Aspiring Business Leaders: Driving Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

The journey to becoming a good leader requires development, training, and accountability. It is no longer enough for leaders to understand sales, finance, and operations; now they must also be able to build a diverse and inclusive workplace. However, we don’t leave leaders to learn managerial economics or statistics on their own; they engage in intense study to learn the fundamentals of business management. So why do we leave them to their own devices to learn how to build a diverse workforce and an inclusive workplace?

Diversity and inclusion should not be optional competencies; instead, they should be required for all business leaders. It is important to take the time to understand the differences and commonalities of those on one’s team — something that does not come naturally to many people. Additionally, business professionals should be trained to lead diverse teams while also learning other skills. We teach financial acumen, business analytics, and negotiation, so why not the value of and skills associated with diversity and inclusion?

New Leadership Requirements
I recall a particular instance years ago when my daughter accompanied me to my job on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. The instructor asked everyone to define diversity, and my daughter, who was 14 years old at the time, articulated what diversity and inclusion meant to her. Her answer came as a surprise to the facilitator of the session. At that time, I lived and breathed diversity as the head of diversity for a $32 billion organization; however, my daughter’s answer did not come from me. It came from her experiences at school where she and her classmates discussed these issues in their diversity club.

Fast-forward 10 years, when my son accepted a position in a leadership program during college. As part of the training, he attended a session on diversity and inclusion — a common subject in schools today, but one that isn’t often a requirement.

As students make decisions about how they will navigate their careers and become the next generation of executives, it is becoming increasingly clear that they will require different competencies to lead. One of these will not only be defining and understanding diversity and inclusion, but also knowing how to foster an environment in which diversity and inclusion thrive in their organizations to ensure maximum productivity.

So, how will new executives execute diversity and inclusion? They will seek to understand these issues on a different level. They will have the unique experience of living in a world where they have daily contact with people who are different from them. They will have the opportunity to appreciate those differences as well as the commonalities in those around them.

Cultural Competence
Leaders of tomorrow require us to teach them how to be inclusive. But what does that mean? As a diversity leader, I am most often asked, “What should I do?”  It’s a simple question that has a not-so-simple answer: Change mindsets.

In an abstract published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2004 titled “Building an Inclusive Diversity Culture: Principles, Processes and Practice,” Nicola Pless and Thomas Maak asserted that building an inclusive culture for a diverse workforce was fundamental. However, since that time, there has been little progress in this area.

New leaders know that their businesses and organizations will attract a more diverse customer base; thus, they will need to value, understand, and embrace this diversity. It is also important that they embrace the diversity within their organizations, unlocking the full potential of each employee through inclusive practices and an inclusive environment.

How does this happen? It begins when leaders take the necessary time to understand who their employees are as individuals — not as groups such as Latino men, white women, or LGBTQ individuals. It begins when executives set out to uncover what motivates people, how they want to be recognized, and where, when, and how they want to work.

A Culture of Inclusion
Leaders are required to create an environment of trust that facilitates a culture of inclusion, allowing employees to be respected and recognized for what they bring to the organization. They also need to be cognizant of those in the room.

I once attended a leadership meeting designed to foster team building. The facilitator asked us all to bring in our baby pictures and everyone had to guess the identity of the child in the photo. I looked at the Indian-American man sitting next to me as he looked at me. We both knew that our pictures would be easy to identify.

As the exercise continued, none of the other participants acknowledged that the pigment of our skin would clearly give us away. The experience did not feel inclusive. A similar situation occurred when the facilitator instructed us to write down the name of an actor who could play us in a movie; the team then had to guess who wrote which actor. If I had selected a black actress, I would have been outed immediately, but no one else selected an actor of a race different from his or her own. Although these actions reflected unconscious bias, they demonstrate a clear lesson regarding inclusion.

Business leaders must keep inclusion top of mind when they make decisions about people — similar to the attention they give to analyzing quarterly results. This requires understanding one’s self, one’s teams, and where people are as individuals on their diversity journey. In order to achieve great results and engage one’s team, the journey of discovery must be ongoing for everyone — leaders and employees.

Allowing Inclusion to Flourish
Our leaders are the driving force to opening the doors of opportunity for everyone. New leaders will require training to create cultures that allow everyone to thrive through self-discovery. Understanding who we are, how we see the world, and how those views affect others paves the way to having a more productive workforce.●

Anise Wiley-Little is chief human capital and diversity officer for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.