We have terms like the glass ceiling and broken rung that illustrate the existence of barriers between an organization’s diverse makeup and leadership positions—the more senior the leadership, the more homogenous the composition. In contrast, the lower levels of organizations are changing fast. Organizations have never been more diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, identity, and background. How do we, as leaders, effectively lead a group of people with which we have varying degrees of commonality? We need to become more inclusive leaders. We must build inclusive leadership into organizations to operate effectively and respectfully, no matter the degrees of cultural separation between the leaders and those being led.

To understand how to build inclusive leadership, we will look at inclusive leadership challenges and opportunities from the organizational, team, and personal levels. Focusing on these three pillars together can help you improve your leadership skills and provide ways to improve inclusivity throughout your organization. Let us start by addressing the organization as a whole.

Building Inclusivity at the Organizational Level

Inclusive leadership at the organizational level is about openness and visibility. The first step to building inclusive leadership within your organization is to make a visual, public commitment to diversity and inclusion and outline in practical terms what that means for your organization. A practical example is to develop and distribute a diversity statement for your organization. This public statement should clarify what your organizational aims are for diversity and inclusion and provide a statement leadership can be measure against for inclusivity. Below is the diversity statement for Salesforce.

We’re greater when we’re Equal

Together, we can reach Equality for all.

Equality is a core value at Salesforce. We believe that businesses can be powerful platforms for social change and that our higher purpose is to drive Equality for all. Creating a culture of Equality isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing. Diverse companies are more innovative and better positioned to succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

We strive to create workplaces that reflect the communities we serve and where everyone feels empowered to bring their full, authentic selves to work. There is more work to be done, but with the help of our entire Ohana — our employees, customers, partners, and community — we can achieve #EqualityForAll.

Salesforce Diversity Statement

Another big step for building inclusive leadership in your organization is to be aware of personal and organizational bias. It takes only seven seconds for a person to form a powerful first impression about another human being. An exercise you can use for practice is to take a leadership situation and then insert a person with a different race, gender, age, religion, identity, or life experience. All other things being equal in the leadership situation, would you come to the same conclusion? Exercises of this nature can help your organization’s leadership be more inclusive and reduce occurrences of bias and unconscious discrimination. For more information about unconscious bias, read our article about reducing bias in the hiring process.

Build inclusive leadership in your organization by spending effort to refine your organization’s approach to its culture. Often as humans, we find it easier to define ourselves by what we are not. When that extends to an organization’s identity, it creates an exclusive sense of company culture rather than an inclusive culture. Our organizations focus on making sure additions to the company will fit with the company culture, that their personality and background fit our pre-established mold. Instead of looking for ways to make people fit your organization’s mold, you can focus on being an organization with an additive culture. A culture that is A, B, and C, but would like to grow by adding people with X, Y, Z qualities. Refocusing your culture and leadership to accept differences and see differing values and perspectives as sources of strength for your organization and its culture.

Building Inclusivity at the Team Level

To develop inclusive leadership at the team level, start by taking a look at your team. Review your team members and their interactions to gain a complete view of the team situation. Does your team have any outsiders? As touched upon in the above paragraph, do you have team members that don’t fit the mold of the rest of the team? Outsiders can feel isolated at work with their team and struggle to find common ground essential to developing a strong team dynamic and productive work environment. Often, outsiders experience micro-aggressions. These are subtle, indirect, and often unintentional forms of discrimination. Such as co-workers asking a teammate where they’re from because of their ethnicity or female teammates being continuously asked to coordinate lunch and perform other clerical tasks over male team members.

A more visible sign of disparity is tokenism and a teammate feeling the burden of representation for an entire subset of the population. If Kim, the team’s only LGBTQ+ member, feels that way, all LGBTQ+ people must feel that way. This thought process is an unconscious but false generalization and can lead to destructive stereotyping. As a leader, it is essential to reinforce your leadership and your team’s communication that Kim only represents Kim and is not responsible for defining an entire community of diverse people.

When looking at your team, do you find team members that rarely raise any issues? Often, outsiders feel disenfranchised by their position or that they lack peer support to raise issues, even if they are important and valid. If you see this situation, you can improve your inclusive leadership by being proactive. Find opportunities to open the floor for an outsider on your team to raise issues and provide feedback. They may feel judged by the rest of their team for speaking their mind in public. You can create this opportunity in a one-on-one review or other one-on-one situation. As your outsider teammate is not used to raising issues, it can help to let them know this will be part of your one-on-one meeting ahead of time so they can prepare.

As a leader working on improving inclusiveness, the one-on-one trust you built needs to continue to gather steam in front of your team. Build trust with all your team’s diverse members by fostering a “we before me” environment. Focus your attention and leadership towards collaboration and prioritizing the group’s status before an individual’s needs. You can take active steps to improve your team’s cultural intelligence with training that brings stereotypes and cultural differences into the spotlight and provides exercises and examples of how to improve your company’s cross-cultural communication. 

One example you can try with your team is to create a lunch presentation, development opportunity. This exercise asks team members to choose a non-work interest of theirs and present it to the team. In addition to learning more about your team members and building team cohesion, employees can develop their presentation skills.

Building Your Inclusive Leadership Skills

If you did not find any team members that fit the outsider role, that is the best first move you can make to building your inclusive leadership skills. Is your team diverse? Creating a team with a diverse composition ensures that you are accounting for different backgrounds and perspectives and that your efforts are not becoming mono-perspective echo chambers. A limited view creates blind spots in your organization and can be one reason organizations create offerings or say something that comes across as tone-deaf. A diverse team will provide you with a more holistic view of situations and better-developed strategies. 

Of course, that assumes you have a desire to be a more inclusive leader. All good leaders have a growth mindset and are driven to improve themselves. You need the willingness to recognize and identify your limitations, like personal, unconscious bias. Expand your perspective by dissecting and practicing leadership situations and training to build your cultural intelligence and improve your cross-cultural communication. A significant part of improving your inclusive leadership skills is based on personal humility. Experience is developed by making mistakes, and that is the path to personal growth. Especially with a sensitive subject like diversity, having the humility to acknowledge your mistakes and admitting there are things you don’t know will help to build trust. 

Follow up the discovery of your blank spots by focusing your efforts on being curious. Ask the questions necessary to gain knowledge. Communicate and grow your empathy, which leads to improving one of the most sought-after leadership skills, emotional resilience. When you come across those things you do not know, find those who do and create opportunities to help inform and lead in their own right.

Inclusive Leadership for Executives

Creating an environment of diversity and inclusivity at every organization’s level is critical for your organization’s internal health. Committing to inclusion helps your organization court the best talent, improve employee retention, and reduce gaps in your leadership pipeline. Right now, the higher levels of organizations are very homogenous. Women senior leaders can feel like outsiders to their teams. For executives, improving inclusive leadership skills is the best way to continue to keep your finger on the pulse of your changing and growing organization.

Helping senior leaders address their organization’s challenges, including diversity and inclusive leadership, is why EWF International offers executive peer advisory forums for women. Our forums help women executives tackle their unique issues head-on. We get beneath problems, probe for insight, and explore real, actionable answers with a supportive environment that facilitates member trust, honesty, and accountability.

Learn more about EWF’s Executive Forums or Refer a Colleague.