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Learning & Development for Building Inclusive Leaders

Organizations everywhere are pushing to adapt to a more diverse workforce, markets, customers, ideas, and talent. One of the most important emerging traits is possessing inclusive leadership skills which is proving to be a critical component of successful, inclusive, and diverse organizations. Leaders must be capable of expressing not only humility, but also empathy, and have the ability to capitalize on their awareness of bias. Inclusivity has and always will be paramount to effective leadership, and a successfully run organization.

You might ask yourself, “can an inclusive leader really make that much difference for an entire organization? Shouldn’t it be the employees?” The answer to your question is yes, on both accounts. But in all honesty, it really comes down to organizational leaders. Leaders push their teams to work towards a common goal and drive collaboration. One of the biggest issues with leaders in organizations is that they lack the talent and competency for leading because they are often hired based off of confidence and charm; this is the main reason that inclusive leaders are often the exception, and not the norm. The very qualities that make individuals unfit for leadership can be an asset for propelling them into leadership roles.

What is Inclusive Leadership?

Inclusive leadership fosters diversity and inclusion. Diversity represents the individual differences throughout an organization and inclusion involves the integration of different ideas, perspectives, experience, expertise, and backgrounds into the mix that accompany the diverse workforce. You also need to consider biased mindsets, cultural and language barriers, and culture norms that potentially prevent employees from being fully engaged. Inclusive leaders will effectively manage all of these barriers by fostering a cohesive and collaborative workplace where employees feel empowered and equal.

According to Korn Ferry, inclusive leaders possess five core traits. They are as follows:

  1. Authenticity: Trust and humility.
  2. Emotional resilience: Composure and self-awareness.
  3. Self-assurance: Confidence and optimism.
  4. Inquisitiveness: Openness to differences, curiosity, and empathy.
  5. Flexibility: Tolerance of ambiguity and adaptability.

The same research uncovered the five primary competencies for inclusive leadership:

  1. Achieves transformation: Leads with courage, persuades others, and drives results.
  2. Builds interpersonal trust: Values differences and instills trust.
  3. Integrates diverse perspectives: Balances stakeholders and manages conflict.
  4. Optimizes talent: Drives engagement, develops talent and collaborates.
  5. Applies an adaptive mindset: Has situational adaptability, shares a global perspective, and cultivates innovation.

One trend that Dashe knows a lot about is leading with the head, heart, and hands. This research uncovered that there are two main types of inclusive leaders, leaders who lead with the heart and leaders who lead with the head. The basic difference between these two leaders is that one is more focused on the people (talent, collaboration, trust) of the organization, while the other focuses more on taking action and organizational transformation (operations, skillsets, flexibility). To be a truly successful inclusive leader, you need to be someone with both sets of traits. Heart-focused leaders should work on building skills that result in organizational transformation and head-focused leaders should strive to continually improve interpersonal skills.

Being an Inclusive Leader Takes Work

According to Harvard Business Review, the impact of leaders’ thoughts, actions, and words make up an astonishing 70% difference as to whether or not employees feel included throughout the workplace. Organizations need capable and empathetic leaders who are able to comprehend various perspectives and leverage the scattered knowledge of teams and unite employees, rather than divide them. Leadership development should always prioritize critical soft skills like communication, self-awareness, and trust.

Although diversity and inclusion budgets are expanding for the development and coaching of leaders, it is difficult to measure success unless these leaders are initially selected for their potential and ability to grow. COVID-19 demonstrated that organizations, teams, and employees are better off when they are managed by leaders who have solid technical expertise, curiosity, rationale, humility, honesty, and compassion. If an organization wants more inclusive leaders, they have to start by making leadership more exclusive. Assessing leadership potential rather than past performance or charisma will elevate your return-on-investment for leadership training more than anything else.

Focus and invest training resources on developing and supporting inclusive leaders. Enhancing technical skills, communication skills, adaptability, and ability to associate training to the overall organizational goals will help leaders utilize their already existing potential. Organizations should always consider a leader’s coachability, and willingness to adjust, from the beginning.

Challenges for Inclusive Leaders

Because inclusive leadership is growing rapidly in the business world, it is met with a lot of challenges. According to Harvard Business Review, inclusive leadership directly affects individual and team performance. Employees with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to have consistent and improved performance, over 20% of employees are more likely to make the right decisions the first time, and nearly 30% of employees are more likely to collaborate more efficiently with the rest of the organization.

The challenges that leaders face while creating an inclusive and diverse workforce are present in most organizations and should be considered as you try to move forward with developing your teams. Consider the following when evaluating your current leadership teams:

  • Leaders are often hesitant to believe that employees with different backgrounds and experience than them can be just as successful. A lot of times leaders do not see the barriers or challenges that are present because they don’t experience them personally, which causes leadership blind spots. In order to disrupt that blindness, workplace data and trends can bring forth the realness of bias, harassment, discrimination, and the like.
  • Leaders tend to prefer familiarity over novelty when leveraging employees’ skills. With the pressure on leaders and organizations significantly growing in today’s business world, leaders need to focus more on employee potential, common priorities, improving productivity, and using resources efficiently. Involving employees in decision-making can be an obstacle for a lot of leaders, but employees will feel more engaged, valued, and empowered when involved in solving organizational challenges.
  • Lack of knowledge and old habits prevent growth. A lot of leaders do not fully understand how to drive consistent diversity and inclusion throughout the organization. Leaders also need to be involved in the training and development of these skillsets and have consistent action plans. The interpersonal skills required to be a successful, inclusive leader are complex and not always easy to learn. A true inclusive leader will take the time and effort needed to learn new behaviors and habits.
  • Acquiring top talent and retaining current employees are common challenges for most leaders today. Finding the right people with the right skills, or developing the right people with the right skills, is not always an easy task. Inclusive leaders must take robust measures to consider diversity and inclusion while selecting and retaining employees, instead of habitual thinking and social patterns of the past.

Inclusive Leadership Takes Practice and Training

Every successful organization should be collecting diversity and inclusion data that highlights the bias across the organization. This could include employee surveys and analytics, feedback from customers, of even employee focus groups. The metrics will help decipher the issues consistently practiced throughout the organization in relation to recruitment and retention, salary and benefits, career path development and promotion opportunities, working environment, and employee engagement just to mention a few.

Leaders need to be consistently engaged in organizational change, through both skill development and emotional development. The best results derive from organizations that invest in improving leadership enthusiasm and dedication. In order to drive diversity and inclusion throughout an organization, especially within the leadership teams, knowledge and skill development and training are necessary. Leadership training specifically should include the metrics we talked about above, storytelling focused on real-life issues, and identifying the challenges and opportunities that exist within business models. Leading from the top down has always been a huge factor for successful organizations, and when there’s investment behind behavioral change and driving accountability, the impact will trickle down throughout the organization to the employees.

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