The six signature traits of inclusive leadership

Nov 30, 2020
Torunn Dahl and Glenn Gillard share the secrets to purposeful inclusion, which in these challenging times is more important than ever.

Good leadership has never been easy. If it were, we would all be good leaders most of the time and organisations would not need to spend millions each year developing leadership skills. In reality, leadership is always a delicate balance of making the best decisions possible given the information to hand while taking into account the context, the strategic imperatives of the organisation, and the stakeholders involved in or impacted by the decisions being made.

Operating in an environment of enormous unpredictability, wrought by a pandemic, makes this challenging task even harder. Never before has that well-worn phrase from financial services advertisements, ‘past performance does not guarantee future success’, been truer. There is no quick guide to leadership for these times. We can choose many possible routes to survive or thrive in the period ahead, as we learn to operate in an environment of ongoing uncertainty and volatility.

This article will outline some steps you can take to ensure the route you choose is one of inclusive leadership, to the benefit of all your key stakeholders.

A new social contract

In the August issue of Accountancy Ireland, our colleagues outlined how people at the start of their accountancy careers seek a broad sense of purpose in the work they do. Similarly, in society, we have seen a significant change in people’s awareness of – and lack of tolerance for – the inequalities that exist in society. There is an opportunity to reset the path we are on as a society, to reduce systemic inequalities and become more purpose-led.

Last year, 200 global CEOs, including Punit Renjen of Deloitte, signed a statement of purpose. It confirmed that a corporation’s purpose is to serve all its stakeholders – employees, clients and society. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have reinforced the message from the general public that business cannot be a neutral bystander. Business should, and can, be at the heart of this new social contract, and business leaders need to embrace this change.

This reset to how society operates and meets the expectations of its citizens will require different types of leaders to navigate and drive the changes. In addition to the critical skills associated with good leaders such as strategic thinking, commercial acumen, decisiveness and effective communication, leaders will need to understand how to be genuinely inclusive in a broad sense. They will need to understand how a change to the social contract could impact their talent pipelines, customer relationships and supply chains. How will the decisions they make today impact their ability to retain customers, attract staff, reduce their carbon impact and sustain their business viability into the future?

A model of inclusive leadership provides a framework for leaders to think about the thought process and the actions they need to consider to navigate the difficult decisions they now face. In the section below, we outline the six signature traits of an inclusive leader, as identified by Deloitte, and some suggested practical steps a leader can take to operate inclusively.

The six signature traits

Inclusive leadership is about treating people fairly and leveraging the thinking of diverse groups of people. While leaders must treat their people fairly, a genuinely inclusive leader in a new social contract will seek to ensure that people outside the organisation are also treated fairly. They will do this by providing opportunities for them to join the organisation or sell their goods/services to the organisation on fair terms. The examples below focus on what an inclusive leader can do inside their organisation.

1. Commitment. Highly inclusive leaders are committed to the inclusion agenda because these objectives align with their personal value systems and because they believe in the business case and moral case for inclusion.
Practical steps: Put inclusion on the agenda at your meetings and hold people to account on actions agreed. Set targets, and encourage debate and discussion around what the right targets are and how to meet them. Attend diversity and inclusion events within and outside your organisation. Share new knowledge with your teams and outline the actions you will take. Reference an inclusion story or moment as part of every presentation you make.

2. Courage. Highly inclusive leaders speak up and challenge the status quo. They don’t walk past inequality; they challenge it. They are willing to admit to their own vulnerabilities and remain humble about their strengths and weaknesses.
Practical steps: Speak up and challenge any inappropriate behaviour you see or hear. Others may feel equally uncomfortable and are likely watching to see whether you condone (through silence) or challenge the behaviour. Apply a diversity lens to everything you do – use a checklist if necessary as a prompt. Think about your next event or meeting. Who is talking? What images are being presented? Which metrics are being used? Do they all support an inclusive environment?

3. Cognisance. Highly inclusive leaders are aware that they, and everyone else, have biases that impact their judgement. They seek to ensure that processes are put in place to manage and overcome these blind spots and to create fairer opportunities for all.
Practical steps: Seek to identify your own biases. Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test or pay attention to who you naturally gravitate towards and with whom you feel less comfortable. Pay attention to your inner voice and initial judgements and ask yourself whether biases are coming into play. We all have them! Use structured processes and criteria when making decisions that relate to people (hiring, promotions or performance, for example) to ensure objective criteria are used rather than generalised impressions.

4. Curiosity. Highly inclusive leaders keep an open mind and have a desire to learn more about others. They want to understand how they view and experience the world. They also demonstrate tolerance for ambiguity and change.
Practical steps: Seek out someone on your team you don’t know well or who has a different background to yours. Put in time for coffee to connect and learn more about them. They could be the perfect person for your next project or have valuable perspectives on a problem you’re grappling with. Invite different people to present to your team or organisation to broaden everyone’s perspective. Remember to suspend judgement when listening to other perspectives; seek to listen actively and understand. Acknowledge what they are saying and respect their viewpoint.

5. Cultural intelligence. Highly inclusive leaders are confident and effective in cross-cultural interactions. They may feel uncomfortable in the situation but are willing to move out of their comfort zone and focus on learning, seeking to build their cultural intelligence.
Practical steps: Start by focusing on a culture or area that interests you. Search for articles and podcasts that will broaden your understanding and seek out people who can answer your questions and build on what you have learnt. Encourage people within your teams and organisation to build out their cultural intelligence, supporting mobility opportunities where relevant.

6. Collaboration. Highly inclusive leaders empower individuals to deliver their best, in addition to working across diverse groups of people to drive better solutions built from a diversity of thought.

Practical steps: Let others speak first. Ensure that you have heard from everyone in the group, actively encouraging people to contribute if they haven’t already done so. Find common ground and articulate a shared purpose and objective for the group that everyone can rally around. Create physical and/or virtual opportunities for interactions that encourage sharing and collaboration.

Purposeful inclusion in a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic presents both challenges and opportunities in building an inclusive culture and following-up on commitments our businesses have made to be more inclusive. The last few months have stretched everyone and how we act as leaders, now and in the months ahead, will influence how well our organisations, our people, and we personally come through this pandemic. It may be tempting to take a short-term view and focus solely on profits and cash flow to the detriment of suppliers, employees and the local community. But those who take a longer and more inclusive view are likely to reap the rewards, as will their communities. As organisations transition to being more purpose-led than solely profit-focused, their ability to navigate the current environment inclusively to the benefit of society more broadly will be a real test of their authentic commitment to this cause.

Using the traits above, we will now explore some of these challenges and opportunities.
Commitment: In the short-term, it is easy to step away from the commitments we have made. Many organisations have implemented, or are looking at, measures such as reducing headcount, suspending bonuses and promotions, and deferring hiring decisions. It is important to consider these decisions in the context of inclusion and look at how these measures are implemented and affect the future shape of the organisation. During the last recession, we saw a significant reversal of some of our key diversity measures, as women stepped away from the workforce to work in the home and as many employers reverted to traditional talent pools for staff.

Cognisance: Biases can quickly step back into our thinking when faced with tough decisions or working under pressure. In the working from home environment, anecdotal research already indicates biases towards female participation. As women are traditionally viewed as the primary home-maker the risk of ‘killing with kindness’ escalates as individuals make assumptions as to whether someone can handle the workload or should be given specific work because of their family situation. While having progressive policies to support people during the pandemic has been important, this must be monitored so that it does not feed through to future decisions around performance, promotion and recognition. We must recognise, and seek to work through, these potential biases.

Collaboration: During this pandemic, many organisations have reported increased engagement from staff and a greater sense of belonging. However, as the lockdown measures persist and remote working is more prolonged, maintaining a sense of ‘team’ and keeping people connected becomes a more significant challenge. Through organisation-wide collaboration, new models and methods for engagement, networking and social interaction can be developed. Indeed, there is a real opportunity to break away from our default methods of corporate social interaction in Ireland, which focus heavily on the dinner and pub scene and favour those willing (and able) to socialise after hours. Capturing new ways of interacting and building them into a new, more inclusive culture is an opportunity to redefine the workplace for many that traditionally felt excluded.

Courage: Undoubtedly, the forced working from home arrangement arising from the pandemic presents a real opportunity to rethink how we look at biases around presenteeism, flexible working, and the office culture, and to re-imagine fundamentals like the daily commute and international travel. While these benefits seem obvious at this point, it will require courage to stay the course and implement the necessary changes so that these benefits can be retained as we move out of the pandemic. For example, if we are to move to more hybrid models with a greater level of remote working mixed with in-office teams, maintaining the inclusiveness of a meeting for those in-office and those at home will need to be supported by real leadership. The fear that we fall back into the old ways, where if you are not in the room you are not really participating, is already being expressed by many as they assess whether they could continue to work remotely into the future.

Redefined leadership

The relationship between community, employees and businesses has changed, and as leaders, we will be held accountable by our people. Truly inclusive leaders will thrive in this environment and make an impact not just within their own business, but across the community.

The pandemic has challenged the way we look at the world and our role within it. We now need to seize the opportunities presented, and avoid the pitfalls, to create more inclusive organisations. 

Torunn Dahl is Head of Talent, Learning and Inclusion at Deloitte.

Glenn Gillard is a Partner at Deloitte and member of Council at Chartered Accountants Ireland.