Inclusive Leadership Drives Agile & Innovative Culture

iStock_000009274651SmallWith the exponential rate of change in the world, talent wars, a competitive focus on penetrating new and emerging markets faster and more effectively, merger and acquisition growth strategies and the cultural complexities that arise accordingly, organizations are requiring a very different set of leadership competencies.

While logic, mechanical thinking and technological advances drove the past economic eras, we have now transitioned into a new economic and social era driven by more human dimensions as the world becomes more flat and our workforces much more global and diverse.  The business case for diversity is well established; however the art of the inclusive leadership necessary to leverage this diversity is still emerging.

Truly competitive organizations are transitioning away from running on the adrenaline and cortisol of stress and fear to a much more sustainable focus on creating purpose-driven value and competing for top talent through the safety and care in their inclusive and innovative cultures. The old paradigm of hierarchical infrastructure, of command and control and top down leadership is crumbling under the weight of stakeholder demand for creativity, inspiration and meaning from the companies they support and trustworthiness from the leaders within these organizations.  Successful organizations are in need of diverse leadership talent who can demonstrate greater and greater agility and drive innovation to meet and compete in the changing and demanding marketplace.

What are the qualities of an organization where agility, inclusive leadership and innovation come together culturally?

Imagine a workplace where experimentation and participation are encouraged.  A place where ideas are challenged and people feel safe to speak their minds.  Imagine a place where mistakes are considered opportunities for learning and best practices are naturally transferred across the business.   Imagine an organization where it is safe for people to ask for help; a place where people are not measured only by their technical expertise, the amount of the knowledge they possess and their bottom-line results but also on the quality of their questions, their ability to create followership and their ability to leverage the diverse thought leadership in their teams.  Imagine a culture where leadership prowess includes the ability to create the conditions for others to experiment, create, fail, learn and thrive.  These are the hallmarks of an inclusive, agile and innovative work environment.   Research has shown that sustainable innovation is impossible without an inclusive work environment.

The problem is that we can’t simply DECLARE an inclusive and innovative work environment.  We can’t simply TELL leaders that they need to be more agile and inclusive.   We have to address the mindsets and behaviors, systems and symbols that make this culture commitment real.

Inclusive and innovation cultures are not born of well positioned internal or external marketing campaigns and declarations, they are the result of diligent culture work and of inclusive leaders who are committed to people feeling welcomed, valued, heard and respected. These cultures are driven by leaders who know that, as human beings, we are working against an innate hardwiring of unconscious bias and drive efficiency and equilibrium.  Inclusive leaders know that we are neurologically designed to filter information and to compartmentalize in order to navigate our complex worlds.  They know how easy it is to fall into the trap of believing that our truth is THE truth.  

Inclusive leaders know that their leadership effectiveness is not dependent on the idea and intention to include but the DEMONSTRATION of inclusivity which requires a commitment to deep self-awareness, humility and curiosity.  Inclusive leaders are more focused on learning and leveraging the talent of their team than being “right” or “looking good”.

In a 2012 study* on the business performance implications of diversity matched with inclusion showed that when employees believe that their organization is committed to, and supportive of diversity AND employees feel included, they report significantly better business performance in terms of their ability to innovate (an 83% uplift), their responsiveness to changing customer needs (a 31% uplift) and in team collaboration (a 42% uplift).   Inclusive leaders welcome opportunities to expand their view points.  They know that their limited perspectives, no matter how experienced, allow them to perform efficiently at the speed required by the circumstances (“economy of habit”).  They also know that there is a cost to these perspectives and habits.   They role-model the humility and curiosity needed to make it safe to speak up and challenge authority in service of doing things in ways other than “the way we have always done it.”

Creating a culture of agility and innovation requires leaders to go beyond their comfort zones and get curious about others’ perspectives.  It requires inclusive leaders who take responsibility for their actions and their impact on others.   Agile cultures are driven by inclusive leaders who visibly champion diversity and drive innovation initiatives.  They are driven by leaders who demonstrate a collaborative leadership style and embody merit-based decision making.   Agile cultures reward leaders who seek out and value others’ opinions.  They champion leaders who create a sense of collective identity/shared goals within their teams.  Leaders who have the mindsets and skillsets to actively manage conflict and establish clear assessment criteria while promoting a non-authoritarian “speak up” culture.   Agile and innovative cultures encourage appropriate risk-taking and reward leaders who demonstrate tolerance for “noise” and “disruption” needed for true creativity.   These cultures provide open and easy access to decision makers and challenge leaders to manage team member “airtime” in order to create an environment that is safe and open.

Organizations who are determined to meet the exponential change in the marketplace are first addressing the change needed in the workplace.  They are redefining what leadership looks like, moving away from leaders who are the sages on the stage to inclusive leaders who are the guides on the side.   This requires a commitment to redefining leadership and success to include the deep self-awareness, humility and curiosity necessary for agile, inclusive and innovative cultures.

 *(Deloitte: Waiter is that inclusion in my soup?  A new recipe to improve business performance).

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