Nurturing an organizational culture that puts inclusivity first

Kamilla Sultanova: "My mission is to ignite a collective spirit of inclusion and diversity, engagement, and innovation. With my unique ability to unite individuals across industries and cultural backgrounds, I have empowered countless audiences to volunteer, aspire to become changemakers, and create inclusive spaces in their own communities."

2022 has arrived.

Inclusive leadership is more important than ever in a post-covid world of division and uncertainty. We have witnessed the health crisis, strained inter-ethnic relationships, long-standing effects of structural racism and gender-based violence, loss of jobs and livelihoods, and now the insecurity posed by inflation.

But there also came a new sense of empathy, the rise of urgent mental health discussions, the need for psychological safety, belonging, and accountability in every sector.

One strong focus to move ahead is to prioritize the importance of inclusive leadership for the sake of our future. This includes managing differences, adapting, working outside of our comfort zone, and leading diverse teams to bring clarity, well-being, and wealth in the face of uncertainty.

Keep reading to discover the organizational benefits of inclusivity - and how you can leverage it.

What skills are emerging?

The top skills and skill groups rated by employers by 2025 are critical thinking, analysis, and problem-solving, which according to WEF, stayed at the top of the agenda with year-on-year consistency since 2016.

Newly emerging this year are skills in self-management, such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility. What is noteworthy are the cross-cutting skills. These are specialized skills in demand across multiple emerging professions, e.g., in product marketing, digital marketing, and human-computer interaction.

As early as 2017, Deloitte reported that "soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030" They argue that effectively investing in improving our soft skills will bring significant benefits – to individuals, businesses, and our economy. One particular skill I want to highlight is inclusivity which I use interchangeably with inclusive leadership.

The field of agile leadership offers plenty of reading on how businesses can become agile with laser-like focus, take risks, or fail to pivot and meet the demands of customers if needed. We need personal agility to develop our inclusivity skills in the middle of accelerating change.

Inclusive leadership as personal and business imperative

In the New Normal, hybrid work has come to stay. Reinventing a social contract with employers is the new business imperative, where flexibility to work from home, digital tools, and personalized employee benefits are on the rise (see, e.g., Deloitte's new paternity leave initiative).

Here, belonging and psychological safety are two topics at the center stage for employees and employers alike. CEOs, boards, and heads of HR are preoccupied with bringing this to life to run profitable businesses and retain quality talent.

Some questions to reflect on: How do we reach goals in our personal lives and workplace and remove negative patterns from pre-covid? How can we become inclusive leaders: become more authentic while demanding authenticity, belonging, and psychological safety from our employers?

Research shows how diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) contribute to innovation, resilience, product development, and competitiveness of companies and performing teams.

Diversity and inclusion are not just strategies to look good. We know that high belonging leads to:

  • 56% increase in job performance
  • 50% drop in turnover risk (retention)
  • 75% reduction in sick days

That is good news, but what does it mean? Stephanie Creary Wharton, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, advocates the need to move from doing DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) to valuing it.

"The lack of consistency in codifying and treating DEI work as a merit-worthy endeavor for all employees … threatens its success." - Stephanie Creary Wharton.

Stephanie highlights the importance of making DEI goals actionable, measurable, and evidence-based.

This can not be accomplished by the DEI responsible alone. Inclusive leadership is an invitation to engage all employees in a merit-worthy work of belonging and inclusion.

In addition to inclusion, it is crucial to reflect the new workforce demands, represent customers, and sharpen one's ability to manage teams. Recent evidence shows how customer and employee experience are merging and giving birth to the new discipline: XM - experience management (more on that here).

"75% of the upcoming workforce does not want to work for a company that has a bad company culture. The millennial workforce is seeking a place of belonging in the work they do, and really this is an innately human reaction to the damage the last several decades of toxic workplace culture has done on a global scale. The damage done by turning employees into fungible commodities" - Harvard Business Review

Company culture is hard to measure, but it's deep and digs at the core of who we are.

Inclusive leadership in simple language

Inclusive leadership refers to relationship building, awareness of one's own and others' dignity, being a good ally, and recognizing that no one is protected from unconscious bias. Everyone has to be equally seen, heard, and valued.

Inclusive leadership skills play a crucial role beyond one's employability or companies' capacity to recruit and retain talent. It is also high on government agendas to sustain welfare models in countries like Denmark and Finland.

Unfortunately, most diversity and inclusion initiatives fail because of employees standing in the way or insufficient commitment from board and leadership teams. Nevertheless, there are many different narratives for diversity and inclusion, from risk management to instilling ownerships across business leaders and employees alike.

What is missing is how personal beliefs and behaviors can be made stronger with an inclusive mindset. In my work, I have overseen ten years of diversity and inclusion debate in the Nordics and witnessed the strategies adopted by government and organizations.

I have witnessed how primarily women are asked to go through imposter syndrome training, how men thrive on networks while minorities lack mentorships, and how men do not need board experience, but women do. In addition, immigrants need to integrate while the organization cultures stay the same as last year. All this is on top of the chain of events post #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and #covid.

How do you push inclusive leadership as a must-have skill for managers?

Diversity and inclusion begin with management. It should be every leader and HR professionals' responsibility to minimize the consequences of unconscious bias, invest in programs that build relationships, and actively engage employees in shaping the future of the organizational culture.

Central to this is the conviction that relationships with people from various backgrounds and life-worlds benefit you and the organization. Working with people who are different from us requires experience, exposure, and continuous positive encounters.

In the most recent book on DEI, The 5 Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders: Unleashing the Power of All of Us, the authors argue that organizations need inclusive leaders at all levels to build sustainable diversity and inclusion.

Inclusive leaders need to master five disciplines:

  1. Build interpersonal trust
  2. Integrate diverse perspectives
  3. Optimize talent
  4. Apply an adaptive mindset
  5. Achieve transformation (confront difficult topics and bring people along to achieve results)

In essence, these disciplines are about communication, problem-solving, and team building. With these in mind, inclusive leadership training can support employees' personal and interpersonal competencies, which drives inclusion and diversion across the organization.

The win-win initiatives behind social capital

Inclusivity is a skill I have learned, not from large international organizations but non-profits, grassroots advocacies, transnational inclusion networks, youth workers, and educators.

This is not to say that nothing can be learned from the private sector. Instead, this is to say that businesses should take note from grassroots on building movements and nurturing inclusive leaders.

At Global Dignity, I have learned the value of storytelling, social capital exchange, and how role-model stories can shape future talent. I discovered how mentoring and cross-sectoral collaboration (e.g., between universities, municipalities, and the business sector) leads to economic outcomes by sourcing diverse talent and exposing employees to diverse experiences. In my experience, the core of lasting inclusivity is mentoring and university-company engagements.

Cross-sectoral collaboration to promote inclusivity and equity has been well discussed, especially with the rise of social entrepreneurship and various changemaker labs (co-creating innovation houses) worldwide.

Notable examples are Ashoka Global Hub, Sitralab in Finland, and Stanford Center for Social Innovation. These co-creating innovation labs build new working cultures and shape competencies in professionals from all sectors to promote fair and inclusive, planet and people-positive organizations.

Tips to elevate inclusive leadership in your company:

  1. Bring social capital into the core of the company's Share & Care programs for community engagement and mentoring programs
  2. Invest in proper community building both internally and with external community groups
  3. Run employer-driven mentoring programs or join talent management programs in the city or region
  4. Enable every employee with an incentive, resources, and motivation to mentor and be a part of something bigger

My message for you, the reader, is that at some point in life, everyone should be a mentor to someone and go through the process of active listening, empathy, compassion, and have their assumptions challenged.

What if diversity and inclusion were replaced with belonging and inclusivity? Would that change our relationships to the concepts? If you reflect for a minute, does your organization have enough diversity intelligence, and how inclusive are you as an individual?

Ultimately, awareness of inclusivity and diversity at the management level can ensure more equality. Awareness can ensure that managers recognize which practices and routines replicated by employees blocks the opportunities for others to live out their full potential.

If you want to assess your inclusivity skills critically, here are some things to be mindful of:  

  1. Recognize that change is slow but lasting change can happen when you build meaningful relationships 1-on-1.
  2. Prioritize social capital exchange: active interaction with diverse talent pools rather than just supporting them financially.
  3. Get and give from authentic community building: Get proximity to communities that offer access to diverse talent groups.
  4. Challenge how the recruitment process replicates who gets hired
  5. Work with artists, educators, and NGOs to help understand why inclusivity makes you future-proof.  

The new work-life is here. Welcome to our new experiences. We spend around 90,000 hours at work throughout a lifetime. Each of us shapes communities and workplaces with our action and inaction, and in retrospect, we should give what we ask: the inherent idea that each person is worthy of being seen, valued, and heard.

Whatever futurist you listen to, new roles emerge, and professionals find themselves in the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms.

From all my experience with learning about Danish and Finnish work-life, I am certain that we all need to stay rooted and cultivate our own inclusivity. Something I learned from my Nordic employers, mentors, and leaders and something that I preach now in my work.

More ressources

Are you inspired to act? Here are four suggestions for you to get started with inclusive leadership today:

  1. Commit to starting a conversation on inclusive leadership! Let artists and facilitators help you:
  2. Get a mentor or be a mentor – find one in your city or region.
  3. Sign a diversity pledge (e.g., Danish Industry's Gender Diversity Pledge or Finlands Diversity Charter)
  4. Expand your knowledge through new ressources here
  5. Look into local Share & Care programs (Finland, Denmark, the UK, Lithuania)

About the author

Kamilla Sultanova
European Women on Boards
I’m an entrepreneur and a keynote speaker running my own culturally responsive consulting company ConnectUz in Helsinki, Finland. Born and raised in Karshi, Uzbekistan, I then moved to the Nordics, where I have studied and lived for the last 18 years. I hold a Master of Arts degree in Corporate Communication from Aarhus University in Denmark with major in employer branding and diversity management.

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