How to Be an Inclusive Leader
eBook - ePub

How to Be an Inclusive Leader

Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive

Jennifer Brown

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eBook - ePub

How to Be an Inclusive Leader

Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive

Jennifer Brown

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About This Book

We know why diversity is important, but how do we drive real change at work? Diversity and inclusion expert Jennifer Brown provides a step-by-step guide for the personal and emotional journey we must undertake to create an inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive. Human potential is unleashed when we feel like we belong. That's why inclusive workplaces experience higher engagement, performance, and profits. But the reality is that many people still feel unable to bring their true selves to work. In a world where the talent pool is becoming increasingly diverse, it's more important than ever for leaders to truly understand how to support inclusion. Drawing on years of work with many leading organizations, Jennifer Brown shows what leaders at any level can do to spark real change. She guides readers through the Inclusive Leader Continuum, a set of four developmental stages: unaware, aware, active, and advocate. Brown describes the hallmarks of each stage, the behaviors and mind-sets that inform it, and what readers can do to keep progressing. Whether you're a powerful CEO or a new employee without direct reports, there are actions you can take that can drastically change the day-to-day reality for your colleagues and the trajectory of your organization. Anyone can—and should—be an inclusive leader. Brown lays out simple steps to help you understand your role, boost your self-awareness, take action, and become a better version of yourself in the process. This book will meet you where you are and provide a road map to create a workplace of greater mutual understanding where everyone's talents can shine.

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Starting Your Journey

You are empowered. If you want to get healthy, you don’t wait for someone to hand you vegetables—you get informed, you research nutrition, and you challenge yourself to start exercising! Don’t wait for someone to hand you a broader worldview. Go get it.
—LESLIE SLATON BROWN, Chief Diversity Officer, Hewlett-Packard
As you begin turning pages in this book, you will find that I won’t always be able to provide simple answers for dealing with complex situations. Each organization is unique, and each diversity dilemma has its own dimensions. What I do commit to is giving you a new framework with which to understand yourself as a key player in your company, our society, and in the wider world in this critical moment as we move toward greater and greater diversity. I am going to give you the tools to wield so you can be an active leader rather than a passive bystander and be someone who attempts to make positive change, rather than someone who’s at the mercy of the changes happening all around them.
In my bid to simplify a complex topic, reflect what I have observed to be true, and inspire you, the reader, into action, I came up with what is the central architecture of this book—the Inclusive Leader Continuum. The more I share it with audiences around the world, the more confirmation I receive of its universal applicability. Everyone can find themselves in it somewhere, often at multiple points, depending on their knowledge about and level of advocacy on behalf of different communities of people.
When it comes to something as multilayered as diversity, none of us is an expert. We can always be doing something more, specifically for communities that need the support of our voice and social or professional capital. You will learn more about such opportunities in this book.
When it comes to something as
multilayered as diversity, none of
us is an expert. We can always be
doing something more.

The Stages of the Inclusive Leader Continuum

The Inclusive Leader Continuum has four stages, each with a few distinctive characteristics (see Figure 1.1).


Everyone has to start somewhere, and the first stage of the journey along the continuum is hallmarked by not knowing much about the issues around inclusion or how inequalities are perpetuated. It’s easy to live in this stage if you’re part of a majority demographic and you grew up without being exposed to many different types of people. Inclusion might not seem like a pressing issue because you haven’t really experienced the feeling of exclusion.
Figure 1.1. The Four Stages of the Continuum
Many people remain at this stage because they believe they’re well-intentioned and that things will just work out. They might believe in their own innate goodness and that their progressive values are obvious to other people, so they don’t think they need to say or do anything differently. What they don’t realize is that inequalities are so baked in to systems and processes that it takes real effort to disrupt the status quo. They also don’t realize that the benefits of an inclusive workplace often need to be fought for and are worth fighting for; those benefits include better team cohesion, higher productivity and retention and, ultimately, higher profitability.
To work toward equality, many individuals must work together, including those who haven’t felt excluded in society or the workplace. This stage is about beginning to understand the reality of inequalities in the workplace and the role every inclusive leader should play in making a difference.


At this stage, you begin to understand how much you don’t know and realize you have so much left to learn. This stage is for deep self-reflection and internal dialogue about how your perceived experience does not square with others’ world reality. This stage will likely require you to acknowledge your own inner discomforts and the experiences that led you to experience them. In the process, you may realize that you’ve been making work decisions based almost solely on your own experiences without considering other perspectives. In addition to such overwhelming realizations, this stage may also come with some shame or guilt about missed opportunities. You may come to understand your colleagues’ advantages and disadvantages and what has made their lives and career progressions relatively easier or harder. These insights contain clues for action.
At this stage, you reflect on whom you’ve sought out for support and where you haven’t felt supported, and you explore, perhaps for the first time, what kind of support you can give and who is most in need of it. This stage awakens you to your own limitations and advantages and asks that you activate in order to make changes for yourself and your workplace.


What good is knowledge if it’s not applied? The choice to become active is the do-or-die moment for anyone aspiring to be an inclusive leader. This is the moment when you sign up to do more, to put yourself into places of discomfort, and to assume a new level of responsibility as a friend, colleague, and especially as a leader. In this stage, you also need to shed unproductive behaviors, mindsets, and resistance points that have either prevented you from taking action in the past or that continue to distract you and slow you down.
At this stage, you’re communicating ideas that are new to you and are trying to find your voice, which can feel awkward. This stage might come with more risk because you are more visibly taking action. As you start to express your own perceptions and try to be more inclusive, things won’t always go smoothly. Some people won’t agree with your views, and others won’t like the way you communicate those views—even if your heart is in the right place. As with anything, humility and resilience are key. If you feel the sting of criticism, don’t decide it’s easier to watch from the sidelines. Remember, nothing worth fighting for is easy.


Once you’ve exercised your fledgling skills during the Active stage, you are ready for more. Now you can focus on not just who needs support, but also how systems need to evolve to interrupt harmful practices that perpetuate an unequal playing field. In other words, you’re committed in word and deed to making your workplace more inclusive.
You may find yourself increasingly ready to be more public with your efforts to be bolder, to challenge others more directly, and to question systems that so many people have taken for granted. This seemingly fearless stance becomes your new normal. You learn the language of inclusion and get comfortable with knowing you will make mistakes. Others begin to follow along and gain inspiration from you.
You can think of this stage as a natural inclination: when you see something, you say something and you do something. You speak up when you hear inappropriate language or humor. You wonder why the new intern pool isn’t more diverse and suggest strategies to change it. You are used to being uncomfortable, routinely, and you can confidently use the tools at your disposal to influence others or gain their support.
I organized this book into chapters that align with this journey. Think of it as a step-by-step guide to become an inclusive leader. However, one of the most important things to remember is that no one travels along the continuum only once. You will travel back and forth between stages multiple times, depending on which community or identity you’re currently educating yourself about. For example, you may feel confident advocating for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole but still find yourself unaware of the challenges that transgender or non-binary people face. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why I believe all leaders can benefit from returning again and again to the Unaware stage and working their way back through the continuum.
You are apt to find that the stories and examples in the earlier chapters will broaden your thinking and help you gain new perspectives on a range of issues. As you uncover your knowledge gaps and biases and change the way you think about supporting different groups of people, you will move on to the next stage. You may also learn how to better relate to colleagues who are at the beginning of their journeys to becoming inclusive leaders and begin to understand how you might help them advance. Rather than considering advocacy a destination, it’s better to see the continuum as a journey, one on which you try to make progress every day.

Diversity Dimensions

If you’ve been thinking that inclusion doesn’t affect you directly, think again. Most of us have both visible and invisible aspects of diversity, or so-called diversity dimensions. These parts of our identity make us who we are. Many people do not feel totally comfortable sharing all these parts of themselves at work, so they downplay who they are in order to belong. This is called covering. In a white paper entitled “Uncovering Talent,” New York University School of Law Professor Kenji Yoshino and former Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion Managing Principal Christie Smith identify four main categories across which many people feel the need to downplay their identities:1
APPEARANCE Individuals alter their self-presentation, including grooming, attire, and mannerisms, to blend into the mainstream (for example, a Black woman might straighten her hair to deemphasize her race,2 or a Jewish man might go to synagogue in the morning, then take his kippah off when he gets to work).
AFFILIATION Individuals avoid behaviors widely associated with their identity in order to negate stereotypes about that identity (for example, a mother may not talk about her children in case anyone infers she is less committed to her work, or someone older than others in their position might be careful not to mention their age or anything that might date them).
ADVOCACY Individuals avoid specific topics related to their identity so they don’t have to defend that particular group (for example, a veteran might not challenge a joke about the military, or someone of Chinese descent might not correct people if they make comments that use Asian stereotypes).
ASSOCIATION Individuals avoid being around certain others (for example, an LGBTQ+ person may not bring their same-sex partner as a +1 to work functions, or someone who is not a social drinker may not attend the after-work drinks they were invited to by their manager).
According to the white paper, most employees actively downplay one or more identities at work, and those who are less represented in the workforce, particularly at leadership levels, report covering more often. When people don’t feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work, there are serious issues for both individuals and organizations. People who are constantly covering can feel isolated and unsupported by their colleagues. Such situations aren’t ones in which people do their best work or in which they choose to stay if they have other job options.
Most employees actively downplay
one or more identities at work.
I reveal in my keynote speeches how I’ve become quite good at covering, myself—expending extra energy to manage my more stigmatized identities. I first developed this skill when I came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in my 20s and downplayed this deep personal truth in a series of professional roles, from stage performer to HR professional to entrepreneur. I saw no role models who shared my story (at least, who openly shared it, or who were visible to me). I eventually reached a point of professional status where I found the courage to be my authentic self—most of the time. Owning my own business played a major role in this, since I didn’t feel at risk of being fired or ostracized from my own staff. But I still feel vulnerable when I consult with clients and meet prospects and sense they might hold stereotypes or biases about aspects of my identity.
I am certainly not alone in this experience. Many people are worried about being judged or discriminated against at work if they draw attention to a certain part of their identity, so they never reach the point where they feel comfortable being their whole self at work.

The Tip of the Iceberg

When my consulting company works with clients, we often use the metaphor of an iceberg to explore what it means to cover. Consider Figure 1.2, which shows an iceberg floating in water, with certain diversity dimensions visible above the water and others beneath the waterline.
Figure 1.2. The Iceberg
Certain life experiences, like the following, can also play a huge role in our personal identity but remain invisible to our colleagues.
• I don’t talk about my child who has Down Syndrome.
• I don’t talk about my children and my spouse.
• I couldn’t tell the executive team that I was missing important meetings to take my daughter to appointments during their transition to a man.
• I don’t go out to lunch with other people because I don’t wa...

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