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How to Take an Intentional Approach to Inclusive Leadership
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Blog Post

How to Take an Intentional Approach to Inclusive Leadership

Adrienne Shulman
AVP, Business Systems, Cornerstone OnDemand

MARCH 25, 2021

Living and working in the digital age, with its constant change and new innovations, is both exhilarating and at times frightening. There has never been more opportunity, yet we’re all at risk of being disrupted at any time. At Cornerstone we often say "tomorrow will look nothing like today," but since no one knows what the future will bring, what can individuals and organizations do to ensure that we are not the ones being disrupted? The answer to this question lies in understanding a key difference between the digital age we’re living through and previous industrial revolutions.

The digital age allows you to tap into a world market easier and faster than ever before. It’s how Cornerstone can deliver Talent solutions to 75 million users across over 180 countries. But to take advantage of a global market, you need to understand the world. And there is no better way to do this than by creating and developing diverse and inclusive teams. Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is more important for business than ever: a truly diverse team increases team intelligence, offering different perspectives and skill sets.

Despite these trends, companies have been slow to successfully implement D&I, and inclusion specifically has lagged. One 2020 survey suggests that while 9 in 10 employees described their companies as diverse, 3 in 10 said they didn't feel a sense of inclusion or belonging at work. Even if a company has hired a diverse team, it won’t benefit from increased team intelligence unless employees feel they belong: employees who don’t feel included will keep their ideas and opinions to themselves. Think about every cringe-worthy Super Bowl commercial you’ve seen, and you’ll understand the dangers of people being afraid to share their opinion.

In 2019, I was tapped to lead the D&I initiative within Cornerstone’s tech org. I quickly realized that a true sense of inclusion has to start with the leadership team, because leaders are the ones who drive social norms at companies. Their actions have a trickle-down effect. So I implemented a plan to drive inclusive leadership at Cornerstone—and in the process I learned a great deal about what defines inclusive leadership, how to implement it, and how it can continue to evolve.

What Does an Inclusive Leader Look Like—and Why Do They Matter?

When our CTO asked me to take on this effort to increase D&I in Cornerstone’s tech org, I didn’t get busy creating employee resource groups or mentoring programs targeting minorities. Instead I gave myself six months to achieve one very strategic goal: convince the 20-person tech leadership team that inclusion is integral to our strategic vision for the company. In that time, I acted as a coach and D&I advocate to these leaders, helping them first understand what it means to be an inclusive leader.

Harvard Business Review research suggests that there are six core traits of inclusive leaders:

Visible commitment

Humility

Awareness of bias

Curiosity about others

Cultural intelligence

Effective collaboration

Inclusive leaders pay attention to who's invited to meetings, they don't tolerate disrespect, and they make sure the loudest person in the room is not doing all the talking. And by modeling inclusive practices, they drive social norms at the company.

Think about unconscious bias training at companies today. If employees hear about this training from the HR department, people will look at it like a box to check. But when your CTO or manager says, ’Hey, this is really important. And here are all the benefits we get as an organization, as people,’ it changes people's behavior.

How to Be an Inclusive Leader

Becoming an inclusive leader is a process that starts with the first of HBR’s traits: commitment. If you commit to being an inclusive leader, the rest of the traits will follow.

As a biracial woman with a 20-year career in software engineering, I am all too familiar with the experience of being an "only,": the only woman on a team, in a room, or at a leadership table. This made it easy for me to think I would be more naturally inclusive and able to counteract my biases at work. But then, during a one-on-one meeting, a member of my team called me out. She told me that she felt unappreciated and excluded when I recognized a group of employees for their work and neglected to include her in that recognition—even though she was a major contributor to the project.

It was an important learning moment for me, but also one that wouldn’t have happened had I not committed to building trust. She felt safe to share how she felt and knew I was open to hearing about mistakes I make.

As I was working with my peers on the leadership team, I challenged them to build the same openness and trust with their teams. I asked them to think: When was the last time someone called you out about your bias? When was the last time someone disagreed with you? If no one challenges you, it’s not because you are perfect. Most of the time, employees aren’t going to be forthcoming with tough feedback—as a leader, you have to invite that feedback, listen to the feedback without reacting, and then learn from it and change your behaviors.

Driving Long-Term Inclusive Leadership

Ultimately, I met the goal I set for myself in the first six months—and it had exactly the impact I was hoping for. The leaders prioritized D&I and as a result, employees began raising their hands to participate. The visible commitment demonstrated by leaders gave employees permission to organize and start speaking out. We quickly had 50 volunteers to work on different committees internally to drive ongoing change and advance D&I through all areas of our technology department.

Since then, we’ve seen many examples of inclusive leadership in action, like how our leadership team recently took advantage of remote work to invite more people to the table for our annual cloud summit, where we make decisions about our tech stack. Instead of a small group of people gathered at headquarters, we had 100 people from around the world participate. And it was by far our most successful and insightful summit yet.

Inclusive leadership is, above all, an ongoing journey. You can never put this on auto pilot. You’re always learning. And as we saw with the pandemic, things change all the time; inclusive leadership is about constantly expanding your understanding of people and culture, and consistently adjusting the work environment to ensure everyone has a sense of belonging and contributing fully.

To learn more about inclusive leadership, check out insights from industry experts below. And for even more insights and strategies to build an inclusive culture in the workplace, tune into Season 3 of HR Labs, where we focus each episode on strategies to take D&I from intention to action.

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