Oct 09, 2019

What makes an inclusive leader?

Recently, we had the pleasure of traveling to Boston. A few of us took the time to catch a game at Fenway for the first time, while others just checked out the early American history we don’t quite have on the West Coast. But one thing we all did was make it to another great edition of the From Day One conference in Massachusetts. And our CEO, Tyler Muse, joined a really interesting panel discussion titled “What Makes an Inclusive Leader.” We wanted to pass along both the video and a few of the big takeaways we got from the panel. Here’s the conversation: 

And here are a few things we learned: 

It’s okay to admit you have work to do with diversity & inclusion

The panel started out with a simple question: “what is your company’s most pressing diversity and inclusion issue?” What was most striking was that none of the panelists equivocated or hedged and that none of their issues were exactly alike. It’s also worth remembering: you can’t have a solution if you haven’t identified the problem. 

So, what were the issues? The ran a wide gamut. For some, it’s about getting real buy-in from execs. It’s not that the execs are anti-D&I but are they funding it and committing to it with time and attention? For others it’s about an internal push-and-pull between which D&I initiatives to focus on (i.e., race or gender or age?) and how to navigate the issues attendant with that. Do you prioritize certain groups? And if so, what message does that send? Still others talked about balancing the age-old adage of “the customer is always right” with the fact that sometimes, the customer is acting like a real $%^&*. How can you really create a culture of inclusion if you let your customers demean your front-line employees? 

The point here is there’s end game. Your work in D&I is never going to be finished and new issues will pop up. Understand that and adapt to those issues. Catch them early if you can. But the real work here isn’t solving all the issues at once as much as it is about making continual progress, day after day. 

If your organization says it has values, you need to live them

This point came up in a few ways during the panel, but it was refreshing to hear each time. Because let’s face it: a lot of companies have their values and the traits they claim to want in employees but when you take a step back and actually analyze if they’re living up to those things, you discover, well, they’re really just some words in the employee handbook. 

If your company says it has values, you have to show it. Take the last example from the previous section: if you say you’re about inclusivity, can you really allow a customer to be racist to someone in your call center? And if you think you can, what does that actually say about your values? 

Successful relationships run on trust. The same goes for successful companies.

Finally, this was a sort of meta-theme for the discussion, but it was touched on in nearly every single answer. Whether the panelists were talking about how you navigate politics at work or what you learned from diversity questionnaires or what happens when leaders run non-inclusive teams, the concept of trust permeated everything. 

Trust needs to radiate like spokes on a wheel. Your individual contributors need to trust their managers who need to trust those ICs who in turn need to trust the executive team to execute how they’ve promised and so on. Everyone needs to be able to hear what each other says and believe that they mean it and will follow through. When we’re talking about “what makes an inclusive leader,” one thing that scotches the whole deal is a leader who can’t be trusted. Even if their shown the benefits of inclusion in workplace and the hearts in the right place, once they’ve shown they won’t be inclusive or won’t create an environment that values everyone, what are their words really worth at that point? 

We’d like to send another big thank you to the folks at Day One and the rest of the tremendous panel: Dionne Wright Poulton (Riverside Community Care), KeyAnna Schmiedl (Wayfair), Tom Bourdon (Staples), and moderator Shirley Leung (Boston Globe). We had a great day and a great conference. See you next time!


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