Making Work, Work

To celebrate Black History Month, The Attic interviews Landé Belo, senior counsel and employment lawyer. In this profile, she discusses her professional legal career and how she became a theatre director to drive positive change in the arts community.

My career started firmly in employment law…

I am a City-trained employment lawyer, starting my career  in 1997 and after seven years of private practice, went in-house — first with BP, then working with other global brands.  In 2006, I set up one of the first virtual law practices; at the time, people were skeptical about the viability of such a model in the legal profession, but it did and today, there are various practices offering outsourced legal services.  I subsequently joined an IT/IP practice in London, working remotely from France and from then on, became a consultant, also signing up with providers like Obelisk. 

As a consultant, I supported various organisations on cross border projects, managed multi-disciplinary teams and have managed to construct a niche career as a specialist advisor offering tailored legal advice within a global framework and designing and implementing sustainable employee and labour relations solutions. The truth is, most people think of employment lawyers as lawyers to clean up the mess or lawyers to call when things go wrong.  But there is a lot more in our bag of tricks as employment lawyers, which is why driving a company’s business strategy is very important. Fundamentally, implementing good people processes makes people’s lives easier but as human beings, we don’t naturally like change. We need time to mourn old processes in order to adapt to new ones. We need that transition and this is an area where lots of companies become unstuck because they think that people will adapt to new processes without support.  It’s not true. However efficient and transformative an initiative is, it is important that the change management aspect is handled with care. This is where I come in: I have built up and managed teams which typically comprise labour lawyers and employee relations specialists and positioned ourselves as in-sourced service providers, and serve as invaluable business partners. . 

For instance, my last role involved building and developing a global centre of excellence, creating high value roles and establishing a global team of 20 labour lawyers and employee relations specialists, managing 60 markets and an employee population of over 14,000.  Our goal was to drive employee engagement and design sustainable employee labour relations. Over the last two years, we shared best practice, reduced the duplication of efforts, developed analytical capabilities of the team and ultimately reduced external legal spend. 

At some point, my career somehow found its way into the arts…

Outside the law, I have found other ways to channel my energy.  Indeed when you take a lot on as a lawyer, it is a real challenge to balance work and personal life, but if you are determined, you can also take other things on and do them to high standards. In my case, it’s theatre.

I started off getting involved with amateur theatre groups both in France and the UK over 10 years ago.  After a few years, I landed with a theatre company that felt like home. I’m now part of Tower Theatre: this is a theatre company that is run by volunteers,.  Like our other competitors in this blurred space of unpaid and non-professional theatre, we don’t like being labeled as an amateur theatre company, as the assumption (rather unfairly) is that your work will be sub-standard.  Although we are not paid for the work, our productions are done to a very high and professional standard and indeed we have many professionals involved, whether backstage or onstage, donating their valuable time and expertise.   The important thing is, we are all doing it for the sheer love of theatre and if you think about the true meaning of the word “amateur” it means someone who is devoted or passionate about something; therefore, it does not have to mean poor quality theatre.  

After a few years of being an itinerant company, Tower Theatre finally moved into our own home again and opened our own theatre  in Stoke Newington in 2018. In my three years with Tower Theatre, I’ve been privileged to play some wonderful parts on stage. However, I have found that there has not been much in the way of diversity in theatre.  The real turning point for me was my first play with Tower Theatre, when I played a part that was specifically written for a black woman (Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris).  There is something very rewarding and validating about playing a character that shares your identifying characteristics.  Apart from anything else, the discussion can be on whether your performance was credible or not as opposed to whether the director was justified in experimenting with colour blind casting.  I do applaud directors that are open to so-called colour blind and gender blind casting (without that, I would not have been cast in many plays and yes, what’s wrong with having a female Hamlet and so on); however, I do not think this is a solution to bringing more diversity to theatre.  There is so much wonderful material out there that depicts the lives of black people, so why not just promote those plays? Instead of re-writing an Ackybourn play (which traditionally depicts white, middle class people) by replacing it with a black character – and don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of Ackybourn, why not just simply put on a play which already has black people in it?  

Well, this was the very argument I took to the Tower Theatre Artistic Director who wholeheartedly agreed with me and encouraged me to direct a play that had black characters in it.  Up to that point, directing was not really something that I would have considered, but I realised that I couldn’t just sit and wait for someone to do this for me, if I wanted to drive change, I would have to get up and take action myself.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of directing. I found that my legal and management skills really came handy: the key is putting together a strong team and delegating to them. You have to trust in your ability as a leader that you have surrounded yourself with capable and talented people who know what they’re doing and you let them get on with it.  I have never been a micro manager and the same went with directing a play. As a director, I had to be one of the early disruptors – the goal, simply to drive change. 


I put on a play in June 2019 with an all-black cast called “Fix Up” written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Artistic Director of the Young Vic.  It was the first play with an all-black cast in Tower Theatre’s over 80 year history and I’m proud to say, it was one of our best-selling plays of  2018-1019 and was critically acclaimed. The success of Fix Up showed that not only is the material out there, the talent is out there and so are the audiences – these were all reasons given in the past for not pursuing such plays.  What made Fix Up so relatable is that it explored universal themes that would resonate with anyone of any ethnicity and just happened to choose as its subject matter a handful of disparate individuals of Caribbean origin, based in London.  

Following on from the success of Fix Up, I was appointed as an Assistant Artistic Director at Tower Theatre.  The Artistic Team is responsible for putting together our lineup of plays for the coming seasons. We are currently working on our Autumn 2020 season. We put on about 18 plays a year at Tower Theatre, across three seasons. My ambition is to ensure that we have at least one play per season which features black characters; therefore three plays a year.  I am excited to say that I’ll be back to directing in June 2020 and the play I’ll be doing has an all-female, predominantly black cast. I am sitting on hundreds of plays by black playwrights in desperate need of directors, so any aspiring directors or actors out there should please get in touch with me.  

The one key thing I value most in life and work is agility 

As lawyers, it’s so easy to see yourself in very reductive terms. The truth is, you can be so many different things and you have the ability to pursue multiple interests. I am a lawyer but I’m also an actress. I’m a theatre director and I attempt to play golf. There’s a lot more you can do beyond your remit and nowadays, companies are a lot more porous in terms of job descriptions. It’s a great opportunity for you to step in and see how you can add value to that company by picking up the work that falls between the cracks and using that   to develop your career.

I was brought up believing that there is no barrier to what I want to do in life

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, I grew up in the UK, went to boarding school in the country and grew up in North London. I was brought up believing that it’s just up to me to decide what I want to be and this has held true. I haven’t seen anything in my adult life to make me change that view. With the right mindset, you can achieve whatever you want. Of course there will be obstacles and some face more obstacles than others but that gives you the opportunity to do something exceptional.  

I have to say, Black History Month is something that only came onto my radar in recent years

It wasn’t part of my consciousness growing up, because of my education and upbringing. The values of Black History Month were already embedded into my upbringing and as an adult, I realised that it may not have been the case for everyone. Throughout my life, I had access to black culture, black history and black role models. 

My utopia is that one day, Black History Month will be so mainstream that it won’t need to be a month of celebrations. It will happen naturally all year-round. We might be way off from that but that’s what I would like to see. To me, the danger of Black History Month is that people will say, we’ll just get a month but for the other 11 months of the year, we don’t need to talk about black history. At school, when I learnt about the two world wars, we didn’t really hear about the black soldiers. My grand-father was doing radio transmissions in the RAF during WW2. The UK in particular enlisted many soldiers from its colonies in Africa and Asia to fight in both wars, yet their stories are never really brought into the foreground. There is not a single black face in photographs of the liberation of France celebrations on the Champs Elysées in Paris and yet we know it’s not true. Black History Month is relevant in that it makes sure that everyone of all ethnicities has access to that history. It should not even be called black history – it’s all our shared and collective history. 

My role models are…

I’ve been very fortunate and my parents have been integral to my having role models around me – my mother and aunts, in particular.  Role models are important, particularly if you share characteristics with them, whether gender, ethnicity, gender orientation, because it validates the fact that it’s fine to be thinking big and you have right before you exponents who have dared to think big and were successful.

In my legal career, one book which has had a profound impact on me, which I discovered in my final year of my law degree, was  “Eve Was Framed” by Helena Kennedy. This book gave me a whole new perspective on how women fit in the workplace and in society at large.  This book was my bible in college. It is interesting that the issues it addressed back in the 1990s are still so relevant today.   

The whole Diversity & Inclusion piece is not just a PC tick box — it also makes good business sense 

Any company that focuses on targeting a specific demographic exclusively prevents itself from finding new audiences and that’s not good for business. It’s good that more and more companies are focusing on diversity and inclusion and I’ve seen initiatives to raise awareness such as mandated unconscious bias training for people managers and senior leadership; these are all steps in the right direction.  However until we have C-Suite and leadership embracing such initiatives, we won’t see real change. A CEO saying “I’m going to endorse an initiative to encourage the government to include more black history into the national curriculum” or “I’m attending Gay Pride marches this month and will be spearheading initiatives at the company in support” this is the type of call to action that is required. I haven’t seen enough of that yet. Some companies are doing some great things, they are pioneers with aggressive targets of 50/50 gender balance but unless you hold people to account, we’ll keep having the same discussions.  It’s important to be an activist but the change needs to come from the top.

I am passionate about two areas – health and education

In Nigeria, I support charities that work with orphanages (such as the Red Cross), but is not enough.  My ambition is to continue my father’s legacy – he used to sponsor children from deprived backgrounds and educate them all the way to university and then create employment for them through informal youth training initiatives.  Health is my other passion and I lost my father to cancer. In fact, at some point, most of us are touched by cancer (whether through someone we know), which is is why I support Cancer Research UK and MacMillan.

At the moment, I’d like to explore community outreach work to encourage more young people to embrace the arts and in particular, theatre.  Our Stoke Newington theatre provides us with a great opportunity to create strong links with the local community and seek out local talent.  Around the time of Fix Up, we hosted an ‘Evening With The Playwright’, Kwame Kwei Armah at Tower Theatre.  He said that he grew up just round the corner from our new theatre and actually used to live a few streets away. He was really impressed with our theatre and saw it as a great resource for young people.  He talked about his own childhood and the inspiration for the bookshop depicted in Fix Up.  He said that had he not turned to the arts (and theatre in particular), he could have ended up running with gangs.  

Theatre clearly can’t solve all our societal problems, but it’s certainly a start to give young people who feel alienated an opportunity to feel they are part of something.

Making Work, Work

What does Black History Month mean to you? That’s the question we are asking leading BAME figures in the legal industry this October. Here, we talk to Oliver Gayle, Director of the legal team responsible for credit restructuring at Barclays Bank PLC, about his career, his influences and his work helping to assist those from less privileged backgrounds get into a career in law.

As a director of Legal at Barclays, Oliver Gayle can work with his team of six lawyers on headline exposures worth several hundreds of millions of pounds as well as on smaller projects such as a local chain of floristry stores. Reaching this position in the banking industry came after many years of hard work, including in the major global financial crisis, where his specialism was all of a sudden in high demand.

Oliver had a somewhat unusual start to his career – having accepted a training contract at Garretts, the legal arm of Arthur Andersen, he found himself being approached to move to Addleshaw Goddard whilst at law school 18 months later, when one of the partners at Garretts moved to Addleshaw Goddard. He says “it was pretty unusual to be approached by another firm without ever having worked a day as a lawyer”. It was a move that would prove pivotal to his career given the subsequent collapse of Andersens and Garretts in the wake of the Enron accounting scandal a couple of years later. He admits there was a level of irony in that Addleshaws had previously rejected him for a training contract.

A restructuring legal team in a bank was a novel concept.

After eight years at Addleshaws as a restructuring lawyer, Oliver was approached by Barclays about what seemed like a unique opportunity. “They were seen as leaders in restructuring field, and regarded as having one of the best teams in any financial institution” he says. “They were considering setting up a restructuring legal team to support them, which was pretty novel at that time [2007].”

Oliver joined Barclays in August 2008 – six weeks later, the financial industry imploded. Lehman Brothers, HBOS, RBS – the UK banking industry followed the US banking industry in its demise. “Within weeks [of starting at Barclays],” he says, “I was talking about the liability of other financial institutions and the impact of their failure.” It was undoubtedly an interesting time to be working in banking and finance as a restructuring specialist, and he admits the timing benefited him in heightening his profile within the organisation. In 2013, he took responsibility for the UK restructuring on the legal team and in 2016 the role expanded to cover European exposures.

“Things I value are people, integrity and respect.”

Before accepting the role with Barclays, he asked his prospective boss what she was looking for in a colleague and she responded, “I want them to have integrity, be technically skilled at what they do and have fun.” This was something he says immediately resonated with him and has stuck with him as a work mantra since.

However, Oliver’s true sense of identity has deeper roots – his parents. Born in Jamaica, they moved to England where they met and married, his mother a nurse, his father a company director. They had a very strong Christian faith and it impacted every aspect of the way they lived their lives, their work ethic, how they treated other people how they spent their time and money. Being black in a predominantly white neighbourhood, and attending school where he and his sister were part of a handful of black children was challenging. His father said ‘life isn’t necessarily gonna be fair but you just got to adapt and work hard or harder. Retaliating or reacting negatively doesn’t help.’ Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s before political correctness, Oliver learned to adapt to the adversity that he was up against.

“The ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ sentiment was not unusual for my parents and the Windrush generation.”

At age 18, tragedy struck when his father was killed in an accident. At the funeral, he realised that his father, who he considered to be “just a regular guy,” had in fact impacted many people’s lives. There were hundreds of people there, with speakers rigged up outside the church as they couldn’t fit inside – the engineers and shop floor workers from his company in their overalls, directors of companies he did business with in different countries were all in attendance. Oliver drew a life lesson from this painful episode. “You don’t know how long you’re going to be around in life – when I die, I hope that I’ve generated that sort of impact on other people,” he says.

“Black History Month gives people a chance to sit back and recognise the achievements of black people and significant individuals who have made a contribution to how today’s world is lived – so much has changed in the last 50 years.”

“It’s hard to overstate both the impact and legacy of Nelson Mandela.” Oliver also highlights the achievements of the U.S. Senator and Civil Rights leader John Lewis who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. “He was very young when he was there at the start of the Civil Rights movement,” he says, “he’s always really impressed me.”

In the 1960s in the U.S., college students put themselves in the way of bodily harm to end racial segregation. In this struggle, Oliver has huge respect for some white people who stood up for the rights of people of colour at a real risk of harm or being ostracised by their community. “They acted purely for the benefit of others, which was particularly selfless.”

At Barclays, Black History Month events include displays, exhibitions, special food every Tuesday and Thursday, and they also have black entrepreneurs coming to discuss their businesses, and panel-type discussions with senior management of colour.

Why is BHM so important in terms of understanding social history, identity and gaining equality in the workplace?

“As a society, you can learn where people are coming from and their perspectives from events like Black History Month. It helps you gain respect and understanding of their points of view.” Being a big advocate of diversity and social mobility, Oliver is convinced that more equality in the workplace will result in more equality in society. That’s why he is heavily invested in educational initiatives with charities and pro bono schemes. He’s on the board of Frontline, a charity that seeks to develop high quality candidates as social workers and leaders working with vulnerable children.

“Children’s opportunities in life are materially impacted by their parenting and immediate home life and the charity Frontline looks to impact the lives of the most vulnerable children and families.”

Outside of work, he also supports various schemes helping to diversify the entry into law, working with minority ethnic groups and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. At Barclays, he is involved in a children’s literacy scheme that partners with primary schools.

“I understand that the opportunities I had were just because of who my parents were. You don’t choose your parents and in my case, it was to my advantage.”

To unplug from his professional life, Oliver keeps himself quite fit and exercises in the gym, and he’s also keen on cuisine. “I’m quite handy in the kitchen,” he says, “And sometimes do catering on the side, at functions such as christenings or private parties. My wife, who watches MasterChef, urges me to apply but the standard is so high nowadays, I’ll just stick to law for now.”

To us, this sounds like the perfect way to unwind after long stressful days at the office.

Oliver Gayle is a director in the Barclays legal team and is head of legal for the Bank’s Credit Restructuring team. He has been at Barclays for 10 years and prior to that was at Addleshaw Goddard and legacy firm Addleshaw Booth for 8 years. Oliver is also on the board of the charity Frontline and has a keen interest in supporting initiatives for diversity in the legal and other professions. He is married with no children (yet!).

Women in Law

As October and Black History Month comes to an end, Debbie Tembo reflects on her career journey and the importance of identity and diversity in her work.

Life in Cape Town

I grew up in the beautiful Mother City of Cape Town in South Africa. I went to the University of Cape Town to study a BA in Cultural and Literary Studies with a major in Film and Media Studies. I became really interested in marketing and brands, which lead me to study a postgraduate diploma in marketing management for another year.

From a young age I have always been the child that would push boundaries, whether it be convincing my parents that I absolutely needed to go on a Gap Year straight after school (which had never been done in our family) or being the first black prefect at high school or being voted “most likely to succeed” in my postgrad class at university. Our family was the very first black family to move into a fairly well to do white suburb in Cape Town, circa 1993 (very shortly after the release of Nelson Mandela). My dad was the head of an international seafaring NGO, which meant that I was surrounded by people of such different and international backgrounds to me, and this has fuelled my subconscious distancing of homogenous groups from an early age. My parents, like most black folk are religious people, but what they imparted to me more than religion was a deep sense of spirituality and authenticity, and I carry that in my professional life. I would definitely forego business if it meant that I needed to act against my better judgement and compromise my integrity. Authenticity is such an important value to me and when you’re a black female professional, I think it matters more.

British American Tobacco – From Cape Town to London

I was recruited into British American Tobacco’s global graduate recruitment training programme where, after an 18 month program, I was successfully offered my first managerial role. Despite a heavily male-dominated industry and work environment, I did well in my roles and it was clear that I was on a fast track path within my career. I had great support from sponsors and mentors within the business and I benefited from a strong coaching culture in the business. Interestingly, my sponsors, mentors and coaches were all men who believed in shifting the balance of female representation in business and they gave their best in support to myself and the many more talented women in the business.

Debbie at a British American Tobacco innovation conference

I also studied for an Honours degree during this time in Communication Science. As a result, in 2006 I moved with my husband to London on secondment to work at the global HQ in a new area of marketing within the business that was focused on innovation and how to do things differently, more efficiently and essentially push the boundaries in marketing. Here, I was the youngest member in the global marketing team and again, I got a massive amount of support – you don’t succeed in such an environment without being good at what you do and having bosses that have your back at every turn. After a year of piloting an innovation process globally, it was time for the next challenge, the one that ultimately lead me to bow out of corporate.

Taking a Corporate Break

My next role involved me being based in London, but travelling across the Middle East and Africa region every 2 weeks in a team that was just not ready to embrace different ways of working and challenging the status quo. The travel became too much and ultimately, I became someone in this role that was so far away from my core and who I am as a person that I was deeply unhappy.

After exploring alternatives to this role and personally deciding that I wanted to stay in London, I decided to leave BAT and take some time out for me. I don’t think anyone could really wrap their heads around why I would leave a promising career because of some sort of identity crisis, but it felt like the right decision. In that time I had my first child and 2 years later, my second and I was privileged to spend 6.5 years of their young lives mothering them.

During those years, I dipped in and out of work for a marketing events company, a strategic brand innovation agency, as well as partnered on a few start up businesses inputting into their marketing strategies so I was active in work in a non-conventional way, which is more common these days.

Finding a Work-Life Balance

I wanted to return to work, but I knew that I wanted to come back on my own terms and I knew that this was going to be difficult until I saw an ad for an Obelisk Support Marketing Manager. I was immediately drawn to the ethos of the business and thought, I can do this. In short, I didn’t get the marketing job, but Dana felt that I could contribute to the business in a different area and here I am 1.5 years later and I think we’re doing well.

I work with a team of not only smart, but nice people and that makes such a difference to work. There is no hierarchy in our structure, everyone can contribute, try new ways of working and get on with their work in the best way that suits them, provided we are all focused on the same goals and have the will to succeed. I really enjoy that no two clients are the same, even if they’re in the same industry! Diversity is a big current in my life and has been throughout my career and I enjoy working with the different clients that we do and tailoring solutions to suit their individual needs within their respective ecosystems.

Working in the legal industry is and challenging and there is always something to learn everyday. I love that Obelisk exists to change the way of working in the industry and I’m privileged to be a part of shaping the future of legal in this way – it certainly makes for some surprising conversations, but I can honestly say that more clients are coming round to this way of working and embracing the change, which is fantastic and hugely rewarding and matters not only now, but for future generations of lawyers.

Reflecting on Work during Black History Month

Looking back on my career, I have always had roles that were focused on growing a business, a brand, a category, a service in a different way that challenges the status quo and forces a different perspective and I love that about work.

For me, Black History Month is a celebration of black excellence, of which there are many examples all around us of men and women who are doing amazing things in the world to change the status quo for the generations coming behind them. Our Obelisk CEO and Founder Dana Denis-Smith always says, “that you cannot understand the present without understanding your past” and I wholeheartedly agree. Black History Month is also an opportunity to pause in the busyness of life and take a moment to reflect on the many, what I like to call, warriors who stood up for us, who self-sacrificed for us to be where we are today.

I would simply not be here right now in this moment, if it wasn’t for the many South African freedom fighters who fought for the end of segregation, including my dad who left high school to boycott an inferior education and later went on to finish his high school as an adult and to complete a theology degree in a democratic society. Those hero men and women changed my life and made today’s opportunities in the workplace possible for me. Yes, we have a long way to go to equality, but there are enough opportunities for me to seize and make a success in business and I don’t see the fact that I am black and a woman as an excuse or a barrier to that success – it’s the fire inside that fuels my willpower to succeed!

Advice to Her Younger Self

This is the same advice that I give my daughters – if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That’s your intuition, God, the universe guiding you, trust it always. Also, don’t justify yourself to anyone to make them feel better about the decisions that you make. Wait for them to ask you and then decide if it’s worth explaining. I think women spend way too much time trying to justify themselves and their decisions when they really shouldn’t have to!