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What is ‘Inclusive Leadership’ & How can it benefit your organisation?

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

Inclusive Leadership is the set of behaviours and principles that ensure every individual feels welcomed, included, trusted and valued. Inclusive Leaders actively seek out different opinions and views from diverse perspectives to better inform decision making. They view diversity as a competitive advantage and seek to include as many diverse opinions as possible. This is critical to an organisation because the more people feel included, the more they contribute, the more they collaborate and the more they take risks and innovate— all of which ultimately raises an organisation’s performance.

Diversity & Inclusion are two distinct but required pieces of the same formula. They are mutually inclusive activities both necessary for success. Diversity & Inclusion advocate Verna Myers describes it well with the analogy

“Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

There is value in the simplicity of this analogy but it misses the value of this mix and the responsibility of the current party organisers. Just because you got the invite doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy the party; and certainly doesn’t mean the organisers cared you attended. They got to check a compliance box but they might not have noticed you attended. I have iterated on the analogy a little and come up with what I feel is a better description.

“Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is adding to the playlist & agenda.”

In this scenario, not only were you invited, you were an active part of the planning and creating of the party. You were included in the decision making and you don’t need to wait for an invite to dance — as you’ve ensured your likes and interests are represented. Building on this analogy, imagine we had just a single cohort of like-minded individuals create the playlist and food menu. They are going to create the party they and people like them would enjoy. The food they enjoy and the music they like. This ‘groupthink’ leads to echo chambers and bias blind spots. Expanding the analogy, when those newly included attendees can’t eat the food or don’t enjoy the music they feel even more excluded. They were invited but didn’t feel welcomed or included. The organisers won’t understand why they weren’t happy — “they got their invite didn’t they”. Through unconscious bias more than intentional malice, these diverse perspectives have not only been ignored — they have been seen as unreasonable and divisive. “Why can’t the vegans just enjoy the meat BBQ we’ve organised? Selfish!” “Why can’t the adults just twerk with us! Lame!”

Now, let’s imagine diverse cohorts were included in the party planning decisions. This will lead to new music discoveries, unique party ideas and new and exciting tasty foods to try. Think Reggaeton, Tex-Mex, Sushi Samba. The fusion of foods and mixing of culture leads to new discoveries, new experiences and new ideas. The diversity of perspectives has not only made everyone feel included it has lead to an even better party. Diversity & Inclusion has become a true competitive advantage.

What are the benefits of inclusion to an organisation?

An Organisation’s objective is shareholder value through profit growth over time. That is, they want to sell their products and services to the widest audience possible. The larger the total addressable market, the larger the audience and thus the higher likelihood of increased sales and revenue. Now, statistically the larger the audience the more diverse it becomes. We live in a world made up of great diversity — of opinion, of race, of thought, gender, beliefs etc. So to ignore this diversity and not include these voices in the decision making of the products to serve these very communities is not only morally wrong, its economically unsound.

In fact, Professor of Economics Scott E. Page, of University of Michigan uses mathematical modelling to show how variety in staffing produces more productivity and organisational strength. In other words, diversity is economically better than homogeny.

A 2020 analysis by Pipeline Women Count on female diversity & inclusion found that of the UK listed companies, those with no women on their executive committees have a net profit of 1.5% versus those with more than one in three women at that level reach 15.2% net profit margin, more than 10X.

A 2019 Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. Those with above average diversity scores had a 45% increase in innovation revenues.

From an employee perspective, diversity brings different ways to view a problem and thus different ways to solve it. If people have the same schooling, the same training, the same tools, the same models, the same background — guess what? They are more likely to think in the same way; and get stuck on the same problems.

How can we be more Inclusive People Leaders?

  • Awareness — Step 1 is to become aware of this opportunity as leaders. The fact that you are reading this article and got this far is a great start! Now it’s time to become aware of the situation in your organisation and your team. You can use surveys to request diversity inputs from teams if it’s not already captured by your organisation. Understand the diversity of your customer base and understand how that is reflected in your team. Understanding your own and team’s bias is also an enlightening awareness exercise. You can take the test here. As managers we can actively seek to hire diverse candidates and encourage diverse opinions. Research by Google on their high performing teams found that the #1 contributor to high performing teams was Psychological safety i.e. Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed? Can we innovate safely? Can we suggest creative ideas? According to the extensive research, these teams are “more likely to harness the power of diversity from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives”.

  • Action — After awareness of the current diversity and inclusion landscape in your organisation or team, you can start to identify the opportunities. What actions can you take to increase the diversity of the voice of the customer? What actions can you take to increase the diversity of your team? How can you include more of these voices in planning and decision making? If there is less diversity in your immediate team you can you create a “diversity & inclusion board” made up of disparate voices across the organisation. This will send out a positive signal from your team as well as allowing you to tap into the competitive advantage of diversity & inclusion.

  • Analysis — As the adage goes, You can’t improve what you can’t measure. As leaders we need to capture the data from these new inclusion activities to learn what is working and what is not. We should set diversity & inclusion targets and goals. We should measure the impact to our organisation goals pre and post inclusion activities. Its important that we don’t over index on hitting these metrics at the expensive of team cohesion. Diversity for the sake of diversity will lead to retention problems. It will also alienate existing team members if they don’t feel included in the process too. We are not aiming to simply ‘check a box’. Team members won’t want it forced upon them unwillingly. It needs to become a part of the cultural fabric and competitive advantage of the team and not another metric to hit. This is not the final step in a sequence but part of a virtuous cycle of steps that loop. We can continue to stay aware, take action, analyse & improve.


How can we be more Inclusive Product Leaders?

Our customers are made up from all shapes, sizes, colours, ethnicities, interests, genders, sexual orientations and abilities. So modelling our product research and development on just one cohort neglects the diversity and idiosyncrasies of our customer base. (See the dangers of bias in algorithms and AI.) This is important not only for inclusion but also economics.

In my work as UK Product Manager for Alexa Information I proactively think about inclusion and empowerment of “communities” we served. Taking these diverse cohorts and understanding their specific challenges and pain points I was able to identify user journeys to make these communities feel included.

Inclusion for The Blind & Visually Impaired Community —

Without even engaging this community Alexa already had a huge impact on the lives of the blind and visually impaired. Prior to Alexa, a simple talking clock cost over £120! The low price point of Alexa made this simple capability and thousands more available like never before. Wanting to understand what more we could do to make this community feel more included I reached out to The Royal National Institute of Blind People.

We worked together to include information specifically developed to empower, support and guide their community. You can view the video and read more here.

Inclusion of Black History — I worked with the a Black Employee Network in the run up to Black History Month in 2019. The idea was to include more historical Black leaders. You’ve likely heard of Black leaders from modern history — Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Malcolm X. However, it’s less likely you’ve heard of Queen Amina or Ignatius Sancho. We wanted to include these leaders from Black History alongside the European King’s and Queens people are more familiar with. To learn more just ask Alexa to “Give [me] a leader from Black History”. You can read more here.

Inclusion for Females in Engineering— Picture an engineer. You’re probably imagining a man with a hard hat surrounded by machinery, spanners and cables. At least that’s the image most of us have. ‘Female’ and ‘Engineer’ sadly presents a cognitive dissonance to many of us. Similar to the two words ‘Flat’ and ‘Earth’. These mental models have been built up over time but couldn’t be further from the truth. According to the Engineering UK 2018 report, 21.80% women work in the engineering sector. In an effort to shatter the stereotypes that Engineers are only male; and in an effort to make engineering a more inclusive choice to young females - my team worked with the Royal Academy of Engineering on their ‘This Is Engineering Day’. Go ahead and try it — you can ask Alexa today “what does an engineer looks like?’. More on our work here.

Inclusion for better Mental Health —The Corona virus introduced a new angst to our lives. For those with mental health conditions including OCD, anxiety and depression this negative news cycle could become overwhelming. Working with charities like Age UK, we received feedback that many of their community were overwhelmed with the data points and mortality. I reached out to and we agreed to launch a daily Good News feature. Now, everyday you can get some good news from your Alexa to take your mind away from the negativity of 2020. Just say, “Alexa, give me some good news” and you’ll be presented with some fun and positive news as a welcomed distraction.

In summary, inclusive Leadership can be practiced at all levels in the organisation. From Awareness to Action is a small step and can have a huge impact — not only to team moral but also productivity, innovation and the company’s top line. So, what are you waiting for!? Be a change agent for your organisation by taking that first step.

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