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Inclusive Leadership Requires a Conscious Action Plan

Whilst working as a leadership advisor to men and women in large corporate organizations, I have noticed that the majority of men don’t fully understand the issues of why women don’t feel included – and that women don’t always express how uncomfortable it can be to exist in an all-male team or mostly-male environment.

Women often feel left out of casual get-togethers and informal social events where team bonding takes place, introductions are made, relationships are established, and information is shared. On the exclusion spectrum, you’ll find everything from a meeting organizer accidentally leaving someone off a calendar meeting invite to purposefully ignoring an individual’s contribution during a meeting.

There is so much work still to be done on understanding each other’s perspectives and bridging this gap.

Although we have made huge strides in technology and sophisticated business offerings, it is confounding that we are still grappling with the basics of how to include more women in senior management teams and at the top leadership table. We know that children tend to derail a woman’s career and yet there are still not enough proper supportive mechanisms put in place by the employer to ensure that this does not happen.

Fortunately, we see some green-shoots of very positive change emerging - such as the growing popularity of women returners programs for mothers who took five or more years out of work to raise children.

Systemic issues and unconscious bias are at play in society at large with no quick fixes, and this is often reflected in organizations. As such, leaders need to be much more mindful about bias and exert more conscious effort into examining the role we play in recruitment and development, and on being more pro-active on promoting inclusion and diversity. More creative recruitment strategies will be necessary to tap into talent sources that can bring fresh ideas and find and explore new markets and new customers.

If you work for a big corporation, you will be familiar with Diversity and Inclusion - “D&I” - as a term, and no doubt there are D&I initiatives underway in your firm. Typically it manifests as activities to increase the proportion of women in senior leadership roles. It may involve courses for management such as “How to reduce unconscious bias” and placing more emphasis on skills and potential during recruitment and promotion rounds - versus choosing in the same image.

Regardless of the enthusiasm for initiatives, there seems to be slow progress on real change; some women are still not paid equally even when represented within senior levels of business. Rather than seeing D&I as an initiative, we need to understand that inclusion has to be embedded within the business strategy and is not just a ‘special project’ or a nice to have. Awareness of unconscious bias on its own is not enough. We need to instil conscious inclusion in our leadership strategy and team culture. Inclusion is about an ability to break down barriers and integrate diverse individuals and groups, as well as being open to diverse thinking and unconventional approaches. Inclusive leadership is about having a progressive mindset backed up with a real action plan.

Diversity within teams is not only an equality imperative, it is a critical strategy for business and leadership success. It is better understood now that an effective way to activate a more creative and resilient team is to recruit more people from diverse and minority backgrounds. A diverse team will better reflect your customer base and no doubt help to strengthen your customer relationships. Team members from diverse backgrounds are also more resilient as a natural result of what they have to endure in order to survive and thrive in a system that is institutionally biased against them. They have to endure more than the average person just to be in the room. Over time this endurance has become embedded as a core strength in the face obstacles and change.

Accenture conducted a study of more than 1,700 companies around the world which shows that diversity increases the capacity for innovation by expanding the range of a company’s ideas and options. Diversity also increases resilience: like biological communities, companies that encompass more heterogeneity are better positioned to withstand unanticipated changes. There is a positive influence and spread of resilience through good role-modelling and the introduction of new behaviours and approaches into the team culture and environment.

With all that in mind, it is time for leaders to reframe D&I initiatives as business mission-critical and diversity is an opportunity to be consciously leveraged for competitive advantage.

✓ Diversity and Inclusion embedded within your core strategy, and not a separate HR people management initiative.

✓ Remove any obsession with ‘fit’ as part of your recruitment strategy. If you or your recruitment representatives continue to search for people who “fit” with the company culture, then real inclusion will never be realized.

✓ Be alert to, and remove barriers – real or perceived –in order to create a working environment where each person feels confident that they will have their views heard and represented.

✓ Be a role model for inclusion, be open to challenge when you are displaying your own unconscious bias. Work with the team on the how.

✓ It is not enough to talk about being more inclusive. Pay conscious attention to surfacing and removing unconscious bias within the team. It takes time and effort but the business advantage is worth it.

✓ Respect and appreciate the unique value of the individual as well as the group. Embed the mantra that the best from everybody equals the best for everybody.

✓ Appreciate that people perform better when they can be themselves and bring their best selves to work.

Diversity is a reality. Inclusion is a choice. We can all be more thoughtful and more conscious about including others – and being more alert to improving macro strategic policies on inclusion and being alert to those day to day micro-moments when others feel left out because of their differences.

International Women’s Day brings the whole matter into focus and encourages wonderful debate and ideas. Each step in educating ourselves and others is a conscious step forward in the right direction, and one day – hopefully in my 7-year-old daughter’s lifetime! – more accelerated progress will be made for women in our world.

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