Talking the talk: 5 top tips for Talent Awards ceremonies

Ian Clarke

Article author

Reading time: 13 min

Last updated: November 2nd, 2022

Talking the talk: 5 top tips for Talent Awards ceremonies

All value derives from uniqueness and authenticity

After the year I've had, with huge personal sacrifices to help elevate others to places they've never occupied before, you'd be forgiven for thinking I was a shoe-in for awards season. Indeed I'm grateful every day to the many kind souls who nominated me for recognition across all this years ceremonies and to those bodies who dared to recognise a Dreamer.

And yet so many award bodies discounted my nominations, for designing and planning a brand new (and highly effective) model for instigating paradigm shifting change from within immovable corporations, then executing it to single-handedly deliver the biggest D&I change event in investment banking history. In an industry of 6.5m people - the world's largest - that's existed for 650-years, I stand out as uniquely special. If you can't win for that, what can you win for? I took a look at what's going wrong.

Tired of just fitting in?

The biggest issue is that most judging panels are being constructed around Proportionate Representation rather than the full swathe of human interests. They therefore suffer from the same levels of in-group/out-group bias that sustain the systems of oppression and this vividly manifests in the judges comments (for the few brave enough to share them with me):

  • "The competition was fierce – the judges had a difficult job" - I got this one 4 times, yet as heart-warming as their winners stories were, there was no competition.

  • "Those changes probably would've happened anyway, the industry is going that way" - Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through constant struggle.

  • "Yes but did you demonstrate leadership?" - Toxic masculinity is not leadership.

  • "Big changes, but I wasn't clear it you'd planned or achieved your desired objectives" - I exist to create big changes. So yes, I did.

  • "Your selected method for change didn't have significant impact." - 5 world records.

  • "I wanted to see broader purpose than just D&I" - D&I is an acronym for humanity, just fyi.

  • "We want to spotlight on the wide range of diverse individuals and D&I initiatives" - This top UK awarding body announced 10 white male senior corporate leaders as the 10 winners in this Men for Gender Balance category, yet not a single record between them.

Two approaches stood out to me as best practice here and would go a long way to de-contaminating widely held perceptions of bias:

  1. Ask past winners to serve as judges in next years season.

    Pros: It's a good way to maintain your network and advocacy of past winners, draw on their first hand experience of your program, minimise effort on panel recruitment and ultimately avoid any possible accusation of bias - after all, courage can spot courage.

    Cons: Can lead to deficits in panel diversity. Your awards may be all about celebrating women, but it's possible an all female judging panel may miss things that a fairer balanced panel would not.

  2. Build a judging panel of opposites, by inviting and selecting judges using Supplemental Fit or Blind Recruitment models

    Pros: By ensuring a judging panel that fully reflects the diversity of our entire human race, not just of our country, we optimise its ability to identify and champion meaningful change makers.

    Cons: Requires active intensive management of judge panel recruitment, comprehensive expertise around intrinsic vs extrinsic diversity, and is likely to drive up panel operating costs.

Then Stand Out instead

As a signpost for Change Makers looking to grow their networks through fair recognition for their meaningful work and sacrifices, I want to call out the authentic awarding bodies who stand out to me as deeply purposeful agents of light and love:

  1. WeAreTheCity (Most Meaningful Awards): Look no further than Vanessa Vallely OBE and her team of Rising Stars. The change engine they have created is truly something to behold - the Pre-Awards Reception, the Award Show, the After Party, the Knowledge Sharing Day, the CMI membership, authentic Corporate sponsors and a community of award winners that is overwhelmingly deserving, collaborative and outstanding. Tackling the problem head on, these purposeful people are - I assure you - unstoppable.

  2. Lead5050 (Most Authentic Awards): These incredible women each run multiple successful businesses whilst juggling family life yet still find time to drive professional, paradigm shifting change in all they do as well as oversee a top global gender advocacy awards ceremony and a leading gender-inclusive accreditation scheme. With strong links to the language industry, a Berlin-based centre of gravity and ongoing ICEF support, they have successfully avoided the corporate sponsorship trap through ingenuity and relationship building. These women mean business and they know authentic potential when they see it- not just what they want to see.

  3. The Green Organisation (Most Courageous Awards): The International CSR Awards for Excellence stand out most for me for the sheer determination of mission-focused people seeking to find and reward initiatives and people operating at the forefront of driving change - not just those with the deepest pockets. Karl and his team have worked tirelessly to keep us informed and included whilst finding opportunities to promote our business to their membership. It is so clear, they do this because they want us to succeed - nothing more, nothing less.

Honourable mentions:

  • Diversiton - Our first interaction with an awarding body did not disappoint. Sharon and Des went above and beyond, not just to consider our nomination but also to provide us with deeply meaningful and welcome advice that helped shape Deilight in its early days. It was the only awarding body to be disparaged openly to me by another (which itself was incidentally responsible for one of the worse quotes above). In an industry largely devoid of Change Makers, criticism is a good sign you're on to something.

  • Ragan Communications - A rare example of an awarding body that is perhaps larger than many of its sponsors, Ragan's resources, connections and operations never fail to amaze me. They are unquestionably a force for good and we were deeply grateful to be recognised Stateside and included in the celebrations for our efforts without expectation of sponsorship or big fees in return.

  • Better Society Network - Ranking a startup firm as top-7 in this years most hotly contested category alongside firms like Canon, Earth Cubs, McDonalds and KPMG tells me BSN are serious about their search for those role-modelling real sustainable business thinking - not just sponsorship and photo opportunities. Taking a truly meaningful approach to reward and recognition shouldn't be the exception, and yet BSN is.

Don't just talk the talk

Whether you covet tomb stones or deem them worthless, awards are important to get right for two reasons:

  1. We must recognise and reward role models if we expect people to make the individual sacrifices necessary for the greater common good.

  2. They are instrumental at connecting networks of otherwise disparate Change Makers together in order to collaborate, pool talent and resources.

And yet I see so many lazy yet easily fixable practices here which could hugely amplify their value if there was willingness to do so:

  • Stop charging people to give keynotes. Speeches are the most important aspect of any event, when it comes to driving change. Instead of having the same heterosexual white man stand up three times to give three dispassionate speeches (this actually happened), why not find a broader array of speakers with something meaningful to say, those prepared to introduce some discomfort or share an inspiring human story of sacrifice and change? If you can't afford to lose the revenue, try substituting it with a raffle or having corporates sponsor individual award categories - areas where privilege won't undermine your impact.

  • Stop self-promoting and show some allyship. It's common knowledge I wasn't permitted to even be nominated at one Marginalised Ethnicity Awards show because its Founder had concerns I might create change. So I dutifully sat in silence as he spent 30-minutes self-promoting leaving no time for anyone to passionately make the case. At another, their Founder insisted on presenting every award himself - uncomfortable repetition - rather than yield the stage in allyship and advocacy to the many incredible people in the audience who didn't have a voice that night.

  • Stop demeaning marginalised communities. At one awards show, just one of the 20-odd speakers weren't white with a similar proportion amongst the award winners. And once speeches concluded, dozens of trophy-laden white people stormed the stage chanting they had solved racism as bewildered black and brown people forlornly looked on from their tables. At another, two slots that could've been used to drive change passionately were allocated to a Bollywood dance troupe that had the predominantly white audience mimicking back unintelligible chants with clear discomfort.

  • Stop missing the point. We are here to celebrate people and achievements, not trophies. Simple touches like listing the full name of each shortlister and their company during announcements can help us connect during or after the event. Even better, list them in a program, on a projection system and on your website, alongside some information about their achievements or even a video interview. This helps people with accessibility requirements or those who perceive things differently to digest more of what's going on. Far better if you can create a movement around your awards that's integrated across multiple events, marketing, showcases, breakouts and advocacy, as WeAreTheCity and The Green Organisation are so adept at.

  • Stop judging people on traits you have yet to manifest yourself. Despite being a sister, not a single Queer or Black awarding body recognised my achievements. Neither did any of the non-D&I awarding bodies focused on innovation or entrepreneurship, despite our clearly unique approach. So dependent they have become for their very survival on corporate sponsorship, this is now a conflicted industry yet to manifest the courage or perception needed to spot and reward true Change Makers. Sadly, it exists primarily to sustain the systems of oppression and line the pockets of performative allies.

Walk the walk instead

Within the awards industry today:

  1. There are more talkers than walkers

    Problem: Today, most people are in it for themselves without a genuine regard for driving change. Those that do set out with noble aspirations are often crushed by the realities of commercial interests and corporate oppressive systems. This manifests in huge variation in quality and selection bias across the many award programs, from entirely performative to fully authentic.

    Solution: As a leading Think Tank on tackling Corporate Oppressive Systems, Deilight Consulting exists to help organisations resolve wicked problems such as these with our proven, niche expertise backed up by results. You just need to want change.

  2. Accountability and collaboration are not manifesting

    Problem: Despite the best practice support, stakeholder coordination, quality control and advice available from the Association of Events Organisers industry body and other stakeholders, there remains huge variations in delivery quality across the Awards Industry today. This undermines the credibility of individual bodies (including the meaningful ones), both validating and exacerbating already widely held perceptions of an industry tainted with conflicts of interest and corporate window dressing

    Solution: That's because there's little impetus for tick boxers to become more ambitious, as they've already gained the goodwill they sought by hosting their event. 'Rewarding Talent' events such as AEO Excellence Awards do exist as an indicator of legitimacy here, however they need to become more meaningful and should exist alongside a comprehensive Ratings and Ranking system that can drive much needed universal accountability, transparency and competition.

In summary, be curious

Don't be a passenger on a journey. Be a driver to a destination. My purpose and curiosity helped me glimpse beneath the surface to uncover the true identity of an industry I knew nothing about beyond the negative perceptions shared with me by others. I found it to be in terminal decline and broadly inhibiting - not promoting - meaningful change. But within it are many legitimate bastions of authentic change making talent recognisers. They deserve more reward and recognition themselves for daring to stand out and fulfil their purpose as they do.

I see here a huge opportunity for truly-authentic awarding bodies to A) differentiate individually and B) cross-pollinate each others excellence through meaningful collaboration. In particular, those that champion marginalised groups, where new ideas and change tend to originate from, would hugely benefit from sharing nominee leads, given their reduced resources for proactive talent spotting and awareness building.

If anyone wishes to exchange views on what can be done to transform the awards industry or help us co-create the 'Walking the Walk Awards' and accompanying Awards Industry Ratings and Ranking system, please get in touch.

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