Inclusive leadership skills competencies are a prerequisite to any business leader

Research studies have time and again established that diverse and inclusive teams are more proficient than homogeneous groups, when it comes to solving complex problems and delivering innovative solutions. The success of any organization is heavily dependent on collaboration and team cohesion between teams and team members across business divisions. Organizations become more profitable when employees work in an inclusive environment.  Inclusive Leadership is a transformational leadership style that enable leaders to demonstrate heightened awareness of their own behaviours, engage more collaboration, resolve conflicts more constructively are genuinely open to include and learn from diverse perspectives.

At Avtar, we recently collaborated with an organization, an industry leader to develop a training intervention – Inclusion by Design (IBD). This training intervention was designed to nurture inclusive leadership behaviours in leaders, thereby driving greater sense of belonging in the team.

The Architect of this program, Bhavani Balasubramanian, Chief Strategist, Diversity Evaluations at Avtar Group shares insights about the program and the journey of curating IBD.

What is Inclusion by Design (IBD)?

BB: Building an inclusive organization is one of the top five priorities in a CEO’s business agenda today. Inclusion and diversity is a strategy and a culture issue and not a HR initiative any longer. Focus on diversity and inclusion and its strong business case is well accepted by leaders.

Every business leader is intentional about being inclusive. Many leaders say that when it comes to inclusive actions to address business objectives and practicing implementation of such behaviours are the challenges, especially in complex organizations, changed environments and in crisis situations.  How to build the right kind of behaviours and create a culture that is most suitable for their organization and current state poses a challenge to the leaders. We believe that the most advanced approaches in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) training, have only marginal impact when used without an application linked to the overarching strategy and organization’s processes. Recent research by Josh Bersin indicates that when business leaders consult meaningfully and work with HR on DEI, companies are 2.2 times more likely to achieve exceptional results are 2.9 times more likely to innovate effectively.

Positioning DEI to help leaders to achieve success and catalyse business development is needed most for organizations today and this helped curate our thought and creation of the “Inclusion by Design (IBD)”. Instead of imparting training on inclusive leadership competencies as a standard content, contextualising inclusion training in a manner relevant to the relevant business environment and daily practice needs, was a purposeful learning intervention to businesses.

Why is it important in today’s context?

BB: Change is constant in today’s business world due to global restructuring, post-covid reorganization of ways of work and newer business models. Adaptability and prompt cultural shifts in work practices are critical for agile organizations. Adaptability is the key to survival and success in the new normal. When newer organizations emerge from redesigned and realigned structures, there needs to be a learning intervention to refresh their leadership skills, reorient of their awareness of inclusion and diversity. These leaders need to be equipped with best practices for inclusive leadership in their current context to steer the organization to success.

Can you share the process behind developing IBD?

BB: One of our clients moved into a new operating model — a matrix structure with its Market Development Unit that comprised different industry verticals such as food, hospitality, media, BFSI, travel, logistics and so on. The different units started working with the Service line teams, forming the horizontals in the end delivery of projects/service to customers. When a new project team is formed with managers, associates, project leads and so on they have to go through the process of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. That was when the leaders realized that there where varied perceptions in the way each team member had a notion of the organizational culture.  

This necessitated the need for interventions from Leaders and Managers to make the new organization an inclusive workplace, where all members experience the culture with a sense of belongingness and inclusion. We from Avtar proposed an Inclusive Leadership intervention, which was curated to impart learnings on specific skills that can be applied at different industry verticals (as required by the client), types of organization and also embeds in the current work environment.

We interacted with managers at the organization to gather details on live scenarios they faced. This helped us in formulating real-life case studies that we laced with Best Practices for discussion with the participants during the session.

Since this is a leadership program, what type of skills were covered?

BB: Often what leaders say and do, make a huge difference in individual team members’ feelings of being included and having a sense of belongingness at work. In many ways, this happens as small, visible or invisible acts of inclusion by leaders. Hence, it becomes critical for leaders to have a heightened sense of self-awareness, ability to manage their emotions and exercise empathy, especially in newer environments, which emerge due to sudden organizational changes.

In Avtar’s analysis of the above scenario, it was felt there was a greater need for addressing the competencies listed below:

  • Collaboration: New business acquisition lead to significant new entrants into the organization who felt excluded and had to be given the sense of belongingness. 
  • Cultural intelligence: Need to collaborate with different work cultures and styles, which was coupled with cross-cultural behavioral aspects.
  • Commitment: Inclusion was primary to not only make the new entrants feel included but also comfort the existing employees to feel safe and secure in the new normal space.
  • Recognition of biases: One of the early entrants in any new organization and to become prevalent, but goes often unnoticed, such as same as me bias, status quo bias, halo and horn bias. To create an awareness that one can’t drive bias out of the person, but it has to be driven out of the processes was critical.
  • A deeper understanding of inclusive work place in their current context was critical so as to elicit cooperation from all people
  • Organizational alignment was key. In a matrix organization the success lies in making the sum of all constituents greater than equal to all.
  • Very often in matrix organizations the need for reiteration of the larger strategy and goal alignment with the overall business strategy does not get the needed focus as people work in silos to better their own departmental targets. DEI accountability resides in every business unit, in every function, on every team. One person or one team can’t alone be accountable for success.
  • We also strongly believed that customer focus and excellence in meeting customer needs is a business imperative which needs to be catalyzed by inclusive behaviors for any organization to achieve its growth. 

This ‘Inclusion by Design’ intervention was aimed at increasing the competitive edge of leaders by:

  • Deepening self-awareness to enhance their strengths and identify areas for improvement.
  • Expanding their circle of influence to help every team member feel valued and respected.
  • Gaining a wealth of perspectives to help them instill a strong sense of collaboration, alignment and belongingness within and across teams.

So, does that mean IBD works well only at organizations that have matrix structure type of reporting?  

BB: Inclusion plays a key part in any organization’s life cycle initially and when change management occurs. For newer organizations initial years of growth and expansion require the need to have a well curated inclusion strategy and goals. For mature organizations changing scenarios could be diversification, restructuring, change of organization structure, realignment of business strategy where inclusion, if applied well could drive the change to bring about cohesiveness and alignment.

In what kind of organizations can IBD be implemented?

BB: It was a well routed belief that the right organizational structure is the way to drive integration. It has been established in the recent times by companies like Target and Siemens that integration achieved through collaboration and shared goals accomplish the same outcomes.

We believe that inclusive leadership skills competencies are a prerequisite to any business leader and is irrespective of the nature and stage of the organization. None of these skills are quick fixes. They are systemic cultural shifts that will take years to master and can never be under estimated.

IBD being a customised learning intervention, is expected to be impactful for start-ups, growing businesses, expanding entities, multinationals and diverse organizations. Linear organization leaders, for example, may find different challenges which require customization based on their needs which are typically commitment to inclusion, intergenerational management competency, collaboration and cognizance of bias. Matrix organizations require collaboration, cultural intelligence and conflict management.  

How can the effectiveness of IBD be measured?

BB: It is often said that what gets measured gets done. We believe a three step approach to measurement works well in this intervention:

  1. From a leader’s personal stand point, a pre self-assessment on inclusive leadership behaviours and application skills in these competencies in possible scenarios, for which the intervention is planned should be launched.
  2. At the completion of the learning and after a reasonable period of practice of these skills a post self-assessment should be taken. An analysis of progress made by the individual in those competencies would indicate the effectiveness of the learning.
  3. From an organizational standpoint, a post implementation review session for the leaders to bring up practical issues which require clarity or additional aspects of learning required can be identified.

Also, metrics such as efficiency improvements, time cost reduction, increase in productivity if they are fine tuned to assess the pre- and post-training circumstances are good measures to use as yardsticks.


4 thoughts on “Inclusive leadership skills competencies are a prerequisite to any business leader

  1. Excellent article. Very well articulated. Brilliant – full marks and a clear route map.

  2. Bhavani’s responses depicts a clear picture on why a business leader in the present business world should have inclusive leadership skills and competency and how they can be achieved and measured. The responses also shows her passion to contribute her skill and knowledge in the development of this field. I am sure AVTAR will be immensely benefitted by her contribution as an Advisor to the organization.

    • Absolutely, Mr Ananathanarayanan! Thank you for taking time out to read the article and the encouragement!
      Team Avtar

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