Why inclusive leadership matters more than ever

Written by CMI Insights Tuesday 23 June 2020
Are we on the brink of a more inclusive world in management? Or will covid-19 just intensify social and racial inequalities?

During the Covid-19 crisis, thousands of people in the US and UK have taken to the streets to support the Black Lives Matter protests, filling the vacuum left by the absence of ordinary life with a passionate debate about race, inequality and access to power.

In the UK, where people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups have suffered disproportionately from the Coronavirus, the government has conducted a report into the reasons for this, and prime minister Boris Johnson has announced a commission into the continuing causes of racial inequality.

Against this backdrop, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) recently held a high-level roundtable to look at whether the Covid-19 crisis will trigger an era of more inclusive leadership, or whether the progress made by organisations in recent years might now be held back.

Why is diverse and inclusive leadership important right now? McKinsey’s recent report, Diversity Wins: how inclusion matters, finds that the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability. In a recent survey, CMI members show widespread acceptance of the benefits of inclusive organisations in a time of crisis, with 96% of managers agreeing that D&I greatly supports organisational resilience*.

However, experience from previous crises show that in recovering from Covid-19 there is a risk that companies will not prioritise diversity and inclusion. Indeed we know already that many of the building blocks for realising diverse and inclusive workplaces are not yet embedded in organisations: in our member survey, only 69% reported that their organisation actually had a D&I strategy in place; and 65% reported having a senior leader who champions D&I. This is a concern. CMI’s Delivering Diversity report showed that if employers want to take the lead on diversity and inclusion they should publicise, evaluate and have a specific budget allocation for a D&I strategy. They should also have action plans which are publicised and monitored.

(In this discussion CMI defines ‘inclusive leadership’ as leadership “involving and supporting employees in the decision-making process, and ensuring a wide range of views are represented at the organisational level.” The roundtable was held on 18 June 2020. This background paper was the basis for our discussion.)

Over to the experts...

This could go either way...

Pavita Cooper CMgr CCMI, chair of CMI Race, speaks regularly to CEOs of blue-chip companies and reports that they are ‘very positive’ about the opportunity to kickstart diversity efforts after the crisis. She believes there could be benefits for ‘less talked-about areas’ such as neuro-diversity, older workers and those people with caring responsibilities.

But – and it’s a big but – she and many of the experts in CMI’s roundtable believe that the inequality gap will be deepened by the crisis and its economic fall-out.

Matt Elliott CCMI, chief people officer at Bank of Ireland, agrees that the short-term impact is ‘very concerning’. The crisis is showing up significant and troubling differences in societal access to education, for example.

In the short term, Matt admits that some big companies may temporarily struggle to retain the same focus on diversity and inclusion issues. But, looking ahead, there are ‘exciting opportunities’. The crisis has put a spotlight on ‘human’ leadership, on leaders who are empathetic and understanding. In the past, leaders might have seen being inclusive as ‘optional’ and paid “lip service to it”; now they will have to embrace it in order to truly connect with their people.

Leaders simply must step up now, says Rob Baker CCMI of Potentia Talent Consulting. “The price of leadership is to understand what’s really going on.” All leaders must think about their own biases and personalities and the impact we have on those we lead. Many will need to consider reverse mentoring to make sure they are in touch with other perspectives.

CMI’s head of policy Daisy Hooper said that positive management and leadership behaviours would never be more important and, therefore, this was a time that organisations should be investigating the value of senior leader management apprenticeships, particularly looking to that as a tool to diversify access to senior management training and development.

Leadership in an age of anxiety

Jan Gooding, chair of the consultancy Given and former chair of Stonewall, gave a sobering insight into the effects of Covid-19 on the charity sector. “We’re seeing a complex cocktail of problems,” she pointed out. “We’re under incredible strain because all the normal fund-raising is not happening and we’re not able to engage with employers in the same ways.”

Many people actually do not feel comfortable bringing their work life home, she explained. “You may find this odd, but there are people who are out at work and not at home. They suddenly find themselves in a domestic situation where they’re not able to be themselves, where they were ironically able to be themselves in their place of employment. And vice versa.” She fears that many employers ‘may roll back on their investment in improving LGBT inclusion in their workplaces' and that “those who felt vulnerable will be feeling even more vulnerable.”

Patrick Dunne CCMI, chair of the EY Foundation, pointed to the inequalities that are shown up in the furloughing statistics. A higher proportion of women and part-time workers have been furloughed during the crisis. Also many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who might have been considering going to university will now be changing their mind. The ‘digital divide’ is very severe, he says, and is exaggerating differences in skills development. There is “an urgent problem” of getting young people into work. He did, however, point to one interesting development, which is the emergence of ‘digital work experience’ – definitely one to keep an eye on.

Unforeseen issues

Dr Jummy Okoya FCMI, chair of University of East London (UEL) women’s network and Athena Swan lead, highlighted a particular issue among hourly paid and part-time lecturers. These people, and they are mainly women, often prefer to work part-time, but now face a highly uncertain future not knowing whether their contracts will be renewed. Some hourly paid lecturers, she explained, lack sufficient skills or confidence for online delivery, so the widespread use of technology for teaching purposes may disadvantage them.

Again, as shown throughout the discussion, this is an opportunity for leaders to step up and be more inclusive in their leadership, recognising the different circumstances that their people are in.

Many people’s behaviour is being affected by the current state of anxiety, says Jo Moffatt CCMI, practice director at the engineering group Atkins, and deputy chair of CMI Women. “It may inadvertently accentuate unconscious bias as people start behaving in a more self-preservatory way.” Technology, while it can be helpful, can compound feelings of anxiety as certain groups engage in ‘side conversations’ and exclude others.

It is more important than ever for leaders to provide psychological safety. “Leaders must encourage their people to be conscious that they might be behaving in a different way; be a bit more conscious of their biases, and encourage curiosity, caring and supportiveness – a sense that we're all in this together.”

Dr Paulina Chan CCMI, CMgr, trustee of CMI and CMI’s chair in Hong Kong, said she believes technology will reduce unconscious biases in society and allow decisions to be made “at a different tempo and with a different focus.”

A view from the frontline

“Covid-19 has reinforced the ongoing challenges that people of difference face,” says Delroy Beverley CCMI, managing director of York Teaching Hospital NHS Partnership. “It has really brought this back to the table in a very stark reality… If we consider BAME frontline workers in the NHS who are, in the main, the ones dying as a result of Covid-19.

"This entire conversation has been an ongoing conversation throughout my lifetime. What matters to me now is when are we really going to move the dial?”

Delroy said that the people who can make the real difference now and in the future are ‘the gatekeepers’ – “because they decide who can join boards, and who does not. They are the ones who determine who comes into an organisation at any level, much less, the senior roles. And quite often, these are the very gatekeepers who have been in those privileged positions for decades, and therefore equality can seem like oppression.” Faith and belief, he says, is about taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase!

What next?

With such huge social, economic and political issues in play, there are no quick fixes. However, the roundtable experts and CMI (see ‘policy provocations’ below) want to move the debate forward.

Pavita Cooper believes that the repurposing of office space that will inevitably take place as a result of the crisis may produce a more collaborative outlook in many organisations.

And Peter Kay, head of learning and development at Tarmac, is confident that we’ll gradually see the emergence of a new type of leadership, one that’s more prepared to show vulnerability and, crucially, to foster people’s unique talents.

But change will require leaders in all organisations to become more self-aware, he says. “I think managers and leaders need to really understand history to be able to move them forward; to understand what they had created themselves, what their leaders before them had created.”

To make sure that real change happens we must make individuals and organisations accountable, says Cindy Rampersaud CCMI, senior vice-president at Pearson Education. “It's not just about government; it's also about what businesses expect from other businesses.

“This is about holding each other to account and setting some standards. CMI could play a really important role here.”

Leading the conversation

In that spirit, CMI has produced a series of ‘policy provocations’ to advance the conversation about inclusive leadership in society. These range from extending pay gap reporting to broadening the scope of protected characteristics in equality legislation. You can find the full list here. We’d love to know what you think...

You can listen to Pavita Cooper’s recent CMI ‘Managing through change’ podcast here.

*In the same survey of CMI members, 93% agree that diversity and inclusion supports organisational innovation; and a further 93% agreeing that inclusive leadership enables better decision-making

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