Margaret Casely-Hayford: The ActionAid UK chair talks talent, diversity and building a great company culture

Portrait of Margaret Casely-Hayford

A year on from becoming Black British Business Person of the Year, ActionAid UK chair Margaret Casely-Hayford talks about the talent gap and the need for diversity at all levels

It was 2 October 2014, and Director was a guest at an awards ceremony. On our table sat a Lloyds Bank chief economist, Island Records’ president, a leading space scientist and Margaret Casely-Hayford, chair of ActionAid UK [the charity which tackles poverty and injustice]. The event was the inaugural Black British Business Awards (BBBA) founded by Melanie Eusebe, the Hult International Business School professor, and Sophie Chandauka, head of group treasury (legal) at Virgin Money, with the aim of “celebrating and promoting the economic contributions and potential of the black community within the workforce, in the boardroom, and as a key customer segment”.

When it came to the final award – the Black British Business Person of the Year – and the nominees were read out, Casely-Hayford was sitting opposite me. “When they started reading out the biography of the winner, I nearly fainted. There was this room full of mightily impressive people who had achieved so much – I don’t think I could quite believe it. It was such an honour.”

Casely-Hayford is super-humble. She was a deserving winner of the award having been former company secretary and director of legal services at John Lewis Partnership and the first black woman to be made a partner in a City law firm. As well as being chair of ActionAid, she is a government-appointed non-executive director of NHS England and serves on the Metropolitan Police panel overseeing an investigation into police corruption.

Fast-forward 10 months, and during our cover shoot at a studio in west London, Casely-Hayford is just as humble and softly spoken – but underneath is a resolute passion for her work championing diversity and relatively recent role at ActionAid.

“I wanted to work with an organisation that not only carries out humanitarian work, but is also focused on establishing rights and responsibilities; because that is where individual dignity and opportunities for individuals to be involved in the realisation of their own destiny spring from,” she says.

And her passion for diversity stems from the same fundamental belief – that everyone should be allowed to fulfil their potential. “Of course, I’ll be at this year’s ceremony,” she smiles. “It’s a superb event and just such a great idea. We have had a lot of people within the black community who have done well quietly and what’s really important is for people outside the black community to recognise that there is this wider talent pool from which they can draw. The BBBA says ‘look at all these people’.

“When I received my award I was so shocked, it was so extraordinary for me to look out at this sea of people, many of whom I knew. There were probably 300 or 400 people – it was a great talentpool, with key players in their field. It was wonderful that they are now being recognised for what they have achieved – and that says so much to the rest of society. It says to young people ‘this could be you’, and it says a lot to people who don’t think outside the box.”

Casely-Hayford speaks simply but firmly about the need for employers and headhunters to search for talent in unconventional places. “We need to bring in another context. With the focus on women, we have gradually created almost a language that has helped them understand how they can become part of what was an exclusive club [top-tier management and boards].

“Now there needs to be something else – we need to bring in a context for people from diverse backgrounds, people who wouldn’t normally be thought of as players. They have got different talents and so much to offer – that requires headhunters and directors to think differently.”

She illustrates her point with a story about a recent search she commissioned. “It was interesting – the headhunters used certain words like gravitas; for example, ‘this candidate is good but doesn’t have gravitas’. I paused the process and said, ‘Just hang on a moment. If you are using the same criteria you have always used, you will get the same people.’ We then had to really rethink our criteria so that it would broaden our horizons and our way of looking at and for people.”

Therefore she believes the recruitment industry has a central role to play in promoting diversity. “Headhunters operating in the international arena have got the ability to reshape the future of the world. They should be asking themselves whether they are allowing people from the southern hemisphere to look as good as people from the northern hemisphere, or women to look as good as men. Everyone who recruits needs to think about whether their criteria are pre-programming the outcome.”

Margaret Casely-Hayford

Margaret Casely-Hayford quietly successful

Casely-Hayford comes from a long line of high achievers: in 2008, The Black Powerlist named the Casely-Hayfords the most influential black family in the UK. Her grandfather, Joseph, was an influential politician in the Gold Coast [later Ghana] whose 1911 novel Ethiopia Unbound is cited as influencing pan-African politics and 20th-century civil rights activists.

Her uncle, Archie, was a member of Kwame Nkrumah’s government, and helped write Ghana’s constitution after independence from Britain in 1957. Casely-Hayford’s father trained as a lawyer in Britain before switching to accountancy and her mother worked for the British Council. She has three brothers – Joe, a leading fashion designer, Gus, a cultural historian, and Peter, managing director of independent film company Twenty Twenty.

After graduating from Somerville College, Oxford, Casely-Hayford was called to the Bar in 1984 and three years later joined the planning and environment department at law firm Denton Hall [now Dentons]. In 1998, she was made a partner.

She tells the story about returning to Somerville and bumping into one of her favourite tutors, who enquired where she was working. Casely-Hayford replied proudly that she was a partner at a City law firm and was surprised to see an expression that wasn’t delight on the older woman’s face.

She laughs: “I asked her what was wrong and she smiled and said she was just remembering what I had said during my first interview. ‘You said you were going to be secretary general of the UN, and you were one of those people that I really believed in.’ I thought, Oh my word, I’ve let her down.”

Casely-Hayford would spend 10 years at Dentons, leading the teams that obtained consents for the Stamford Bridge redevelopment, and the south and west stands of the RFU ground at Twickenham, retail developments for the Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Virgin, as well as hospitals, Met Police facilities and major mixed-use development schemes. She left in 2006 to become company secretary and director of legal services at John Lewis Partnership. 

Margaret Casely-Hayford

Board diversity

Her time at the leading UK retailer had a profound impact and confirmed her views on the importance of board diversity and its correlation to success. Casely-Hayford regards the John Lewis Partnership founder, John Spedan Lewis, as “visionary” because he insisted on having five “lay directors” on the board.

She explains the structure: “There is a John Lewis council that is elected by everybody within the business and the councillors hold the board to account. From the council five people are elected to sit on the board and they can be from the shop floor, warehousing, back offices, whatever,” she says. “It was absolutely amazing for me to see this in operation – when I first went there I thought, surely there must be an amount of rubber-stamping here, but not at all. The lay members fully recognise that they are there to hold the board of management to account and one of my jobs as company secretary was to ensure that they felt sufficiently confident to engage.” 

And Casely-Hayford praises Sir Charlie Mayfield [John Lewis chairman] for bringing in more non-execs from outside. “They were fully independent of executive directors and that in itself gave strength to the lay people as they could see that they were entitled to challenge.

“That’s really healthy for a board because not only have you got people challenging you from external sources but you also have members of staff challenging you. And because of the employee ownership model, they were also able to challenge from a perspective of the co-owners. It’s a clever model and means that there is a long-term view because partners now will be thinking about partners in the future.”

Margaret Casely-Hayford

Portfolio power

In 2014, Casely-Hayford retired from John Lewis to pursue a portfolio career. She had experience – having been a trustee for Great Ormond Street Hospital, London’s Geffrye Museum and as the John Lewis representative on the board of the British Retail Consortium. Despite this, she still faced a blinkered reaction from headhunters.

“When I first started looking at boards, search agencies would say things to me like, ‘well, they don’t really like lawyers’, and I would be really shocked at that response.” She explains that headhunters said this dislike stemmed from a belief that lawyers were too detailed and risk-averse.

“I thought, well, that’s because they are functioning as lawyers, but as a non-exec you’re sitting there in a different capacity. Skills-wise, someone who could be a critical friend, who has analytical and mediation ability, could be incredibly useful. Lawyers are very good at that.”

And are they risk-averse? “Well, post-2008 it’s really clear that after the whole economic downturn, if banks had been more risk-averse they might well have anticipated better what was going to happen – so, in fact, being risk-averse isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” she smiles.

“If you have someone on the board who you think is risk-averse then it can be a good [foil to] testosterone-fuelled individuals who want to charge over the canyon. Interestingly, that’s probably one of the reasons why it is really useful to have a gender-diverse board because women can act as stabilisers.”

Casely-Hayford believes that more important than quotas is cultural integration and wants the focus to be on rewarding people who can change the culture. “That is more progressive – if you say, ‘you must have this number’ then people just create an environment so that the boxes can be ticked and nothing else happens.”

She wants to encourage businesses to make cultural integration part of their ambition and values, and she cites Mind Gym chief executive Octavius Black. “He talks extremely well about the fact that if you invite people into an organisation as part of a target instead of cultural integration, they are doomed to fail. That’s why rewarding cultural imperatives is so important.”

She urges all business leaders to promote diversity and constantly look for talent in the broadest of areas “That is the future. There is a whole slew of people who still feel that they aren’t part of the game. We are a mixed society – that’s what Britain has been for so long. We just need to be more positive rather than negative, and showcase it. We are now at a crossroads.”

To find out more about Margaret Casely-Hayford and the work and campaigns of ActionAid, go to or follow on Twitter: @ActionAidUK

The Black British Business Awards


Founded last year by Melanie Eusebe and Sophie Chandauka, this is the only premium awards programme that recognises, rewards and celebrates the exceptional performance and outstanding achievements of black people in business operating in Britain.

Last year the then business secretary [Sir] Vince Cable said of the BBBA: “The importance of these awards cannot be overstated given that two out of every three FTSE 100 companies have an all-white board and [the BBBA] will be a welcome addition to getting more diversity in the City.”

OTHER 2014 Winners

Lorraine Wright Director at UBS (Financial Services, Rising Star)

Darcus Beese President, Island Records (Media and the Arts, Leader)

Trevor Williams Chief economist, Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking (Financial Services, Leader)

Chike Eduputa Consultant analyst, PA Consulting Group (Professional Services, Rising Star)

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock Space scientist, (Stem, Leader)

Wilfred Emmanuel- Jones Founder, The Black Farmer (FMCG, Leader)

Tom Shropshire Partner, Linklaters LLP (Professional Services, Leader)

Jim Lenga-Kroma HR graduate, RWE npower (Infrastructure and Manufacturing, Rising Star)

Anne-Marie Imafidon Head Stemette, Stemettes (Stem, Rising Star)

Joanna Abeyie Founder, Shine Media (Media and the Arts, Rising Star)

Philip Poku Founder, Young Graduates Day Nursery (Entrepreneur, Rising Star)

David Waboso Capital programmes director, London Underground (Infrastructure and Manufacturing, Leader )

Piers Linney Co-CEO, Outsourcery (Entrepreneur, Leader)


Related: Women as Leaders 2016 conference

Some of the country’s most inspirational business women will be speaking at the IoD’s Women in Leaders conference in London on 17 June. Hear fascinating stories, learn how to implement lasting changes in your company and leave motivated to accelerate your career. Find out more on the IoD website – click here (opens new window)

About author

Lysanne Currie

Lysanne Currie

Lysanne Currie is an editor, writer and digital content creator. Her first job was at Melody Maker and she then spent over 10 years in teenage magazines working from sub editor on 19 Magazine to editorial director of Hachette’s Teen Group. Her previous roles include group editor and head of content publishing for Director Publications and editorial director at BSkyB overseeing Sky’s entertainment, sports and digital magazines. Lysanne lives in London with her music promoter partner and a four year old Jack Russell.

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