those whom they have taken the time to help and encourage will read and practice, ensuring these actions form golden threads that grow stronger and endure.
Although I have recently written about the impact of women in the workplace, I would like to focus here on men in the workplace, in particular, those in powerful positions, who detect talent in women and actively choose to draw this out and encourage their voice to be heard. Whether this is demonstrating genuine empathy for career disappointments and helping them overcome these, openly sponsoring them within the organisation, or revealing their own networks, both within the industry and outside of it. I have experienced all of these examples in my career from powerful men. Let me share a couple of them with you.
On a wintry December evening many years ago, the entire department of several hundred employees, was invited to a Christmas dinner in central London. This really was the last thing I felt like doing. A couple of days earlier, I had been devastated by the news that a less experienced male but one who had been at the company longer than me, with a stronger network (more on networks in my next article), would be my new manager. A position I had prepared and interviewed for, with the encouragement and full backing of the various business stakeholders. Although I am relatively small in stature, that evening I certainly wasn’t standing tall and proud. We were asked to take our seats and I felt like I didn’t belong and frankly, I didn’t want to be there. Moments later, in these bleak surroundings, I felt a hand on my shoulder. “I am so glad you came. How are you doing?” were the words I heard, my head still fixed on the wooden table I was sitting at. I looked up and standing next to me was the organisation’s Group General Counsel, Rupert Bondy. The head-honcho. I tried to respond, but my emotions got the better of me. Instead of speaking, I choked and could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. He said: “Don’t worry, let’s meet next week and talk.”
As he walked away, ready to make his end of year speech to the packed audience, I felt angry and embarrassed at the way I reacted. How was I able to keep it together each day in the office surrounded by my colleagues and yet now, in front of the grand fromage of all people, I completely lost it! Making my way to the Tube, my emotions frozen by the icy weather, I had a realisation. The fact that the man in power had that evening taken the time to search for me in a crowded room, ask me how I was feeling and deal with my burst of emotion in a kind and thoughtful way, caught me off-guard. He made me feel that, like him, I was “a somebody” in that room and that my feelings mattered.
Imran Sheikh is another man I would call out here. Asked by our CEO to co-chair the organisation’s ethnic minorities network in the UK, Imran and I worked hard to turn this network into a positive and energetic force for good, trebling members and winning industry awards. Not only did I learn so much from this man in power, but I also started to re-discover my own voice. “Why do you hold back on certain topics?” was one of the first questions Imran asked me. The reason I kept my thoughts to myself was because around that time, a colleague close to the top of the tree had described me to others, but not to my face, as someone who is “lacking in interpersonal skills.” This was a first for me! This brutal description of me to those who didn’t know me well, hit me hard and I stupidly chose to believe them to be true, otherwise, I was reasoning with myself, why on earth would she say that about me? I have written a whole article about this type of behaviour in the workplace, so I will not go into it here. Suffice it to say that over time, her frosty words melted away as the flame of my confidence grew stronger. Imran repeatedly neutralised the pain of these harsh words, encouraging me to really say what was on my mind, knowing that it would provoke thought in others and help steer us in the right direction. His encouragement culminated in forcing me once again, to step outside my comfort zone. I had been working with The Circle NGO, founded by the great Annie Lennox OBE. She had very kindly agreed to be interviewed as part of a panel event in our Canary Wharf offices, to help raise awareness for her charity’s initiatives. Imran’s words were point blank: “You must interview her. You are the only one who can do it.” That could not possibly be true! How could I get out of it? But I couldn’t……and I’m so glad I didn’t. As nerve-wracking as this was, sharing a stage with an extraordinarily impressive panel, in front of an audience of 100 people, I had the time of my life and found myself enjoying every second of it!
Just as Rupert Bondy recognised my feelings as being important, Imran convinced me that my voice was too and that it could be used as a force for positive change. Many years have passed since then, but I continue to seek the wise counsel of these and other men (and women!) I trust and respect. Their empathy, authentic leadership and constant encouragement has allowed me to dream big and intentionally use my voice to help others. As Elvis explained: “It’s not how much you have that makes people look up to you, it’s who you are.”