How to Become a More Inclusive Leader

How to Become a More Inclusive Leader

Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in a strategic planning process for a local nonprofit. It started out as a way for me to give back in terms of my experience with leadership and corporate culture. In reality, it ended up being a big lesson for me. Let me explain.

I’d been through the task of developing strategic planning initiatives many times while I was working in the corporate world, and I vividly remember how middle managers often had to bear the brunt of the laborious process. Sure, we had high-level company objectives handed down, but we were responsible for fleshing out the strategies and tactics that would support those objectives. To be honest, it was often quite grueling.

I was actually enjoying the strategic planning experience with the nonprofit. I felt like we were having excellent discussions and using sound methodology. However, I quickly found myself getting a bit frustrated. As our team progressed through each planning milestone, the leaders would “hit pause” and spend time getting employee feedback. In fact, I discovered that they were highly committed to getting input and reactions from their near-200-person team before moving to the next phase of the process.

I had little to no recollection of pressure testing our plans with the people on our teams during my corporate days. They may have been enrolled to confirm or reject our recommended performance metrics, but employees were not asked to give their feedback about the objectives and strategies themselves.

Shouldn’t the management team be setting the agenda? Did we really need opinions from employees who weren’t directly in the loop in terms of planning? How would we ever reach a consensus with so many different people weighing in?

The importance of employee feedback
It wasn’t until we finished the nonprofit’s strategic plan that I had…well, somewhat of an epiphany: Thinking about strategic planning as a leaders-only task was outdated.

Getting employee feedback on the new directions and initiatives wasn’t just a time-consuming courtesy; it was the key to the plan’s success. Today’s employees want an opportunity to provide their input and feel like they are participating in an organization’s evolution. That’s what drives their engagement and their connection to bigger-picture results. Plus, incorporating their input improved our ability to get buy-in from people at every level once we moved forward. To be honest, achieving that after the fact would have been difficult, if not impossible.

The irony here? I regularly tout the idea of cognitive diversity, and yet I was impatient about slowing down to include it. Our plan may have been solid but, had we not paused for input, we would have missed out on the broad range of perspectives that elevated our process and, ultimately, our deliverables. Without taking the time to gather that diverse feedback at every stage, our plan would not have been as rich and cohesive.

This experience reminded me that fast and efficient aren’t the optimal paths to take in every situation. Leaders who invest the time to seek out different opinions (even contradictory ones) collect the information they need to deliver superior outcomes while making their employees feel like an integral part of the organization’s growth.

Ways to become more inclusive as a leader
Based on that insight, I began to think about other leadership behaviors that might support the notion of helping employees feel like their diverse thinking is valued and that they can play a role in their company’s evolution. Here are a few ways you can position yourself as a more inclusive leader:

Be humble. Resist the idea that your view of the world is always right, and set aside your ego when it comes to opposing beliefs, values, or perspectives. Be open to different points of view and work to uncover the opinions of those whose thinking doesn’t necessarily line up with yours. Like my friend and colleague Justin Foster often says: “If your opinions aren’t being tested, then they are likely uninformed.”
Be transparent. Go ahead and share the rationale that drives the choices you make. I’m amazed at how many leaders think their teams either don’t care about the “why” behind a decision or that they won’t understand it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Be flexible with timing. We all develop skills or make progress at a different pace. With that in mind, meet your employees wherever they are, rather than assuming they will all work at the same speed you do.
Be someone who values diversity of thought. Tap into the synergy that comes with the cognitive diversity your employees bring to the table. Emphasize collective success rather than individual achievement. And most importantly, be deliberate about supporting and promoting talent with views and backgrounds different from your own.
Be open to discussing difficult topics. If you sense that your team wants to have a conversation that might be controversial, don’t shut it down. Instead, welcome the diversity of viewpoints as long as they are shared in a respectful manner. And remember you don’t always have to lead the discussion yourself. You can support someone on your team who is able and ready to take on the role of facilitator.
As you make strategic decisions for your organization, remember the advantages of including your employees in the process. Their diverse backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge will help you develop superior solutions. You’ll connect them more closely with the company’s mission, strengthen their sense of belonging, and give greater meaning to their work.