Reflections from the Inclusive Leadership Excellence Club

 Laura Swiszczowski,  Researcher, Opportunity Now and Dr Gillian Shapiro, Managing Director, Shapiro Consulting

Today we are launching the findings from our research project Inclusive Leadership: culture change for business success. This report is the result of 18 months of work with 5 organisations – BAE Systems, Citi, HMRC, Fujitsu and the Army – to develop and embed inclusive leadership. It sets out what the 5 organisations learnt from their experience to the benefit of other organisations wanting to instil a more inclusive culture and get the best out of ALL of their talent.

But what did we, the researchers and inclusive leadership consultants, learn from this action research project?

Personally I learnt about what I value in a leader, how to articulate what I want from my managers and have simple asks for them, especially around transparency. I learnt that I can be an inclusive leader, even though I don’t line manage, I manage projects and manage people working on those project and I can be more inclusive. A colleague who is partially sighted taught me a lot, and that I still have lots to learn. The role of the reportee is very important too - in managing their manager and showing them what inclusive leadership really is

- Laura Swiszczowski,
Researcher, Opportunity Now

In our work on Diversity & Inclusion, and organisational change, we are reminded time and again of the importance of people managers in making the good policies that organisations have into a reality on the ground. We know this from research, like Project 28-40 which identified a gap between policy and practice, particularly stark on bullying and harassment, and What holds women back which found male managers were significantly less aware of the barriers to women’s progression than female managers, and from what business leaders within our member organisations tell us. That is where this project came from, a need to identify practical actions leaders can take to develop their diverse talent and get the best out of all of their staff.

During the course of this project, on many occasions there were several things we already knew, were really ‘brought home’ to us. In addition to those learnings contained in the report, below are just a few:

Inclusive leadership is excellent leadership. And authentic leadership. Whenever we described the competencies of an inclusive leader and the impact that leader has on an individual, a team or an organisation, people often responded with ‘but what your describing is just good leadership, our managers should do all of that.’ We couldn’t agree more, but the research shows it is not widespread, in fact this ‘excellent leadership’ is rare in UK business. Articulating what business expects from managers was a key first step in embedding more inclusive leadership in organisations and that is why we called the project Inclusive Leadership Excellence Club.

Culture change takes time. This seems obvious, but it needs stating over and over again. Our 5 organisations needed to be reminded of this, because in business we have come to expect ‘quick wins’ and evidence of return on investment in short time frames. However, the change to how they define leadership required of our 5 partners in order to really EMBED inclusive leadership competencies within their leadership frameworks, was no small feat. It was not going to happen overnight. We were all impressed with the time it takes to engage the necessary people on the ‘case’ for having more inclusive leadership capabilities within an organisation. In other words, some audiences respond to the business case, some to the personal or moral case (one leader said he didn’t want his young children to grow up in a world where race equality and LGB equality were still being fought for, it should be a given). Everyone wants to know ‘what’s in it for me?’ and this may require several different ‘business cases’ are developed and communicated across the organisation.

I remember the meeting when one of our participants described how not being a diversity and inclusion expert had initially affected their confidence in leading the inclusive leadership work. Holding our diversity and inclusion expertise lightly has been a critical learning point for me. Embedding inclusive leadership is not a one person job, it requires lots of people working collaboratively as change agents. And the diversity and inclusion lead is one of those people. My role, more than D&I expert is one of facilitator, coach and challenger.

- Dr Gilly Shapiro,
Managing Director, Shapiro Consulting

Ownership should not just live with HR. This links into the point above, in our work on D&I we engage with individuals working in the HR space or employee engagement. This means that when HR/D&I champion something, like Inclusive leadership, it is often not viewed as core to business objectives but an optional extra. Our 5 partners worked hard to engage with the teams responsible for Learning & Development, Management development, Communications, Sales/Customer relations and frontline staff. When the Executive teams took ownership of inclusive leadership, considerable progress was made. D&I and HR teams need to learn how to ‘give up’ or handover ownership to individuals that can take a ‘business’ approach to developing inclusive leadership capabilities across staff.

Self-awareness is key for inclusive leaders. This is not just self-awareness about one’s own biases and lack of knowledge about the experiences of women and people from minority backgrounds, but an openness to feedback and a willingness to improve. Our research and experience throughout the project, was that a great inclusive leader is one that can admit his/her own mistakes or lack of knowledge and demonstrates a willingness to learn and improve. Several inclusive leaders we have met, are keen to show that they are trying to be inclusive. They have an awareness that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ inclusive leader and we all have room for improvement. This is reassuring for other leaders to hear, so it’s not just role models that are needed, but role modelling of behaviours – lots of examples of what an inclusive leader does.

There is a healthy cynicism in organisations toward ‘just another’ initiative or training. Whilst training is used a lot within organisations on a range of topics, we found several managers expressed that once they left the ‘classroom’ a lot of the content was forgotten. Inclusive leaders learn through experience – either though working with an inclusive leader themselves or working within someone of a different background to themselves. We have found that experiential learning is very effective, leaders remember the things that had a personal impact on them. This includes experience of working with people from different backgrounds to oneself, working in a different country, experiencing of being a minority within a team (e.g. the only man in female dominated team). This raised questions for us about how much experiential learning is used in business and how it is sustained and fed back into day to day working.