What It Takes to Be an Inclusive Leader

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.

Diversity and Inclusion (or D&I for short) is an increasingly popular term these past few years, especially in tech. Every time that a particularly extreme behaviour comes to light, people tend to flock to D&I, using it as a talisman. Lots of companies swear to change and offer their support to social movements like BLM, but very few of them follow up on their promises. As Aubrey Blanche, former Global Head of Diversity & Belonging in Atlassian, mentions:

Caring without action isn't caring. It’s complicity in lowering the bar.

As a leader, you want to make sure you fix any diversity issues and infuse an inclusive culture in your team. But how can you start working on D&I, especially with shifting priorities and little to no budget?

Let’s explore first the reasons why you should strive to create a diverse team:

Diverse teams are smarter

It’s not a vague theory: research shows that diverse teams perform better, both in terms of productivity and in terms of monetary gains for their company. It’s scientifically proven that working with people that don’t look like you makes your brain sharper and more receptive to change.

Diverse teams perform better because they focus more on facts and less on their bias. As David Rock and Heidi Grant mention in their HBR article, “they’re more likely to constantly reexamine facts and remain objective”. They also process these facts more carefully, using them to make the best decisions.

Every company should focus on innovation to stay competitive, and diverse teams excel in innovation compared to homogenous teams. There have been several studies linking the presence of women in executive teams to the possibility of launching new, innovative products over two years.

D&I is not just a trend: creating a more diverse workplace will help your team work more effectively, yielding better results in the long term.

Has your team accrued diversity debt?

Look around you: is everyone in your team looking like you, interested in the same things as you? Do you often hire people just based on your gut feeling that they’re going to be a good “culture fit”? Do you get people from underrepresented minorities in your hiring pipeline? Do your team members feel safe to express their concerns without fear of being taken down because they’re different?

If your answer was “yes” to even one of the above questions, you have a diversity problem. As Andrea Barrica mentions in her article, if left unchecked, “diversity debt” starts to accrue around your 4th hire, speeds up after your 10th, and grows exponentially after your 20th hire. This is especially rampant in startups, where the need to expand quickly eclipses the need for inclusive hiring.

How to get started with D&I

As with most problems, the first step is acknowledging you have one. Avoid excessively beating yourself over it and start making progress by taking incremental steps. Solving diversity for your team is not going to get easier in the future, so the best time to start is now. Refrain from talking about D&I if the talk is not directly followed by action: diversity fatigue is real, and it’s one of the main reasons change happens in a glacial rate at most companies.

Aim for meritocracy, instead of bragging about it

Meritocracy nowadays is a catch-all term, mainly used as a defence when a company gets called out about their lack of diversity. Claiming that your organisation is a meritocracy deflects the conversation because it just ignores the underlying power structures that influence your team.

A common argument against D&I tactics is that the lack of underrepresented minorities (URMs) is a pipeline problem. It’s easy to dismiss the issue by shrugging your shoulders and claiming that “there are just too few women/black/Latinx people applying for our job openings”. In the U.S. tech industry specifically, 20% of the people getting technical degrees are women and 11% are black and Hispanic students, but these numbers fall significantly when you look at the composition of engineering teams. It’s not just a pipeline problem. It’s systemic, and it applies to every aspect of the tech industry.

Be a sponsor

When people from URMs ask for help, our first instinct is to help by mentoring them. What they need is not advice on how to do their work, though. They need more of the opportunities they’re missing out because of lack of visibility. Minorities are routinely over-mentored, but under-sponsored.

Luckily, there are easy ways you can sponsor people, even if you’re not their manager:

  • Let their managers know they’re doing a great job.
  • Suggest them to lead an effort you know will be perfect for their skillset.
  • Suggest them to write a blog post or give a talk about their approach to solving a hairy problem, which you know will give them the spotlight.
  • Publicly share (on Slack, or otherwise) the ways that their work has made your work easier.

Lara Hogan has some more examples in her classic blog post “What does sponsorship look like?”.

Give concise and helpful feedback

Part of your job as a manager is to find ways to provide concise and actionable feedback to your team members, especially if they’re under-represented.

Research showed that women are more likely to receive vague feedback that often gets in their way of being promoted. You should make it a point to always connect your feedback to business outcomes so that everyone can see how their work and skills improvement can help the company move forward.

On the other hand, critical feedback can be perceived as harsh by many people, triggering a fight-or-fly reaction instead of inspiring them to work towards getting better. The idea that decisions should be forged through arguments and borderline fighting is deeply exclusive since not everyone is willing to get in a fight, no matter how productive, just to do their work.

Focus on rewarding instead of critiquing. Practice saying “more of that!” instead of “none of that!” to your direct reports. As Kate Heddleston mentions in her post “Criticism and Ineffective Feedback”:

If you want someone to do things the right way then you have to tell them what the right way is.

Run inclusive meetings

Improving the way you hold meetings in your company is one of the easiest things to fix if you want to work towards a more inclusive culture.

Here are some ways you can ensure your team meetings work for everyone:

  • Send out an agenda beforehand - not everyone makes decisions on the fly when faced with new information (I know I don’t).
  • Set time limits for attendants, to avoid a single person taking up all the time.
  • Have a moderator take notes and share afterwards in a collaborative document so that everyone can fill in the blanks and leave comments.
  • Give everyone a chance to speak and build on their ideas (try applying the Yes, and…” approach).

I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but I would also advise holding fewer meetings. Requiring the physical or virtual presence of people to go forward (not to mention their undivided attention, which is very hard to find nowadays) is inherently exclusive towards parents and neurodivergent people.

Revisit your hiring process

Saving the best for last: Hiring is one of the most common pain points when you’re trying to work towards a more inclusive culture. People tend to create a hiring process and adopt it for years on end, not willing to make changes according to feedback. This results in loss of diverse candidates and confirms the self-fulfilling prophecy of the pipeline problem mentioned above.

Start by actively expanding and diversifying your network as a leader, since it’s where you’ll most probably go to find people to join your team. Aim to attend URM-focused events and actively reach out to people, building a more diverse talent pool.

When you’re hiring, start by taking a long hard look at your hiring material. Use a tool like Textio to make sure the language you use in your job postings is inclusive. Also revisit your job requirements list: how exhaustive is it? You should be hiring for potential, not the current skill set of a candidate.

While you’re interviewing, make sure you use techniques that don’t exclude neurodivergent or introvert people. Some candidates will not perform well when faced with a whiteboard challenge, while others will get stressed over knowledge quizzes.

You are never done

As a leader, diversity and inclusion is not a project you can outsource to a third party. It should be the focal point in your strategy if you want your team to succeed and you’re not just looking for a performative band-aid to apply to the problem.

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