Skip to content

How to get inclusive leadership right

Being an inclusive leader starts with the spark to do better. That spark lives inside all of us, almost like a pilot light. It’s always there, ready and waiting to create a bigger flame. Inclusive leaders have that spark. They have a genuine desire to make the world a better place. They are aware of, and know how to utilise, their power and privilege to raise issues, to challenge norms and behaviours and to root out and prioritise core issues that perpetuate exclusionary dynamics. They push themselves as much as they push others. When you have that spark you see all the opportunities to better support others. You want to do more. To learn, to grow, to contribute. To challenge the status quo and participate in creating lasting change. To fulfil your potential as a person and as a leader. To leave things better than you found them.

Why inclusive leadership is important to organisations:

  • We’re at a point in history in which people are finding their voices and using them to apply pressure to organisations and leaders who are lagging behind social and demographic changes. The demand for equity is growing louder by the day.
  • Incoming generations of employees in particular crave purpose in their jobs. They are concerned with community, social responsibility, and the environment, and they look for a business purpose that aligns with those concerns.
  • Customers are more discerning; they pay attention to corporate ethics and how companies treat their people.
  • By investing, it shows you’re serious about creating change and that there is a cultural commitment towards creating more diverse and inclusive cultures and teams, at every level in the organisation.
  • This will positively impact your bottom line. Well-executed and robust DEI initiatives ensure that every single employee feels welcomed and valued when they are at work. And that’s not all—done right, DEI will create a thriving environment that fosters increased engagement, productivity and innovation. Done well, they will create more empowered individuals and more profitable companies.

The story so far

DEI is top of most organisations’ agendas, and the need for inclusive leaders is something we’re hearing in almost every client discussion. 96% of organisations are already undertaking DEI initiatives, at a cost of £6 billion a year. But whilst organisations are passionate about shifting the dial, and moving towards more inclusive styles of leadership, there are a number of challenges which are getting in the way.

1. The pendulum swing

Old styles of leadership no longer work. We want authentic leaders, change leaders, performance leaders, innovators, strategic leaders, purpose-led leaders… and the list goes on. But it is this constant pendulum swing which puts the spotlight on a growing list of hot topics and increases the expectations on our leaders, which means we don’t make meaningful shifts with anything.

“We’re in the midst of a chaotic and uncertain time in which the workplace is literally being reinvented and leaders are being asked to step up in new and different ways.”

Jennifer Brown, ‘How to be an inclusive leader’

Interestingly, the concept of inclusive leadership is something that’s been a ‘hot topic’ since 1990… and yet 33 years down the line, have we really made any meaningful shifts forward with achieving this? Have organisations ticked the box of inclusive leadership? Have we really shifted the dial on the diversity in our leadership pipelines? From what we’re hearing, it appears not. But why?

Our take: The challenge is, when our focus is so dispersed by each new ‘hot topic’, it negates the fact that they’re fundamentally linked. What we’re talking about with all of these is the skill of human leadership. Human Leadership is the practice of leading oneself and others inclusively, in a way that empowers everyone to reach their full potential. No matter who, what or where you choose to lead, it’s about creating environments of meaning, growth, belonging and ownership; enabling people, organisations and societies to thrive. If we can invest in developing effective human leaders, our attention will no longer be so thinly spread everytime a new ‘hot topic’ pops up, and we will be able to finally create meaningful change.

2. The self-perception trap

We all have different upbringings. We all have different beliefs. We all have unconscious biases. We all have our own blinkers and blind spots. This isn’t the issue. You can’t change that. In fact, it’s neurobiologically impossible to do so. The challenge is we’re blind to the extent to which these impact us—we fall into something called ‘the self-perception trap’. Many leaders perceive themselves to have more inclusive behaviours than they actually do, and 66% of leaders overestimate their inclusion efforts. This means they do less than they could to make things better.

“The self-perception trap is one of the biggest challenges leaders face. Two-thirds of leaders are less inclusive than they think they are.”

Dr Rachel Cubas-Wilkinson, Senior Consultant, The Myers-Briggs Company

Our take: The challenge is most leaders don’t have the deep self-awareness to shine a light on these things, and they don’t have the tools or training to develop truly inclusive behaviours. To achieve this, you need a development programme that starts by developing self-awareness, then gives people the skills to ‘selfcorrect’. This means knowing yourself deeply, recognising your own biases, your preferences, your frame of reference, and recognising how and why they may differ from others. It means being a truly courageous learner; challenging your own bias, limiting beliefs and ‘below the line’ behaviours and having the courage to change. It means having the courage to speak up and challenge bias; to have conversations that may be considered ‘difficult’. It means taking 100% ownership for how you show up, your behaviour and impact, and for choosing behaviours in alignment with the kind of leader and culture you want to create. It means stepping up and showing up, however imperfectly, and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Only then will people and cultures change.

3. Traditional DEI training doesn’t work

The solution for many organisations has been providing leaders with training on diversity, equity and inclusion. But despite £6bn ($7.5bn) being spent on this each year, ‘there is little evidence that this expenditure in fact leads to increased diversity, especially at the top of the business.’ What’s worse is research overwhelmingly shows that in reality, many DEI programmes entrench the problem rather than eliminating it. And here’s why:

  • They do little to affect unconscious bias and create actual behavioural change.
  • Research suggests that traditional broad-brush training often has an adverse effect, activating bias rather than stamping it out.
  • Radical challenge and radical change only happens with an individualised approach – so much of this is unconscious, therefore requires radical support, coaching, a space to be honest, to explore biases to identify and shift behaviour.
  • Most programmes take a sticking plaster approach, a surface level tick box training. Even when the training is beneficial, the effects may not last after the programme ends.
  • In isolation, diversity training is not effective. The key is to make it part of a wider programme of change. And focus on behaviour.

Our take: The reason these programmes do little to affect real change, is because DEI is not about changing skills. It’s about changing behaviour, and the thinking that drives that behaviour. It’s about shining a light on attitudes, biases and beliefs in an environment where people feel safe to do so. It’s about developing fair and inclusive work environments, building trust and a sense of belonging for employees to feel empowered to innovate and do their best work. It’s about creating a whole ecosystem to truly have an impact. It’s about changing human behaviour.

And that requires a different approach…

“We may all weather the same storms, but we are in very different boats. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just one oar.”

Damian Barr

Our approach to inclusive leadership

There are a few elements that we see as essential to developing truly inclusive leaders. This process starts at the very beginning, with defining your vision: what exactly a truly inclusive culture would look like for your organisation. Once you have this, it is time for people to come together to assess and identify the conditions that will allow your inclusive vision to become a reality. Our programmes are then designed to bring this vision to life, through teaching behavioural change and human leadership skills, all through the lens of the specific challenges your people and organisation are facing.

  1. Define inclusive leadership: whilst it’s top on many organisations’ priorities, most aren’t clear on what they’re really looking for and what that means in their organisation. The impact: it’s not clear, consistent, or role modelled, and thus designing programmes with measurable outputs and ROI becomes almost impossible. It’s critical organisations start by clearly defining what inclusive leadership means to them. This definition should encompass behaviours, attitudes, and values that promote diversity and inclusion, and when designing a programme, you have to start with the end in mind. What is the shift you’re trying to achieve? What does good look like for you? How will you know when you’ve got there? How do you do this in a way that shifts the culture of the entire organisation? Defining your inclusive leadership vision is the essential first step to designing a successful programme.

  2. Lay the foundations: The mistake many organisations make is that they jump head first into teaching the theory behind inclusive leadership. If this happens, then the chance of the content actually creating measurable, behaviour-driven change is relatively low.

    An inclusive culture requires a learning culture, a feedback culture and an ownership culture. This means that prior to exploring the specific mindsets and behaviours of inclusive leadership, leaders need to be in a place where they know how to make behavioural change. They need to be able to take full ownership for their development, role model giving and receiving feedback, and be skilled at creating psychologically safe environments. The key here, is that rather than jumping straight into the theory and thinking that will create sustained change, development programmes need to begin with laying the foundations of behavioural change. These are the game-changing skills that produce leaders who are courageous in their learning, can fully own their behaviour, and are ready to grow into genuinely proactive inclusive leaders.

  3. Support the individual: For too long, the message for minority groups has been: in order to be heard, you must conform. This philosophy benefits nobody—neither the individual who is encouraged to dim their own light, nor the organisations who are failing to champion diversity and therefore miss out on its rewards. At Ivy House, we believe that supporting the individual starts with self-knowledge and self-empowerment. When people deeply understand themselves, and the type of leader they were born to be, and then are equipped with the skills needed to bring their brilliance to the outside world, that’s when they start really thriving.

  4. Make it a collective endeavour: Historically DEI programmes have centred around the needs of
    marginalised and underrepresented groups, addressing the barriers and inequalities these groups face, and equipping them with tools to overcome them. When done right, these programmes can be hugely impactful, signifying that your organisation is serious about diversity, is committed to change and is prepared to invest in the development of minority groups to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace.

However, this focus has distanced many in leadership positions from understanding their potential contribution and role in DEI efforts… and put the onus on the members of marginalised communities to ‘do the work’. If we’re going to create positive change and a more equitable and inclusive future, this needs to be a collective endeavour. This means:

  • Honesty: the majority of organisations have some way to go in this area. Being fully honest about where you are, and what needs addressing is fundamental to actually creating change.
  • Engagement: as we have established, this conversation cannot be the responsibility of those in minority groups to begin. Unless you are able to engage and unite the rest of your organisation, empowering your minority groups will do nothing but encourage them to take their talents elsewhere. Leaders have a critical role in making this happen, but we all have a responsibility to act. This requires support at every level in your organisation.
  • The role of the leader: Leaders have a really important role in making this happen. They provide guidance and direction. They set the standards and tone for everything from recruitment to
    promotion opportunities, to defining and role modelling the culture. They’re an incredibly influential group to drive real change, and without their buy in and involvement, the impact will
    be limited and difficult to sustain.
  • Organisational support: The research all shows that minority groups are often at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining access to advancement opportunities. As well as inclusive leadership programmes, what else can your organisation be doing to sponsor minority groups? For example, championing their performance when they are not in the room, sharing social capital through intentional networking, voicing support for them in promotion decisions, providing mentors and role models, and creating opportunities for exposure to senior leaders.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.”

Barack Obama

The truth is the best companies are those that nurture diversity. Because when you have a diverse group of people who know how to bring their unique perspectives to the workplace in the right way, and leaders who know how to harness the power of difference, that’s where the magic happens. It leads to a huge positive impact on talent engagement, retention, productivity and profitability. Our job is to give people the skills to do exactly this.

It is not about rules or processes. This isn’t about teaching people the ’right’ answers. This is about deep human development. It’s about developing authentic, human leaders who are open and curious. Who know themselves and know how to get the best out of others. Cultures where every single employee feels welcomed and valued, and where every single individual is equipped with the skills and confidence to step into their true power. That is the key. And that is our expertise.

If inclusive leadership is as important to you as it is to us and you want to hear more, get in touch.





Recent Awards won by Ivy House