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Inclusive leadership is a 21st century competitive advantage

Leaders know the impact that diversity has on competitiveness and are now turning their focus deeper, to the opportunities of inclusive leadership.

Inclusive Leadership - article image

As a leader in a business that has recently merged with another, I am acutely aware that inclusiveness will be the key to our future success.

Recent research by my Korn Ferry colleagues Andrés Tapia and David Lange on what makes inclusive leaders successful, confirmed how pivotal this quality is to being a credible and effective 21st century leader.

The extensive research is based on our Korn Ferry database of 2.5 million leadership assessments.  Tapia and Lange believe if diversity is “the mix,” then inclusion is making the mix work by leveraging the wealth of knowledge, insights, and perspectives in an open, trusting, and diverse workplace.

Their report, The Inclusive Leader, points out that with inclusion, organisations can capture a competitive advantage from changing demographics across the workplace and in the marketplace. An organisation with a reputation for inclusiveness becomes a magnet, attracting top diverse talent; in turn, that talent can better tap a markets’ potential, whether in emerging economies or among a broader set of consumers at home.

A diverse talent mix can also spark greater creativity and propel innovation that can help organisations distance themselves from their competition.

Moving from diversity to inclusion

Although it has its own challenges, moving from diversity to inclusion can have a multiplier effect on the workforce. Research shows that when employees work with, and for, an inclusive leader, there are high-impact benefits, including; improved collaboration, higher performance and productivity, greater engagement and loyalty, increased motivation, greater innovation and creativity, and enhanced potential to capture market share. It is also bolstered by an individual’s exposure to diverse people, as well as situations that challenge their preconceived notions and force them to overcome unconscious biases. The key traits identified by Korn Ferry of inclusive leadership include; flexibility, adaptability, openness, and authenticity. With these traits, drivers, and competencies, inclusive leadership can be built at the individual and organizational levels.

The report identifies five steps that can become an action plan for professional development and organisational excellence: 

5-step action plan

1. Openness & awareness

Inclusive leadership starts with attitudes, traits, and behaviours that define and support a leader’s openness and awareness. Cross-cultural agility — the ability to adapt one’s behaviour to work with other individuals and cultures — is essential so leaders can understand how their preferred style may (or may not) be helpful and productive when working with team members and parts of an organisation with different cultural and experiential perspectives..

2. Effective advocacy for diversity

Inclusive leaders are effective advocates for diversity, fully embracing the business case and championing initiatives that make inclusion an organisational priority. They link, for example, part of their leadership teams’ compensation to tangible diversity goals. These targets might include employee development; sponsorship of affinity groups; and acting as role models and advocates for program changes that create accountability for diversity and inclusion in an organisation.

3. Trusting, open teams

As companies hire more diverse talent, the increased heterogeneity can result in discord, even disruption. The reality that diverse teams can be hard to manage sets in, and when people fail to come together, there is a risk of exclusion. The solution is not to bridge differences by searching for similarities; inclusive leadership, instead, may mean championing differences that initially cause discord and conflict.

4. Diversity, greater adaptability

Well-managed and inclusive teams demonstrate their strengths in innovation, strategic thinking, and leveraging differences for greater insights. Greater adaptability improves decision-making, strategy, and execution. Enhanced effectiveness within inclusive teams benefits the entire organisation.

5. Driving results

Inclusive leadership results when organisations can capture the achievements of diverse, well-managed, and inclusive teams. Greater diversity and inclusion spark innovation and advances in product development; they help companies devise new ways to tap market potential.

Inclusive leadership requires commitment and a strategy. It takes a comprehensive plan, grounded in the assessment and development of key leadership traits and skills, to foster inclusive leadership at the top of the organisation that in turn nurtures a culture where everyone is welcome and able to contribute their very best.

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