Inclusive Leadership — What does this mean in practice?

By Snéha Khilay

Managing Director at Blue Tulip Training — specialises in Diversity, Inclusion and Unconscious Bias

There is a degree of cynicism as to whether training programmes on diversity and unconscious bias, together with ad hoc mentoring programmes help resolve concerns linked to inclusivity in the workplace. As a diversity consultant, I interact with senior leaders who claim inclusive leadership as one of their organisational values. Yet, when I probe further, they sheepishly acknowledge that they don’t really know what this means but need to pretend that they do.

For the lay person, what does ‘inclusive leadership’ mean in practice? Boris Groysberg and Katherine Connolly (Harvard Business Review Sept 2013) surveyed 24 CEOs worldwide, who headed organisations with good reputations for embracing people from different backgrounds. The common theme identified was threefold, firstly ensuring inclusivity was a personal mission to the CEOs. Secondly, diversity was a business imperative; as a source of creativity and innovation. And finally, inclusivity was a moral imperative linked to their personal experiences and values.

In parallel, organisations who value inclusive leadership also recognise that, when employees feel acknowledged and therefore valued, there is better customer service providing a reputational (and therefore business) edge. Equally, other research (Opportunity Now) found that 80% of those who had worked with an inclusive leader were more motivated, productive, loyal to the organisation and more likely to go the extra mile.

In my previous employment, one of the managers I regarded most highly was a progressive, inclusive leader. He set clear standards and did not expect us to work beyond 5 pm. He also supported all staff in managing our time effectively with child care and other personal arrangements. My manager was well respected and employee retention was at its highest level due to this approach. In response, there was a strong commitment to our responsibilities and we all worked effectively as a team, willing to undertake additional tasks when required.

A question often asked is that, whilst there is the recognition of the benefits of inclusive leadership, how does it translate into reality? Over the years I have provided consultancy support to leaders from various sectors, both public and corporate and in line with some of the research conducted at a global level, there are some themes which are conducive to developing inclusive leadership practice. These can form part of an action plan for organisations to consider, aligned with a value statement of ‘no excuses, only excellence’. As Martin Luther King put it, ‘If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way’.

Leaders do set a clear definition of what is meant by an inclusive culture, embraced within the organisation culture. Grosberg and Connolly defined this as ‘one in which employees can contribute to the success of the company as their true selves whilst the organisation respects and leverages their talents which gives them a sense of connectedness’.

Leadership agility — an ability to adapt behaviour to take into consideration colleagues’ different and cultural perspectives and experiences. Through this process, to develop effective communication skills to understand, influence and motivate. A senior leader that I worked with told me he regularly held one-to-one meetings with all his staff, adapting his communication style to the individual. Through this process he was better able to understand not only their career aspirations, he was able to take preventative action to address concerns raised, which led to huge saving particular in relation to managing problems at an early stage.

Leaders who are aware of their own biases and preferences, actively seek out and consider different views and perspectives, taking responsibility for recognising and correcting unconscious biases in informal / formal processes, language patterns and behaviours. Some leaders value diverse teams, recognising that although it takes longer to make decisions, it is worth the investment as decisions are robust and easier to implement. In parallel, senior management teams take responsibility for ensuring that staff are clear of their responsibilities within an inclusive workplace culture.

Leaders encourage accountability in diversity metrics. Whilst diversity can be seen as abstract and tokenistic, evidence based statistics are more defined. Organisations now examine in detail the correlation between sets of metrics over time. For instance, how does the composition of people applying for jobs correlate to candidates offered jobs? Then how does it translate into candidates accepting those jobs and finally those who are successful in their jobs six months after joining the organisation? Another set of metrics that can be used is tracking the retention rate for different groups — the rates at which staff achieve promotion, how long this has taken, how many staff are leaving the organisation. Such metrics help diagnose and understand what’s going on — enabling leaders to review the metrics and develop action plans to address any issues identified.

Leadership commitment in championing initiatives and seeking tangible evidence that diversity and inclusion is an organisation priority. Leaders who dedicate time to work on diversity and inclusion initiatives personally take proactive measures such as attending staff networks and chairing Diversity and Inclusion steering groups. In both instances, there are clear expectations set, with the purpose and goals of the groups identified and implemented within set time frames. Goals are linked to areas of recruitment, promotion, allocation of work, opportunities for professional development and customer engagement. Identifying, analysing and taking proactive measures to address any concerns identified can significantly raise staff confidence and employee engagement.

Leadership role model — a varied array of leaders signal a top down commitment to diversity, which also provides emerging leaders with role models to identify with and model.

Inclusive leadership is about organisational culture change. It is estimated that it takes two to three years for such change to become fully embedded. During this process, it is worth recognising that organisations will experience redundancies, retirements and restructures, raising questions whether inclusive practice can be sustained during these changes. Leaders who prioritise inclusive practice during these changes recognise that staff need to feel valued and involved during turbulent times.

Essentially, for inclusive leadership to become best practice, embedded throughout an organisation, it has to be at the heart of the organisation rather than seen as the latest fad, a tokenistic gesture sugar coated through potential rather than actual equal opportunities. Inclusive Leadership is about hard work, clear thinking and collective effort. As Steve Redgrave said when competing for the Olympics ‘It’s not always a bed of roses, but the blend of characters makes the strength of the team’

Managing Director at Blue Tulip Training — specialises in Diversity, Inclusion and Unconscious Bias

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on May 17, 2017.