Here's the #1 Way You Can Be a More Inclusive Leader

January 12, 2021
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“Take a seat at the back, please,” my brand manager told me. “We want to ensure all the leaders have a seat at the table,” he said, pointing to the very back of the room, a corner where there were a few folding tables and chairs.

I had arrived early that morning to set up the room for our annual brand plan presentation. I ensured the technology worked; that we had enough printed copies; that there were enough samples for our new launch to test and try. In fact, I had also worked tirelessly on the presentation when he had decided to take the week off leading up to the brand plan presentation with the leadership team. And while I was invited to the meeting to do all of the set-up, I wasn’t actually given a seat at the table.

I sat in the back at the folding table and in a folding chair, silently fuming. I felt like a child who had been instructed at Thanksgiving dinner to sit at the kids’ folding table in the corner. In the end, there was plenty of room at the “adults”-only table as I watched from the very back.

That afternoon the president of the division walked by me in the hallway. He had attended the brand plan presentation earlier that morning. He stopped as he saw me approaching him.

“Nice work,” he had said, smiling. “Next time, you should sit at the table,” he had suggested.

“Yes, thank you,” I had smiled back, clenching my teeth at his friendly suggestion.  

Maybe he should have told my boss that.

From Korn Ferry and Catalyst to Harvard Business Review and Deloitte, there have been countless studies on the key traits of inclusive leaders. But what really makes an inclusive leader? It’s the elusive question we all seem to be trying to answer as organizations continue to scramble to figure out how to create inclusive workplaces. 

Inclusive leadership is the foundation upon which great company cultures are built. When people feel they are included and belong, they are able to be the best version of themselves at work and are able to contribute all of their ideas freely and openly. They are able to make a significant impact for the company and for themselves. 

Deloitte’s model highlights six signature traits of inclusive leaders, which include commitment, courage, cognizance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence, and collaboration. The model summarizes the detail of these traits and their importance in being an inclusive leader. And rather than only focusing on key traits, we need to focus on clear actions that individuals can take to be more inclusive leaders in the workplace. We need to move from the academic and theoretical discussions of inclusive leadership to the practical applications, where our teams see our inclusive behaviors in action.  

What’s the number one way you can be an inclusive leader?

Start by giving individuals a seat at the table.

In the case of my former boss, giving me a seat at the table was a clear action he could have taken. The bigger question is: why don’t leaders want to give people a seat at the table?  When leaders are insecure and lack confidence. When leaders see people working for them, and not with them. When leaders don’t want their team to receive praise, and only want the credit and spotlight for themselves. This behavior reflects someone who has a style the opposite of servant leadership.

These leaders derive authority simply from the fact that they are the boss and they are in control and they can command, as opposed to empowering and uplifting their teams and the people they work with.

In today’s world of remote working, there’s no reason to not extend an invite and include someone at the virtual table. No longer are we having to cram into a small conference room, drag in chairs, or offer someone a seat on the radiator. Start by checking your calendar tomorrow and ask yourself who is invited to certain meetings and who is not. Have they helped prepare materials for what’s being discussed? Are they a key stakeholder for the topic being discussed? Do they have a stake in the outcome of the meeting? So why aren’t they being included?

Once you give people a seat at the table, ensure you focus on the following:

1. Allow the space for all voices to be heard.

Invite everyone to speak and contribute, even if they have an opposing viewpoint. And a perspective you might not, as the leader, agree with. The journey to becoming an inclusive leader requires having an open mind and being able to actively listen to viewpoints you might not agree with. Allow yourself to listen, to really hear the things you didn’t expect to be discussed. Allow yourself the opportunity to change your mind. Please don’t give someone a seat at the table and then not allow them to contribute. In my case, I was relegated to the back of the room, which was a clear indication that I was not to be seen, and that my voice was also not to be heard. I might as well not have been invited to the meeting.

2. Give individuals credit for work.

Give credit where credit is due. If individuals have done the work, they deserve to present and share their ideas in the meeting. If they did all of the hard work, why shouldn’t they get to present and get credit for their work? Why are other leaders presenting their work instead?

Don’t allow individuals to talk over or interrupt each other. Intervene when you see ideas being stolen, or if ideas are being dismissed. Remember that you don’t have to be the most senior person to do this. We all need to stand up for each other to create an inclusive environment.

3. Pitch in with office work for the meeting.

We may no longer be ordering lunch, setting up the room for a senior leadership meeting with printouts, or passing around samples as many of us continue to work remotely, and yet office work and operational tasks still exists. It shows up in all different forms, including sending invites, tracking attendees, and dealing with technical difficulties. Scheduling virtual happy hours and ensuring team members get their cocktail kits in advance of the gathering. Be an inclusive leader and share the burden; don’t expect the same people on your team to do this work. Schedule a meeting or order that cocktail kit yourself.

Remember that becoming an inclusive leader is a continuous journey. There’s no destination we are rushing to arrive at; there’s no competition to win to see who can be more inclusive; there’s no scientific way, no precise indicator to measure how inclusive you actually are. The first step on this journey is inviting others to have a seat right next to you, to show that you value and recognize their contributions.  

About the Author: Mita Mallick is a corporate change-maker with a track record of transforming businesses and cultures. She is the head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta. Mallick is a columnist for SWAAY, and her writing has been published in Harvard Business Review, The New York Post, and Business Insider.

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