Diversity and inclusion in work
Image: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

How to ensure your company leaders are as inclusive as possible

7 Mar 2017

Hays’ Yvonne Smyth can help you create inclusive leadership within your organisation.

Diversity and inclusion are essential for a healthy workforce, but these practices must start from the top.

What is inclusive leadership?

In order to realise all the benefits that come with a diverse workforce, you first need to establish an environment where the impact and value of ‘difference’ is understood, celebrated and captured through key influencers, change agents and organisational structures. You won’t be able to reap the full rewards of diversity unless you establish a culture of openness, championed by inclusive leaders.

So, let’s look first at what we mean by an inclusive leader. To borrow a quote from Laure Fraval, managing director and HR consultant at Citi, who spoke at a recent breakfast session sponsored by Hays: “Inclusive leaders are very good at getting the best out of all their people.”

Dan Robertson, diversity and inclusion director at ENEI, developed this further: “Inclusive leadership is to be aware of your own biases and references, to actively seek out and consider different views and perspectives to inform better decision-making, and to see diverse talent as a source of competitive advantage.”

As Robertson went on to explain, whether knowingly or not, organisations generally hire people that look the same, sound the same and come from the same background. We are all guilty of making judgements on someone’s talent based on our views of how they appear, sound or behave – something Robertson aptly termed the ‘The Susan Boyle Effect’.

A focus on inclusive leadership aims to quash this unconscious bias; making your business diverse and, in the process, opening it up to all the clear benefits that come with diversity.

Essentially, if your business desires higher staff productivity, satisfaction and engagement, then it needs to become more diverse, and in order to become more diverse, you need inclusive leaders to inspire change from the top down.

Why should we care?

This is a key question that needs to be answered for all those looking to build a more inclusive environment. Liz Bingham OBE, managing partner at Ernst & Young, summed this up well in her remarks, referencing a direct correlation between company growth and serial innovation.

The report cited observed that a company cannot serially innovate if it has ‘groupthink’, and concluded that diverse teams enable innovation, but only when they are led by inclusive leaders.

Bingham went on to say that while we all ‘get it’ intellectually, it won’t be until we really ‘feel it’ and engage with it emotionally that we will make change on this agenda.

Fraval also mentioned being able to feel a change in culture as a result of some of the actions they have taken in this regard; noticing a difference in conversations in corridors and how people interacted with each other.

What are the characteristics of an inclusive leader?

Here are the four most common qualities that identify inclusive leaders, taken from Catalyst’s ‘Inclusive Leadership: The View from Six Countries’ report:

  • Empowerment: Enabling direct reports to develop and excel.
  • Humility: Admitting mistakes. Learning from criticism and different points of view. Acknowledging and seeking contributions of others to overcome one’s limitations.
  • Courage: Putting personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done. Acting on convictions and principles, even when it requires personal risk-taking.
  • Accountability: Demonstrating confidence in direct reports by holding them responsible for performance they can control.

There are also more specific actions, provided by Robertson, which you should cascade through your organisation, and which your leaders should take responsibility for. Here are some suggestions:

  • Schedule meetings at times that ensure maximum participation.
  • Invite everyone to contribute to discussions.
  • Monitor who attends social events, and find out why some don’t.
  • Allocate a challenging piece of work to someone you wouldn’t classify as a ‘high performer’.
  • Have a coffee with someone who is very demographically different to you.
  • Ask for the ideas and suggestions of others before giving yours.
  • Create a culture where no one fears being ignored, sidelined or ridiculed for their ideas.
  • Introduce ‘blind’ decision-making.

How can we inspire inclusivity?

Now that you’ve established the qualities that you need to look for and foster in inclusive leaders, the next step is to put this knowledge into practice.

Fraval spoke about Citi’s experience of looking to build a community of change agents, identifying people at executive level and further down the organisation who demonstrated the quality and ability to get the best out of their people. As Fraval said: “It can’t stay in the boardroom.”

The core qualities around which they built a toolkit were the ability to:

  • Relate: To go out of their way to relate to people.
  • Adapt: To be able to adapt their style to their audience and not the other way round.
  • Develop: To develop their people every day.

The toolkit built by Citi was actively referenced and embedded through recruitment, onboarding, promotion and management processes.

Getting buy-in from the rest of your team and having them understand the importance of inclusive leadership can be tricky, but it’s essential for success. Change agents can be found throughout an organisation, but a key element for sustained commitment and success is, of course, the leadership at the top.

Bingham recounted a story of how she had to change tack when addressing the leaders within her organisation, in order for them to understand what it means to be excluded. It takes “real conscious thought” from your leaders to grasp what it is to be an insider versus an outsider.

The example that Bingham used for her senior managers – many of whom were privileged enough to have never felt true exclusion – was to ask whether any of them had ever been to a friend’s wedding alone. Instantly it clicked, and the stories of exclusion began to flow.

Fraval waited for the senior leaders to come to her. Instead of forcing them to participate in something they might feel was peripheral, she decided to wait for the most senior employees within the company to realise the importance for themselves, and to then approach her. As soon as they expressed an interest, she would then provide these individuals with a toolkit of actions and suggestions, which was made available throughout the organisation.

It’s important that you keep tabs on developments by holding regular performance appraisals with your leaders and encouraging them to do the same with their teams – all the while acting upon the three broad steps in the previous section.

You need to be leading from the front to guarantee inclusivity is embedded in your recruitment and promotion criteria, management development, reward programmes and cultural change programmes.

Get the culture right and the diversity will follow

The building of a more inclusive culture needs to be routed in truly inclusive leadership, a shared vision, education and encouragement.  If you get the organisational culture right, then the significant benefits that come from true diversity will follow.

By Yvonne Smyth

Yvonne Smyth is group head of diversity for Hays. She works closely with organisations and Hays specialist consultant teams to create and implement diverse recruitment strategies that effectively support and increase the representation of more diverse staff profiles within their business.

A version of this article originally appeared on Hays’ Viewpoint blog.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading