Diversity, dancefloors and never walking alone: an interview with AXA D&I Manager Ken Kittoe


21 October 2022

Ken Kittoe, AXA D&I Manager

It should be a force for good, bringing communities together through a shared love of the game and the clubs that play it, but there’s an ugly side to football where passion becomes prejudice, hate and abuse. And that needs to change.

We sat down with AXA UK's inspirational Diversity & Inclusion Manager and Liverpool megafan Ken Kittoe to talk about his journey, his vision for the future of diversity and inclusion (D&I), and - of course - his love for Liverpool Football Club.

So Ken, how did an ex-County level football player become AXA UK’s Diversity & Inclusion Manager?

Growing up I only ever wanted to be a footballer. But when it didn’t work out I had a lot of thinking to do. One of my role models growing up was Tim Campbell from The Apprentice, and seeing him on TV with his suits and demeanour said to me that anything was possible, even though my dad always drummed into me that because I was black I would have to work ten times harder to achieve what I wanted out of life. I went to college to study law then ended up in recruitment but it wasn’t until the death of George Floyd that I started my journey into D&I.

What happened?

I think a lot of us suffered mentally during lockdown, and after the George Floyd murder there was just so much division. Opposition to Black Lives Matter. It just started really weighing on me. So I reached out to the CEO of the company I was working for at the time to ask what they were doing about diversity and inclusion and we had a really good, honest conversation. She said as a white woman she didn’t know what it could be like to be a black man in 2022 and she gave me the green light to set up a diversity & inclusion forum for the company and it all snowballed from there. And now I’m here at AXA which I’m very happy about. I knew AXA was doing some great things in the D&I space and for its people, and I wanted to be a part of that and help progress it even further.

How would you define Diversity & Inclusion?

Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being allowed on the dancefloor. There’s no point hiring black people just to hit quotas if those people are not going to have a fair run at growing within that organisation. They will just leave. And that has a knock-on effect on the people who stay. Because they realise it was just the company virtue signalling. Then they lose faith in the company, and everything falls apart. Diversity is nothing without inclusion. Whether it is race, sexuality, gender or disability. And that’s what I’m here to work on and improve.

Is it true you took the AXA job because of the partnership with Liverpool?

I was interviewing for D&I roles and was lucky enough to have some amazing job offers and meet some truly inspiring people. But AXA felt like home from the second we sat down. However, Liverpool is a really important part of who I am. And if I’m going to work for someone they need to represent me in different areas of my life. Obviously as a fan I already knew about the AXA partnership so it certainly made the decision a teeny bit easier.

So how did a boy from Leytonstone become a die-hard Reds fan?

My family came to London from Ghana in the 80’s. One day my uncle bought me this grey Crown Paints Liverpool strip. And that was the start of a lifelong obsession. My dad’s a Spurs fan so we’ve always had some pretty good banter.

As a D&I Manager, what can football do to be more diverse and inclusive?

Pointing fingers at racism at football matches is a small part of it. Football clubs need to change from within. Only then will it have that essential ripple effect to everyone connected to the club. There are people like me at all Premier League clubs and in lower tiers too. Plus there are so many black players now. My father-in-law is a City fan and said that he couldn’t go to games in the 80’s because of the racist abuse directed at him and black players. Thankfully now football grounds are much more inclusive places where everyone is welcome. Which is how it should be because we all have something huge in common. We love football and we love our teams.

As a fan have you ever experienced racism at Anfield?

Never. From the first time I went to Anfield I’ve always felt part of that family. Literally from the second I walked through the turnstiles. Another reason why I love Liverpool.

What about as a player?

Playing in Kent and Essex as a 14 or 15-year-old boy who just wanted to play football, I was often casually abused by players, managers and parents just because I was black. Which was really frightening and isolating. I was just a child. In football people will do anything to get in your head and put you off your game, and the monkey chants and racist slurs definitely affected me on and off the pitch.

So how do we get the message from the clubs to the fans and the communities, that racism and prejudice has no place in football?

In terms of Liverpool it’s really simple because we have a club song and motto which is ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which as a mantra goes way beyond football. So fans need to ask themselves whether they do let people walk alone, at home, at work, in their friendship groups or online. And if they do they need to reassess those behaviours. Because there’s no lonelier place in the world than being excluded because of the colour of your skin, believe me.

What is AXA doing internally to increase representation and improve the working environment for AXA employees?

There’s so much work being done to keep us progressing on our inclusion journey. A big thing we’re working on is our D&I data disclosure. We’re looking to move to a data-led strategy where we look at the makeup of our population at AXA and strategise accordingly - but to do that we need to understand our current position. So far, we’ve noticed that over half of employees who disclosed their data have caring responsibilities. So we set up a fifth employee network called Carers@AXA to provide further support to carers. We have AXA Able which drives disability-friendly improvements. AXA Balance which represents gender equality and working families. AXA Pride which represents gender identity and sexual orientation. And finally we have AXA REACH - which stands for Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage. All these incredible employee groups exist to help people feel like they belong and educate others on key topics. When you create a working environment that empowers people to be themselves, we can build a culture of trust, respect and kindness. And this allows us to attract the kind of talent who want to work for a company that understands and supports them.

How would you say AXA and Liverpool FC are aligned in their D&I strategies and approach?

In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of support for the LGBT+ community coming from Liverpool and it’s amazing to see a global organisation using its voice for good. Jurgen and Hendo in particular have been very vocal about their support for diversity in society. At AXA we have 100% support from Claudio Gienal, CEO of AXA UK&I, and Tracy Garrad, D&I Executive Sponsor for AXA UK. We also acknowledge and celebrate Black History Month (BHM) and I remember a conversation Hendo and Trent had during BHM 2021 on the importance of education. This fits in really well with BHM’s theme this year – ‘Time for Change, Action not Words’ - and our AXA REACH Network is driving a range of activity all with the aim of helping people to educate themselves and then explaining what they can do to be an active ally.

Any final message to Liverpool FC?

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