The Journey to Inclusive Leadership: A Future Female Leader’s Reflection
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we wanted to take some time to reflect on our recent research in collaboration with Signatures Leaders on Inclusive Leadership and its potential to foster greater parity.
Inclusive leadership extends beyond simply doing what’s right; it possesses the profound capacity to unlock the full potential of your team and foster an environment where everyone can thrive. Inclusive leaders value and leverage diversity while promoting a culture that treats all people fairly, equitably, and respectfully. In any environment where inclusive leadership is practiced, diverse perspectives, ideas, and people are embraced. As a result, these types of teams and organizations achieve greater success and innovation, while cultivating a highly engaged and motivated workforce.
Today, more than ever, business leaders understand the significance of inclusive leadership and feel compelled to implement these practices in order to cultivate a diverse environment. While the number of diversity initiatives in organizations has vastly improved over the last few years, leaders must take the time to internalize which actions and attitudes make others feel excluded. Through our work with coaching and developing high-performing executive teams, Summit Leadership Partners has helped leaders hone in on how to better their own inclusivity. In our coaching and team practices, we have witnessed the tremendous impact inclusive leaders can have when they are self-reflective, learn from experience, and do everything in their power to embrace diversity.
In partnership with Signature Leaders, an organization that accelerates female executives into next-level leadership, we surveyed female leaders about their perspectives on how to develop and achieve an inclusive leadership style. Not surprisingly, our research revealed that active experiences have a greater impact on inclusive leadership than passive experiences. For example, many respondents shared that listening to others from different cultures and backgrounds was more impactful than attending a training session about diversity. While it may seem a rather simple solution, simply seeking to speak with others who are from a different background and then advocating for their voices to be heard turns out to be the most fundamental way to become a more inclusive leader.
My Inclusive Leader Journey
On a personal level, I too attribute active experiences to being the most impactful in my growth in valuing and cultivating diverse spaces. Growing up as a Modern Orthodox Jew, my day-to-day interactions with individuals outside of my religion were limited. I attended Jewish day school where all my classmates were of the same race, religious denomination, and relatively similar socio-economic class. While my cultural experiences broadened when attending a secular university, my social interactions primarily existed within my religious community. I am immensely grateful for my education and look back fondly at these experiences, but also recognize that I have only recently started to surround myself with people that don’t look like me or share the same religious beliefs as I do. As a student in the Social-Organizational Psychology graduate program at Teachers College, Columbia University, I can not only learn about the importance of diversity in my courses but experience it firsthand on a daily basis. Through interacting with classmates from a variety of backgrounds, including those of different religions, races, and nationalities, I am able to deepen my understanding of the value of diversity. We each have our own unique perspectives, share experiences about our respective cultural practices, and are deeply curious to learn more about which of our diverse strengths we can leverage. Moreover, I have been focused on developing my own inclusive leadership practices in my role as a student leader. As members of our graduate program’s leadership board, my teammates and I are committed to designing events that cater to our diverse student body. We strive to achieve this by ensuring that our alumni speaker panels feature representatives from various backgrounds and by establishing student resource groups for our international peers. My journey in graduate school underscores the value of intentionally seeking out diverse experiences with the goal of fostering a more inclusive community where all perspectives are valued.
As both a student and employee, I have also been the recipient of inclusive leadership practices and deeply appreciate how a small action can make an impact. I observe the Jewish holidays and often have bi-annual conversations with supervisors and professors about missing many workdays and classes due to my religious observance. In response, my supervisors and professors have only expressed support and curiosity. Most recently, my professor announced that he will be canceling class on Passover, simply because it’s the right thing to do. When sharing the many days I’d be taking off in the fall, my supervisor here at Summit Leadership Partners later emailed me a graphic he found of all the Jewish holidays confirming that I would be out of the office for all those days. He continues to express deep curiosity about my religious observance and encourages me to share more with the extended team. The actions of these leaders made me feel valued and acknowledged as a person, irrespective of my observance, and as I embark on my journey toward leadership, I aim to emulate their profound impact and ensure that everyone feels embraced and appreciated for their unique identities.
Ways to Become A More Inclusive Leader
To cultivate an inclusive leadership style, it’s essential to engage in active experiences to help build empathy and understanding of people from diverse backgrounds. From our personal experiences and research, we recommend actionizing these five practices to help become a more inclusive leader.
- Express Curiosity: Curiosity about others is the foundation of learning, growth, and empathy. As a leader, it’s crucial to ask questions and actively listen to others’ experiences. Whether through a casual conversation at lunch or at a structured weekly one-on-one, you can ask others questions to learn more about their challenges and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for their perspective.
- Participate in Diverse Teams: Seeking out opportunities to work with people from diverse backgrounds will help you cultivate an inclusive leadership style. As the leader, it’s also important to encourage members of diverse groups to take on leadership roles in projects and be purposeful about assigning roles to ensure everyone has the opportunity to contribute. By working with diverse teams, you can learn more about the strengths each team member can bring to the table.
- Volunteer for an Under-Resourced Organization: Volunteering for a group whose members have a different background than you can be a powerful way to broaden your understanding of different cultures and perspectives. It’s important to take the time to speak with the participants and be open to learning from them. By engaging in volunteering, you can build your empathy and understanding of the issues that affect people from different backgrounds.
- Participate in an ERG as an Ally: Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are groups in an organization that share a common identity, such as women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ employees. As a leader, it is highly beneficial to pick one ERG of a different social/racial identity than yours to become a member. As an ally, you will gain a deeper understanding of the challenges the group members face and learn how to advocate for their needs more effectively.
- Find an Accountability Partner: It is valuable to find someone at a similar stage in their inclusive leadership journey and meet regularly to hold each other accountable. Be vulnerable and discuss your wins and challenges, while also seeking feedback on how you can improve. Building a community of like-minded individuals will help and inspire you to continue on your path to achieving your goals.
Becoming an inclusive leader is a lifelong journey and sometimes you may take one step forward and two steps back. Remember, that inclusive leadership is a continuous process of learning and growth, and not a one-time training or event. To get to your ideal stage of inclusivity, it’s crucial to regularly reflect on your experiences and seek feedback from others, whether that’s a peer or someone more junior than you. While you’ll constantly be learning from others, it’s important to remember that this is your journey and no one person is expected to teach you. Often, members of diverse groups feel expected or burdened to educate others. Don’t place too much responsibility on one person and seek out a variety of resources to educate yourself.
Now it’s time to take action. Start by incorporating one of the above active experiences in your life and witness the significant impact small steps can have on both yourself and others. By incorporating just one practice, you can build upon your inclusive leadership style and cultivate an environment that values diversity, promotes equity, and creates a sense of belonging for all those that know you.
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