Interview with Lee Marshall, Church of England Pensions Board Chief of Staff

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Lee Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Church of England Pensions Board has worked in various capacities within the Church of England’s national administrative bodies for over 35 years. He is a co-founder of Stonewall and was a founding trustee for Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation. In receipt of numerous awards in recent years, Lee was included in LGBT Great’s List of Global Top 100 LGBT+ Executive Allies in 2021, ranked 28th on the global OUTstanding list of LGBT+ senior executives in 2020 and shortlisted nominee for the European Diversity Award for Campaigner of the Year in 2019, to name just three. He talks to GS about his extensive career in the Church and his very visible participation in building equality to ensure that all people feel they belong.

What led you on your career path and how much of it was planned?

I am one of those rare people (now) who has been with the same employer, the central administration of the Church of England, for over 30 years.        

It has though been a very varied one – one where I have worked on the “church” side of the business, dealing with the legislative and judicial functions to reorganise the Church on the ground, to working in internal audit, to managing the accounting service for a major investment portfolio, to implementing SAP, to my current role of ensuring that the Pensions Board is effectively governed.      

I am sure there was some planning along the way, although I may not have recognised it as such at the time. The one constant though, has been that my working career has allowed me to do some extraordinary things in the field of diversity and inclusion, both inside and outside the office. This has included co-founding Stonewall, working with Ben Cohen on the StandUp Foundation, and now Chairing the Diversity Project Charity.

How did you adapt to change along the way?

You must be open to change – change is constant, very few things stand still, and you must be willing to adjust. Who would have thought that eighteen months ago, most of us would have been working from home for several months, that the world of work would change beyond recognition? How did we all adapt to constant video calls with our colleagues.      

Look at change as one of the challenges of life, whether working or outside of the workplace; of course, some challenges are welcome, and some not, but you need an open-mind and remain positive.

What are the challenges in your current role that motivate you the most and what impact do you aim to bring?

My current role is very varied – I sit at the heart of the Church of England Pensions Board, working with others to ensure its smooth operation. One challenge is that our governance is enshrined in legislation, so changing something can take time and involve some quite different stakeholders. This includes working with the General Synod and its three houses.       

Another challenge is diversity on the trustee body and in the wider Church – the Pensions Board holds to account those organisations in which it invests on certain aspects of diversity, and we need to ensure that meet these standards too. I am happy to say that we do meet those standards, but it has been an uphill effort at times, particularly when a proportion of the Board is elected; in my experience, you rarely influence your diversity profile positively through pension trustee elections.     

Over the past year, though, I have been working with others to see what we can do about diversity in senior appointments across the Church of England, starting with the governing bodies of those organisations at the centre. One issue has been the lack of data, and we are addressing this as a first step. It goes back to the old management adage of whether you really care about something, if you don’t measure it.

In this period requiring sustained resilience and ingenuity – what are the skills that you have seen that have marked outstanding leaders?

I was always one of those leaders who felt visibility was important – this has been more difficult in the current situation. During the pandemic, it has been more about being available and making time for people – where people used to stop by your desk for five minutes, this is now 50 minutes or more on zoom, and for some people, you might be the only person they speak to today. You need to be alert to differing circumstances and be agile to respond accordingly. You need to be a good listener.

In your leadership career, has being LGBT+ presented barriers to progression? If so, how did you tackle these?

In some quarters, the Church of England is not seen as the most welcoming and inclusive place. Church House is though not the Church of England, it is home to several organisations that provide a range of services to the Church. At times, the Church’s perceived views can impact our role. For example, some years ago, I was told that I would not be offered a particular internal role because it might mean that some members of the General Synod would not engage with that office because I was openly gay.       

On another occasion, a group within the Anglican Church published a list of those people and organisations who they felt were working to promote inclusion of LGBT+ people within the Church, something they felt was taking the Church along a dangerous path. I was on the list, not for my role at Church House, but because our Comms team had celebrated earlier in the year that I had been featured on a list of global LGBT Executives who were making a difference in the workplace and been shortlisted for an award.      

I took these, and other events, in my stride. It was important to me that I did not hide who I was, and that I was a visible role model within the office. If I wanted to tell others to be their true self in the workplace, I had to be too. Think of those “water-cooler moments” (when we return to the office, or virtual) – wouldn’t it be much healthier to talk about what you really did at the weekend, than make something up to hide that you are gay.

As a senior leader yourself, how have you then used this insight to create a more inclusive culture within your own sphere of influence?

I have been very open about who I am both in the office and outside. When I was given a rainbow lanyard for LGBT+ History Month by someone outside the office several years ago, I put it on – and kept in on not just for History Month or Pride Month, but all year round, and still wear it today when I am in the office. Part of my work is sometimes in the Synod chamber advising on certain debates, which are live streamed. The rainbow lanyard got noticed and commented on – and I’m glad to say that I’m no longer the only person wearing one in the chamber.     

It may have been a small thing to do, but it was about being a visible role model.

How effectively do you feel public services/your sector are/is accelerating the growth of more inclusive cultures? 

So much more needs to be done – and that’s not just in Church House, but in wider society. We have had equality legislation for years, but an inclusive culture is still needed. If it were in place, we wouldn’t have had the scenes in the States last year leading to the Black Lives Matter movement, we wouldn’t have people living in fear of, or being beaten up because someone does not like the fact that they are different, or young people being thrown out of their family homes because they were LGBT+. All these are happening today.      

We have stopped talking about “equality” and now talk about “diversity and inclusion”, but just as important are “equity” and the emotional outcome of inclusion, “belonging”. I continue to play my part in this, but we need others to be an ally, which to me is going beyond simple passive support.

As you have achieved greater career success, is the visibility that sometimes comes with being an LGBT+ leader a responsibility that can impact your own wellbeing? Do you feel you are under a greater spotlight and increased scrutiny? 

Oh yes, of course. You need to look after your own wellbeing just as you do for your team and others. This is particularly true in the current environment where we are working from home.    

I am essentially quite a private person and am always hugely humbled when I appear on the lists of global LGBT+ Executives. It is nice to be recognised for what you do, but I enjoy more, reading about the other people on the lists and seeing what they have done. Whether this means I am under a greater spotlight and increased scrutiny, I don’t know. In the past year though, virtual working has meant that I have been able to talk about diversity and inclusion matters to a much wider audience as travelling halfway across the country or overseas to speak for an hour or so would not have been practicable.

What advice would you give to aspiring leaders who feel they may be held back by their orientation or any other element of diversity?  

If I can quote two great philosophers here:

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of someone else.”

Judy Garland    

“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

Dolly Parton

And my advice always to people, is do not be complacent about diversity and inclusion. The equality and rights that you enjoy can be taken way much quicker than they were won. Value them, and never take them for granted.

You can access the full LGBT+ Focus series here.