Work + Science Magazine: “Inclusive Leadership: A Journey, not a Destination”

Organizations are realizing both the financial and societal benefit of increasing their investment in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) practices. However, when deciding where and how to invest in DEI initiatives, not every approach has the same outcomes. In this co-authored article featured in the Fall 2021 edition of Work + Science Magazine, Summit Leadership Partners’ Kevin Impelman, Director, Consulting Products & Services and Ashleigh Dickson, Research Analyst Intern, discuss the importance of assessing the behaviors of leaders through a four-stage process: awareness, appreciation, active engagement, and advocacy. They found that leadership behaviors and setting the tone for the organization are far more impactful than implementing diversity initiatives, training, and posters on the wall.

 

The full article is below:

Inclusive Leadership: A Journey, not a Destination

Authored by Summit Leadership Partners’ Kevin Impelman, Director, Consulting Products & Services and Ashleigh Dickson, Research Analyst Intern

Organizations are realizing both the financial and societal benefit of increasing their investment in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) practices.  Specifically, organizations in the top quartile for both gender and ethnic diversity are 12 percent more likely to outperform other organizations on profitability (“Diversity Wins:  How Inclusion Matters” by McKinsey & Company, 2020”.

However, when deciding where and how to invest in DEI initiatives, not every approach realizes the same outcomes. In our experience as leadership advisors and executive coaches, we have found that leadership behaviors and setting the tone for the organization are far more impactful than diversity initiatives, training, and posters on the wall. A recent review of DEI practices across 800 organizations confirmed our experience in driving DEI change, as the study found the most powerful approaches to drive inclusion and diversity come from the business strategy, not HR programs (Bersin, 2021). In addition, they found that senior leader commitment is essential to drive successful DEI outcomes.

We recently conducted a study with 200 CEOs and 95% of them listed DEI as a key focus area over the next couple of years; however, 44% have yet to develop a formal strategy in their company (“Post-Pandemic: What’s Next for Talent Management in Private Equity?” by Summit Leadership Partners, 2021). For those CEOs who have developed a DEI strategy, the top-ranked initiative to drive DEI was to change the company culture to be more inclusive while the last-ranked initiative was to implement diversity training. This indicates a shift in traditional thinking and falls in line with research that shows true change in developing an inclusive organization must be lead and modeled by senior leadership.

We cannot take a shortcut in developing CEOs and senior business leaders who in turn drive inclusive organizations.  The journey to becoming a more inclusive leader is a thoughtful and often uncomfortable path of self-awareness and learning through experiences and can be moderated by context-specific constraints.

Given this reality, Summit Leadership Partners has assembled vast research, data, and our collective expertise in advising Boards and the C-suite to codify the most crucial components that incorporate personality, context, and experiences leading to inclusive leadership. This relevant and transformative leadership capability can be assessed for and developed in leaders at all levels of an organization. We modeled the journey from awareness to advocacy, identifying and developing inclusive leaders as a practice of skill and capability development. We have identified some general characteristics and behaviors of leaders who embody “inclusivity” and look on those as the foundational elements that help a leader become successful as they collect crucial experiences that help them become more inclusive.  We definitively state that “inclusivity” is not a static, permanent state of being. Instead, we define inclusive leaders – or inclusive leaders in development – as works in progress.

Specifically, we see leaders pass through four stages of inclusive development:

  1. Awareness: During this first stage, a leader is aware of diversity, equity, and inclusion and the opportunities that arise with including diverse thinking and perspectives.  They recognize the privileges and barriers associated with specific groups and display keen insight into their unique circumstances and background.
  2. Appreciation: In this next stage, a leader begins to show admiration and respect for diverse perspectives. They begin to truly value diversity and consider inclusive practices as a critical component to effective collaboration and innovative thinking. They remain open and humble and strive to learn more about different people, cultures, perspectives, and opinions.
  3. Active Engagement: In this third stage, a leader evolves to actively including people from underrepresented groups to be a part of activities and initiatives. They intentionally foster a psychologically safe environment where others feel valued and represented.
  4. Advocacy: In this final stage, the leader is comfortable acknowledging and calling out all forms of discrimination. They will actively challenge their own and other’s assumptions and outdated practices that perpetuate inequities. They also remain resilient during tough conversations and act in an authentic manner that is aligned to values of equity and inclusion.

In most cases, the definition and context of “diversity” will be a moderating factor.  In other words, some leaders may be at the advocacy stage for a specific group (for example gender diversity) but still be in the awareness stage for other types of diversity (like minority groups). However, once a leader has evolved through all four stages for a particular group or context, they will more likely move quickly through the evolution for other groups, as they become part of their context.

At Summit, our proven Inclusive Leader model can translate to an index to better understand where leaders fall on their inclusive leader journey and how they may build this capability.  Additionally, we have identified targeted and tangible experiences that help individuals to build capabilities across each of these stages.

Hiring a more diverse workforce and developing diverse leaders is a start but building a culture of inclusion and belonging requires everyone’s involvement – especially among allies and sponsors with the potential to enact real change through their influence and investment. At Summit Leadership, we have a responsibility to partner with leaders to help them raise their awareness, show appreciation for diversity, actively engage others who have different backgrounds/perspectives, and advocate for others with action and conviction. We are committed to improving inclusion and equity in the business world, one leader at a time.