How to lead inclusively

Your ability to be your most effective and successful is fueled by how inclusive you are as a leader in all aspects of your business – your supply chain, your workforce and how you take your products and services to market.

It’s likely that you have based your success to date on your intuitive grasp of key business issues, but if you rely on intuition alone, you could reach a plateau that will stunt your progress, and may well limit the level of creative and innovative thinking around you.

This isn’t a great recipe for sustainable business success, so here’s how you can avoid this stagnation and drive your business forward.

Ask yourself the following questions

To start to challenge your own thinking, consider the following questions about your team, the market your business operates in and your suppliers:

Your workforce:

  • What assumptions do you bring to your recruitment decisions?
  • Who do you feel most comfortable chatting with informally?inclusive-leadership
  • Who manages your meeting dynamics – who does the most talking, most of the questioning, most of the listening?

Your market:

  • How often do you seek out and ask for advice from a diverse range of people?
  • Does your team include the diversity of backgrounds, cultures and genders which mirror your client base and market?
  • What assumptions do you make about your clients when preparing to meet them?

Your supply chain:

  • How would you respond to a question about supplier diversity in a pitch with a client (do you know what supplier diversity is!)?
  • Are you in a position to ask your suppliers what they have on their diversity agenda
  • Are you an ideal SME to leverage the supplier diversity forums that already exist?

If you are new to the diversity and inclusive leadership journey, it is easy to be overwhelmed and really not clear on what to do first.

A good place to start is to focus on your people and aim to surround yourself with the most diverse group of people that share different perspectives, ones that are managed inclusively so that they all feel that they have a voice and can make a contribution.

RELATED: What is workplace diversity, why is it important, and what are the benefits to businesses?

Also consider how you brand your company externally, what influences the decisions you make about your people and how you signal that you are an inclusive business through what you say and how you behave.

Let’s take each of those elements in a little more detail:

Your workforce

How well do you really know the people that make up your company? Does your culture encourage everyone to bring their ‘whole-self’ to work or do people feel the pressure to ‘fit in’? How often do you really engage with your people – both formally and informally? And when you do, are you sure that you hear from everyone?

It’s easy to talk about inclusive leadership as being about encouraging different perspectives and at times dissent, but it is more challenging to manage. Sometimes, particularly when you are working to a tight deadline, it might feel easier to target a team that you have worked with before and know well – just to get the job done.

It’s true that often when you build a team of people that are diverse, it can take longer to get through the ‘storming’ to the ‘norming’ stages of team building, but research and experience tells us that if you work through the storming phase, the norming will pay back in dividends with higher engagement, more discretionary motivation and more creative ideas.

When it comes to building your workforce, your aim is likely to be to attract the best talent. Think about what your company brand says about you in the market.

I was in a children’s toy store recently and looked at the rows of shelves stacked with boxes of toys. Again and again, the pictures on the boxes were stereotypical – girls playing with mini kitchens, dolls and toy washing machines and boys playing with garages, tractors and toy guns.

What do you want your company to stand for? What are your values and what are you projecting in the market by what you say publicly and the images that you use?

Consider where you go to source your talent and how you assess potential applicants. Our own bias, both conscious and unconscious, impacts how we make decisions, but there is a lot that you can do to mitigate the impact.

Test the wording in your job adverts and candidate briefs. Are you using words that can come across as aggressive and off putting for some people, e.g., ‘we aim to dominate the market’. Are you asking for qualifications that aren’t necessary for the role, e.g., degree required?

Vary how you source your applicants and if you use an agency, push for transparency and tell them you expect to see a diverse list of candidates. Focus interviews on collecting information, not making the decision. Give significant weight to relevant skills, not just proven career experience.

Your clients

How well do you know your clients and what they really want from you? Do you take in to account the diversity of your target markets when you are creating a new consumer product or adapting something that is already available? When you go out to market do you make assumptions or do you actively listen and probe to find out what is really required?

The potential to tap in to disposable income is significant. The Harvard Business Review (2009, The Female Economy) showed that women make the purchasing decisions of 94% of home furnishings, 92% of vacations, 91% of homes, 50% of cars and 51% of consumer electronics.

Just as you do with your workforce, engage with your client base and prospective clients. Really listen to what they have to say, do your research.

Ensure that you use diverse imagery in your marketing and encourage your product developers and marketers to think creatively. Seek out fresh perspectives and at times, be willing to take risks and move away from the ‘norm’.

Your supply chain

The aim of supplier diversity is to give companies owned and run by under-represented groups, the same opportunities to compete and supply goods and services alongside other, often larger, suppliers.

If you have pitched to do work for the UK government, or to some large multinationals, it is likely that you have been asked about diversity – both in terms of your profile as an owner and how you create workplace diversity.

As a SME you will know that the size of your company can create barriers to accessing new clients. There could be perceived issues with your capacity, your scalability or even just getting through a protracted procurement process.

There are organisations, such as WE Connect International and MSDUK, who certify minority owned businesses (predominately businesses owned by women and ethnic minorities), to help you overcome barriers and to introduce you to potential corporate clients.

In turn, you should ensure that your suppliers are diverse and that diverse-owned businesses are properly represented in the supply chain.

The next steps to creating a diverse and inclusive business

Creating diverse and inclusive workplaces isn’t just a good idea for large companies, it’s a critical consideration for any company, regardless of size. To take the next step:

  • Engage with your workforce and actively listen to them, encouraging people to share their perspectives and increase diversity of thought
  • Consider how bias is impacting the decisions you make about potential job candidates
  • Make sure that your company values are reflected in the images you use – do they reflect your clients and future markets?
  • Don’t make assumptions about your clients or overlook the full spectrum of available buying power
  • Broaden your supplier base to include diverse owned businesses

About the author

This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Charlotte Sweeney and Fleur Bothwick, authors of Inclusive Leadership: The Definitive Guide to Developing and Executing an Impactful Diversity and Inclusion Strategy published by FT Publishing (October 2016), priced £24.99

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