A guide to help leaders at all organizational levels internalize and model inclusive leadership
All companies seek the best and brightest talent to fill their entry to executive level ranks. Today, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs play a crucial role in attracting that talent. According to Glassdoor, 72% of job seekers view a company’s DEI commitment as a “pro” when considering employment offers. Even more do so among those 18 to 34 (80%) and 35 to 54 (74%), the very age groups needed to develop a leadership pipeline critical to success.
Robust DEI programs have also proven to increase company performance, productivity, and profitability. But DEI efforts can’t succeed without the support of internal leaders with an inclusive mindset. The Six Cs of Inclusive Leadership provides a practical framework for helping all leaders become more inclusive and understand why DEI is a beneficial business strategy, not a nebulous concept.
The Six Cs of Inclusive Leadership
In 2016, Deloitte predicted that the simultaneous shift of diversity in markets, customers, ideas, and talents would require rapid adjustment for “leaders who have perfected their craft in a more homogeneous environment.” As such, they would need to hone a new capability—inclusive leadership, manifested through these six traits:
- Cognizance of Bias
- Cultural Intelligence
Today, these traits are commonly referred to as The Six Cs of Inclusive Leadership. As Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Vaco, I’ve developed the following practical applications for leaders to understand and adopt this framework with ease:
DEI strategy is only effective if senior executives are willing to invest in the effort as follows:
- Go beyond DEI volunteerism: Organizations often enlist passionate employee volunteers to lead DEI efforts. The heavy reliance on these dedicated individuals is extremely difficult to sustain long term as they burn out trying to manage increased responsibilities with limited resources.
- Hire a dedicated DEI practitioner: The ideal situation is a permanent, full-time leader of diversity and inclusion who understands the culture from within. However, smaller companies or others with limited budgets can hire an outside consultant to begin formalizing their DEI strategy.
- Equip the DEI office: A C-suite-approved DEI budget that funds appropriate staffing and tools for the effort tells everyone this initiative is a priority and sets the commitment example for everyone.
- Be visible: Employees notice when leaders show up to events like trainings, workshops, or cultural celebrations. Your presence (and absence) sends a strong message.
- Incorporate DEI into company values: If it’s not feasible to revise your company’s core tenets, create and publish a corresponding set of inclusive mindsets like Vaco & its Family of Brands
While commitment starts at the top, leaders throughout the company also need to be willing to personally invest in and outwardly support DEI. This can be as simple as attending a cultural event or as substantial as sponsoring an Employee Resource Group or other committee.
Becoming an inclusive leader requires the courage to be honest with yourself and your employees about the progress of your personal DEI journey. It’s hard to admit that you don’t have all the answers or you lack cultural intelligence. Furthermore, doing so likely feels counterintuitive to the natural leadership tendency to exude confidence and command respect at all times.
To express such vulnerability without losing your authority, I recommend reserving these admissions for smaller group settings for which a trusted advisor can help you prepare. My advice to leaders is to provide some general context about your personal DEI journey with a statement like I’m still growing and learning on this journey with you. I don’t have all the answers, but I trust we’ll get their together.
Cognizance of Bias
This means you’re self-aware of the ways in which your lived experiences have shaped your views of others. Four steps can help you achieve that self-awareness and help mitigate both conscious and unconscious biases:
- Recognition: Accept that as humans, we’re naturally prone to make generalizations about others because it helps us make sense of the world around us.
- Identification: Work to understand the various types of biases that exist, in particular those that show up in your environment.
- Admission: Ask someone you trust to help you identify how your biases manifest themselves in your actions and words.
- Counteraction: As a leader, help your company incorporate policies and processes that mitigate bias, especially in the employee lifecycle.
For example, you can partner with HR to develop a structured hiring process for your team that uses an interview rubric to ensure all candidates for the same job are measured against the same criteria. Include a debiasing champion from the DEI office in this hiring process. They can identify when judgments unrelated to performance are influencing hiring decisions.
Deloitte describes this trait as “a desire to understand how others view and experience the world, and a tolerance for ambiguity.” We encourage it in our own organization as one of our inclusive mindsets: replace judgement with curiosity.
The easiest way to incorporate curiosity into your everyday interactions is to choose to ask questions and listen instead of providing immediate commentary. Anytime you’re not sure how to respond, use this near universally applicable reply: That’s interesting. What makes you say that?
As you feed your own curiosity, seek a deeper understanding of different cultures and their traditions and beliefs. This will help you trade up the Golden Rule for the Platinum Rule: Treat others as they would want to be treated. You can learn how people want to be treated by doing things like:
- Engaging in conversation with people of different cultures
- Visiting cultural festivals in your area
- Traveling to more culturally diverse U.S. cities or even to other countries
If you’re not sure which cultures to concentrate on, look at your company’s demographic report and prioritize learning more about cultures represented in your department.
This means collaborating beyond your usual homogenous group to include underrepresented people not traditionally asked to participate on projects, provide input to discussions, or share feedback on ideas. Get started with these team meeting tactics:
- Ask yourself who’s not represented in discussions and intentionally draw their participation.
- Let a different team member start each meeting by sharing an idea or issue to solicit input and feedback from their peers.
Once you flip the old script, you’ll notice stronger bonds forming among team members as they start depending on and even thoughtfully challenging each other to creatively solve problems together.
Strive for Progress Not Perfection
Imperfection is another inescapable human condition. That’s why I frame DEI as a continuous journey that only requires forward progress, not perfection. In fact, missteps often provide valuable learning opportunities. One of my senior colleagues recently learned of her own misstep when someone on her team informed her that her regularly scheduled, company-wide meeting fell on a day solemnly observed by several staff members. Her swift and confident response reflected all six Cs:
- She lived up to her DEI commitment by collaborating with affected team members to reschedule the meeting.
- It took courage to email the entire company, admitting and apologizing for the mistake, which helped make everyone more cognizant of bias.
- Her curiosity to learn about something extremely important to others increased her own cultural intelligence, along with everyone else’s as she explained the day’s significance in her email.
By her behavior and decisions, she recognized these employees not as cogs in the organizational wheel, but as persons with deeply meaningful lives outside of the office whose beliefs should be respected. That is the very essence of what it means to be an inclusive leader. Her team member also showed that everyone shares the responsibility of creating a more inclusive environment. When conflicts arise it’s important to speak up rather than sit in silence and wait for someone else to be the catalyst for change. It takes a village to truly move the DEI progress wheel.