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Duke Corporate Education
Dialogue - The New Business Context for Leaders


Great leaders create inclusive teams and innovative organizations. Sharmla Chetty explains how.

Diversity alone is insufficient

It was a tale of two beaches. While growing up in South Africa, I longed for the right to sunbathe on the beautiful, soft beaches along the breathtaking KwaZulu-Natal coast. But this was the Apartheid era. The lusher shorelines were reserved for white people. The racist regime excluded me as a non-white, and sequestered our communities to rockier beaches with steep dunes, distant from the bathing spots.

My formative years taught me much about the horror of exclusion and gave me a lifelong purpose to include – and to promote inclusivity. Just as whole nations have thrived from harnessing the value of everyone within them, so too must organizations.

Yet still too few know how to do so. Inclusion has become conflated with diversity, as if diversity alone is sufficient. Diversity is a prerequisite for inclusion, yet it does not guarantee it. Business leaders need to work at inclusion, by driving change and making proactive steps to bring people in. They must create a diverse, inclusive culture that helps improve financial performance and innovation to drive the future growth of their organizations. Globalization brings an influx of information from an increasingly diverse workforce. In this fast-changing environment, every situation and context brings its own set of challenges. Leaders must navigate dilemmas and reconcile competing expectations – and learn from different perspectives. What are the measures leaders should take? Six key lessons stand out.

Lesson 1: Extol the benefits and measure success

Diverse, inclusive teams are more productive and more profitable. That’s proven. Leaders have a duty to remind people of the fact. Why? Because humans’ instinct is to recruit in their own image and to surround themselves with people like them. Homogeneity is such a powerful urge that it is still fairly common to find executive teams comprising men who attended the same schools. Yet diverse, inclusive teams bring new ideas to a business. If you look the same, and behave the same, how are you going to innovate? As the world globalizes, growth is becoming more difficult to achieve, so you need people with multiple viewpoints to craft solutions. Leaders should strive to create an atmosphere where multiple voices are heard, and their opinions are valued and considered: you can’t sell to a market you don’t understand. Track your progress – perform ongoing reviews of diversity and inclusion data to assess the effectiveness of changes you make.

Lesson 2: Avoid rigid recruitment

Recruitment strategies must be framed with increasing diversity as a core goal. Shifts in age profiles, education, and migration flows – along with expectations of equality of opportunity and work/life balance – are key factors in a changing candidate base. Overly prescriptive job specifications filter out new outlooks and fresh ideas. If you advertise for precise, detailed job specifications you will narrow down your candidate field to mimic exactly the people you already have in your business. This is the opposite of what you want: echo chambers and confirmation bias militate against effective problem-solving. Diversity drives creativity, energy, curiosity and innovation at work. Organizations that continue to recruit in a linear, systematic way will lose the war for talent and will be defeated in the global contest for ideas.

Lesson 3: Rewire the system to rewire behavior

Diversity of markets, customers, ideas, and talent is driving the need for inclusion as a new leadership capability. Take proactive steps to find people who make you perceive problems in a different way.

Unlearning what you ‘know’ and reframing challenges so they can be tackled differently is imperative. How do you find such people? Ask them how they have failed in their business life. Then explore their responses to those failures. Remember that you are not looking for someone who can give the perfect answer to every tricky question. Smoothly successful people can be unagile. If you have never failed you have never been able to pivot quickly and rapidly change direction. Seek key skills you need for what’s next: admitting mistakes; learning from criticism and different points of view; acknowledging and seeking the contributions of others to overcome one’s limitations; putting personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done; and acting on convictions and principles, even when it requires personal risk-taking.

Lesson 4: Set the challenge and build momentum

Only a plumber can fix a pipe. Those that have never fixed a leak typically have zero confidence that they can do so. People can be shy; many great people are introverts. Giving people executive roles is key to unlocking this reticence. The self-assurance required to take on and solve problems is chiefly experiential. Work with people on projects, give them a leading role, let them experience the feeling of executing a job. This will give them the confidence to tackle problems and become innovators.

Briefing a job is insufficient: to understand a job you have to do it. Leaders have a key role here: become a teammate, a project partner. Collaborate with colleagues. Demonstrate confidence in direct reports by holding them responsible for performance they can control. Get them to lead a project, but stand beside them. Show them that you can win together – we don’t need to win alone.

Lesson 5: Drive out fear

Make the environment safe. It’s crucial that everyone in your organization has a voice – and uses that voice. Fear has a debilitating effect on ideas and creativity. Be transparent about values. Identify those that are creating a fearful atmosphere. People are not always conscious of their behavior or aware of its impact. Draw the venom, seek it out.

By proactively combating behaviors that create a fearful culture, you will bring many more people, and their ideas, into your organization. Look for silent messages, body language, tone. Listen to non-verbal clues from individuals. They might be scared, and if they are, they probably won’t tell you. Your goal is a cultural reset, where diverse teams are driven by opportunity and a change mindset, not by fear.

Lesson 6: Know leaders matter

Ignoring the conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion is no longer an option for leaders. It’s time to make the commitment and start having hard conversations to deeply change our workplace cultures.

There is a clear correlation between inclusivity and success. But it’s not an immutable law. You can have a diverse workforce that fails to perform. You can have an inclusive culture that is unproductive. That doesn’t mean inclusivity doesn’t contribute to business performance – it does. But you still need to appoint the right leaders to farm the ideas and execute the projects.

Great leaders convene diverse, inclusive teams. They create innovative organizations – and reap the rewards for everyone within them.

Sharmla Chetty is president of global markets at Duke Corporate Education.