Driving Inclusion: Advancing Diversity Through Inclusive Leadership

Career Tips | Leadership Development
October 27, 2021
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“The biggest goal, and the most important goal, of diversity and inclusion is excellence.”

We’re sharing insights and takeaways from our keynote speaker, Anne Mclaren, the CEO of American Tower Corporation in South Africa.

Speaking on the topic of ‘Advancing Diversity Through Inclusive Leadership’, Anne noted that,  “when we feel excluded as human beings, we have the same chemical reaction as when we are exposed to a physical threat of harm”. She explained that when this happens, we tend to not think critically, make complex decisions, or be collaborative, and this is one of the effects that underrepresented groups are faced with as they move up the corporate ladder.

During her keynote speech, Anne drew from her personal experience as a leader to share some insights on how organizational leaders can advance diversity in their organizations by practicing inclusivity:

1. “Inclusion has to be extremely deliberate, but it’s also subtle”.

Many organizational leaders believe that they are inclusive or that their organizations are trying to be inclusive. But the reality is that true implementation of inclusion has to come with deliberate decisions and actions. When organizations are not deliberately and consciously including, they could be “accidentally excluding”. Active inclusion here goes as far as asking the right questions during meetings. Anne elaborated on the importance of asking the right questions and how humans react to different situations without the consideration of how these situations, even something as simple as a question, can change the context of an organization’s DEI standing.

“If you are not actively including, you can be accidentally excluding” – Anne Mclaren

She explained that the language which leaders use while communicating with employees can impact the success or failure of their DEI efforts. Something as simple as asking for a different perspective to a colleague’s suggestion rather than asking if anyone disagrees with another employee’s suggestion can be more inclusive.

2. “The more diverse your team becomes, the more difficult inclusion becomes”.

Diverse teams lack some peculiar similarities and common characteristics in culture that teams with people of similar cultures would have. Leaders of diverse teams therefore have to work a lot harder to create an inclusive work environment to help improve the team’s communication and sense of having similarities, which will aid productivity. Leaders must note that “just because you have a diverse team, doesn’t mean that you have an inclusive environment so you have to work harder to create an inclusive environment”.

3. “It is really important not to over-include and go to the extreme”.

In an attempt to create an inclusive workplace, some organizations run the risk of extreme implementation of their DEI plans, leading to ‘over-inclusion’. This over-inclusion could be destructive to both employees and the organization, resulting in employees being pulled into every organizational decision, included in countless meetings, and invariably being distracted from productive work. Also, over-inclusion is not good for business as organizations need to be quick to make decisions and having to bring every segment of the employee group to the decision-making table could be time-consuming. Organizations need to look within to decide on an optimal balance of where to be inclusive and where not to in order to create and maintain an inclusive environment that is both productive and profitable.

4. “Awareness training and bias training does not result in an inclusive culture”.

Awareness and bias trainings are important parts of building an inclusive workplace and they make a difference when done correctly, but alone, they do not guarantee the creation of an inclusive environment. When implemented wrongly, awareness and bias trainings can create division among employees and highlight employees’ differences in a way that “people don’t feel like they belong together”. Anne advised that organizations implement behavioural changes to aid behavioural changes and curb situations where people attend trainings that they enjoy, only to return to their usual behaviour after the trainings.

5. “Your leadership has to buy into inclusion”.

Inclusivity cannot work without the buy in of all the stakeholders of an organization and this is not an easy goal to achieve. For an organization to create an inclusive environment, there needs to be a comprehensive cultural change that begins with the organization’s leaders. Anne highlighted that “leadership has to be committed, they need to buy into it, and the behaviours that they display all the time has to be inclusive”. Employees have a crucial role of holding leaders accountable for the behaviours and decisions that will limit the achievement of an inclusive workplace. They (employees) also have a duty to hold each other accountable for their individual and collective behaviours and actions in order to bring about the successful implementation of the organization’s DEI goals.

Overall, when it comes to creating an inclusive environment and advancing workplace diversity, there is a lot more work that leadership has to do to promote and embed diversity. Although we see a meaningful shift in leadership attention to DEI issues and a real commitment to doing better, even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have a lot of investments and practical steps to apply to take the goal of ‘creating an inclusive workplace’ from theory to reality. Leaders need to “make sure that there is a common language in the organization about diversity and inclusion and what’s important”, Anne advised.

They also need to understand and communicate to employees that creating an inclusive environment is not just about making the organization “a nice place to work, but it’s about excellence. It’s about getting the best thought processes, unlocking critical thinking, enhancing collaboration and creativity”, she went on to highlight. At the end of the day, leaders need to create strategies that can be tailored and applied to their individual organizations and bring about the creation of an inclusive workplace.

Anne Mclaren’s keynote speech on ‘Driving Inclusion: Advancing Diversity Through Inclusive Leadership’ was part of the discussion at the 2021 edition of the Rise and Lead Summit which is available to be viewed here. To enjoy more discussions from the Rise and Lead Summit 2021, subscribe to our YouTube channel

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