Business leaders are human. And – just like many of us – have watched the Black Lives Matter protests unfold and felt the urge to do something. To help. To combat racism. To make life easier for anyone who is currently held back by the colour of their skin.
Perhaps you are one of those leaders? And you are indeed keen to do something; do the right thing; be a good inclusive leader. That may sound easy but, in fact, interviews I did with a range of leaders over the last few months clearly showed that in reality, it’s messy. Do you do say something? Do you not? What should you do? What can you do? What will others think? What if you don’t say or do anything? What if you get it wrong?
I can relate, as where it may seem easy from the sidelines, when it’s you who has to lead it, and it’s you who has to inspire and guide, it’s a huge responsibility. It’s so easy to say or do something wrong in a culture that is increasingly woke. And, really will it make a difference in the end?
That’s why I was hugely inspired and a bit in awe, frankly, by some of the leaders that I interviewed. They openly shared their internal struggle, and the mistakes they initially made, and then went on to explain what they are currently doing to lead on inclusion. So I would like to share with you what I learned that good inclusive leaders do, so you can learn from it. Especially as this applies to leading on any inclusion topic, whether it’s gender, age, race, or anything else.
Good inclusive leaders
- Educate themselves. They find out what the key issues are, and what’s behind them. They reflect on how this applies to them personally, and to their organisation. They read books and blogs, watch TED Talks, and speak with experts.
- They have conversations with those in their target group. What is it like for them to work in their organisation? Or – if they don’t have anyone like that in their organisation – they find out more about the underrepresented group by visiting conferences or universities. They are keen to learn what it would feel like for them to work for the company, and what is important to them in a future employer. Of course, this is informed by what they already learned about the barriers the group faces.
- Decide what their leadership stake is. They reflect on their own beliefs around the topic, and what feels right for them. That helps them to know what they want to stand for, what is non-negotiable.
- Are vocal about what they stand for. They go out of their way to find occasions – internally and externally – to talk about what they believe in and what their values are. One employee told me their leader finds a way to bring inclusion up in every single speech or meeting he has. The most impressive ones even see it as their responsibility to go beyond their own company and talk to suppliers, clients, and other leaders to make them aware they have a responsibility too.
- Take action. Of course, they speak up when they see sexism or racism, or any other undesired behaviour. But also, they go out of their way to ensure the board and the senior team include diversity of thought and actively get involved in attracting the right people. Next, they make sure that underrepresented groups get as much of a chance to develop and shine as anyone else, and provide the support that is needed. This often means taking a personal interest in people and listening to their needs, then providing for those. There are real practical things you can actually do from day one.
Most importantly, good inclusive leaders are human. They recognise they sometimes get it wrong, and then just try again. They are not afraid to fail, and when they do, they learn.
All of this takes personal courage. It requires those leaders to question themselves and be open to trial and error. Standing up for what you believe in isn’t easy. It’s also not done overnight; it’s a real personal leadership journey. None of them got it right from the start. But they did start.
Why do these leaders do that? Simple. Because they believe in it. They say things like, ‘I just know that diversity of thought is what we need to be the best, so I invest in it.’ Or ‘I started this company because I wanted to be a great place to work. When I found out we were only a great place to work for some I knew something had to change.’ I would like to invite you on the journey too!